Petina Gappah: "Humour is my weapon of choice"

November 2009 -

Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah experienced her international breakthrough this year with her debut: Elegy for Easterly, published in Dutch as de Danskampioen en andere verhalen. A wonderful collection of stories about the country she left in the late 1990s to work and study in Europe. With a healthy dose of humour and great flair, Gappah sketches the hard life of her fellow countrymen struggling under chaos, corruption, raging inflation and poverty.


Petina Gappah (Photo: Batsheba Okwenje, Mouria Publishers)

In addition to Dutch the book has been translated into languages including Finnish, Swedish and Italian, but she did not write it with the intention of catering to an international audience. Each and every story is about someone she knows, from newspaper headlines or from her own youth. The author’s own favourite is The Mupandawana Dancing Champion, a portrait of the elderly carpenter M'dhara Vitalis Mukaro, who is forced to continue working long past his age of retirement.

Despite serious setbacks, the old man enjoys his life and become dancing champion at the local disco-bar. Although her stories are filled with ideas that will also appeal to Europeans, like her criticism of the World Bank in At the Sound of the Last Post, Gappah does not see herself becoming a spokesperson for Zimbabweans or Africans in the rest of the world.

You work as a commercial lawyer in Geneva. Do you share the criticism of the World Bank in At the Sound of the Last Post?

"It is not so much a critique of the World Bank as it is a critique of the ruling elite in Zimbabwe who have often misused development aid. I do not think development aid is useless. I certainly benefited from development aid. I went to Austria on a scholarship from the Austrian foreign ministry, it sparked my interest in WTO law, and now, thirteen years, I am an experienced lawyer providing legal aid by helping developing countries understand WTO law."

"There are many individuals like me who have benefited greatly from targeted aid for education and health. The kind of aid that works is the kind that invests directly in people, and that responds to what people identify as their need. My organisation, the ACWL, is an example of donors listening to the recipients - the developing countries expressed a need, donors responded, and the organisation thus worked on the basis of a partnership. As I show in the story you mention, aid can be wasteful, and has been wasted, and it can, and has bred corruption, but I would not dismantle the entire aid system simply because it has been effective only in some cases and not in every case."

In the story De Indiër van tante Juliana you describe racism in Zimbabwe. We see how the attitude of mister Vaswami changes when a white man enters his store and how he becomes victim of racism after independence. Did racism play a role in your own life and does it still play a role. and is humour a good weapon against it?

"Yes, I have been aware of racism both in Zimbabwe and outside it. I was born into a racist society, my early life and education in
Rhodesia was premised on my being of one particular race, we lived in what was called an African area, and I went to African schools. That changed at independence, when we moved to what had been called a European area and attended a European school. There was a lot of racial prejudice at that school, naturally, but I was very young then, and a lot of it just washed over me because all I did was read. "

"Then I moved to Europe, to a city that had few black people, and experienced what it was like to stick out. But I was so bent on
enjoying myself and learning new things that I also let a lot of that wash over me. Where I did fight, I learned to pick the important
battles. So, for instance, someone refusing to sit next to me on a bus was not an important battle. A company refusing to accept my plasma because I am from Africa was. I have highly emotional responses to most things, an unfortunate legacy from my mother, so I have learned to use humour as my particular weapon for dealing with the unpleasant things of life like heartbreak, the up and down of Zimbabwean politics, Serena Williams losing matches she really should win and racism."

De Danskampioen en andere verhalen was published this year by Mouria publishers. In the course of 2010 Gappah will be publishing a novel titled The Book of Memory that will also be published in a Dutch translation by Mouria. Petina Gappah will be participating in Winternachten in January of 2012.