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A few days ago I was stopped at a police roadblock on my way home. While the officer was writing my ticket, he commented,

‘Ah sisi munogona kunosa.’ (not a nice way of saying you speak Shona with an accent)

Then he proceeded to try and get my phone number.

I have never been black enough. When I was very young my family conducted a roora ceremony for my aunt and we all moved kumusha for a week. Not having any other girls my age to play with, and having been shooed away from the cooking fire whenever the older women wanted to talk about men too many times to keep trying, I spent much of my time indoors reading. One day my older cousin recited Roses are red, violets are blue, you brother and me are black, but what are you?’

It was over twenty years ago, and I was half way through primary school at the time, but it was cruel.

I’ve never really liked that cousin since then.

When I first returned from the Diaspora, relatives would ask my mother if I still spoke Shona and observed our traditions. The implication being that I was no longer one of them.

‘Handiye apfugama achimuoberayi zakanaka?’ (Isn’t she the one who knelt and greeted you properly?) My mother would reply.

Later, I dated a man whose mother objected to our relationship because I was too privileged to be a ‘good African woman’. Her assumption was that because I had grown up kuma ‘dale-dale’, had attended private school, and lived outside Zimbabwe briefly, I was too ‘sala’ to qualify as such. Once in a heated conversation she asked him

‘Kamusalad kako kanombogona kubika sadza here?’ (Does your salad girlfriend even know how to cook sadza?)

I am not alone, there a few born-frees out there who grew up much the same way I did. Criticisms of the born-free generation are not all equal. For those who grew up in the middle class, and are perceived to have been granted access to privilege and lost their culture and language in the process, it holds a particular disdain. There are times when we are faced with the difficult choice of either embracing our otherness, or apologizing for the way we were raised.

I don’t believe in apologizing for the way my parents raised me. Especially to anyone who’s view of tradition, culture and history is narrowly defined in terms of where in Harare I grew up, how I speak Shona, and whether I cook or eat sadza. There is more to us than that, and it’s a shame that those who are loudest in defining our cultural identity believe that those things constitute the totality of who we are.  I think that is a very simple minded reduction of a complex culture, and a language that is steeped in a rich history. What I, and others like me, are judged for is not our acculturation, but rather that person’s lack of access to privilege.

9 comments to “Born-free”

  1. Comment by David:

    Very insightful but disheartening. Keep embracing your otherness and broadening a culture that shouldn’t be defined by lack of access to privilege.

  2. Comment by Tutsi:

    The best thing about moving from Zim was that my Shona stopped being criticized and I think that the Zimbabweans I encounter are more willing to see the similarities between us. I remember being young and having my uncles tease me about being a munose but when I met their girlfriends they were also manose. I came to realise that given the opportunity all the people who criticize would love to give their children the opportunities that I was given and some of that frustration is just taken out on us.

  3. Comment by J-P:

    Its not my fault that I am a ‘salad’. Must i resent the way I was raised because someone else does not like the fact that I performed better in the genetic lottery? It all boils down to one simple fact, that its an inferiority complex, and a totally short sighted view on life where you refuse to believe that it is possible for cultures to exist within a culture.

  4. Comment by Mai:

    While i hear you and your points, i wonder whether you’ll agree that the true loss here is that of the shona language. I would have to make assumptions that perhaps because of the way your parents raised you, you may not be proud of the shona language and how to some extent it defines your roots, culture or heritage and yes you should not have to apologise simply because your parents raised you that way.

    I lament the fact in years to come, Shona will slowly disappear amongst “the privileged” simply because parents these days uphold a child speaking english in high esteem to the detriment of the shona language. I would also offer reasons such as the fact that parents these days simply are not like their parents and they shouldn’t really because generations evolve in that way. There is nothing wrong with “privileged” kids going to “privileged schools” and doing “privileged things” but my issue is with parents who “privilege” their kids and forget to reinforce speaking the shona language and observing “certain” customs that preserve the fact that we are shona people. So mine is not an issue with you, but with parents who raise kids like you whatever their reasons may be.

