Chiedza Musengezi

Chiedza Musengezi. Photo by Mai Palmberg

"I am scribbling away at night, but writing is not like that"

Chiedza Musengezi is a founding member of the Zimbabwe Women's Writers (ZWW), which was launched in 1992, and since 2001 its Director. She is also a writer with essays, short fiction and poetry published in Zimbabwe, Italy, and Germany. Musengezi was born in 1953 in Bikita in Mashonaland West. She worked for ten years as a history teacher and head of the history department in Sakubva Secondary School near Mutare and Founders High School in Bulawayo , and for five years as senior lecturer in Hillside Teachers' College in Bulawayo. She took a diploma in teacher training at the University of Zimbabwe in 1992. From 1989 to 1984 she worked as the editorial manager at Baobab Books, children's and young adults' literature and school textbooks. After two years as the director of the Zimbabwe Women and Aids Support Network 1999-2000, she devoted her time to ZWW and was a co-editor of their book 'Women of Resilience: The Voices of Women Ex-Combatants' (2000). She was also the co-editor of 'A Tragedy of Lives: Women in Prison in Zimbabwe' (2003).

First I want to ask how you become what you are. I am not thinking of you in your position as the chairperson at the ZWW but your role as a writer.
How did I start to write? I think I always had an interest in books. My own mother was a potter. She made clay pots. I used to assist her with polishing her pots so that they would get a smooth glossy finish and to collect dry cow dung to fire her pots. I always liked to sit by the fire. So my mother was an artist. Actually I did not think much about it before, I became more aware of all these things when I tried to connect myself now to my mother and asked: “How did I have an interest in this?”

When I got married I threw myself into raising children. I used to like making clothes for them: I was a real housewife preoccupied with knitting, sewing, decorating the house, and so forth. When the children grew up, I had a bit of time. That was when I started reading a lot. There was a rich library, at the Hillside Teachers' Library in Hillside in Bulawayo . I read and read and read.

I was teaching at Hillside then and one of the courses I taught was writing. So I started to read all the books on writing I could lay my hands on.

And I read, oh heavens, I read a lot of books. And most of the books I read on writing were American. I think they were the ones who wrote most on how to write then.

At that time you were not yet writing yourself?
I had already started showing an interest and that is why I had volunteered to give that course, when everybody said: “Oh, what do we know about writing?”

The more I read, the more I found out that it is hard for us to give an exercise to write a composition for pupils in thirty minutes. So, I used to say to my teacher trainee classes: “ Let's try to do some of the exercises here in the classroom, so that we can have an idea of how difficult it is.” Then, I said: “I am going to be part of it, too, so that I know how difficult it is for you to do what I am telling you to do. We wrote little compositions, little poems, and so forth. And we used to read them aloud. And they said: “Since you are also doing the exercise along with us, you get up and read what you have written.” I found it hard, but I read and they liked it very much. We kept doing these exercises and they said: “You write. We think you are a writer.” That's when I really started to write and sought the assistance of ZWW.

What is the situation now? What are the possibilities for you to write?
The possibilities are, unfortunately, remote. I mean, I really would like just to be selfish and stop everything and do my own writing, but the organization needs someone to raise money, get on with the project like the interview book on Women in Prison, collect other women's works from the rural areas, edit and publish them. So, I have not had much opportunity, although I must say I am scribbling away at night, but then, writing is not like that. When you want to write seriously, and I know it, you really have to set time aside; to think and to create. It is not something you can just dip in and out randomly.

It is not like knitting that you can just set aside and then start again.
For me it is not like that. I need to immerse myself—to concentrate without distractions. And then get something worthwhile done. And I have not been able to find time to do that, because of the job. It is clear that my own personal work suffers a great deal. It is not that the organization is being unfair to me. I need a salary; I am a single mother of three. Fortunately my youngest one is just finishing her exam today at the university. She is 22 and will be completing her degree this year. I feel a little liberated. I don't feel so obliged to provide for her. I think it's time she got on her feet.

Tell me more about the Zimbabwe Women Writers; I heard at the book fair that it has a large number of chapters around the country. How many are they?
Do I know the numbers by heart? I think they are about 60 branches, but not all of them are active, around thirty to forty are. But there are many women who are members. You find them mostly in the rural areas.

