To read a review of Tanvi Bush’s Witch Girl, click here.
Book reviewer Heather Sharfeddin recently interviewed Tanvi Bush for Colorado Review. Bush grew up in Lusaka, Zambia. She later studied in the UK, reading English and Theatre at Exeter University, then Film Production at the Northern School of Film and TV. In the late 1990s Tanvi set up the Willie Mwale Film Foundation in Zambia and was the producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary Choka!—Get Lost! (2001), about a gang of young HIV/AIDS orphans living on the streets of Lusaka. In 2010 Tanvi completed an MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University and is currently undertaking a PhD. She lives in Corsham, Wiltshire, with her guide dog, Grace.
I first met Tanvi Bush at Corsham Court, an eighteenth-century manor house outside of Bath, England, with sprawling gardens and a large gaggle of peacocks that wander leisurely about. Corsham Court is the beautiful location of the post-graduate studies at Bath Spa University, where we were both working on our doctorate degrees. Actually, I met Grace, her guide dog, first; Tanvi is vision impaired, and Grace has become as much a member of the PhD cohort as the students. Tanvi is a warm, engaging woman who accepts people broadly. She is also a fierce, and often humorous, writer.
HS: Tell me about how you came to live in Zambia.
TB: My family moved to Zambia in 1972 when I was a toddler. My mother was an artist with family in Southern Africa, and my father was a doctor who had an interest in tropical medicine. They wanted to live in Southern Africa, but not in a country still practicing apartheid in any form. Zambia is a former British colony and became independent in 1964. It’s poorer and less developed than its sister, Rhodesia (which became Zimbabwe in 1980). The capital, Lusaka, attracted intellectuals, freedom fighters, and free thinkers due, in part, to the congregation of exiled ANC and human rights activists who had moved up from South Africa, as well as a strong desire from UNIP’s government under Dr. Kenneth Kaunda to integrate all tradition, tribes, religions, and peoples under the banner of “Humanism.”
My father was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2005 for his service to the fight HIV/AIDS. When he died in 2012, he was buried in Zambia.
HS: What would you like Americans to know about Zambia?
TB: Zambia is a wonderful whirlpool of peoples, dialects, and traditions. It is bordered by Malawi, Tanzania, and Democratic Republic of Congo It is home to some of the most beautiful national parks in Africa, teeming with wildlife: lions, leopards, elephants, and more. The Mosi-O-Tunya (Smoke that Thunders), also known as the Victoria Falls, is one of the wonders of the world. While remaining relatively politically stable itself, Zambia has been the buffer zone in various and terrible civil wars, including the Zimbabwe/Rhodesia conflict of the 1970s. Through the 1990s and 2000s Zambia was devastated by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which destroyed communities and spawned fear and stigma. In the 90s, the then born-again President Chiluba declared Zambia a Christian nation and the country was flooded with evangelists from around the world, especially the USA and Canada.
HS: How did you end up living in England?
TB: I was sent to boarding school in England when I was ten years old. At the time, England felt cold and grey, and I hated it. I dreamt constantly of Zambia and home, but I was told I must complete my education, and so in chilly England I remained. I was in my twenties before I had the opportunity to return to Zambia. I had just been diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease (retinitis pigmentosa) and told I would lose my sight. I managed to resolutely ignore this information and instead trained as a filmmaker. Gradually, however, it became apparent that my sight was deteriorating faster and I couldn’t afford to remain in Zambia. It no longer felt safe to be living alone, and I was bereft when I was no longer able to drive. Also, having been working mostly as a volunteer, I did not have the resources to find other employment. I needed to rethink and retrain, which meant returning to England, which I did in 2005. After a protracted period of isolation and depression, life turned around when I met my first guide dog, Grace, and moved from the visual medium of film into creative writing. I was accepted onto the MA course at Bath Spa University and now am completing my PhD.
HS: What inspired you to write the story of street kids displaced by the HIV/AIDS epidemic?
TB: I lived a privileged life growing up in Zambia. We had access to electricity and running water, drove big cars, and enjoyed wonderful food. But as a young adult I could no longer ignore the disparity between the wealthy and the very poor. Zambia once had extended family systems that helped to protect the more vulnerable, but HIV/AIDS ripped that system apart. With thousands dying every week, children were orphaned, abandoned, stigmatised, and forced onto the streets. Often they would go to the bigger towns and cities in the hope of finding charity or work. There were no anti-retroviral drugs early on and when they came, they were far too expensive for the average person. This, combined with ignorance about sexual health, often execrated by the various churches, caused confusion about how HIV was spread. Relatives of the deceased were often blamed and seen as “infectious.” And the government was not addressing the situation.
In 1999 I began research on a documentary that followed a group of street boys who formed the Red Cross Under-11 football team. I had a crew of Europeans and Zambians working on the film, and the brilliant Danish director Kasper Bisgaard. In the end we spent over six months on the street with the children. The subsequent film, Choka!—Get Lost!, was nominated for an Oscar. After the crew left, I remained in Lusaka as a volunteer, looking after the children for whom I now felt responsible. That is another story in itself, suffice it to say; I have never forgotten the debt I owe those boys, the other children, and the communities I worked alongside. This included the Mother of Mercy Hospice in Chilanga, an HIV/AIDS hospice on the frontline of the pandemic. My father had championed and volunteered at the hospice, which Kasper and I made a documentary about in 2004.
