Overcoming family discrimination
See I am half and half. My father is Shona and my mother is Ndebele, with a peppering of Tswana and Nyanja along the ancestral lines. I must mention that the Shona and the Ndebele are just but two of the ten or so tribal groupings in Zimbabwe, who include the Kalanga, Venda, Xhosa, Tswana, Shangaan, and Tonga. But it’s just that these two, for so many reasons, have not quite gotten along.
My parents overcame a number of challenges in the form of prejudiced family, particularly on my paternal side, to be ‘allowed’ to be together. When they married, my father’s family just about disowned him and left him to have his cake and eat it alone. But that is another story on its own, which I would love to tell some day.
In retrospect, school holidays seem to have been the stage where the drama in my family’s life was played out. One out of three school holidays in a year was spent with our grandparents. During one of these holidays, one that I will never forget, my late sister, Sandra, and I were in Hurungwe without our parents. Aunts, uncles and cousins were there in their numbers.
While we played outside, one of the children mentioned that their chicken had hatchlings and that she now had lots of chickens. The others joined in to compare numbers and the general reproductive rate of the farmyard animals given to them by grandma and grandpa as they not only had chickens, but also goats and guinea fowl. We had none. And that was when the feeling of being ‘outsiders’ grew even stronger.
Before that revelation, all we had to deal with was one or two snide remarks. Time and again, we were reminded that our Shona was not good enough; that we spoke too much of isiNdebele amongst ourselves or infused a little too much of one language into the other. This was the extent of the bigotry. But now it paled in comparison to what my cousins told us that day.
In my child’s mind I felt utterly disliked, especially by my grandmother whose name I share. And as they went on to tell of how grandma wove them the beautiful reed bags they carried to church every Sunday, I felt I had to raise this with grandma, surely there must be a mistake. I did, and was told, “It is because you live too far from us in Bhuruwayo. How can we do these things for you when you are miles away?” Even I, at seven years old, doubted this answer but said nothing. It was not as if the cousins took care of the animals themselves. And as for the bags, she saw us often enough to make a pair and give them to us.
“And by the way when is your mother going to come see us?”
I could not answer this question and never knew until later what it was she was driving at. The question encapsulated the story of us at the time.
That was not the only time we were to visit our father’s rural home without our parents; we did so again a couple more times and then never again. Our mother had ceased visiting the in-laws because she always felt unwelcome for being Ndebele. I would like to believe my father stayed away in support of our mother. For her part, she did try; my mother speaks excellent Shona and when I could understand things, I was amazed that she was in fact not Shona and that she had taught herself to speak the language.
In all honesty, my Ndebele family has always been accepting of us. Our uncles used those derogatory words when talking to us but never said them with hate or coupled with discriminatory action. I spent many a weekend around my uncles, listening to a lot of Lovemore Majaivana and Bob Marley or watching football matches at Babourfields stadium. Though we were different, they never made us feel different in the manner of the others. I have come to the conclusion that it is because they too have a diverse background, thus they were never hung up on the little differences.
Humour has always been one of the things I like about my mother’s kinfolk. It might have masked the animosity towards my father’s tribe, only because it is common in families such as ours. But, if they indeed harboured any animosity at all, I never detected it.
Discrimination even at school and work
At school, either primary or high, there was always that odd teacher or pupil who would show some streak of tribalism by uttering a comment or other. But it was at university that the underlying pain, hatred, collective unforgiven transgressions and mistrust reared its ugly head ever so high. My best friend, Bekezela Mapanda, and I, who like myself is of mixed heritage, always found ourselves in many a quandary.
Arguments and debates in class strangely took on a tribal face at some point, usually when no agreement could be reached or solution to a problem salvaged. It more than likely degenerated into a tribal war and the class was literally divided in half. At these times, colleagues from either side would seek to draw me to either side, imploring me to see how much I belonged with them and emphasizing the need for loyalty based on a myriad reasons.
To them, I was not passionate enough, and hid behind “being rational”. Being what I am, it was easy and difficult at the same time, I could not simply choose a side based on what I fancied on that day. So to get out of it, I would be the voice of reason, which at times pleased one side, or just chose not to get involved; the much easier route.
When interviewing for a job in Bulawayo, the Shona part of me was at all times placed under the microscope. I recall being offered a job after it had been ascertained that I did indeed have some Ndebele blood flowing through me. I was asked about my mother’s rural home, the chief of that area, and 21 other questions. I sailed through to become the only Shona-speaking person in the organisation. They reminded me of that fact, almost daily too.
The magic is in the mixes
So when I listen to the separatists calling for an independent state in the south of the country, I am troubled. While I do understand the arguments for this, I do not believe the solution is secession but some other political concession and economic remedies. I admit I have sentimental hopes of tribal harmony and it is possible. Those generations that are free of the old grudges, justified or not, may be able to achieve this.
Now I have married a Zimbabwean of Malawian heritage, it adds a new and exciting dimension particularly where my daughter is concerned. I want to make sure my daughter can learn of the rich and varied history of her family and celebrate it for that reason. It is hard but already she embraces it. This is exactly what I missed as a child. I learnt as much as I could by watching our parents but noone talked about it and I guess they never realised the challenges we had to face as their children.
So it has been that throughout my life I have neither been wholly this nor that but straddled the tribal line, at times to the annoyance of those around me. And maybe because of it I am misunderstood on many levels. I’m not quite mainstream in anything – fashion, hobbies,etc.
While I am glad for the diverse background from which I come, especially because it has given me an edge in many an instance, I have never felt quite at home or full in either of the spaces occupied by each group. Someone always has to point out the odd bits - that when I speak Shona, it is with a slight Ndebele accent. Of course it would, that is the language I spoke most during my childhood. That I have tendencies to be like a Shona, (whatever that is) when among my Ndebele friends and family. It does not bother me much.
Over the years, I have learnt to embrace this aspect of my being and if you ask me,
“How is it working for you?”
I would say, “Great!”
Photograph from www.findingyourvoiceoftruth.com (Hands separating)
Photograph from www.toryburch.com (Ndebele Model)