Zim Identities: Conversations on race, ethnolinguistics and identity

In many societies there are certain conversations that are taboo or that, by the very nature of the topic, are glossed over with platitudes and empty statements. In southern Africa, “race” or rather racialism and racism are increasingly regarded as topics that seem to be left undiscussed publicly. Not because “race” isn’t an issue, but rather because it is such a divisive issue.

When the story of institutionalised racism in southern Africa is told, it is often through the lens of the scourge of apartheid that directly affected South Africa and Namibia (then South West Africa). Few know, or appreciate, that the colonial enterprise was inherently racialist and so, even in countries where apartheid was not called apartheid, it still existed. A rose, after all, by any other name is still as sweet. In this case, not sweet at all.

It is against this backdrop that a conversation on race began between some of the contributors to Conversation Zimbabwe. The conversation soon veered into other related topics as identity (in general), ethnolinguistics and social norms. The question we sought to answer, and are still seeking answers for, is “What does it mean to be Zimbabwean?”


On identity in Zimbabwe

Richard Francis (RF): Closely linked to what it means to be Zimbabwean – in my opinion – is identity. Much can be said about the identity crisis amongst white Zimbabweans such as myself. At the heart of it is one’s sense of belonging (or lack thereof) given the colonial history etc. Indeed, identity discussions often bring out what it means to be Zimbabwean regardless of cultural differences.

Shau Mudekunye (SM): My views on identity largely come from my position as a bi-racial, under thirty, liberal female. I think all Zimbabweans have a wonderful identity story to tell and its time people spoke candidly about it. Not that we are lost, but that we are different AND relevant. I for one have had this convo forever times. And I am quite tired of people acting like we all belong when the truth is we don’t. We have to JUSTIFY our belonging and usually to our families first! Before we even think of conquering the big bad world.

Ottilia Anna (OAM): I can relate on several levels on the need to belong and I think so can many. Growing up outside of Zimbabwe meant having to work hard to “assimilate” and searching for an identity and not quite finding it.

RF: There are so many young white Zimbabweans lost out at sea on this issue of identity. A generation so different to our parents in many ways but also lack this sense of belonging (certainly don’t feel “at home” or similar to the English – despite being culturally English – but also don’t feel African, or at times welcome due to our history)

OAM: And the alienation is so real. There is alienation and conscious exclusion

RF: I’ve always felt nervous to publicise my views because they are uncomfortable truths and I don’t want my opinion to be portrayed as the white one (if that makes sense) although a lot would agree.

OAM: It’s important that no segment of our society feels that their views are not relevant. We have a long way to go. For a white person to feel a certain way about engaging in discussions on race speaks to serious racial issues that Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans need to confront. But, as Zimbabweans, we can be too hard on ourselves. My view is that where race is concerned, Zimbabwe is far better on this than South Africa though…

Felicity Sibindi (FS): There is so much that needs to be discussed regarding racial issues in Zimbabwe. I have already shared my thoughts on being “white-adjacent” (private school kid) and the privileges it brings as well as the alienation from the same white group because, as much as you try, you don’t quite cut it. While at the same time being considered not “African enough” by fellow black peers. The relations between survival in the economic sense, class rivalries and finding balance and self-acceptance.

On ethnolinguistics – moving beyond “divide and conquer”

FS: One day we also need to tackle the languages issue. The fading of minority languages and the failure of vernacular languages to cross the racial divide.

OAM: This is so pertinent! Shau (Shaudzirai Mudekunye) and I have exchanges on this ALL THE TIME. Shau is part Ndau and I identify as Karanga (my father is Karanga) and in our conversations we acknowledge that while we have a share – albeit created – identity, we are different ethnolinguistically.

RF: I am treated differently and accepted because I am fluent in chiShona. Language could bridge so many issues.

OAM: So many issues can be bridged! There is power in uniting in Language, but also in respecting the languages of others. Linking to the race issue raised by Richard, I am surprised how people find white people who speak local languages peculiar…

FS: I am also saddened by the institutionalisation of the entire thing. Dividing children at school into L1 and L2 (first and second language categorization where indigenous languages are rated as ‘second grade’ and English is preferred) reinforcing the differences.

