What happens when dreams, and the confidence of youth, disappear? What happens when life turns out to be less than what we expected? And worst of all, what happens when we disappoint ourselves?
This is what Tambudzai, the protagonist of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body, finds herself facing.
Set in Harare in the 1990s, this is the last of a trilogy about Tambu. Tambu is now middle-aged and unemployed. She has quit her job as a copywriter with an ad agency because her white colleagues were given credit for her work. However, rather than take a stand, she pretends she is leaving because she is about to get married. She hasn’t worked since. Her savings are running out, she has to leave her hostel because she is too old, and she is very close to despair. She finds a room in the house of Mai Manyanga, a widow whose husband used to be a successful businessman.
When, eventually, Tambu finds work, it is as a biology teacher in a school, in spite of the fact that her degree is in sociology. But the girls are unmanageable and pick on her, until one day they push Tambu over the edge. She has a breakdown and attacks one of them with a T square, causing a lot of damage. She loses her job and is sent away to a sanitorium to recover.
In the sanitorium, Tambu’s fears appear to her as a hyena, laughing at her.
“Now you understand. You arrived on the back of a hyena. The treacherous creature dropped you from far above onto a desert floor. There is nothing here except, at the floor’s limits, infinite walls.
“You are an ill-made person. You are being unmade. The hyena laugh-howls at your destruction. It screams like a demented spirit and the floor dissolves beneath you.”
The hyena never entirely leaves her, even when she is able to go back into the world. All she can do is try and keep the creature at bay.
When Tambu leaves the sanatorium, she moves in with her cousin Nyasha, married to a German man. Nyasha is someone Tambu looks up to: after all, Nyasha has been educated abroad, which must surely ensure success, as must her marriage to a European. But that too turns out to be a disappointment: Nyasha and her husband just about make ends meet.
Tambu bumps into Tracy, a white woman with whom Tambu worked at the ad agency and was also in school with (she is one of the colleagues who got credit for Tambu’s work). Tracy offers Tambu a job in an eco-tourism start-up that she is running. Tambu does well at her job, in spite of suffering from an imposter syndrome and competing with the office receptionist, who has some good ideas.
When Tracy suggests organizing a trip to a village for tourists, Tambu sees it as a way of helping her village. She involves her mother, saying it will benefit them all. But the foreign tourists want an “authentic” experience, even though it has nothing to do with the reality of village life and everything to do with a Western perception of the “native”. What happens in the village forces Tambu to confront herself.
The book is written entirely in the second person. It feels almost as if Tambu cannot countenance herself, as if she needs to distance herself from this person she has become. She is mentally so fragile that even when things go right, there is a lingering possibility that she may not be able to see them through.
This trilogy began with Nervous Conditions, about Tambu’s childhood during Zimbabwe’s war of independence. What happened to the confident child she once was? “When you were young and in fighting spirit, growing mealie cobs in the family field and selling them to raise money for your school fees, you were not this person you have become. When and how did it happen?”
Dangarembga takes Tambu through despair, hitting rock-bottom and, in the end, to some sort of self-realization. It is also a portrait of Harare a few decades after independence: the corruption, the start-ups, the tensions between Blacks and whites with war veterans invading white-owned farms, and the way tourist operators feel that the “real Africa” has to be packaged to sell to tourists.
Grim and shocking at times, This Mournable Body is a powerful book.