  5. Comment by views are:

    haiwawo tibvirinyi apa

  6. Comment by KM:

    It’s sad that your “privileged” lifestyles make you loose focus on who you are and where you come from. I attended private schools throughout my schooling life so I know all about the accents. We used to laugh at people who didn’t speak as eloquently as we did – just as they used to laugh at us for not being able to speak Shona. However, for me, our culture and language are what define us as Zimbabweans, that is why I can speak shona and my children (who also attend “privileged” schools) must speak shona properly and learn of our customs. Why is it that you want to run from who you are? I have seen and met people from different countries such as Japan, France, Germany, who have learned at the best universities in the world, who have come from priveleged homes, yet they can all speak their native language and are so proud to do so.

  7. Comment by Upenyu:

    @ KM and Mai
    your comments are precisely why I wrote that blog in the first place! If you read carefully you will find that what I am upset about is not being criticised because handina hunhu and want to be accepted for that, but because those criticisms are made despite the fact that by your limited definitions I do. I speak shona and observe cultural practices and by the way, Sadza rangu rinonaka. Like my ex’s mother, what colours your perception is my background, not how or if I can do these things.

    KM i agree with you, culture and language make up the large part of identity. In fact my ‘otherness’ made me want to understand why I was ‘other’. The best I can come up with is that it is the privilege that is being criticised, because there is no difference between my understanding and practice of culture and another person who grew up without those privileges. I grew up in a very traditional household, with parents who passed on their language, traditions and cultural practices. That doesn’t mean the effects of privilege don’t show.

    Mai, I cannot agree when you say that Shona will disappear among the ‘privileged’. You assertion is based on an assumption of what that privilege and its consequences feel like.

    Often, the loss of culture and or language is not a conscious or individual decision. As a society evolves so too must its culture, and as it is exposed to new languages its language too will change. Today, the Shona you speak is different from the Shona your parents grew up speaking, and the Shona their parents spoke. For example my grandmother doesn’t speak Shona, her language is Manyika.

    Parents who raise their children to embrace another culture do so because they feel that their culture is inferior. I don’t know any Zimbabwean parents who actually do this. The loss of language and culture is more to do with how everyday life is constructed for in Zimbabwe. Our language of instruction in schools and transacting business is english. When I was at school were were actually punished for speaking in Shona. When your children come home and watch tv, even if it is ZBC, most of that programming will be in English.
    If as parents you only spend two to three hours with your children speaking to them, and even then it is mostly in english, where do you expect them to learn to speak shona? At school where they teach government shona for 30 minutes twice to three times a week? and even that shona misses the subtleties of dialects like Zezuru, or Karanga.
    The disintergration of the African family as my parent’s generation knew it is another contributor to a loss of culture and tradition. Children are learning about Africanness not from us but from television and music. But other than Tuku, and Macheso how many Zimbabwean artists who use Shona do you listen to? And what about your children, are they not chanting along to Little Wayne and Beyonce? How many television programmes with themes that explore Shona or Ndebele cultures do you take the time to tune into? or are you watching Generations, and Days of our lives?

  8. Comment by J-P:

    @KM how exactly am i running away from who i am? cultures evolve, this so called salad culture is just a form of evolution. seeing as you are a big defender of the shona culture, why have you not moved back to the rural areas to live like you ancestors did, denounce your western religion and medicine and start to pray kuvadzimu, muchibika doro, muchirapwa nen’anga?

  9. Comment by Mai:

    I have no idea what you mean by “Your assertion is based on an assumption of what that privilege and its consequences feel like”.

    My related argument is purely focused on the disappearance of the shona language among some or many (cannot quantify) of the “privileged” chete especially in families where kids aged 7 and below barely speak/do not speak any shona. I also agree with your reasons i.e. not speaking shona at home, TV influence etc. but it still goes back to the parents who let the situation continue as is simply because they feel powerless against this cultural evolution or language of instruction/or are lazy/or cannot be bothered/or don’t think it’s a problem. I guess we wait and see where shona will be in the generations to come.

    Like i said, i hear you and the pain you must feel for being so judged because of your background but that was not the focus of my response.