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Writing and Activism: A Conversation with Danai D. Chirawu

In this month's feature we have a chat with Danai D. Chirawu (DDC) a Radical African Feminist, legal researcher, writer, legal and gender consultant who is passionate about girls education, women's political participation and body politics. Danai has written extensively about the law, simplifying legal concepts for the public to raise legal awareness. I've listened to her countless radio interviews and watched her television interviews, her desire for social and political reform is at the foundation of her work; activism on the page and on the ground. We discuss the power of writing, the reach of her work and the importance of documentation. She is also a poet, you can read her poetry on PoetrySoup, a worldwide poetry community. Grab your cuppa and let's get into the conversation.

[Danai D. Chirawu - Radical African Feminist, Feminist Freedom Writer, Founder of Enlighten Girls Education, Development Practitioner and Human Rights lawyer (image provided by DDC)]

*Danai, most people know you from radio and television where you've appeared/featured to discuss the law among other things. You're also a writer with over forty published articles (some which have been published in The Herald Zimbabwe). Most of your writing is from a legal and feminist perspective, please take us through your writing journey?

DDC: My writing depends on so many things that are currently happening in my life. Sometimes it is inspired by the work that I will be currently doing and the people I get to encounter, some who entrust me with their stories. Other times I spend long periods of time stewing on certain ideas that eventually demand to be birthed by me because words left unwritten sometimes drive you insane. I always want to write for and about women, for the sake of information sharing and also for documentation. I enjoy the work that is being done on so many platforms by African feminists and so it inspires me to contribute to the writing. Most of the time, I read around my subject of interests for a while before I can rationalize my thoughts on the topic. Sometimes I just write because it feels urgent, and I like to document certain experiences and feelings for myself just so that I can be able to reflect or refer to them in the future. In 2020, during the peak of the covid-19 pandemic, I was writing a newsletter and it became something that I looked forward to because it gave me a sense of purpose and childlike excitement during those uncertain times. Writing for me is natural, and it has its peaks and valleys; during some seasons words ooze out of me and other times I can barely piece a sentence together.

*While one can reach a wider audience through forums/platforms that publish in English it may also seem like a barrier to most of the people constituting the target audience in your line of work. How important is language?

DDC: Having lived in different countries these past couple of years, I understand more fully that language is of utmost important to a person’s identity because aside from outward appearance, it is sometimes our first introduction into the world and new and different places. When you move to a new country, people often look for their kin and try establish friendships with people of the same background sometimes just so they can get a chance to speak their own language. I also understand that language goes beyond speech (and sign) but it is about certain mannerisms that are a reflections of our backgrounds.

Growing up in Zimbabwe, it was hammered in us that we have to speak English fluently, which in truth has allowed me to harness many opportunities but in hindsight I wish we had been taught the value of our local languages. Zimbabwe is home to 16 official languages that are rich and diverse and a lot of information fails to reach people simply because it has not been translated to their languages. I am grateful that during my time at Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association, I was able to write articles that were transcribed into local languages in print media.

As a person who is very interested in policy making, I think deeply about translating all these changes and these laws that govern our lives into language and material that is accessible and identifiable to people living in this country. So the answer is, language is very important. It has the potential to unite or divide.

*What is the importance of research, documentation and recordings in ensuring that certain aspects of what will be at some point 'history' is not distorted?

DDC: I am currently researching women’s political participation from a historical perspective and also aligning that the contemporary politics and there are many complexities to our history of documentation on multiple dimensions. Our history starts from a lot of oral history that is passed down from generations and the manner in which it is packaged is heavily determined by the status quo – meaning who is in control of the narrative and what is their intention. We are also coming from a colonial history where most of the early documentation is a reflection of the colonial influence of the time, leaving not only African black narratives vulnerable to the powers of the time but also further erasing women’s narrative because while patriarchy has existed since time immemorial, it was monumentalized, legislated and defined by the European colonialist systems.

This trend of erasure and manipulation of information follows us to this day because we have to redefine the structures of information that we hold as references and key sources of information. As an academic sometimes I feel stifled by the need to prioritize academic publications especially in view of our history and documentation. I am drawn to oral history which can be called ‘key informant interviews’ or whatever way we may dress it because the voices of Zimbabwean women need to be amplified more organically, relying on the diverse realities of women as major points of reference. I am so glad that there are so many of us Zimbabwean women who are working hard to document our own narratives and to address these historical deletions.

