Unearthing the Stories of Families and their Histories: A Dialogue with Tsitsi Mapepa



Tsitsi Mapepa is a Kiwi, Zimbabwean-born writer who lets her creative side stream out in poetry, short stories, and novels. She studied at Manukau Institute of Technology, where she won an award of excellence in 2016 and the Kairangatira award in the BCA in 2018, before completing her Master’s in Creative Writing degree at the University of Auckland in 2020. She resides in Auckland, New Zealand with her husband and three children. Ndima Ndima is her debut novel.


This conversation took place between Cape Town and Auckland, via email.

Kris: Your novel, Ndima Ndima, has the subtitle “A Novel in Stories”. It is through these stories that we get to know the Taha sisters, and their mother Zuva. They live in Southgate 1, a suburb of Harare. As we read, we find out more about their lives and about their past, specifically Zuva’s role in the second Chimurenga War. I found this structure interesting. It’s as if, as the stories come together, piece-by-piece, a nearly-lost story is unearthed. It reminded me of hearing stories told by members of my family. Am I reading this correctly? I’d hate to assume what your intentions were as a writer, but I think that it speaks to how history is shared by the family in the story. 

Tsitsi: I like to write realistic fiction. As a writer, my only intention is to draw the readers in right away and make them feel as though they are part of the story too. Perhaps that’s why the stories sound familiar. They come together piece-by-piece because  I had to deliver them this way, like a puzzle. A single dosage at a time is enough for my readers to fully absorb the whole novel. 

Kris: I suppose Nyeredzi helps here. We often see the world through her eyes and through her experiences. As the youngest daughter, a great deal of this world is still new to her. 

Tsitsi: It’s quite tricky to make a story believable from a young child’s point of view, but Nyeredzi helps us to see things differently. Especially now that they’ve moved to a new place, everything is new to her. So, through Nyeredzi’s experiences and curiosity, we learn how fun it is to grow up in an environment that offers an abundance of life. Adventurously, she creates beautiful and unforgettable memories that I too as a writer fell in love with. 

On the other hand, it is quite challenging even for a reader when Nyeredzi is placed in awful situations. She is too young, but obliged to act. Perhaps being exposed to all this (good and bad) is what teaches her the importance of doing the right thing. So, I guess it’s more of educating other children about life itself, its challenges, and how to cope in certain situations.

Kris: It’s interesting that you’ve used the phrase “educating other children about life”. While I wouldn’t call this a children’s novel, there are themes of aging (or perhaps coming-of-age) both within the family as the girls grow into women and in your engagement with Zimbabwean history. Perhaps you can talk about why you chose this period of history in Zimbabwe? What drew you to this time? 

I wanted to show the importance of culture on the page, and why people should pass on the knowledge about their cultures to the next generations.

Tsitsi: I see where you’re coming from. You are right, it is a bildungsroman novel. But when I say “educating other children about life”, the phrase is deeper than the language itself. In other cultures, a young adult is considered a child in someone’s eyes. 

Now, I’m not the first person to have written about Zimbabwean history. All the things I explored in this book historically fascinate me. If it is cultural traditions, the things that Zimbabwean people used to do but not anymore, I wanted to show the importance of culture on the page, and why people should pass on the knowledge about their cultures to the next generations.

If you are referring to the 1990s up to the early 2000s, it’s an era I am familiar with. 

You’ve stated how you found the structure of the novel interesting, specifically the role of Zuva in the Second Chimurenga War at the beginning of our conversation; I chose to write about the 60s and 70s because I wanted to tell a story about this war from a woman’s point of view. This kind of shift can help change the reader how they view things in the world. 

I am aware you are the interviewer here, but I’m just so curious. If this part of the history was told from a man’s perspective, would you still be interested in it as much as you are now? If yes/no, why?

Kris: I do like it when questions are put back onto me, especially when they draw from me overusing the word “interesting”. It’s a word I fall back on far too much.

Yes or no might not cut it. There’s definitely something subversive about hearing about war from a woman’s point of view if only because war is traditionally masculine, and I do like it when texts go against the norm. But I’m hesitant to say that my interest comes from this alone. Other books have been written with this type of twist. It’ll also be a disservice to Ndima Ndima if I’m suggesting that there are no other interesting aspects other than this.

I guess I’m trying to pin the effects of a child narrator witnessing how the afterlife of a war is still present in her mother. Perhaps I’m thinking how my reading witnesses Nyeredzi witness the past-world of her mother. Let’s say this is my interest. Maybe too strange?

Tsitsi: You and I both have words that we are very fond of. Sometimes it’s not about how our brain coordinates with the rest of our body parts, but rather what our tongues choose to spit.

