People 1: Tsitsi Dangarembga

Tsitsi Dangaremba is an author, screenwriter, director, and producer. TK more bio info TK.

I was in a very difficult space when I went to Bellagio. Being a black, older female artist in Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, on the continent—it’s an extreme sport. And 2016 was a difficult year for me. Very busy, but also the crisis in Zimbabwe was intensifying.

It’s been like a slow creeping rot, because it was so subtle in the beginning—and as there’s been more and more pushback over the last few decades Zanu-PF revealed themselves to be a violent, repressive dictatorship. They’re corrupt. We have periods of inflation where food disappears from shops. Most of us aren’t provided with clean water, and fuel is effectively rationed. We still have no effective currency at the moment. You have pensioners who have their entire life savings wiped out because of currency manipulation, and I know this because my mother was one of them.

People are so tied up with just surviving that we cannot produce anything worthwhile. I think keeping us so busy is part of their power retention strategy—and that threatens intellectual life in this country, too. By 2016 you could really see where the country was going. I needed to get away from it all.

At the time I was trying to work on a novel—the third part of a trilogy that began decades ago [with Nervous Conditions]. I was also writing two scripts: one an adaptation of a Nigerian novel, the other a TV pilot. And I was also working on a YA dystopian speculative novel. I needed to bring these projects to an end, and there wasn’t the quiet for that in Zimbabwe. I was actually quite desperate. So when the offer came—I was approached through the Africa Centre in Cape Town—it was a delight.

There was Jeffery Renard Allen, the African-American novelist, and we discussed the need to promote both African and African-American narrative—we’ve collaborated since then on a few things.

I was there for a month, alongside eight or nine other people. We had scientists, medics, artists—it was fascinating to be among people from such different professional backgrounds. There was a Catholic priest from the Philippines, and as a Christian myself it was refreshing to have deep theological discussions in such an increasingly secular age. An epidemiologist told me about her work across Africa, which was interesting then and doubly so now in the age of COVID. There was Jeffery Renard Allen, the African-American novelist, and we discussed the need to promote both African and African-American narrative—we’ve collaborated since then on a few things. And there was a wonderful visual artist from Nigeria, too, whose work I just fell in love with. The whole intellectual climate was so stimulating. I was energized, and did get a lot of work done.

Us people from the continent rarely have the chance to come together in such a collegial environment on the continent. Part of the problem is that very few wealthy Africans, in my experience, want to put their money behind this kind of venture. They’re not thinking about developing the human capital of the continent, but Africa needs to develop in terms of ideas in order to become part of the global democratic community. That requires a different kind of development to humanitarian aid. I think it’s going to take time, but it’s something I’m passionate about, and I hope to see progress.

Someone at Bellagio said to me, “Tsitsi, when you arrived you looked like a nervous wreck, but you’ve relaxed into a normal person again.” It was so important to get away, and breathe. I wouldn’t have been able to relax sufficiently to finish This Mournable Body without that time at Bellagio—and of course it’s now gone on to be quite a success. I’m still writing my dystopian YA novel. It normally takes me around three drafts to even know what I’m writing about. I’m now on my seventh draft, but I think this one’s clean enough to send to my agent. And both my scripts are done, and I’m looking for production funds for those.

I needed a break, and Bellagio gave me that break. It gave me confidence and renewed trust that things can happen when you need them to.