Fear, poverty as forms of captivity
Elliot Ziwira @the Bookstore
“Cowards die many times before their deaths, but the valiant oft taste of death but once”, says the Roman general Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”; for “danger knows full well that Caesar is more dangerous than he. We are two lions litter’d in one day, and I the elder and more terrible” he boasted.
Although Caesar’s words may be dismissed as an arrogant disposition of a warped mind, they are in no way out of sync with the reality that if allowed to take control of one’s better judgment, fear is claustrophobic as it leaves one in a perpetual form of imprisonment. Humanity’s daily travails are pervaded by fear; the fear of everything; loss of loved ones, jobs and friends; the fear of death, of life and what the future holds.
There is so much fear around us; and what aggravates the situation is our ignorance of how we can overcome that fear in a world where fear is a commodity used against the timid and vulnerable.
Life is both controversial and tragic, not that at one point we will all lose it, for that is a certainty; in life we live with death, but because we mostly live it through the whims of others. In the style of a snail, which coils into a ball at the slightest sign of danger, the human mind is not a victim of fear itself, but the knowledge of its existence.
Notwithstanding that acrimony, danger and fear are real, imagining them to be always on the lookout specifically for us makes us all prisoners.
I have read “A Tragedy of Lives: Women in Prison in Zimbabwe” (2003) edited by Chiedza Musengezi and Irene Stanton several times, but each time is a new experience with the nature of imprisonment explored assuming different forms.
Through real life experiences of female former prisoners and prisoners, reliving their experiences before, during and after imprisonment, the book provides insights into the nature of imprisonment in both literal and metaphorical terms.
Divided into nine sections; reproductive health, domestic issues and fear of witchcraft, fraud, commercial sex workers, dangerous drugs, shoplifting, wrongful arrests and the experience of officials, the collection examines the vulnerability of women, their aspirations, disillusionment and despondency as they seek vents of escape from their situations mired by lack of opportunities. Because of the precarious nature of their situations, the only possible elixir is crime.
Using the prisoners’ own simple and plain language, Musengezi and Staunton hoist the reader on a whirlwind journey of poverty, suffering, hopelessness and despair as womanhood is portrayed as vulnerable and prone to all forms of oppression and at the same time remaining resolute and responsible.
However, what is worrisome is that imprisonment goes deeper than physical incarceration. The walls that imprison inmates are more than physical, as they also assume mental, psychological, emotional and physiological forms.
Women, as explored in “A Tragedy of Lives” (2003), are imprisoned in a plethora of ways. Primarily, the nature of their being exposes them to all forms of fear. Womanhood itself may be a form of imprisonment, inasmuch as it creates an element of inadequacy; physical, economic, social or otherwise.
The responsibilities that burden a mother in a seemingly careless patriarchal and cosmopolitan world create anxiety and fear leading to psychological and emotional imprisonment. Caught between the desire to fend for her children, and the need to meet societal expectations, a woman grapples with many forms of imprisonment.
Memory, one of the characters in the book says of her mother: “My mother worked hard in the fields and raised enough money to buy me school uniform and books.” Martha, also exposes herself to the vagaries of AIDS by engaging in prostitution as she says, “I think to myself; what disease could be worse than starving my children to death?”
Women, therefore, remain psychologically imprisoned as their actions are mostly driven by their nature — motherhood is a form of incarceration they can never escape from.
As is the case with Rhoda, even after raising their own children, women remain burdened, for society expects them to raise grandchildren as well. As if raising 12 children single-handedly after her husband abandoned her and the children for a younger woman was not enough, Rhoda finds her poverty stricken hearth littered with wayward grandchildren, whose misdemeanour led her to prison in her old age after she accidentally threw one of them into a fire.
Poverty, which according to the anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, is a human creation in the mould of slavery, is also restrictive. Most of the characters in “A Tragedy of Lives” suffer the shackles of poverty which they try to endure but to no avail. The needy are never given opportunities as their lack is often used against them. They are exposed and they cannot help showing that they are.
Poverty robs humanity in general and women in particular, of choice. As they struggle to eke out an existence in a male dominated society devoid of hope, women find themselves at wit’s end. With their voices gagged by poverty, and the sense of agency immobilised by fear of the unknown, women cannot help exposing their vulnerability as they seek solace from men, either through marriage or prostitution.