My husband and son are always my first male audiences when it comes to my work. I’d like to say they do not hesitate to give me their constructive feedback, but I’ve always wondered, how would other men out there take it? So, I thank you for your honesty. But then again, I wouldn’t mind hearing your “other interesting aspects of Ndima Ndima” from you.

And I don’t find your analysis of Nyeredzi’s relationship with her mother; their past and present lives strange, at all. If I am to step away from this book and not view it as my work, I think the story shows you how dark a war is. Some of the things that take place in wars cannot be erased forever. Despite Nyeredzi’s age, I think the pain is being shared from one woman to another. That’s all I can say about this part, that some scars aren’t just physical.

Kris: Family scars in particular. 

I’m curious as to how you view your reader. You’ve mentioned a reader in some form a number of times already. I’ve been pushing my idea of storytelling in the text alongside this. It seems to me that, both in your writing and in your life, the way people come to terms with your stories is important to you. I guess most writers would agree, but few of them seem comfortable enough to ask their readers directly. I’ve spoken to a number of writers who are almost ambivalent to their readers. They are more open to their works being misinterpreted or even ignored. I like your curiosity, and it comes through in your writing. The way that characters interact with stories engages with their worldviews. We also get to see them grow and learn through this. 

Tsitsi: Yes, family scars for sure.

For a person who uses writing as a form of communication with the rest of the world, I’m bound to value my readers’ opinions. So yes, they are important to me. If I craft a scene that makes me cringe, laugh, or cry, I want my reader to experience the same thing too. And if this happens, it’s fulfilling. But then again, it is what they do afterwards that makes it a mission accomplished. 

I’ve been writing for years, and this is the first time a larger body of my work is being circulated around the world. To have your stories read by many people is every writer’s dream. Now, I’m aware that my writing is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I will always cherish those who see my text beyond entertainment. As a person who writes realistic fiction, my only concern is being misinterpreted when I’m trying to deliver a positive message.

You are right, the way my characters interact with stories engages with their worldviews. On top of that, they grow and learn through this. I guess these are the same things I want my readers to get from this. 

Kris: There’s a passage near the beginning that I want to discuss. It’s when Zuva takes Nyeredzi to Duva dam during the drought of Spring 1992. The two of them sit under a fig tree to escape the sun and the heat. Nyeredzi has a kind of spiritual awakening here, and she asks her mom “Why do we keep on digging the soil that soon buries us?” (58).

Zuva says that this act of digging connects them with their ancestors. She notes “when they hear the sound of a hoe digging, they know we are searching for them. In return, they bless us with what you and I eat.” (ibid). Their ancestral connection to the land is stressed here, and I find it striking that “digging” becomes the operative word. Their duty of calling to their ancestor for aid carries throughout the chapter and culminates with the Ndima Ndima dance. Nyeredzi realizes that she has “the fire inside her eyes” (71) from this ceremony. After time, she learns that her ancestors are there for guidance and help. 

I’d go out and say that this is a central scene in the text (but perhaps I’m doing that critic-cheat of finding the title in the text). It’s central because Nyeredzi learns what language cannot quite express. She experiences a feeling, an intuition; something open to interpretation because it remains subjective. This is a move of confidence from a writer scared of misinterpretation. 

Tsitsi: There was a time I thought of removing this part of the story, but then I decided to keep it for a reason. It sounds as if my characters’ ancestral connection to the land is stressed in the paragraphs you mentioned above, but I don’t think so.  

Nyeredzi’s question is the only phrase that reveals the cycle of life metaphorically.

‘Why do we keep digging soil that soon buries us?’

Meaning, though the land provides them with food and other things; they too will die at some point just like their ancestors.

In Zuva’s response to Nyeredzi’s question, the word ‘digging’ is used in a manner of acknowledging that she’s having a conversation with her daughter who’s only nine years old. (I’m not saying this in a disparaging way toward my character). 

Without the Ndima Ndima dance, I doubt Nyeredzi would’ve come to meet her ancestors. The scene becomes central to both Nyeredzi, and Zuva. What Zuva had run away from now glimmers in her daughter’s eyes. And there’s no turning back from this reawakening of their relationship with their ancestors. 

For the record, The Call of Ancestors is one of the stories I wrote without holding back, nor terrified of being misinterpreted.

Kris: And what kinds of stories do you see yourself publishing in the future? 

Tsitsi: I have plenty of ideas that aren’t put into words or typed on any Word document yet. Something is holding me back at the moment, but I have been working on a novel these past months. Hopefully, someone will like it. Hopefully.


This dialogue was edited by our Senior Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.

Kris Van der Bijl

Kris Van der Bijl is currently reading for a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. His interests lie in African Literature in English. He writes short stories, poetry, book reviews and interviews. His writings have been published in the likes of Brittle Paper, LitNet, Lucky Jefferson and JA Magazine. He hopes to one day be called up-and-coming. 



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