Virginia Phiri

Virginia Phiri. Photo by Mai Palmberg

"I am not writing of the pleasant"

Virginia Phiri was born in 1954 in Bulawayo, where she also grew up. She works and lives in Harare now. Phiri is an accountant by profession, and an active member of various organisations, such as the Zimbabwe Women's Writers, the Zimbabwe–German Society, the Zimbabwe Book Fair Trust and Phamberi Trust. She was the acting director of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair for nine months in 2002-2003. As a member of the Zimbabwe Women's Writers she co-authored three primary school readers in the series 'There is Room at the Top'. She is also an expert on African orchids, especially the Zimbabwean varieties. She writes both fiction, non-fiction and art criticism, and has written both in English, Shona and Ndebele.

Phiri's latest book is 'Desperate', a collection of stories about prostitutes. In the preface she writes: “More than twenty years ago, in the mid-seventies, I like everyone else, did not spare much thought for prostitutes. Because of my activism during the Second Chimurenga, I was constantly in danger. At one stage, prostitutes saved my life. For two weeks, they fed me, housed me, protected me and then let me go my way when it was safe to do so. ---When I became a writer, I started to search for reasons why women become prostitutes. The answers are to be found in all our communities if we care to look for them.”

Last year when I met you your book about prostitution, Desperate, had come out. What has happened to that book since?
You know, I actually got the idea to write it after having written 'The Diary of the Sex Worker' in Shona and Ndebele. These were short stories that went into anthologies, which were published in 1996 by the Zimbabwe Women Writers in Shona and Ndebele. In Shona it is called
'Ndangariro Dzepfambi', in Ndebele it was called 'Inhlupo Iliza Amanyala', meaning that when you suffer you can actually eat rubbish and be really degraded.

The reception was very good, people read the books, and accepted them. The College Press, a publisher, sought permission to include the story in a Form 4 Shona textbook. That's when I realised that the community had understood the story. Then I decided to write 'Desperate' in English. I wanted it also in English for a wide readership so that not only people in Africa but also in other Third World countries get to understand what goes on in Africa . I think most Third World countries have something in common along the line of sex working, prostitution, suffering, poverty; you name it. We have a lot in common, especially amongst the women.

I just printed 1 000, I was trying it out. But the reaction has been very good. I am running out now, I just kept a few copies to supply the smaller bookshops. I received an e-mail last week from a doctorate student from Germany who said she appreciated that the book exists, and that there was nothing like that sort of book in this region.

I don't write for myself, I write for people, but it is a situation where one finds out the niches, what people don't want to touch or talk about is what we have to write about, especially as women.

Has there been any controversy about the book?
Unfortunately or fortunately I haven't come across anybody who's been nasty or passed funny remarks or anything, including the sex workers themselves or the prostitutes themselves, it depends on who uses which word, they actually have read some of this book, some of them. Of course I have had a few people who said, "Don't you think you are encouraging prostitution?", but it was not many. I'm just merely putting facts the way things are and it is up to people to judge.

We had last year a Women's Resource Centre a panel of discussion where I found some women in Harare , one was a retired sex worker, one still working, already started in it in the 1970s. We were talking about the dangers of AIDS, the dangers of loneliness, the dangers that women encounter in their trade. So they actually spoke and said that what was in "Desperate" happens and nobody cares, nobody worries, and that they are glad that at least it is being highlighted in the book. They said that they just don't walk out in the streets and do what they want to do; it is actually need, suffering and all. And people are saying, "Oh, but you can always get jobs" and what not, but that is not practical, it is not easy. If you go for jobs, where are the jobs?

I don't mind criticism. If I have created something like that, I will expect people to say all sorts of things. I have to take all the consequences. And that's not going to deter me from writing more about this sort of thing. I will carry on because I think I'm able to explore more and find out more about other things.

Let's be honest, we are talking of Africa . In Europe it is a profession where women choose to be prostitutes in order to earn money, whether it is a small time prostitute in a bar, on a street corner, or high class, in a posh penthouse or whatever they choose. In Africa there's nothing like choice.

That's why I have taken it upon myself to write about them because they would never have a chance to sit down, write, tell a story or do something. And yet up in Europe they can do that, they can find a pen. Some of the European women who were ex-hookers, ex-prostitutes, have actually sat down, picked pen and paper, written their experiences without any shame, without anything. It is nothing serious, but it will never happen in Africa, it will never happen in Third World countries. It is something so shameful for the women themselves or their families or anything.

Most of them are always on drugs, which are locally smoked, or they drink beer non-stop, they become alcoholics, which means whatever they are doing in most cases they're just doing it to sort of forget. Really, that's not very nice.

