[Interview] Valerie Tagwira

Valerie Tagwira is a Zimbabwean medical doctor, an author and a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Her debut novel, The Uncertainty of Hope is set in the densely populated suburb of Mbare, Harare, and explores the complex lives of Onai Moyo -- a market woman and mother of three children -- and her best friend, Katy Nguni -- a vendor and black-market currency dealer. The novel gives an insight into the challenges faced by a wide cross section of Zimbabwe, where life expectancy has dropped to 37, possibly the lowest in the world.

In 2005, Operation Murambatsvina, the government's controversial urban slum clearance program, created over half a million internally displaced persons and destroyed the livelihoods of close to 10 percent of the population. Eighty percent of the country's population is unemployed.

In this interview, Valerie Tagwira talks about the concerns that influenced her novel:

What would you say The Uncertainty of Hope is about?

It is a novel set in contemporary Zimbabwe. It looks at poverty, homelessness, H.I.V./AIDS, domestic violence, and a host of other socioeconomic challenges of the day. It is also a story about surviving against the odds and, hopefully, gives an insight into the intricacies of contemporary Zimbabwe with respect to how people are trying to survive.

When I initially started thinking about writing, I had a desire to do something different… something creative, and because I'm something of a "mild feminist" at heart, I always knew that I would write something featuring strong female characters. Writing about contemporary Zimbabwe was a natural choice because I am very much attached to "home" and I travel back quite frequently. At each visit, it strikes me how the living standards are deteriorating, and at each visit, I never imagine that things can get any worse, but they do, and people still survive. I was particularly concerned about how women deal with the challenges that are thrust upon them.

When I started writing the book, being a woman was my motivation, but I also had a strong interest in socioeconomic, developmental, and health-related issues that affect women. I wanted to highlight the plight of the disadvantaged in modern day Zimbabwe… the poor. This encompasses the homeless, be they adults or street children, the unemployed, and all the employed and ex-middle classes who are now living below the poverty datum line. It includes everyone who cannot afford basic necessities like food, clothing, education, and access to healthcare…

Among the disadvantaged in Zimbabwe, are there groups that are more vulnerable than others?

In each of the groups I've mentioned, I think women (and the girl-child) are worse off than their male counterparts.

What is life like for these women and children?

Extremely difficult.

They have been disempowered, and have very little or no means with which to make their lives better. The issues discussed in the novel have touched most people either directly or indirectly because there is now so much poverty in Zimbabwe.

To me, it feels as if most things are collapsing, be it industry, the health system, or the education system… you name it, it's going… deteriorating. Even the judicial system is struggling. The current political situation and the country's negative publicity certainly don't help. All these have the combined effect of making life very difficult for the people.

Also, women are more likely to be unemployed, less educated, and less in control of their lives because of cultural and biological reasons, all of which makes them even more vulnerable. The collapsing health system in Zimbabwe has placed an even bigger burden on women, who are naturally expected to be caregivers. For example, childbearing necessitates the provision of obstetric services which, for the greater proportion of women, are now out of reach, even at a very basic level. I can see a situation where pregnancy and childbirth are soon going to be gratuitously risky. In addition to this, women's role as caregivers now brings with it the extra burden of looking after family and friends with H.I.V./AIDS.

Is there a solution?

In my opinion, this is where the uncertainty about the future of Zimbabweans lies. If a solution is ever to come, I don't know when it will be or how it will come. What I'm sure of is that drastic changes have to take place in order for the lives of ordinary people to improve.

What can/should be done to improve the lives of women and children in Zimbabwe?

Empowerment through education, employment creation, affirmative action where possible (as long as this does not lower standards), and generally making resources available to the population.

This can be effected by government leaders as they are the ones in charge of policy-making processes and allocating funds to various sectors.

I must also say it was heartening to see the Domestic Violence Act come into being in 2006. To me, this was a demonstration of an awareness of the significance of domestic violence and its negative effects. It will go a long way toward protecting the rights of women and children. They are affected to a greater extent than men, who are more likely to be perpetrators of violence and abuse. The women's coalition which campaigned for the bill had representatives from women with different political and social affiliations. This provided a window of hope that if women can come together to pursue a common goal, they can bring about positive changes in a patriarchal society which tends to put men's interests before those of women and children.

N.G.O.'s and the donor community also have the capacity to complement government efforts aimed at improving the lives of women and children. And at grassroots level, communities do have a duty of care toward the next disadvantaged person. As the core unit of society, the family setup has a very important role to play as well.

Which aspects of the work that you put into The Uncertainty of Hope did you find most difficult?

The novel is quite long, and for each of the characters, I had to maintain consistency throughout, taking into account various interpersonal relationships.

I did find that a challenge. I don't know if I got it right. I suppose I will be able to tell from how the novel is received.

What did you enjoy most?

Working with my editor.

I was able to participate in the editing process, which was a great learning experience. Basically, this involved checking the manuscript for errors, consistency, language, etc. Being in medicine for so long and not reading as much as I did when I was younger made me feel that my English had gone rusty so this was a great opportunity to "revise" language skills as well.

How did you decide on a publisher?

I didn't decide on a publisher as such. I heard about Weaver Press from my cousin and I rang them to ask about manuscript submission.

I was very fortunate to have my manuscript accepted, and to have Irene Staunton as my editor. She is very supportive and serious about the work she does.

In the writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you the most?

My parents. They were teachers, and I was always surrounded by books from a very early age. I developed a love for books because of their influence.

I read anything that I could get my hands on. This included the Benny and Betty series, the Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene, volumes of fairy tales, Enid Blyton, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Catherine Cookson, [Charles] Mungoshi, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi [wa Thiong'o] (and many more). My favorite Shona novels were: Pafunge, Ziva Kwawakabva, Ndiko Kupindana Kwamazuva, Rurimi Inyoka, and Maidei. The list goes on and on…

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My biggest challenge is how to juggle family life, my medical career, and still find enough time to work on my writing. My career makes it impossible for me to have enough time to write as much as I would like to.

How do you deal with this?

When I have to write, I just make sure that I set aside time to do so, which might mean giving up some leisure time. I enjoy writing so much that I don't mind terribly when I have to give up something else in order to write.

While I was working on the novel, I tried to make time for about three writing sessions per week. Each session was at least three hours during the week and much longer, with short breaks, during weekends, and involved expanding the manuscript, rewriting, checking for mistakes, inconsistencies, the usual… and later, working with the editor to shape the story into something worthy of being called a novel.

What will your next book be about?

I recently came across some disturbing U.N. statistics on child abuse in Zimbabwe. I would like to find out more about this sometime in the future and see if I can write a book which looks at that theme.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Several years ago… sometime in my late twenties. I can't remember the exact age.

It was one of those vague ideas that kept crossing my mind time and again. However, because of work and study, I never seemed to have the time to settle down and commit myself to writing. I only started working on my novel earnestly toward the end of 2005, when I made a conscious decision to start working and get on with it, instead of daydreaming about being a writer one day.

I think I worked really hard once I started. It took me about ten months to complete the manuscript.

This article was first published by Worldpress.org.

Related article:

Jennifer Armstrong [Interview], Conversations with Writers, September 27, 2009


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