03 January 2018

Matters of The Ndebele and His Place in Zimbabwe

In light of the recent 'changes' in Zimbabwe and the ongoing debate on matters pertaining to identity and history, I have the pleasure to introduce today's blog post, from Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, a famous writer friend of mine whom I am honoured to have on my blog. This post first appeared on her blog in 2010 and its thesis remains relevant today as it was then.

Her first novel House of Stone is available for pre-order here.

Well I was back home in Zimbabwe very recently, and had intended to stay for a couple of weeks, but I found myself eerily displaced from this place I call home, and it kinda scared me. I am back in South Africa, where I have always felt displaced from the moment I set foot, and I wonder if this displacement may be internal.

City Hall of the city of Bulawayo, former capital of the Ndebele Kingdom
(c) Scott Wheeler, GNU Free Documentation License

Close to Zim as SA is, I view it as another Diaspora. All the symptoms are there. The feeling, strong and stark and ever there, that one is an outsider; there are always these lines between one and the other; the insider and the outsider, and then lines between the outsiders themselves, the different nationalities; and then further still, from my experience with other Zimbabweans, lines between outsiders from the same place. The system itself is designed this way. Sometimes I think people hold an extra bag of fear with them, just in case an occasion rises up unexpectedly. In Johannesburg, it is advisable that if you are a foreigner, you carry a certified copy of your ID at all times; you may be asked to produce it by the authorities, failure to which may land you in a jail cell. I guess there are too many illegals around here. There is a certain hardening of the heart out here, and who can blame anyone? People, even relatives, are never really interested in you or your business. When they say, ‘How are you?’ they want to hear that you are ‘fine’, anything otherwise and you can see their eyes glazing over. Perhaps you may get a pat on the back and a gruff ‘Things will be ok’, and that’s that. Back home in Zim, that compact sense of family is ever there; it is the hall mark of our culture, and something to be proud of. And perhaps that is how many Zimbabweans have managed to survive these past years, because of this strong family support one could fall back on. Because one could approach the family with the confidence that help of some sort would be given. Because there was never any questioning of its existence. The case of Zimbabwe is sad; it feels new to us Zimbos, as it well should, and yet it is another ironical turn out of an African state. People carry this story with them, out of their country, brandishing it like a Food Pass at a refugee camp, only to get to the other side and realise that there is nothing special about this story. It reminds me of a passage in Parselelo Kantai’s short story ‘You Wreck Her’, a tale evolving around a prostitute in Nairobi:

‘They cackle and blow smoke in your face when you speak of a lost and painful childhood when you became your mother after she died…..They tell you to save it; everybody has a copy of that story. You can sell it for an extra 500 bob to a sad man in the short time car park.’

And so you come out into the big wide world to discover that ‘everybody has a copy of that story’. In fact, being away from home instils, more than ever, that sense of identification with one’s nation. The world ran out of empathy a long time ago; now, it has mostly a condescending type of pity. And nobody wants a condescending type of pity. It can be a good thing, this ‘condescending type of pity’, even if it is not meant to be; it is like a wake up call, that removes that sense of helplessness about one’s home and awakens a sense of responsibility that can motivate a desire for action.

It is even more ironical for the Nebeles; the Shonas have always been clear about where their home is and they have never sat on a fence about that. But the Nebeles, my tribe, oh! You just need to walk through the streets of Bulawayo to understand the devastations of the Ndebele misconception that South Africa is somehow that other home they are entitled to, that is just waiting with candles and a big creamy chocolate cake. This sense of kinship stems from history; the time when Mizilikazi broke away from Tshaka Zulu’s tribe in South Africa and moved into the Matabeleland region of what is now known as Zimbabwe. This desire for kinship with South Africa also delves from what is termed a complicated history, but may somehow not be so complicated. It is always complicated when a certain history in a people’s time is not acknowledged to the point that it festers into a series of tales that are sometimes delusional, emotional more than factual, and destructive in their unresolved state. Human beings have always been quick to lurch onto that sense of entitlement when wronged; it is a natural phenomenon, it very easily becomes the blemish upon which every subsequent wrong or fault, real or perceived to be so, is blamed. I think I may be speaking in riddles. For those who are not familiar with what I am talking about, just google Gukurahundi. I have heard many things being blamed by my tribe on this period; favouritism of other regions in the country, etc etc. It is not that simple. It never is. But it is never about what is or isn’t, it is about what is perceived to be.

