In that regard, children are a very peculiar bunch indeed. Not only do they ask difficult questions, but they expect answers right away. Their innocence grants them an indefatigable strength, briefly broken only by sleep or play. When they have refueled, they ask some more. Their questions make us cringe.
Why did the neighbour not offer us a lift? What do blind people see? Why are some people a different colour? Why does the pastor wear a different suit every week? Where is dad? Is it okay to beat up women? Why do grown ups cry sometimes? Am I Shona or Ndebele? Am I black or white?
Children take it for granted that we must know how to answer all these questions. It must require a certain degree of knowledge to feed and clothe them, right? They have no sense of how sometimes at our age, we believe that only pain awaits the questioner.
How do we demonstrate to them that truth hurts? Even that question itself is difficult to answer. So when their inquiries overwhelm us, we weave fantastic fairytales to fill in the gap. But for every unsatisfactory answer lurks a query weightier than the first.
I have a beautiful son who is almost three years old. He is of mixed blood. By that, I am not referring to the common seed of interracial relationships. He is a product of those odd barriers that Africans place around themselves. He is half-Ndebele and half Shona. I am officially an Ndebele man, although historically you would place me as Xhosa.
My grandfather grew up in Lesotho. My mother is Sena, a descendant of Mozambique. Interesting, yet complicated. My son’s mom is Shona and she hails from Nyamapanda, Mutoko in Zimbabwe.
The Ndebele-Shona ‘wars’
Tribal clashes are legendary in Africa. And so begins the Ndebele-Shona love and hate relationship in my country. The Shona people (an amalgamation of dialects) make up the majority of the population. Ndebeles make up only 12 per cent, followed by an often ignored series of tribes such as the Tonga. White people ironically account for barely one per cent of the population. I say ironic because for a long time they owned 80 per cent of the land. But that’s another bitter story for another time.
To a visitor, everything looks calm between the two main tribes. The people are notably friendly and memorably animated in conversation. But stay longer and some frictions begin to emerge, from the subtle to the obvious. We have become programmed throughout our contact to view each other with suspicion.
The stereotypes we have amassed to disparage each other are countless. You will hear of the Ndebele man with a knife tucked at the waist, spoiling for a fight. You might hear someone mention the Shona family that will suck you dry if you wish to marry their daughter.
It is as if we could literally make out in the mirror who among us belongs to this tribe or the other. What we fail to reflect upon is that we all appear as brutally African as any foreigner would be forgiven to assume.
My son: caught in between
My aim is not to offer a historical narrative of how these two came to meet. There are too many books that have been written about how Ndebeles arrived from South Africa in the early 19th century and the eventual clash with the Shona people. The same is true for the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s, which are a great source of resentment for Ndebele-speaking people up to this day.
It is not my intention to pick a side either, because it is plainly obvious that I would soon find myself a slave to the emotional ties of ethnicity. My intention is to imagine what the new generation of Zimbabweans who are caught in between two lineages are supposed to envision for the nation’s future.
We are entering a very sad phase where there is a threat - imminent or in the later future - of the country separating. Hypothetically if this happened, we would have a distinctly Ndebele state called Mthwakazi. The proponents of this idea have been largely ignored by the establishment, except for notable arrests of its leaders.
Some have dismissed them as delusional. But the fact that the Mthwakazi Liberation Front exists is a cause for us as a nation to reflect upon our relationships and why some among us would advocate for a break away. For me personally, the question I ask is, “What happens to my son?”
I imagine him and the rest of this new generation as having one arm and leg tied to a horse facing north, while the other limbs are tethered to a horse facing south. What decides their fate are the words that come out of our mouths.
One careless sentence and the whistle goes off, startles the horses and as they gallop in different directions, our children’s entrails scatter all over our collective conscience. Even with their limbs harnessed to just one horse, our children’s brains will still be splattered on the ground. I do not want my son to fool himself into thinking that since he carries an Ndebele surname, then he can be exclusively Ndebele whenever it suits him.
What’s in a tribe?
Neither do I want him to queue up for a Mthwakazi or Zimbabwe passport and have to explain why his mother is Shona, or suffer being questioned about where his allegiances lie. And God forbid anyone tease him for it. For what is in a title? Does being Ndebele or Shona make you righteous, successful, neighbourly, smart, loving or courageous? Does it make you a better parent, a smarter student or an accomplished singer?
I can only speak confidently for Matebeleland, as that is the place where I was raised. It does suck having to learn Shona for convenience, rather than for the pure joy of learning another language. But that would be telling half the story. My son’s mother has had to struggle learning Ndebele as well, just to be able to survive Bulawayo.
Left: Mbonisi with children from Rwanda.
It is true that not too many Shonas go out of their way to learn Ndebele in Matebeleland, but it is a downright lie to claim that there aren’t some who simply love the language and feel more at home in Bulawayo than anywhere else.
I have been blessed with Shona neighbours and friends who would sacrifice a limb to see me succeed. Best of all, I was blessed with a son who, like many others born of both Ndebele and Shona parents, will be the hope for a new culture of bonding and acceptance.
The unremitting conflict between people
I feel blessed for having had a chance to live in the west for a while. You soon realizse that being Ndebele or Shona does not save you from the unfortunate encounters with those misguided souls in the west that see you as nothing but ‘black’. Not even African, just black.
You enter new regions of that unremitting conflict between people. After having wriggled out of the frustration of carving out a sense of belonging in your country, you crawl into a new set of suspicions that are a product of human beings’ general insecurity about their place in the world.
Tribalism and racism are the same. Many diasporans I have met will point to a case of racism, but will not acknowledge their own prejudices about their fellow countrymen and women. No, they reserve that for online forums.
It is my belief that there is more tribal conflict on the Internet than you would find among Zimbabweans living next door to each other back at home. The majority of people hurling slurs at Ndebeles or proclaiming unwavering support for separation online have, sad to say, not set foot in Zimbabwe in a long time.
There never was a Zimbabwe
My mother and her best friend and neighbor of over 30 years have been trading tribal jokes for a long time. The two are inseparable. That does not mean they are not aware of the prejudices, feelings of disenfranchisement or the thick tensions that lurk in our society. And like many others, they are not Ndebele or Shona at all. If we were all to investigate our backgrounds, we would discover that our ‘Ndebele or Shonaness’ is just a product of circumstance and forming allegiances.
My mother and her friend are not ignorant in their friendship. I choose to believe that when they are challenged to say what is memorable about each other, they can both claim to have loved without looking any further.
So if some day we did separate, what do we tell these children in our midst that are born in that chasm we have created between ourselves? Do we tell them they are Shona or Ndebele? Do we tell them their birth was a mistake? Do we tell them to choose a side? Do we share damning tales about their mother or father’s kin? Or do we sit them down and be brave enough to admit that we failed to use common sense.
We should tell them that when looking in the mirror could not convince us that we were the same, we shattered it and picked the shards to leave scars on each other’s faces. We should tell them that when the chance presented itself for reconciliation, we were too proud and instead threw dust in each other’s faces.
We should tell them there never was a Zimbabwe, and that they are the cursed seed of our times.
This article was inspired by Mbonisi’s visit to Rwanda, which left him questioning the tribal tensions in his own country, and what can be done to find a lasting solution.