Linda Gabriel is one of Zimbabwe´s most exciting and daring female poets and spoken word artists. With her play “You think You Know Me” she recently toured through Germany for a month and left her audience stunned. On the train to Leipzig, Lea Pook met her for InterKontinental. The two women talked about Linda´s work, feminist ideas and her vision for the future.
Your poem ‘Sins of our Mothers’ focusses on the perspective of sex workers. Why this focus?
‘Sins of our Mothers’ is the poem, which has been adapted into the play ‘You Think You Know Me’. In the poem, you hear the voice of a child who appreciates what the mother goes through. But in the adaptation it is the mother herself telling her story. The play focuses on sex workers, but the essence is about transactional sex. It is about what women go through to survive, to make it to the end of the day, to feed their children, to get accepted into a job. It is dealing with all different facets of when sex is exchanged in return for something.
To give away your body in order to…
… to get something in return.
What made you choose the mother as a symbol in your work?
I have a very specific understanding of this word, mother. The children of my younger sisters call me ‘Mum’ when they see me, not ‘Aunt Linda’. In my perception, everything translates to motherhood. If you are going to braid your younger sisters’ hair, if you are going to help them get into school, there is an element of motherhood. If your mother is not there, your neighbor or sister becomes your mother. It’s about being there for each other.
The women in the poem have to organize food, tuition fees for their children and so on. They seem to have the responsibility for simply every aspect of their everyday life. You depict very strong human beings here.
They are very strong. And this is what the play is supposed to do. It says: before you point fingers at me as a sex worker, think of me as a mother, a sister or someone who is singing in church. The danger is, that we only see those women as sex workers, we don’t take a minute to breathe and interrogate that when they are not doing sex work, there are a lot of different facets to them. It is important to show how strong they are. Most of them are the backbone of whole families.
Your work can be understood as a symbol for the reduction-mechanism of women and their social status. Are you trying to confront your audience with some kind of criticism?
Yes, definitely. I am telling stories nobody ever tells us. These aren’t comfortable conversations, nobody wants to talk about it. My whole work is therefore appreciating what women are going through for their children to become who they are. Each mother has a story and if this story doesn’t relate to you, you will know a friend, their best friend, an aunt or cousin, who has gone through something similar as mentioned in this play.
Sex work, rape or a mother who sleeps with a stranger to make money – these are topics related to the emotion of shame. What does this emotion mean to you?
I am an activist, I stand against injustices that happen and I try to focus most of my work on minority communities. Here, in some parts of Europe, sex work is being recognized as a profession and they actually pay taxes. This is not the case in places where sex work is illegal; sex workers often have to feel ashamed. My whole concern is how we see women and to show the background story, the bigger picture.
You just spoke about the legalization of prostitution. In Germany it is legal, in Zimbabwe it is not. What is your own opinion on the legalization of sex work?
If you legalize sex work, sex workers get to pay taxes. But more importantly they gain access to primary healthcare more easily. If you are known to be a sex worker in Zimbabwe there is stigma and especially in regards to HIV. You do not want to go to a clinic to collect your medicine, when you know that the whole community is basically watching. When sex work is legal women can take care of themselves without fearing that the police might harass them. These are two good reasons why sex work should be legal.
What is your perception concerning the process of emancipation of women? What are the obstacles and where do you see any chance for change?
It depends on the places that you look at. It is very different from where I come from. In Germany you have free education for almost everyone. By the time you are 28, if you are hardworking, you can have your PhD. Whereas for us at home, I would want other things first. For example, not every girl can afford sanitary pads, so every month some of them miss three days of school. By the time they get to high school, they are more likely to become a school drop-out. We need to get to a point where girls can achieve their dreams without the hustle of thinking of the expenses for education. For instance, I had to fund myself at the university and go to another country even and I had to pay tuition for my younger sisters for them to afford going to university as well. But if girls would just be able to have a decent education at ease, the world would fix itself. We have enough women waking.
What is your vision for the future, looking at how you are currently travelling the world?
My vision for the future is a united nations passport, which allows everyone to travel from one country or continent to another. Here I am, being most likely the only black person on the train right now. Others are probably asking themselves whether I am a refugee – but instead I am an international artist on tour. So, my vision would be that sharing whatever we have is not an issue and the color of the skin does not matter.
Text: Lea Pook and Stefanie Hirsbrunner