This mind set, in my opinion, has made its effects felt in Bulawayo. Bulawayo seems to be slowly deteriorating; it seems devoid of people, like most of its occupants have left. People seem to be dragging their feet. Slow slow. A lack of enthusiasm about their city. A shrug of the shoulder in response to the problems. Complaining and complaining and more complaining. And then another shrug. It is sad. It is like a precious treasure that has been abandoned, in search of delusional riches elsewhere. You ask the people why; they shrug and say ‘they have never really felt a part of Zimbabwe’. Now this is a rich answer that stems from pain. But I think if the very same people who say this continue this exodus into South Africa, and then return to Zimbabwe, and you ask them the same question, they will be more careful about their response.

South African culture pervades Bulawayo at many levels; the fashion, the music, the way people come to South Africa for a month and suddenly every sentence starts with a ‘Mara ne?’, ‘ukukhuluma’ is suddenly ‘ukuthetha’ and so forth. It is a costly misconception; upon arrival in this ‘Promised Land’, it finally hits home that here, to the South Africans, you are Zimbabwean Ndebele or not, and that’s that. These ties of brotherhood are delusional. And so this kind of reluctance by Ndebeles to participate in matters of home, are disturbing. I heard talk of having a sort of ‘different governing body’ for the Matabeleland region, not a breaking away from the country, but a bit of ‘individualism’ if you could call it that. This was just talk between people, but it just reflects a certain state of mind, that is at times perpetrated in the limp attitudes of the way matters are approached by the Ndebele people in Zimbabwe.

Ceremonial Hall & East Wing, National University of Science And Technology
(c) Siphatha, GNU Free Documentation License

Again, if you ask them about the reasons for this attitude, there is always a reference to history, to how improvement is promised to the region but never followed up on. The Joshua Mqabuko International Airport, Bulawayo's airport, under construction for the past light years, is an embarrassing cluster of buildings more befitting of a growth point, and not worthy of an international status. There is also the Joshua Mqabuko Hospital, an impressive project that remains unfinished. And the National University of Science and Technology, again in Bulawayo, an impressive university which is in use but has not yet been completed. In fact, there is a crane that stands in the University grounds, rising high in the air. It now seems like such a natural part of the landscape that jokes have been made about how, even upon completion of the University, it should remain there, as a piece of artistic impression. And so, in spite of the hardships facing our country, according to my tribe, many of these half-done projects are seen as sabotage. That is what they perceive. And so they have retreated into what they see as a justified apathy. But sometimes this apathy is self-destructive. Somebody, a relative who is Ndebele and lives in Harare, the capital city, once pointed out to me what she perceived as a certain difference in attitudes between the Ndebele businessman and the Shona businessman. She said, the Shona business man will thrive, go to his home town/ rural home and improve the roads. The Ndebele businessman will thrive, bathe in the glow of his success and not lift a finger to improve his home town/ rural home. She gave a few examples of people she knew. This, of course, is a generalisation, but it serves to illustrate the detachment that the Ndebele seems to feel from his homeland. Which is not healthy. Not healthy at all. As the country moves towards ‘nation building’, it seems these are some of the issues that need to be addressed, for an effective way forward. The problem is, some of these issues are delicate (such as Gukurahundi) and are not even acknowledged by the leaders of the nation. See, the problem with issues such as Gukurahundi is that if they are not addressed, they become the powerful basis around which many ills, which may have nothing to do with them, are pivoted. There was a ‘Summary Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980 to 1988’ entitled ‘Breaking the Silence and Building True Peace’, compiled by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe and the Legal Resource Foundation, in 1999, which sought to give something of a balanced view of the Gukurahundi period and advocate of peace and healing and not to, as they said, bring forth any accusations.

The report starts:

‘People who live in Matabeleland and parts of the Midlands know only too well what happened to them during the 1980s. Their lives were affected in serious ways by both Government troops and also by dissidents and Youth Brigades at this time.

