They say the world has become a global village. I like to be part of the global arena while remaining anchored in my national identity as a Zimbabwean. Yet I find it easier to locate myself globally than locally.
While it is easy to tell the world I am Zimbabwean, an identity of which I am proud, finding a place here at home remains a struggle. This struggle has probably been with me since childhood, yet, I did not understand it then and suddenly had a rude awakening in my adulthood. I woke up to the reality that a vast majority of people I have encountered believe Zimbabwe is divided into two major tribal groups and I do not quite fit into either of them.
True, the country has two major tribal groups, namely the Shona and the Ndebele. However, I find myself battling against a society that has drawn an invisible straight line that divides Zimbabwe into Mashonaland and Matabeleland regions, with nothing in between. Subsequently, it is assumed one must be either a Shona speaker from Mashonaland or Ndebele speaker from Matabeleland and it should be supposedly easy to tell which group one belongs to. For instance, one’s first name, surname or village of origin should automatically point to one’s tribe. Clearly, this division of the country ignores other tribes, such as the Tonga, Kalanga, Sotho and Venda among others who do not fit into these two groupings. Nonetheless, as these other tribes are “clearly defined” I will focus on my group who seem neither here nor there by the majority’s narrow categories.
These assumptions of a dichotomous country leave little room for Zimbabweans, like myself, who fall outside the confines of the two sub-groups. They create challenges for those of us who originate from places like the Midlands province, which from its name, implies being somewhere in the middle. For instance, where does one place me and my relatives, whose names do not point to specific tribal groupings or, who practice a culture that is not aligned to the names they bear? What about villages that have a name in one language but are populated by a majority of people who speak another language? And, what becomes of urbanites who have a name in one language, practice another culture and speak with a neutral accent or one that reflects the dominant culture in the place where they grew up? People like me, find ourselves constantly being reassigned to either tribe based on ill-informed assumptions. Sadly, we are subjected to the discrimination that tribes like to direct at each other. We find ourselves judged on stereotypes that are not even reflected in our characters. We bear double the brunt for the sins of the ancestors of either tribe and sometimes unjustly face the consequences of actions that were committed before our time. We have to contend with the double-edged sword of being rejected by both tribes because we do not quite fit into the narrow tribal definitions that have been prescribed. I have been treated like a prostitute because some individuals believed that women from the tribe I had been assigned were of loose morals and I have been insulted because it was assumed that I was from a tribe of people who exhibited certain negative traits, even though I identified with none of the groupings or prescribed behaviours. Sadly, these were not isolated incidents but are frequent occurances, which warrant putting pen to paper.
Being a Zimbabwean whose parents came from a province called the Midlands, I grew up with cousins who have names like Netsai Mpofu or Xolani Badza. That the names and surnames were in two different languages was immaterial, what mattered was what the first name expressed to the parents. Similarly, one could find names like Thabiso (Ndebele) and Farai (Shona) among siblings within the same family and the language factor did not quite seem to bother anyone in the same way that one can have an English name and a surname in a local language. We lived and accepted each other, oblivious of “isms” that were supposed to divide us such as tribalism, regionalism or whatever other evil “isms” existed.
We spoke different languages within the home and our parents encouraged it because they did like wise. If new neighbours who spoke a different language moved into the neighbourhood, we quickly learnt their language to facilitate smooth communication. We could transition seamlessly from one local language to another in the same conversation and still understand each other. So it was, that members of the community I grew up in communicated fluently in various languages and settling in different parts of the country became easy for us. Our “tribal identity” only became evident during cultural practices such as funerals, weddings and other events of importance. Only then would we do what was specific to our various tribes, yet that did not stop us from embracing each other and the world with its differences. Displaying our differences was never a licence for discrimination. For my family, such events were conducted according to Karanga culture, a sub-group of the Shona tribe.
Increasingly, however, I find my identity constantly being challenged and threatened simply because it does not quite fit within the confines prescribed by this “dichotomous” notion.
I am saddened that in this century, people still view each other according to tribal stereotypes. As a result, I have become very wary of people who upon meeting me ask the question “kumusha ndekupi? (Shona)” or “ekhaya kungaphi? (Ndebele)” which means “where do you originate from?” In my view, this translates to “are you one of us and should I like or hate you?” I have seen people’s countenance change on hearing where I “originate” from and often, I can predict whether we will be friends or enemies just from the answer to that question. I find people who ask this question tend to treat their tribes like exclusive social clubs and by asking that question, simply wish to determine whether or not I qualify to be a member. What follows is either unconditional love or rejection and the subsequent “isms.”
Having burnt our fingers a number of times, my siblings and I learnt that a safe answer to that question is to say “I’m from the Midlands.” This should somehow communicate neutrality and is an indirect way of saying “I don’t want to be part of a tribal club just please accept me for who I am.” However, some insist on probing further to establish whether it is the predominantly Shona or Ndebele speaking side of the Midlands, which presents a challenge because then I know I must prepare to face some “ism.”
As a Zimbabwean woman, I look forward to the day when we will see ourselves as Zimbabweans regardless of where our forebears chose to settle in the past. I long for a tribeless society where we live and let live. Like Martin Luther King, I too, long for a society where we will be judged by the content of our character and not the sound of our names, accents or villages that our grandparents lived in. I don’t want to pay for the wars of our ancestors and I believe we have to get past that as a nation. I believe real progress will come when we, as Zimbabweans, embrace each other regardless of our differences, whether real or imagined. I await a time when we will perceive each other as individuals who enrich this society with our diversity and have something to contribute towards nation-building.
Until then, I guess I will remain a Zimbabwean without a place in this beloved country of ours.
First published by Matilda Moyo on World Pulse in June 2010