Great Expectations in Zimbabwe: (White?) Femininity and Womanhood, by Dr Heike I. Schmidt

Summer in Zimbabwe is a time of expectation. As the days become warmer, eventually the nights lose their biting cold, and the breath is no longer visible in the morning. It is a time of waiting for the rain. With only one rainy season to bring the sustenance that ancestors, god, and climate – despite its change – provide in nurturing the nation, the waiting can turn into joy or eventually to desperation if the rains fail and drought leads to famine. Meanwhile rural landscapes are transformed, announcing impending summer, as msasa trees sprout new leaves, red before changing into magnificent fresh green. With the relentlessly bluest late winter skies, free of clouds, the shade of msasa trees creates hues of red and pink, and beautiful views stun as the spectacular.

Msasa Tree, Nyanga, © Heike I. Schmidt

One legacy of white settler rule that lasted until 1980 in Zimbabwe is that urban planning included the creation of colour schemes for each city through the planting of at times exotic trees, seasonally turning entire streets and even boroughs violet, yellow, read, or orange. During summer, descending the mountain pass into Mutare, it looks as if the city is on fire, dowsed in the red blossoms of the flamboyant trees.

Flamboyant Tree, The Avenues, Harare 1975, © Wikicommons

                       

Cassia Tree, Mount Pleasant, Harare, © Heike I. Schmidt

Most resonant with the theme of summer love are the jacaranda trees that line the Avenues in Harare, originally a middle-class neighbourhood reserved for white residency, just north of the capital city’s centre. Their effect is quite similar to lilac, evoking the senses and enticing desire. But experiencing jacaranda trees in Zimbabwe is also decidedly different from early summer lilac in Europe.  Jacaranda begins to blossom as winter vanes and the rising temperatures and the expectation of rain settles into one’s body, noticing the first clouds arriving, walking along the Avenues under the canopy of light purple blossoms, the scent caressing one’s senses. When wind, and eventually the rains, strike the trees, the petals tumble to the ground in a shower of violet scent that in darkness resembles snow.

Jacaranda trees, Avondale, Harare, © Heike I. Schmidt

From the perspective of white lives, Zimbabwean summer as a time of love, passion, and self-recognition, has maybe been best expressed by Doris Lessing. Already in her debut novel, The Grass is Singing (London, 1950) did Lessing capture the colonial encounter between white and black lives in the colony magnificently, by directly addressing gender in juxtaposing her main characters, the white madam and the African worker on a run down farm. The novel shows the necessary and tragic failure of the primacy of white privilege, here in the guise of a poor white farming couple. The crackling of the tin roof of the farmhouse under the stifling summer heat, as these white lives become undone, remains a palpable reminder with the reader long after setting the novel aside.

Doris Lessing (1919 – 2013), © Wikicommons

Born to British parents in Iran and having spent most of her childhood and formative years in what then was Southern Rhodesia, Lessing published a series five fictionalised memoirs, Children of Violence (1952-1969), four of which are based on her life in Zimbabwe until she left for London, thirty years old, in 1949. In the second volume, A Proper Marriage (London 1954), her protagonist Martha lives in Harare during World War II. Pregnant with their first child, her husband occupied with his own concerns, Martha feels overwhelmed, lost, and recognises that having become a colonial wife did not bring her the freedom and self recognition for which she is yearning. She struggles with her life, doubts her decisions, and finds herself reduced to her heavily pregnant body that makes her uncomfortable and restless as she is expected to be out of sight, proper and respectable, in a small flat in the Avenues. The summer heat and the pounding rain make her feel isolated, lonely, and undone, until one day, when her friend Alice visits, also expecting, they decide to go for a drive. Lessing observes that even before they leave the flat the decision and getting up to act upon it recovers the women’s self respect. It is that moment of no longer seeking validation from their husbands and society, of recognising that they connect with the world they live in themselves, that the curtain of rain is not a prison wall, in and of itself is an act of self-recognition. Lessing then has the women move beyond the confines of marital and maternal respectability by driving through Harare with Martha’s friend Alice heading for the maternity clinic. They move with hardly any visibility, themselves invisible in the summer rain. After stopping, Lessing first lets an African man, a ‘worker’, walk by, with Martha assuming all he is thinking of is shelter from the rain. This is a significant pause in the narrative, a reminder that these women inhabit a white world, driven by white privilege. There are no African characters that appear, only African workers and servants at the margins, expected to be loyal, subservient, and unnoticed. Seeing this man, his wet clothing stuck to his skin, rain water running down his chest and splashing up his feet, is a potent reminder of this artificially created world of white privilege and at the same time the reality of a lived experience that entails more than one masculinity, more than white manliness as the guiding light into femininity and womanhood.

