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Pragmatic morality in Valerie Tagwira's The Uncertainty of Hope: A Book Café discussion
Amanda Atwood,
October 03, 2008

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When does survival outweigh morality? How do traditional values and family structures survive in Zimbabwe's current economic environment? How does one view "criminality" when obeying the law puts one's family at risk? These and other questions debated on 18 September 2008, when a small crowd gathered at Harare's Book Café to discuss Valerie Tagwira's 2007 novel, The Uncertainty of Hope, published by Weaver Press.

Held just days after Zanu PF and the two formations of the MDC signed an agreement to address the crisis in Zimbabwe, the book's title was particularly relevant. The speakers and many in the audience spoke to the uncertain hope they were feeling that the political agreement would bear fruit, and that it would make positive changes in the lives of everyday Zimbabweans.

The two presenters, both from the English Department at the University of Zimbabwe, spoke about the themes and issues the novel raises.

Ruby Magosvongwe discussed "the family at the crossroads." As she pointed out, The Uncertainty of Hope explores the challenges currently facing the Zimbabwean family. It is through the plight of the protaganist, Onai Moyo, that readers are "lured to mirror, reflect and interpret and comprehend the prevailing social and national malaise with a view to finding alternatives to the incessant challenges."

According to Magosvongwe, the novel dwells on these challenges in part because, as she quoted the book, "When a man is in a sinking ship, he thinks of nothing else, but the sinking ship." Listen here

Magosvongwe views the Moyo home as a microcosm of Zimbabwe more generally. Onai's husband, Gari, loses his job when his employer relocates to South Africa. This threatens his manhood and his ability to provide for his family. He takes his frustrations out at home, abusing his wife physically, verbally and psychologically.

Magosvongwe observes "The wider economic challenges dogging the nation, as evidenced by the perennial petrol queues and queues for other elusive basic commodities among other pressing basic demands, are dramatised primarily through the hardships of the Moyo's." The already fragile Moyo family further fragments in the face of these challenges.

Tagwira's novel catalogues the difficulties facing Zimbabwe, but it leaves the reader wondering what to do about it, Magosvongwe holds. The novel explores HIV/AIDS, cross boarder trading, the braid drain, and the collapse of the health care system, among other issues. But "given the desperate situation that the book presents," Magosvongwe asks, "where does one go with this. Where do we go from here? How can the family be salvaged?"

Josephine Muganiwa discussed rules and survival in The Uncertainty of Hope. Quoting from the novel, she said: "life is all about survival of the fittest - rules can be twisted to suit one's needs." But, she cautioned - whilst that is how things feel now, when Zimbabwe's economy recovers, will Zimbabweans be able to recover our honesty and restore economic order, or will we continue to operate as "semi-criminals?"

A country's laws are meant to safeguard justice and fairness, protect the weak, and prevent the abuse of power. But, as Muganiwa asks, "how do you synchronise rules and survival, especially when they entail opposing actions." In The Uncertainty of Hope - as in Zimbabwe today - rules and regulations are made absurd by a serious lack of amenities. Thus, people engage in ‘criminal' activities in order to survive.

In contrast, even when traditional social norms and institutions such as the marriage contract are broken, participants are still expected to uphold them. Despite the abuse she suffers in the home, Onai is judged by the standards of a functional marriage, and fears the stigma and isolation she would face should she divorce. As Muganiwa observes, "the Shona cultural code of conduct has long failed to function in the ghetto, where basic survival is top priority." Lacking the support she would have had traditionally to address the abuse and improve her situation, Onai stays in her marriage despite the abuse, for the sake of her own survival.

Popular perception says that a wife must never deny her husband conjugal rights. If she does, she has effectively given him permission to look for other sexual partners outside of the marriage. But, as Muganiwa asks, "How does a battered woman accept intimacy from a man who has just wounded her? Survival instinct tells you to run from the enemy. But the binding marriage contract rules insist that one fulfils all duties." Listen here

Muganiwa points out the contradiction and paradox when traditional beliefs and culture are no longer tenable, or when the accepted rules and norms can no longer operate because the surrounding reality has changed. In other words, how can you be expected to be a law abiding citizen when obeying the letter of the law means you'll starve or your family will suffer? But, Muganiwa observes, Tagwira redeems the characters who keep to a certain moral code of conduct - even if they have not always followed the rules. This code of conduct includes "compassion, generosity and constant re-examination of one's actions and decisions."

Tagwira asks, "Is there a time when survival is more important than morals and law?" In The Uncertainty of Hope, the answer is yes.

Audio File

  • Ruby Magosvongwe
    Language: English
    Duration: 49sec
    Date: September 18, 2008
    File Type: MP3
    Size: 768KB

  • Josephine Muganiwa
    Language: English
    Duration: 1min 06sec
    Date: September 18, 2008
    File Type: MP3
    Size: 998KB

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