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Tales of ordinary life in Zimbabwe -

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Tales of ordinary life in Zimbabwe

Eleanor Hall reported this story on Wednesday, August 26, 2009 12:42:00

ELEANOR HALL: It's six months since Zimbabwe's dictatorial President was forced into a power
sharing deal with Opposition Leader Morgan Tsvangirai. And the country's people are still suffering
under almost unimaginable levels of economic deprivation and oppression.

But one of the country's emerging young writers says she sees some signs of optimism. The short
stories in lawyer and writer, Petina Gappah's book An Elegy for Easterly, provide a window on the
life of ordinary Zimbabweans.

Ms Gappah lives in Geneva but is in Melbourne this week for the writer's festival and she joined me
this morning in The World Today studio.

Petina Gappah, Robert Mugabe is president either directly or in the background in many of your
stories; just how powerful, how all pervasive is he for ordinary Zimbabweans?

PETINA GAPPAH: Well if you consider that Zimbabwe's been independent for 29 years and for every day
of those 29 years he's been the leader of the country, you then realise that he not only is present
on a daily basis in the lives of Zimbabweans but he also exercises an incredible grip on the
imagination as well.

I think it's very difficult for people to actually imagine Zimbabwe without him because Zimbabwe
has never been without him.

ELEANOR HALL: I love your line "that which is not spoken or written down is not real", I mean how
difficult is it to write or speak about reality in Zimbabwe, particularly the political reality?

PETINA GAPPAH: If you're writing the political reality from the perspective of ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe
African National Union - Patriotic Front) from the Government, then it will be very easy for you to
write as much as you want but if you want to write about what is really going on under the surface,
it's a lot more difficult.

I'm amused and also a little bit worried about the way ZANU-PF has rewritten history and it's
really about writing a script that happens to suit the times.

ELEANOR HALL: And yet you write of a sort of double life in Zimbabwe where there is what everyone
says, and then there's what everyone knows. That applies also to one of the most ghastly diseases
ravaging the country, I'm wondering if you might be able to read the end of your story about the
bride groom.

PETINA GAPPAH (reading excerpt from book): In the public spaces they will say, she just fell sick.
Just like that, no warning, nothing. It burdens the heart, they will say. Where have you heard that
a person dies from a headache?

But in the dark corners away from the public spaces they will say, "Haiwa", we knew all along. Her
death was there in the bright pink lips of her bride groom, how far did she think it could go?
Remember the first wife, remember Mercy, remember Mai Tatenda, remember the two girlfriends,
possibly more?

ELEANOR HALL: The thing that intrigues me about that story is first, why did she marry him, and
secondly why didn't everyone tell her?

PETINA GAPPAH: (Laughs) One of her mum's friends, she read the story and she said to me, this is so
funny and so true because this is exactly what we say at weddings. And people talk all the time
about, so and so was beaten up by thugs - beaten up by thugs is the slang expression for AIDS - so
and so is not looking well today, (speaks in native tongue) you know? They talk all the time about
how people look.

ELEANOR HALL: As I read your stories it actually surprised me how much AIDS seemed to be such a
part of Zimbabwean life, but also that it's a disease that people, despite its prevalence, still
seem to find so difficult to acknowledge. What is it about this illness?

PETINA GAPPAH: Well you know Eleanor, it's getting a lot better now, but there's still a stigma
that's associated with it. It's associated with a promiscuous lifestyle, which is quite strange
because the people who've died from AIDS, more than, the biggest demographic that's suffered are
married women, and married women in Zimbabwe are extremely conservative.

ELEANOR HALL: Another big sort of background noise on almost all of your stories is the economic
situation and the rapidity of the change in that. The mad woman in the story from your title,
there's a line there that sums it up about the loaf of bread.

PETINA GAPPAH (reading excerpt from book): She did not speak beyond her request for 20 cents.
Tobias, Tawanda and the children thought this just another sign of madness. She was asking for
something that you could not give. "Senses," they thought, "we have five senses and not 20".

Until Tobias' father BaToby, the only adult who took the trouble to explain anything, told them
that cents were an old type of money in the days before a loaf of bread cost half a million dollars
he said, 100 cents made $1. He took down an old tin and said as he opened it, "We used the coins as
recently as 2000."

ELEANOR HALL: Just what is it like living with that frankly unimaginable level of inflation and
economic collapse?

PETINA GAPPAH: You know, I have to tell you that as I was revising this book for publication in
October last year, I had to revise because these stories were all written in 1.5 years of each
other, so they're stories where inflation was a shocking 300 per cent. And then it's a shocking
3,000 per cent. Then it becomes 3 million per cent and then it's 300 million per cent.

So it's, and this is within a very short time frame. And it is extremely strange to me how the
human mind can adapt to such things. And I think what it is is that there's a well of resilience
that is quite astonishing in Zimbabwe.

So this is again, one of the things that inspired me to write these stories that it's a brutal,
brutal economic situation, but at the same time people manage to survive somehow.

ELEANOR HALL: Part of it that seems to come through in your writing is there's an enormous amount
of humour.

PETINA GAPPAH: Yes I always say that Zimbabweans are the funniest people in Africa. Zimbabweans are
incredibly funny, and I actually think that the humour and resilience is actually, it actually
works to their detriment, because maybe if we got a lot more angrier, we'd go out into the streets
and you know, demand change.

ELEANOR HALL: Now you live in Europe, but when you return to Zimbabwe what is it that strikes you
most? What changes do you notice most?

PETINA GAPPAH: I was in Zimbabwe almost two weeks ago, and one thing that I noticed is that these
potholes that were all over the roads are suddenly being filled. There are these road teams. I
hadn't seen that for 10 years. It's one of the positive signs.

And the other positive sign is that there seems to be this exhaling going on right now, people are
a lot, people are a lot calmer on the streets anyway, people are less tense and people are laughing
more in public.

And there's food now in the shops, there are little changes that you notice, but before that I was
last home in January and at that time I thought Zimbabwe can't possibly get any worse, it was so
depressing I could not actually go out because the misery was palpable.

So in a sense you could say that the political situation, the unity government has eased the
tensions a little bit, even though as I said before it still seems like Mugabe and his party are in
control, there is a little bit of optimism I think that is really showing in many little ways in

ELEANOR HALL: Petina Gappah thanks very much for joining us.

PETINA GAPPAH: Thank you very much Eleanor.

ELEANOR HALL: That's Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah who's here this week for the Melbourne
Writer's Festival. And you can hear the long version of that interview on our website at