RF: Oh it’s crazy. When I speak Shona I am suddenly treated differently. Perhaps this is a sign that not enough of us (people of European descent) speak it because it shouldn’t be that way.

OAM: And then I am reminded of how our stories have been driven by efforts to annihilate…I am constantly berated for not speaking the other 10 languages in South Africa, but white people born and bred in the country need only know one (English or Afrikaans). Maybe both. The excitement people get when someone like Helen Zille speaks isiXhosa and I roll my eyes because she is *supposed* to speak it since the majority of her constituency are isiXhosa

I wanted to learn isiNdebele and Kalanga when I started learning and in the years that I lived in Zimbabwe… But I was in “Shonaville” so it never happened. Close, but no cigar!

RF: Also, we need to discuss how the standard of Shona/Ndebele teachers at private/independent schools is abysmal

OAM: But you’ll be hard pressed to find an English literature teacher who doesn’t know Shakespeare off by heart!

FS: Yes, true. I guess in this regard Zimbabweans are different from my experience in South Africa where a few of the white farmers I came across who were fluent in Xhosa/Zulu used it as a vehicle of oppression against their workers who would otherwise find security in their language. Here in Zimbabwe, we fall over our feet in awe of any white person speaking Shona or Ndebele, god-forbid Tonga!

RF: In Zimbabwe, if you aren’t a farmer’s son, it’s very difficult. But that’s no excuse – folks have been lazy because we can get by with only speaking English..

OAM: Coincidentally, I recently learnt that Afrikaans was borne as “kitchen Dutch” in the mixed race/multicultural communities of the Cape and appropriated. I had a conversation with a friend from the Cape (his family is mostly Cape Malay, but he’s a mix of many cultures) and he explained how the story of Afrikaans was told to him – passed on from past generations. And it made startling sense: “Divide and conquer”…

The #ZimIdentities series 

What began as a candid private conversation between friends has informed our #ZimIdentities series. Indeed, we are a diverse group of Zimbabweans with different lived experiences. Instead of dwelling on our differences: in person, in views and experiences, we recognised that these differences should not be divisive. Rather, the more we talk, the more we find points of agreement and can work towards mutually beneficial solutions to our shared challenges.

We acknowledge the complexities of identity and seek to explore these through conversations, private and public. The words of Shau above ring true – we are different and relevant. Our differences may be a discussion point, but they shouldn’t be the source of irrational hate and targeted violence.

Ottilia Anna Maunganidze 

Screenshot 2014-10-23 23.02.23

3 thoughts on “Zim Identities: Conversations on race, ethnolinguistics and identity

  1. I have a point each to contribute on both matters on the table. Firstly with regards to identity as a Zimbabwean, I have been enough places and seen enough around me to recognise that people develop their identities from their history. That’s rather logical enough, but in Zimbabwe its a fragile matter because the history between our two predominant races is one marred with conflict. the past is still too fresh and there still exists a too much of a chasm between the races and classes to remind us of it. but as we intermingle more and the gap is bridged, and as more events continue to unfold with the progression of time, our history will evolve to be that where there is less of a divide between the races, with less obvious privileges and opportunities, and thus less hostility and more room for people take interest in where their counterparts are from. Of course the past will always be remembered for what it is, but with less differences between us as citizens because of it we will have have less to be livid about on account of our ethnic differences.

    with regards to the second issue on Ethnolinguistics, my POV is that owing to our educational system being overwhelmingly English language based we were all brought up to believe the individual who speaks the better English is better educated. which is somewhat true in any case. and since Zimbabwe is prided in being a learned country, who wants to go around sounding like the dumb-dumb or the uncool guy who didn’t grow up to the the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I personally am a victim of both circumstances. Although i am still well spoken in my mother tongue, Shona, I am far much better expressed in English because I spent my whole life practicing it so I could sound clever and sophisticated, not to mention being able to chat up the ladies. I therefore understand completely why English has taken the front foot in our country, and until it is possible to be considered as exceptionally educated or socially exalted on account of your eloquent utterances in the mother tongue, our vernacular will always take in the back seat. There’s still plenty ethnolinguistic vitality in the hinterlands in any case so we linger on the hope that if we seem to have missed the bus, those on it will deliver the message.


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