You are now working on another book.
Yes, this time it is nothing to do with prostitution. It is your partners, your husbands, your boyfriends, your associates, or whatever sexual abuse within relationships. It can be done in many ways. It is absolutely frightening and disgusting and degrading and it is crazy. It happens in our communities and people do not actually, some of them, believe that it takes place until you hear of a few accounts here and there by the actual people who get involved. From the perpetrators, you will never hear a thing, but their partners you would. These are mostly women.

In fact, I write about women because I know more about women than a man because I'm not a man. So I would rather write about the side of story of women, what they go through in these things. This has got nothing to do with prostitution, but relationships where one gets horrified, gets treated badly, gets treated secretly in another way without the other one knowing what the other one is doing. It is so complicated. So are all lives of people.

With the book on prostitution it is easy to see where you can get the material, from the prostitutes themselves. But when it comes to this where do you get your material?
Well, I have to find out. You hear things go on in your communities. It is the same thing with prostitution. I mean, when I wrote 'Desperate' I did not interview anybody.

Some of the material is already available, sometimes even to the public. You are not plagiarising, you are just building your stories and you're just creating something. I'm a creator.

I'm not writing of the pleasant. If something is already pleasant there's no need for me to write about it. I'm merely highlighting what women go through sometimes from their partners.

Do you have any idea, any opinion, in whether the crisis on so many levels in Zimbabwe today has also made these situations worse?
On the abuse generally, of beatings, yes, that has increased because people are frustrated. There's no money and when a man cannot provide for his family he feels very low and maybe his employer is treating him badly, he takes it out on his wife, maybe on the children, it can also happen. So yes, the situation can also increase at the moment, it would increase a bit more discomfort for the woman in the home, not only sexually but also even general treatment. The children too suffer. You're finding people doing all sorts of things on sexual abuse, including their own children. It is absolutely crazy.

Hardship sometimes also makes things worse. People loose their heads, can I use that word, loosing their heads, going around the bend, pressurised to such an extent that maybe somebody is going sick in the head or confused or very frustrated

This is going to be a book in English?
Yes. But I would love all my books to be available in our own languages. I think it is fair to make them available, even if the print runs are not very high. I am hunting for money for that.

But you are doing so many other things apart from writing, so how do you have any time to write?
Everybody asks me that question. I allocate my time, I make sure I don't make a mess and I must know exactly what I want to do. But I enjoy it and I think doing many things at one time has kept me going and helped me when I got the misfortune of loosing my mother and daughter at the same time. I had something to fall on, which was already in my system and I can go on and on without getting sick. I have always had too many things at the same time happening. Maybe I'm a workaholic, but I enjoy it. It keeps me going.

So which are the main commitments right now?
I started my own little company in March 2000; I do accounts for companies. I do evaluations, balance sheets, tax and many other consultancies and I do evaluations, and I love my figures. That's my main job.

Then I write, I do the arts, then I get involved in all sorts of boards I sit on, for instance Zimbabwe-German Society, and I have been with the organisation for twenty years. I have been on the ZIBF (Zimbabwe International Book Fair) board as well, and also representing Zimbabwe Women Writers on that board. And then I have got Federation for Women and Media and since I also do reporting, I enjoy that. But sometimes I am asked to assist, this is a mainly women's organisation, because sometimes organisations have crises and I have nearly twenty years of experience from board life. I have the skills that they need, especially in finances. And I am very strict. I take a pleasure in doing that, correcting if things have gone wrong.

What about your work with non-fiction?
My first break through in non-fiction writing was when we, Zimbabwe Women Writers were commissioned by UNICEF to write supplementary readers for primary schools. We did it by interviewing women who had done well as the first in their field — let us say in the doctor, the first university woman, the first pilot, the first architect, the first whatever. The idea was that the girl children could now say, "Oh" I can also be a pilot, an engineer. When it comes to careers children will always think of being a teacher or a nurse.

By the time the Zimbabwe Academic and Non-Fiction came into being in 1996 actually a few of us from Zimbabwe Women Writers went to join them. In that one I have been doing a lot of - I do a lot of botany on the orchids, the local orchids, and African orchids. And I also write a bit of history, like working with the book 'Women of Resilience' with Zimbabwe Women Writers, and the book on women in prisons, which we have just done. Since the 27 th of July I became the Chairperson of Zimbabwe Academic and Non-Fiction Authors' Association. But I also sit on the board of Zimbabwe Women Writers.

It is all so nice that women are able to do these things. The men in these writers' organisations also recognize that women are very capable; they are partners with us; we can work very well and get somewhere together.

[Interview held on 11 August 2003 in Harare]

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