With a belief that art is a catalyst for change, Tinashe Tafirenyika has disrupted the Zimbabwe Poetry Scene. In 2017 she became the first woman and youngest person to receive a National Arts Merit Award (NAMA) in Spoken Word Poetry in Zimbabwe. The same year she also received a Bulawayo Arts Award (BAA) for her poetry.
Tinashe began performing at the Book Café in Harare and was a regular at the House of Hunger Poetry Slam and Sistaz Open Mic. She won the Shakespeare 400 year Commemoration Slam Bulawayo in 2016 and has performed at various festivals.
In 2018 she became the only person to have won a NAMA twice in the Spoken Word Poetry category. She released her first poetry video, “Sarah Baartman” that year. At the beginning of 2019 her account of the Zimbabwe Shutdown was published in Brittle Paper, one of Africa’s leading literary websites and this saw her being announced as one of the new columnists for Konya Shamsrumi, a Nigerian poetry blog in March.
When not stringing words together, Tinashe practices as a Medical Laboratory Scientist in her home town, Bulawayo, where she is based.
BY JALIYA THE BIRD
This conversation took place between Bulawayo and Luanda via WhatsApp over a period of some months.
Jaliya: Thank you very much for accepting my invitation, I´m looking forward to hearing your thoughts in this exchange, welcome to it.
Hi Tinashe. I know this may sound routine but it is a genuine question. How are you? How have you been?
Tinashe: No interviewer has ever asked me how I am. I’m well, a bit anxious (Covid, the country), but well. I hope you are well too.
Jaliya: I’m so glad I asked then! 2020 has been such an intense year, and when our own fires stop raging for a while, it’s the fires around us that still keep us burdened. The beginning of the year was a lot more challenging for me, in this second half, I´m doing much better.
And speaking of the beginning of the year, last year in January you wrote a beautiful essay entitled On the Shutdown of Zimbabwe published on Brittle Paper. I found it haunting, the type of article that one has to sit with, talk to as it talks back. I must congratulate you and thank you for giving me a portal into Zimbabwe. The anxiety, confinement, loneliness, deaths… many elements you described are characteristics that have become more familiar to us due to Covid-19. But you wrote this in a pre-Covid time… I can´t help but see parallels or hear your words echoing into the present. It’s safe to say that Zimbabwe has long been in a State of Emergency. Having said this, what are your comments on being an average Zimbabwean in Bulawayo during Covid in the context of a place that has long wrecked its dwellers? What has changed for you this year?
Tinashe: Zimbabwe has definitely been in a state of emergency for long, from being unable to say anything bad about the former president in our own home, to my eight-year-old niece ducking in the back of the car at a roadblock during lockdown because she’s afraid of the police. There’s subcutaneous fear and unease that’s always there. It’s not always obvious or loud or violent but it’s there, sitting just under your skin. One thing that was striking to me in the parallel you drew between last year’s Shut down and the Covid lock down is how domestic violence cases increase during times of confinement. The home is not a safe place for many women and girls and I find that to be sad, not only on a human rights level, but on a scale where if you aren’t safe in your own house, will you ever feel safe anywhere in the world? No one should have to go through life that way. It’s wrong.
Living here during Covid has been hard. I’m an essential worker so I’ve had to go to work even during the hard lock down and having to deal with police every day was hard. Even now roadblocks still give me anxiety. I was very fortunate to be able to keep working, many people were not. I know a number of people who lost family and friends because they couldn’t access medical care during lock down, just like the woman who had to give birth in her home during last year’s shut down. It’s just that no one is doing the statistics, but I’m sure if we were to count the number of people who died from preventable deaths, especially among the urban poor during this time, we would come up to a very terrible figure. I’m glad Covid didn’t ravage us as much as it was forecast to, at the same time I believe people who didn’t have to die, didn’t have to die.
Apart from my sister and my best friend giving birth to two beautiful babies (and surviving despite the high maternal and infant mortality rates), not much has changed for me this year. Because of the lock down a lot of things have been static and I’m only starting to feel alive now that the country is more open. I’m looking forward to some really good changes in the remaining months of the year.
“I reflect on it a lot, my dual identity, and I suppose I have come to think of them as, really, one identity because they both belong to me. Just because I am on stage doesn’t mean I’m no longer a Scientist, and just because I’m peering down a microscope does not mean I’m no longer a poet.”
Jaliya: I don’t know if you have read it, back in March, Sisonke Msimang wrote a poignant piece published on Africa Is a Country entitled Homesick: Notes on Lockdown. She says the following “I am worried about women everywhere, for whom lockdown is incredibly dangerous. For many women the loss of what little freedom we have will feel acute. For many of us unwanted pregnancy is always a looming threat—a worst-case scenario we can scarcely afford. Now, as country by country lockdowns are declared, we will need to fight for our bodily freedom as hard as we have in other times of social stress.” And she added “I do not need to tell you to have a plan because you always have a plan for escape, you always have an eye on survival. I could tell you that this crisis presents an opportunity but that would be a lie. So perhaps it is best only to say that this crisis presents a crisis and I hope you make it to the other side of it alive.” That we make it out alive was my hope for women then, and it’s my hope for us right now.
