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  • Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Film Kare Kare Zvako: The Survival of the Butchered Woman
  • Flora Veit-Wild

After the publication of her first and so far only novel, Nervous Conditions,1 Tsitsi Dangarembga studied film-making in Berlin, where she lived from 1989 to 2000. Since her return to Zimbabwe she has worked together with her German husband as an independent film-maker. Her most recent release is a thirty-minute fiction film in Shona called Kare Kare Zvako, which literally means “long time ago” and is the standard preamble to Shona folk tales (much like “once upon a time”). The film’s English title is Mother’s Day, and the translation for the English subtitles was done by Dangarembga herself. It was released at the Harare International Film Festival in September 2004, where it won the Best Short Film Award, and has been selected as the only short fiction film from Africa for the prestigious Independent Sundance Film Festival in January 2005.

The film is of great relevance to the issue of the fragmented, mutilated female body as a battlefield for gender discourse and represents an intriguing counterpoint to Nervous Conditions. The plot of the film is based on a Shona folktale widely known in Zimbabwe. The many different versions of the tale have in common that in a time of drought and hardship a man tries to trick his family and procure food for himself only but in the end is found out and punished.2 In the 1980s, the popular Zimbabwean music band Bhundu Boys based their song “Simbimbino” on this folktale. Dangarembga’s “musical short film” has particularly appealed to the Harare audience through its beautiful sound track and songs, most of which are sung by well-known Harare singer Prudence Katomeni-Mbofana.3 I will cite the English translations of many of the songs, which of course lack the nuances and connotations of the original Shona versions.4

The film features a family who live under very primitive, Stone Age like conditions at a time of severe drought. While the mother makes every effort to feed her four [End Page 132] children (a baby, a little girl and boy, and an adolescent girl), her husband thinks only of himself. When his wife scolds him for not making any effort to sustain the family, he sets out at night, digs a deep pit in the grassland, and puts a grid of long pointed poles into one wall of the pit. At dawn he makes his wife follow him until she falls into the trap. Two long spikes, their bloody tips protruding, pierce her body. After carrying her back to their homestead, he chops her body up with an axe, then puts the pieces into a pot and cooks them. He eats them all and with an overfull, bloated belly falls asleep. After a while his belly starts heaving; when it explodes, his wife re-emerges, made whole again. Reunited with her children, she takes them into their hut to tell them the end of a story she has started earlier on.

The film’s intense impact derives from the antonymic structure within the family. This tension is enhanced through the reductionist means of setting, cast, and other devices, focusing solely on the family of six somewhere out of space and time. From the very opening of the film the opposition between husband on the one side and wife and children on the other is made overtly clear: one hears the baby crying because the mother’s breasts have dried up because she has nothing to eat. Yet her husband becomes angry with her and tells her to feed the baby. He waits till she is gone to secretly jab termites out from between drab soil and stones and then greedily shove them his mouth. His wife walks to a nearby anthill and fills a bowl with termites. Before doing so, she ritually apologizes to them. Back in their hut, she feeds the roasted termites to her children, having to tear the bowl away from her husband who wants them all for himself. Hence the woman is shown from the onset as the nurturer, in union with her...


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