Nordic Africa Institute
August 04, 2003
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).
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.
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
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
is not like knitting that you can just set aside and then start
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
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
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
does the present crisis in Zimbabwe affect the work of the Zimbabwe
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
you thought of making any kind of interview book with teenage girls
[Interview in Harare , August 4, 2003]
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.
Please credit www.kubatana.net if you make use of material from this website.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.