HS: How closely does your fiction mirror actual events?
TB: I have tried to be as meticulous with my research as possible. As an undergraduate I had written a thesis on Zambian traditional dance, which included chapters on trance and shamanistic ritual and led me to research several elements of Zambian witchcraft. I met the famous witch doctor and witch finder Dr. Sansakowa and his terrifying entourage. Later, I was able to source reportage from journalists, street children, Jesuits, and others on false claims of HIV cures, such as sleeping with virgins, blood transfusions, and cannibalism. The police were known to regularly arrest witches or to have dealt with charms that have grown beyond the capacity of the charm keeper. There was endless material to draw on!
HS: Luse is a powerful character. How did she influence you during the writing of the story?
TB: I love Luse. From the moment she came into my head, a curious, clever, brave kid, she seemed to lead me rather than the other way around. I think she has a little of Phillip Pullman’s Lyra, maybe a little of Carroll’s Alice, but she is also full of the feisty Zambian girlfriends I grew up with, too.
HS: Why did you choose to call the organization “The Blood of Christ”?
HS: As mentioned before, Zambia was declared a “Christian Nation” in 1992, opening it up to a flood of charismatic fellowships, churches, and sects from around the world. From this sprang many local Zambian fellowships, churches, and sects, and sometimes their pastors combined traditional healing with prayer. They chose names that would resonate, using words like Fire, Spirit, and Firebrand. Blood of Christ would not be unusual, but it had another darker resonance for me.
HS: What commentary, if any, were you making on Christianity?
TB: My father was Jewish, my mum converted to Catholicism, my older sister is a vicar in the Church of England, and I practice Buddhism. I wanted to make a commentary on the dangers of deliberate ignorance, not just in the Christian faith, but in all things. I have no sympathy for bullies or those who prey on fear and insecurity. Sadly, all organised religions have fallen prey to this at one time or another. With relation to HIV/AIDs in Zambia, this has been all too apparent.
HS: Tell us more about your decision to use superstition about witches, and witch children, in the story.
TB: In 2008, I saw a documentary about a small English charity called Stepping Stones (now Safe Child Africa) that was attempting to address the issue of “witch children” in the Niger Delta. There has been a huge increase in the kidnapping, torture, and killing of children accused of witchcraft by various pastors, people within their communities, and sometimes even their own families. The documentary suggests that the problem is caused by a combination of African traditional beliefs and extreme Christian Pentecostal groups. In particular, the programme singles out Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries for producing a film called End of the Wicked, which is blamed for the increase in children being abandoned by their families. I was horrified by the documentary, but I had heard similar accusations against children in Zambia and wondered if the same video had travelled across the region. This became the core of the novel. I knew I wanted to expose this further, to shame those involved.
HS: Regarding the moments of seemingly supernatural events in the story, why did you choose to use them, and how would you describe them to potential readers?
TB: I wanted to explore the ambiguity and fluidity of Zambian attitudes (and possibly my own) to the supernatural, the mystical. Traditional medicine and Western medicine are often seen as interchangeable. Highly educated and well-travelled friends of mine often talk about bizarre things they or someone in the family have seen or dealt with—curses, juju, etc. The newspapers regularly report incidents of witches being exposed and witch finders being feted. There are things in the dark in Zambia that cause “mischief.” My father, an old-fashioned general practitioner, never ruled out the power of the mind over the body or the affect of good or bad juju and curses, having seen things that could not be explained by Western medicine. I wanted to find a way to respect this in my own writing.
I also wanted to pay tribute to Zambia, to the country that raised me and gave me so much. So Luse and her grandmother are not just representing the new and old Zambia, but linking them. Luse’s gran is a traditional healer and teaches Luse about herbs and medicine, a skill Luse uses later when she finds herself on the street. However, there is something else, something ambiguous and profound in their spiritual connection. I meditated long and hard on this connection and how it would emerge, both through dreams and in the “real” world. Towards the end of the novel, Luse asks her grandmother a question:
Luse is silent for a while. Her tears are cooling her hot face. ‘So I am not . . . a witch?’
The fireflies part and converge again and the waterfall makes a tinkling, laughing sound.
‘A witch . . . ach. For shame!’
‘But . . .’
‘Luse, do you know what makes you and me special?’
‘No, Ba’ Neene.’
‘Nothing,’ says Ba’Neene. ‘Absolutely nothing. You and I are no different to any other person born. Nyika yonse ila balika kwiinda muli ndiwe mbubona mbuli mbwibalika kwinda muli bonse bantu lyonse. The whole world is rushing through you just as it does through all people all the time. It rushes backwards as well as forwards, connecting you to all your ancestors and all your children and grandchildren at the same time. The thing is that you choose to listen. Most people choose to pretend they cannot feel or hear it.’
‘Wow,’ says Luse.