Memory tells us that, “I ran away from home to live with my boyfriend” because “he gave me money to buy food and pocket money, about two to three dollars a day;” which she feels “was a good beginning.” And Elizabeth honestly informs us: “I married young for I was running away from poverty.”
Because it offers a form of security, marriage seems to be attractive. However, as is the case in most marriages, especially those premised on convenience, disasters always lay in wait. When the inevitable happens either by design or by default, the woman is left even more desperate as is the case with Memory, Viola, Lillian, and Chipo. Failing to think beyond the presumed limitations of their sex, they continue to seek comfort in men, not in marriage per se, but in mere relationships and prostitution.
Therefore, as long as women keep on clinging to male egos as a way of escaping from poverty and fear, which keep on whispering in their ears, they will remain not only impoverished, but imprisoned.
Ignorance to some extent may also be said to be a form of imprisonment explored in “A Tragedy of Lives”. Only one character Mercy has a university degree, and Lillian, who is a teacher, has a Diploma in Education, little wonder why they were involved in fraud.
The majority of the characters did not go beyond Form Three. They are so much imbued with fear and terror to face the real world by themselves, believing that they could have been better people had they gone far enough in school without doing anything to improve their lot. Their ignorance in reproductive issues, health, the Law and outside world restricts them in their cocoons.
As they escape from poverty and ignorance, which seem to be synonymous, through marriage, women find themselves in yet another prison that does not only scald, but break them. The claustrophobic nature of marriage, which women endure to some point as they simmer inside hoping that the lid will not be lifted to expose their inner turmoil, eventually disintegrate them.
Maureen’s story makes a sad reading, not only because it ends in arson and murder like Beti’s, but because it exposes the voyeur in Man which seems to draw excitement from trauma, suffering and disaster. She had to live with her husband’s hard rules. She shares her story thus: “His home had its rules, No wife followed her husband to his workplace. So, I had to be at the rural home while he worked in Harare.
“My in-laws gave me a piece of land to farm . . . Then when my crops were harvested, I was told another rule. I had to wait for my husband to come and cash the cheques that I had been given after selling my produce.
“I was surprised at the amount of money he gave me . . . My mother-in-law celebrated over my money . . . My husband had a girlfriend in Harare.”
Realising that she could not stand the rules, she decided to break out with fatal consequences. Maria and Beti also find themselves in situations where they have to either shape up or ship out, and they choose neither.
Maria “had serious disagreements with (her) husband” who no longer love her and they “quarrelled and fought frequently.” He could “beat me up badly and sometimes he cut me with razor blades on my arms and inner thighs.” In the end she “took a pole and hit him on the head and he was unable to wake up again.” And Beti poured boiling cooking oil into her husband’s ear. He eventually died.
The crimes of passion explored in minute detail here by the victim-perpetrators themselves are not only sad and unfortunate but chilling and boggling, because yet other forms of imprisonment crop up; societal and national.
The media is awash with horrendous and spine-chilling crimes, which lacerate the moral flesh of society leading to malaise, neurosis and paralysis at the familial, communal and national bases. This is especially so as innocent pawns are dragged into the mire and suffer as a result of the follies of others. This is evident in Rhoda’s story, who in a moment of madness spurred on by irrational fear of witchcraft “swung the machete in any direction with the intention of hurting whoever was in my way. Two people died; the six –year- old nephew and his father.”
Yet the two were only innocent relatives of the woman she suspected of killing her son through witchcraft. She is now serving a life imprisonment term for the crime.
With its emphasis on norms and values, society somehow thwarts individual aspirations and expectations and places a burden on the individual psyche. A woman, especially a married one, is expected to behave in certain ways, and if she does otherwise she is stereotyped and ostracised. She is expected to bear children for as pointed out by Elizabeth, “A proper wife should have children and make her husband a father.”
Society also instils fear into individuals and at the same time expects them to be brave. Culture creates phobias and excessive fears through its subscriptions to the supernatural, but still expects rational thought to remain intact in the individual. In the presence of the fear of witchcraft rational thought cannot be counted on as is the case with Rhoda, Ellen and Tabeth; and in the end all characters are perpetually imprisoned in one way or the other.