As I said, this is much layered and my opinions are not exhaustive of the issues that exist because we still continue to contend with issues of patriarchy, access to information across different social demographics, centralization of the public information sector, so women have to continue fighting for space. Spaces where we can openly document and share our content more widely. The internet has been a major source of documentation and information sharing but the accessibility is still glaring, especially under the current economic climate.

It’s loaded, but we are here and we are trying.

*I know that you are also a published creative writer. How different and/or similar is your legal writing to your creative writing?

DDC: I think these days I am not much of a creative writer. I cannot quite define it but these days even though I continue to write poetry, I seem to be drawn to more legal and policy oriented writing which can be creatively written but is very much technical and formal. I suppose what remains the same is that I always want to evidently represent my feminism in all my writing.

*What do you enjoy about writing?

DDC: When I used to write articles in local newspapers, my aim was to ensure that my grandmother understands what I am saying. She was the standard for me, the more clear the article was the more comfortably we could discuss the issues I would have written about because my audience is truly the Zimbabwean woman. Granted, we all have different levels of understanding and access to information but I care very much about simplifying technical legal concepts so that more people are positioned to interact with the document. I enjoy the impact of the work that I will be undertaking and I value words very deeply and try as much as possible to be deliberate with them because as I said earlier, language is very important.

[Excerpt of ‘Response to rape, other Sexual Crimes’ an article written by DDC, The Herald, 20 February 2019]

*In 2014 while studying at the University of Zimbabwe you founded a poetry club, "Poets Aloud," where is it now?

DDC: During my first 2 years of leaving the university I tried to follow up on the club and keep in contact with members who were still pursuing their degrees but I must admit that I do not know if it exists, and I can make a deductive guess that the club is no longer in existence. At the time when this club was formed and formalized it was a passion sport for my friends and I, we were avid readers and we wrote and wrote and wrote and needed an outlet for all our words. What I should have done better was create a succession plan and continued to support the club even after completing my degree because it was still in its infancy. There were so many amazing experiences because it gathered student activists, rappers, musicians and lovers of words yet these were not properly documented except for the monthly reports we submitted to the Dean of Students. Had we documented these experiences, we may have stood a chance for the next generation to continue with these platforms. I imagine that now things have changed and perhaps there might a similar platform that has since been formed by current students but there should have been more proactive and sustainable methods used to preserve the value of such a club at the University of Zimbabwe.

*What kind of books do you enjoy reading?

DDC: African feminist literature, black feminist literature.

*On a good day would you pick an e-book, printed or audiobook?

DDC: These days I think I prefer e-books because I haven’t quite established a home anywhere yet and I move quite a few times in the year so on a good day, I don’t mind picking up a kindle. I hate to admit this.

* One book that you'll never forget and highly recommend to all book lovers?

DDC: Wow, just one! Well, since I really love poetry I would recommend Questions for Ada by Ijeoma Umebinyuo. In fact. You can read any of her work, it’s worth it.

*Lastly, what are you currently reading?

DDC: Haha, well if I am in-between books, during specific phases in my life I tend to gravitate towards poetry and sometimes that means re-reading the same book for a very long time until I snap out of it. I am the type of reader who hovers over the same content until I move on. Currently I am deep within Ijeoma’s Questions for Ada (which I have had for a couple of years), it has been a source of solace for my spirit. It’s also not a secret that I am a huge fan of your work and I have been immersing myself in your poetry which I hope the rest of the world gets to read. Your work is very intersectional and it covers issues such as womanhood, Africanness, feminism, love, loss, friendship, spirituality and it is extremely emotive and oftentimes I find myself holding my breath till the end. I am also reading Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger because I believe I can derive new meaning from it during this specific phase of my life. I am very dramatic about my life and I need certain books as soundtracks to my life, it’s a mood thing. And in keeping with the poetry theme I am enjoying an poetry anthology by Zimbabwean queer persons entitled Faces in Spaces, published by Purple Hand Africa. In general I enjoy feminist and human rights based blogs and articles online and I am subscribed to some of my favourites including Batsirai Chigama who recently relaunched her website, Watchman’s Diary by Kudakwashe Manjonjo, Feminist Giant by Mona Eltahawy and I am subscribed to some newsletters that nourish my activism.

If you'd like to contact Danai D. Chirawu to discuss her work or simply connect you can get in touch with her here.

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