“I was born a racist,” said a white member of the audience. The room went a little quieter. She then went on to explain that the first time she actively engaged positively with black people was when she started high school. While her upbringing meant that she looked at life through a lens of white supremacy, her interaction with black high school students shattered that lens and led to a deeper understanding of racism. “When I was in England, I felt more Zimbabwean than I did when I returned to Zimbabwe,” she added.
Her bold reflections contained what I believe is the crux of what Her Zimbabwe’s May 26th Critical Conversation was about: belonging, acceptance of our different identities and the need to feel, act and ‘perform’ our African-ness.
From time to time, Her Zimbabwe hosts Critical Conversations. These are open events that challenge our thinking and allow for more voices to be heard on different issues. On Tuesday 26th May we held a discussion about African identities and our understanding of them. The panel consisted of William Chui, head of Zimbabwe’s ‘wikipedia-equaivalent’, Pindula.com, Jackie Cahi, an arts practitioner, Sunanda Ray, a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, and Nqaba Matshazi, a journalist at Alpha Media Holdings. With such a diverse panel, I expected nothing less than divergent opinions.
Unpacking our Identities One Box at a Time
Some of the topics that came up included the role of the media in helping us understand and interrogate our identities, our limited definitions of what being Zimbabwean means, and the different people that are said to belong or not belong in this country.
Jackie Cahi echoed some of the sentiments around being a white Zimbabwean. “I never identified with Rhodesia…my escape was through books, films and anything else. It was a really confining space,” she says of Rhodesia. “But I think my identity has shifted over the years. As I grow older, my identity seems to be more centred around being a woman…because of the shared experience of a society that is dominated by patriarchy,” she added.
The media is often trusted with setting the agenda around the conversations we have that define us as a people. Matshazi’s experience in the media led him to comment on the stories that are told in the mainstream papers and how we allow them to define what occupies our concerns. “As much as we want the identity story to be a news story, that is not what sells papers. We have to look for alternative platforms. From the way the current mass media is set up, it is profit driven. Stories of development and identity will not make it to the front page,” said Matshazi. In response, a member of the audience said, “What else do you want us to read? You write the same stories in different ways, you recycle the same articles. Tell us what else we should read!” she said.
Who Can Be Called African?
As an Indian living in and married to a black Zimbabwean, Sunanda Ray was acutely aware of the ways in which the Zimbabwean identity has been reserved for specific people. “There are people around me who keep trying to push me into a box. And every time I don’t do what they think I should do, they say it is because I’m not African. But actually the African experience is very similar to how I grew up as an Indian,” said Ray.
While there was no consensus about what being African or Zimbabwean actually means, there was a comment by an audience member that summed up what we all generally believe:
“We like to colonise things and make them exclusively ours. The narrative of you didn’t fight the war – takarwa hondo and so on,” she said. “Anyone who is my age fought that war in one way or another…It is also about those that believe they are more Zimbabwean than others. I am who I say I am.”
Main Image by Tawanda Mudzonga