How does the present crisis in Zimbabwe affect the work of the Zimbabwe Women Writers?
It affects them hugely in a negative way. There are many, many reports from the branches that indicate that women do not have the time to write. They are too busy looking for food. They are too busy queuing up for sugar and other commodities. They have to work a lot harder than us here in the cities to raise a little money; and now the money buys very little. Inflation is high. On Saturday we went to visit Goromonzi Branch, about 80 kilometres east of Harare . It was a small group of about fifteen and out of these fifteen more than half were involved in panning for gold in the riverbanks. It is a lot of work; they need to work for at least two weeks to earn a thousand dollars. And, as you might have noted, a thousand dollars can hardly buy a loaf of bread.

And when they are panning for gold, sometimes the police harass them and confiscate their gold, because it is illegal. But they don't go to court. That's the end of it. I asked them: “What happens to the gold that is confiscated? They said: ”It just disappears with the police.” Some have to look for pieces of work from those who have a little money. You work for so and so and you get paid a little money. It's a struggle to survive, a real physical struggle. In those circumstances, writing looks like a luxury. I think what we have to do is to get our tapes and they can talk, like we did with the women in prison. Also you have to bear in mind that writing requires a certain level of education to enable one to write. Women's education levels are low in this country. The volume of writings is pretty low compared to the membership.

Are there any political difficulties for them also?
Many members report that they have been approached by the ruling party and asked to join. And it is not out of choice; they have been instructed to do so and report on the activities of the organization. I am not at all afraid of it, there is nothing to hide.

I always encourage our members to tell their village heads, or, whoever their authority is in the area, that they belong to a writers' a group so that if authorities see them sitting under a tree, they do not suspect them of forming a new political party. They must make it clear that they are there to carry out a writing related activity under the umbrella of Zimbabwe Women Writers that has always been in existence. I encourage them to be as open as possible.

As soon as they sense that it is no longer safe for them to do so, I do encourage them to temporarily discontinue meeting and spend their time working individually. I tell them that when you do feel unsafe, please don't put yourself in danger. There is not much protection the organization can give them. Let us try by all means to avoid risking our lives for nothing. You can always write at home. You can send your work directly to the office, but do not risk your lives. Because I think they are much more important alive than dead.

Let us talk a little about your latest interview book, the one on women in prison in Zimbabwe.
Yes, that is a hugely popular book. Many people are asking and waiting for it. We have collected the narratives and we clustered them according to type of crime. The domestic issues have got the largest group and issues like domestic violence, witchcraft, arson and so forth dominate this category. Most of it happens within the family. Then the second largest group is shoplifting, selling cannabis. They are economic crimes that women commit because they like to feed and clothe their children and send them to school; then we have gender crimes.

What are the gender crimes?
Those are the ones that can only be committed by women, for example: abortion, infanticide (the killing of a baby). I mean, these are crimes not committed by men; perhaps they could assist. We also thought it was good to have an official point of view to give a balance to the narratives, so we interviewed a few prison officials.

When I was here last, you told you had abandoned the idea of interviewing women who were at the time in prison.
That is right, yes. We did a few interviews and they came out rather stack, without any detail. They were too censored. However, we included three or four, as a way of contrasting what happened to your freedom of speech when you are in prison and when you are outside. I think the relationship between the prison guards and the inmates came out more when people were out of prison. When they are inside they said that the food was fantastic, the prison guards were wonderful, prison was rosy. ‘Yes, we are happy and grateful' they said. But one thing that did come out was the effect on their children and families. They talked at length about how much they worried about their children and other people dependent on them, like their mothers for example.

I read with great interest a previous interview book from Zimbabwe Women Writers, Women in Resilience , with interviews of women fighters in the liberation war. I think it was an extremely revealing and important book, which illustrated the view that women's voices add another dimension of reality, and that this does not come out without them. So, I really do look forward to this book also. Do you have any other similar projects at all in view?
There are many. I told you about the gold panners. These are the kind of people who'll never write a book, but they are showing us how people are coping under the crisis we have just talked about. We had a contest for women writers from all over the country and the winning story was about gold panning. It seems to push itself to the front as an important area for further investigation.

Have you thought of making any kind of interview book with teenage girls or women?
It would be part of another project called the Womanhood where we will look at life phases of a woman: childhood, adolescence, young woman, married woman, old age, and so forth. But covering all phases of womanhood is a big project. I don't know whether it is feasible.

[Interview in Harare , August 4, 2003]

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