"The issue of poverty, gender and class is universal."
Tsitsi Dangarembga, the 2021 Peace Prize winner, writes novels, makes films and takes action where her country's politics fail. In an interview with Börsenblatt Online, she talks about her experiences as an artist in Germany and Zimbabwe, about colonial structures and about a future for her continent that can only be negotiated among equals. An interview by Michael Roesler-Graichen.
What does the Peace Prize of the German book trade mean to you?
The Peace Prize means a great honour to me. I am very impressed that the German book trade has this award, I like that. It shows that the book trade is very aware of the impact that writing and storytelling have on the society and its transformation. It throws a perspective on my country and the world what is worthy of recognition. To receive this prize is very meaningful to me.
You have lived in Germany for more than a decade. What are your feelings if you think over this country and your time in it?
Germany is a very impressive country, creating spaces for people to be, even today. A country where transformation can be achieved. When I went to Germany I was leaving behind a country that was coming out of colonialism. I had also an experience of England – I studied in Cambridge – , but in Germany I found a place that aspired not to be colonialistic. I lived in Berlin what was very important for me. Without the German experience I would not have become the person and artist that I am now. The transformative power is part of the German DNA, and it is also wonderful to see that opportunities for my children as persons of colour have increased. As a filmmaker I must concede that this transformation has not gone so far in the very conservative film industry. I am a filmmaker of substance and I would like to have more opportunties to make my films.
Why did you leave Germany in 2000? Have there been incidents that destroyed the dream of a safe and peaceful living in a pluralistic society?
Germany definitely has the intention to be a pluralistic society and makes every effort to be one. I felt safe in Germany, along with my family. However it is difficult to live peacefully when you see that your opportunities are restricted by one's background, when one's experience is different from the main stream experience, and when that difference brands you as an outsider who is therefore less desirable and competent. I think this was especially true for me as a woman in my field of film. One of the reasons why I went back to Zimbabwe was in an attempt to build my career in film. I wanted to be able to do more in Zimbabwe than in Germany. I found that the situation in Zimbabwe is not satisfactory either. It is a strange situation. But on the whole I would not say that my own and my family's existence was defined by racism. – There were other reasons to move back to Zimbabwe: My children should have the opportunity to learn my heritage and my country. At that time my husband and I had also to take the decision where our children go to school. Our intention was to offer them a better education in Zimbabwe. I was also concerned generally about the situation in Zimbabwe and wanted to be there.
Your first novel, “Nervous Conditions”, depicts the difficult process of emancipation that a girl from a small town in former Rhodesia experiences. Could this story also be told in other parts of the world where women are oppressed and cut off from education?
Yes, it could be told in other parts of the world, definitely in parts of Asia or in Latin America. For example, my book is very popular in Brasil. The issue of poverty, gender and class is universal, and you can find it everywhere in the lower working classes. The access to higher education is the problem.
In the following novels your protagonist, Tambu, must understand, that equality in a racist context can only be purchased by loosing the own roots. How would you describe the situation today in Zimbabwe?
We live in a black governed nation, but also in a globalized world, in which norms and standards of colonialism still exist. My government says the crisis in Zimbabwe is called by sanctions, but with or without sanctions, I believe the government could do better for the nation and the people. My position is: Even within that context we are not doing the best, we are not expecting enough of ourselves as Zimbabweans. We now have a challenging structure in our country: A greedy, repressive and irresponsible government on the one hand, and a miserable, disempowered people on the other hand. They perform a very grotesque dance together.
Your filmography shows an impressive plenitude of films, screenplays and productions. Which audience do you address with your films?
Storytelling is a global activity, and it should be possible for everybody to understand my films – not different from my novels. My films have been shown at big festivals worldwide. The problem for filmmakers like me in Africa is that a lot of money comes from outside, and often the people who administer such funds are not familiar with what they are dealing with, or they have their own perspectives. We also need wealthy Africans to be involved in the film sector across the continent.
Your political commitment – you have been arrested by the police because of protesting against corruption in Zimbabwe – is another important part of your life. Do writing, making films and political activism build a unity in your life?
In a way they do. I came to writing because I have not seen myself represented in literature. When I was a student in the early eighties I read a book about a black girl in the USA with whom I could identify for the first time in my life. I saw how important representation in literature and art is and I began to write. I experienced a lot of pushback, my publishing was delayed and I could not have a writer’s career. Therefore I went to film school. At the film school I started making films, but it is very hard to get subsidies for filming in Zimbabwe. The money that is available for arts is politically connected, whether it is from inside the country or from outside. And the situation in our country became worse and worse – with a collapsing economy, the lack of daily functions and a government doing things against the own people. I could no longer function as a creative artist. I had nothing but my body to take out onto the street to express how bad things were. This is how the three aspects of my life have come to a balance. But what i want to emphasize: I don’t see myself as a politic. I go into action wherever action is required. And the brutality and violence that occur in this country were already the DNA of the birth of Rhodesia in 1890. The trajectory of Zimbabwe and the ZANUPF party was defined by the violence that founded colonial Rhodesia. They had little chance to learn anything else.
Which economic and political development needs Africa in its diversity, and which role could Europe play in this process?
Africa needs good governance. We need respect for the dignity of the individual. Generally African governments are not friends of African people. However, these governments that are not friends of the people are the ones that negotiate policy at the international level. One of the important things is on which level engagement can occur, when the level of government often does not adequately represent the people on the ground. There must be some way of inlcuding people's voices and movements in high level dialogue. Many people in Zimbabwe are of this opinion. The conception for Africa’s future has to be done among equals and amongst all stakeholders.