Kayssie Kandiwa says she would have spoken Shona but not a lot.
“Shona would have always been a language in the back of my head, if that makes sense?” she says.
In 2007, Kandiwa moved to Ireland from Zimbabwe, where Shona is spoken. She was eight years old and knew some of the language.
But she never got to learn some of the particular embellishments of the language: common metaphors, the way they use onomatopoeia or the way that they manipulate language, Kandiwa says.
Then last year at a Poetry Ireland open mic night, Kandiwa met Tariro Takavarasha, a fellow poet with a similar yearning to learn more about Shona culture.
The result of that collaboration is The Language I Cannot Speak, a performance of stories and poems that draws on folklore and family tales to explore identity and culture.
“This is a place where our African identity and our immigrant experience meets,” says Takavarasha.
Says Kandiwa: “We are trying to relate to Zimbabwe even with the little gaps in our knowledge.”
Celebrating Black Womanhood
By coincidence, for that poetry night last year both Kandiwa and Takavarasha had written poems about their own Zimbabwean grandmothers.
That got them talking.
“At the start of this year I saw a post for the Irish Literature Festival and the first person I thought of was Tari [Takavarasha],” says Kandiwa, who studies marketing in the Institute of Public Administration and works as a copywriter.
Takavarasha works as a software developer for Citibank.
They began to compile the show together using their own poems, Shona folklore and stories collected from their families.
Exploring her own identity hasn’t always been easy, Kandiwa says.
It was hard to indulge in your own identity without feeling like an outsider growing up as a black woman in Bray, she says. “Sometimes you had to get out of your skin to fit in a little bit more.”
But she learnt to work through that, she says.
Takavarasha says the loss of Shona was down to colonial policy, too.
When Takavarasha’s father was born in Zimbabwe no education legally had to be provided to black people under British rule at the time, she says.
“So the only way to access education was via the church and in English so hence the loss of language,” she says.
While Takavarasha is unable to speak Shona, she is well-versed in folklore from the culture.
“I knew all these traditional stories including stories about [Kandiwa’s] family that she did not even know herself,” she says.
The show is a reaction to all this.
“I really wanted to make our work a celebration of black womanhood and have a safe space where we are unapologetically ourselves,” Kandiwa says.
A Collection of Stories
In the show, Takavarasha tells a tale from her family’s ancestry.
“The story of the mother of my family, who was alive in the 1600s and was a warrior princess,” she says.
This woman fell in love with a “common man”, the story goes. Her brothers were enraged by this as the warrior princess owned a wealth of cattle. They didn’t want it to go to this common man.
“So she went to war with her brothers so that she could marry a common man,” Takavarasha says.
“There are also a lot of folklore twists. Apparently, she had breasts so long that she could throw them over her shoulder to feed her babies on her back while she was going into battle,” she says.
The Language I Cannot Speak also features poems by their family members including Takavarasha’s uncle, Benjamin Takavarasha.
Says Kandiwa: “It’s one of my favourite pieces.”
The poem, “End of Term via Floodgate” is a recollection of Benjamin’s childhood days and going to school in Zimbabwe during the colonial period, he says.
After the first two years of school, the Shona language was phased out and Takavarasha was made to learn through English, he says.
“But this is not a serious poem. I just wanted to recount the occasions of being with friends,” he says.
The Language I Cannot Speak is great for the Zimbabwean diaspora, he says.
“They can pick up more of the language which is great because the language and the culture is inseparable,” he says.
The women faced a challenge, though, in capturing the culture of Shona storytelling.
“In the planning of the show we were trying to bring the communal spirit of it,” says Kandiwa.
Storytelling isn’t a stagnant event in Shona culture. There is a huge amount of engagement from the listener too, she says.
Says Tariro Takavarasha: “There is actually a kind of structure for how the listener responds.”
When somebody is telling a story there is an informal call and response that the audience does, says Takavarasha.
“So you might say, ‘Tell me more’ or ‘I don’t believe it’ or ‘Continue’. It’s all about giving praises to the storyteller,” she says.
“In this way, the storyteller brings people closer together than they were when they entered the room,” she says.
But the women were performing the show in an empty Axis Theatre in Ballymun because of Covid-19 restrictions.
“That’s where we came up with the idea of making our family the audience,” she says.
They pre-recorded family responses to the stories and played them over their performance.
It was a strange experience, Kandiwa says. “But we had to just work with the mode so that we could paint our own picture.”
The Language I Cannot Speak is available online from 23 October as part of the International Literature Festival Dublin.