However, most people from other parts of Zimbabwe still have no idea what it was like for those who were suffering. They have no idea how people still suffer as a result of the violence that took place. People who were affected also do not have ways of talking to people in other parts of the country about what happened. Ordinary people all over Zimbabwe, need to know what happened during those years in their own country….people in affected regions can read how their history has been told, and people in unaffected regions can learn about if for the first time.’

(c) Source

But really, the issue has never been addressed much. The result? You just mention Gukurahundi in Bulawayo, and see how people open their mouths. ‘Ah!’ they say ‘You want to disappear?’ These are residual effects of that time. Suspicion, to the point that even the mere mention of that name, instils fear. And the effects of people from my generation? I never really knew about Gukurahundi until I was a teenager, and I never heard about it from my family. I never heard them speak about it when I was growing up. There were usually a lot of tribal connotations about the Shona tribe. Up to today, I have a relative who does not even entertain job applications from people who come from the Shona tribe. A Shona name is enough to guarantee that one will not get a job in his company. He will not entertain the Shona language to be spoken in his home. When another relative got married to a Shona, he did not attend the wedding. So far go the extremes of his resentment. According to the ‘Breaking the Silence’ report, the Gukurahundi period was not designed to be a civil war; it was not meant to be a Shona versus Ndebele war, there was state involvement in a bid to contain dissident activities and other ‘clandestine’ activities and gruesome atrocities and all the other delicate things one should take care when talking about etc etc etc etc etc. But emotions do not distil matters so far, especially without much room for dialogue on the matter. Growing up, I was not exposed to excessive tribalism, I had and still have many great friends who hail from the Shona tribe, in fact my generation is viewed as the ‘hope generation’, that can transcend these tribal tensions. Mild tensions, compared to other parts of Africa, but tensions nonetheless.

So one day I asked my family about what it was like during the Gukurahundi period. You hear a few personal stories, and suddenly the matters of tribalism are no longer black and white. You begin to understand why people are the way they are. And the issue becomes how to address the root of the problem, not to chop down the tree but to totally remove its roots. A tall order. So, talking about Gukurahundi with my peers, both Shona and Ndebele, I could never understand why my Shona friends would quickly brush the matter aside and advocate that it should be a period that should be swept under the carpet and forgotten. Move on, they would say. The past is the past. I never understood it, until, when talking, I realised that they had no idea about what happened during that time. There are regions in the country that do not know what happened during this period. And so, on the one hand, you have a tribe that is nursing anger and resentment, and on the other, a tribe that seems to bear little grudge in return because they are not familiar with the roots of this resentment.

Many Shonas I know are simply baffled about the Ndebeles’ strong tribalism; besides the lukewarm tribal clashes in terms of cultures etc from both sides, for the Shonas, there is no bone to chew. And so in the end, it seems, for my tribe, that they are harbouring all sorts of hurt, nursing it and hating an enemy that seems unaware. It is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. In the end matters that in the present state of things have weak ties to this period are blamed on it; such as the Shona tribe’s economic power, for instance. Which should not be surprising, since the Shona people make up 80% to 84% of the country, and the Ndebeles only 10% to 15% (Wikipedia statistics). And so the matter should not be about the Shona people’s economic power, but the Ndebele people’s lack of innovative applications, their apathy, their hapless attitudes. And how, the nation as a whole, can aid in addressing these matters and putting the past where it belongs, behind and in a peaceful state. The Germans and the Jews dealt with it on a much larger scale; the Holocaust. And so we can too. It is a sad, sad thing and I wonder, on the way to ‘nation building’, where the Ndebele sees himself. Zimbabwe is our home, and as such, needs our nurturing and care. We, the Ndebele people, need to find our place in it, otherwise we may find ourselves literally belonging nowhere.

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
Ms Tshuma is a Zimbabwean writer based in the USA.
Her more recent essay can be found on Elephant Info: ERASED MEMORIES: Re-couping Zimbabwe’s humanity

City of Bulawayo's Coat of Arms
Si Ye Pambili | Let Us Go Forward

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