Congratulations to your sister and your best friend!
You are an essential worker on one hand and on the other, you are a poet, writer, artist and I don´t know about Zimbabwe but in Angola artists, art is disposable. What are your comments on being from these two worlds and having your country interact with you according to which side you’re presenting at the moment? Have you reflected on this?
Tinashe: It’s lockdown again in Zim. The second wave has not been kind to us, a lot of people are battling the virus, poverty and police brutality all at once. A lot of essential workers are sick, including my sister and best friend who both have little babies.
Being from the two worlds is a joy. It’s two very different realities and it broadens one’s perspective. Artists and medical professionals have more in common than they know, so a lot of conversations are similar only differing in context. On the whole, both sides just want things to be better and for their industry to be respected and to have better conditions. Ultimately, everything is more or less political for both. I usually present both sides at once. I used to hide but a lot of people do more than one thing so I no longer feel like a freak for being both. I reflect on it a lot, my dual identity, and I suppose I have come to think of them as, really, one identity because they both belong to me. Just because I am on stage doesn’t mean I’m no longer a Scientist, and just because I’m peering down a microscope does not mean I’m no longer a poet.
Jaliya: I’m sorry to hear about your sister and your best friend. The last time we spoke, you had shared the news that they had successfully given birth. I wish them both a full recovery and I wish the three of you strength.
I hear you on the duality thing. I exist at the intersection of various things and it took me a while to embrace the fact that this is who I am, how I am built, and that the different parts from varying worlds make up who I am and my world.
You say that being from these two worlds is a joy, what is it about these worlds that bring you joy?
Tinashe: Well thankfully they’re both feeling much better.
I guess having the best of two worlds. I enjoy both and the thought that I could have gone through life with only one terrifies me.
I don’t know about you as a doctor but I know that people enjoy you as a poet. You are Tinashe the “award-winning poet”. How does it feel? What’s your relationship with awards, how have they affected you? Have the titles changed the trajectory of your career? Tell me everything…
Tinashe: (Laughs). Actually, I’m a medical laboratory scientist. The awards have been great, I won’t lie. It is very validating to be acknowledged at that level, especially when some people believe your art is less legitimate because you have a career in something quite removed from the arts. The awards have also emboldened me, I can say certain things about the art with boldness as an expert because I literally have gold plaques in my room divider that say I am. The awards “cured” my imposter syndrome and because I trust my gut, I create better work now.
Jaliya: (Laughs). Oops! Scientist. What you have shared is beautiful, I love this for you. Congratulations on all your awards.
I have always lived in the world of words but I didn´t know that I was from it until about 3 years ago. I thought it was a world I was escaping to, I didn’t know I was diving into myself. In the short time that I have decided to actively pursue my artistic desires, I have received some recognition and it has had an effect on how people interact with me. Respect is good but people can also cross the line and get into worship, a state where you become an idol and they no longer engage with your work critically. I hate to be honoured from a place where someone makes a god out of me. And being at the receiving end of praise as an artist myself has also changed the way I interact with people whose work I admire and how I engage with the work itself.
What has your experience been as someone who is celebrated? What are your thoughts on being an idol and having idols? What are some of the things about being an artist yourself that have influenced the way you view and deal with other artists, especially the ones you greatly admire?
Tinashe: I wish I was as reasonable and level headed as you.
I don’t mind being put on a pedestal. I think most people believe when they are put on pedestals they have to “perform” and be something they are not, but being yourself is what got you there, it’s what people liked about you so continue with that. I do have a few heroes, and I will say sometimes it’s better to never meet your heroes, but other times certain artists become your heroes after you meet them because their talent is accompanied by amazing kindness and grace. I try to interact with all artists with a measure of respect, even those who are starting out because that is how I was treated when I was starting out and it helped me take the art more seriously.
Jaliya: (Laughs). I’m actually screaming at this.
Kindness and grace…right. There are certain traits that are really enjoyable to see when accompanied by great talent. And speaking of this, how do you take care of the posture of your heart? What I mean is, the boldness that comes with prizes or visibility can become arrogance and confidence can become pride. I think leaning towards the ego are very human tendencies and so I won’t ask you if your head has been swelling from all your accomplishments. Instead, tell me about how you deal with it. What do you do when ego shows up? And you’re human and an artist, that´s a double dosage of egocentricity!