Gloriously, forcefully, with the reader invited to feel passion, relief, joy, to read on smiling, taking deep breaths and being breathless simultaneously, Lessing has Alice park the car opposite the clinic, next to a stretch of veldt, an open area of uncultivated and unused land one can find to this day in inner city areas. As soon as the African man is out of sight, the women undress and run screaming through the grass, relishing even the cuts on their skin, embracing every sensation. It is the touch of rain, of water on the ground, of the grass, the mud under their feed, not a man’s touch – in this strictly heteronormative account – that gives pleasure and sets the women free. Martha, seeing a water hole in the ground glides in and shares her euphoric experience with a frog and a snake. She transforms the desperation of loneliness into the joy of solitude. Martha is whole – without her husband, without society. As the rain eases and the sky lightens Martha lets the rain wash the mud off her body and runs back to the car where she and Alice get dressed just in time before being discovered. Back in her flat she takes a bath to cleanse herself of the experience, albeit reconciled with the corporeality of her pregnancy.

At a time when body shaming and mental health are prominent in the (social) media and impact all genders and all ages it may just provide a moment of reprieve to read Lessing’s account of a young woman empowering herself by reclaiming her body, and here embracing the sensual pleasures of summer. For Martha, love does not require a romantic partner or societal approval. What is transformative is a mindful moment as she allows herself to lose her bearings in the summer rain and experiences finding herself in doing so.

Much can be added, such as the choices of young African girls, climbing hills and mountains in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe in 1918/19, praying, seeking authority from the Holy Spirit to stay out all night, unsupervised, with some emerging as prophetesses. The sheer joy in the faces of postmenopausal women claiming authority as they are the only members of local communities safe to enter the spiritual forests of the highlands, stripped down, bared breasts, to gather food when the rains do not arrive and for ritual purposes, while all others are prohibited. The rural female sphere of riverbed gardens, where males have to ask permission to even transverse and are not permitted to join, a place of banter, speech, and exchanges. Married women joking about a soldier who ‘lost his penis’ as he was lured by a juzu (Shona: female water spirit) and was then punished for his sexual appetite aroused by what appeared to be a young beautiful woman. An elderly female chief enjoying that men who suffer from old age impotence have to wear something red to signal this malady to the world.[1] It is easy to forget such sheer joy of femininity and womanhood and Doris Lessing reminds us magnificently that sometimes letting go of our boundaries, of the norms we embrace or wrestle, may allow us to find ourselves – or indeed just to practice at times the sheer childlike delight of a daring nude splash. The dramatic tension built up with the coming of the rains, the sensuality of the red leafed Msasa trees, and the seductive embrace by Jacaranda’s scent, colour, and touch are one path one can follow to such an experience of empowerment in a summer of love.

Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter.

[1] Heike Schmidt, Colonialism and Violence in Zimbabwe: A History of Suffering, (Oxford & Harare, 2013), chapters 3 and 6 and ‘Shaming Men, Performing Power: Female Authority in Zimbabwe and Tanzania on the Eve of Colonial Rule,’ in Gendering Ethnicity in African History: Women’s Subversive Performance of Ethnicity, eds. Jan Shetler and Dorothy Hodgson, (Madison, WI, 2015), 265-289.

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