Tinashe: I believe it’s different for different people. As a black woman from a country that’s literally last in the alphabet, I need a little ego. I need to learn to believe in myself and my work because so many voices would have me think otherwise. There are entire structures that exist to disqualify me so a little ego, a little pride, they are necessary for me to defy those structures and be crazy enough to believe that my work and I are worthy. Women are often asked to be humble, but why when I’m one of the foremost spoken word artists in my country? Why can’t I walk around like I own the place in my black Jet pumps? Why can’t I tell people I’m the best writer since Shakespeare? OK, that may be a stretch, but still, pride in something that I´m good at and in myself has helped greatly improve the posture of my heart. As long as that pride doesn’t add to the structures that keep other people down, it is a necessary thing in an artist. It takes pride to make something from scratch all by yourself and believe people will eat it up and adore it. It takes pride to tell the story of your people when no one crowned you the resident storyteller of your nation and race. You have to be a little obnoxious to believe you have something worth saying and I believe black women should be more obnoxious and celebrate ourselves like an average white man named Chad (I’m paraphrasing Tari Ndoro’s words here). But yeah, pride helps heal the hearts of the oppressed because most of the humility we’ve had to exhibit was never a choice. I’m God’s gift to humankind and it is a privilege for anyone to experience my work. Every black woman should believe this about themselves because they are.
Jaliya: “What would a white man do?” Words to live by! — The sheer audacity of doing things.
I love this point you bring up about Black women existing within structures that disqualify us, therefore needing an extra push and having to (strongly) believe in our value and significance. What you have said reminds me of Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi when she said “…And that is what we should be teaching these young girls: to take up space. Nothing is as important as taking up space in society and cementing yourself.” I know you´re passionate about this as evidenced by your advocacy for women and even through your work with poems such as Sarah Baartman (beautiful video by the way), you tell stories about women. Please comment on this.
Tinashe: Yes! The poorest most uneducated white man still believes they own the world so why not me? The structures will just have to catch up to my beliefs. I adore Zozi, she is truly an icon and to be alive at the same time as her is quite something. I love women, most of the characters in my work are women. I centre women whenever I can and it happens so naturally, whenever I think of a character it just has to be a woman. Women are constantly erased from history and even from the present, and men are immortalized even in stories that aren’t theirs, so why would I waste my life writing about men when every book and movie is already doing that? Writing about men is neither important nor urgent because their stories are not in short supply, they are abundant. Stories about women on the other hand, black women, gay women, trans women, poor women, women with disabilities, women who do sex work, women who aren’t particularly educated, those stories are what’s lacking, those stories are rare, and those stories are what I believe to be worth writing.
Jaliya: Well put. Thank you for this. And thank you for your work.
What stories have you been working on lately? What have you been up to? I know you have a poetry video that you plan to share on the 14th of February. Please tell me about it; what was your experience filming it? What is the piece about and how did it take form? What is something you want to achieve with it?
Tinashe: Well, I’m excited about the video I’m releasing on the 14th because I had more creative control over its conceptualization and shooting than I did in Sarah Baartman. It’s also a very different poem, grimmer and more direct, quite controversial as many people often question my inspiration for the piece. And no, it wasn’t inspired by a philandering lover, it was inspired by a philosophical question; is love real or is it all just chemicals in the brain meant to perpetuate the species? I find that thought interesting, are we in control of our decisions or are we just responding based on our biology and/or socialization? I particularly enjoyed working with Billman and Alex, they got the vision and they did their best to make it happen. I don’t know how it will be accepted and I know there’ll be a harsh comparison to Sarah Baartman but I’m pleased with what we have made.
Jaliya: I am looking forward to watching it. I don´t know what to expect and I am very excited. Congratulations for making it happen. Let’s see how it goes!
Before I let you go, allow me to ask one more thing: you spoke about trusting your gut and creating better work now, what is “better work”? What does being better mean, what does it involve? Is what you have lined up for the 14th “better work”? Or perhaps even “best so far”?
Tinashe: Thank you. I hope you’ll like it.
Better means a bit more technical, less confused, something I can be proud of. The video will definitely be “better” because the poem was written with clarity and no doubt, the concept was crystal clear and achieved at least up to 75%, I feel proud of it.
Jaliya: A toast to you. I hope supporters and followers of your work will get to see a “better” Tinashe this year. All the best!
Thank you so much for your time, it was a pleasure.
Tinashe: Thank you Jaliya this has been the most riveting interview I’ve ever had and I have enjoyed every minute of it! I’m kind of sad it has ended.
Jaliya The Bird is a writer, poet, performer from Angola. Her work explores Womanhood, Blackness, Africanness within the concept of [Inter]Sessions: UnSpoken Words. [Inter]Sessions is provoking, celebrating, releasing emotion and thought through storytelling, writing, poetry, and performance art. The artist is passionate about freedom and authenticity, living life from the core of who we are as we respond to the causes that move us. Her award-winning spoken word film Idle Worship produced by Ariel Casimiro via Usovoli Cinema has screened at various poetry festivals. You can read her work here www.jaliyathebird.com