by Dirk Frey
I have always been an outsider in one sense or another. I have never easily fit into the convenient boxes we are squeezed into. I straddle several, truly fit into none, and buck labels and easy preconceptions.
What am I talking about? Identity.
If you see me without talking to me, especially if your skin isn’t like mine, your first impression – “There goes a white guy” – is correct, but is nowhere near the full story. I am a white Zimbabwean, yes, but my parents aren’t from here. In fact, they aren’t from the same place themselves and don’t speak the same language. English is actually the third language I learned as a child, and when you talk to me you’ll hear that I don’t sound like you’d expect a white Zimbabwean to sound.
This reality of being a loose radical, socially, gave me a unique insight, by virtue of the situations I found myself in. I interacted with an saw the coloured community from a lot close than most whites do, I found myself in mixed company and the standard assumptions we make about ourselves and each other, I discovered, are social constructs that aren’t always accurate, and often simplistic generalizations.
And one thing I learned at school: The white community, like all other Zimbabwean communities, have an element of exclusivity. So because I didn’t talk like them, walk like them, act like them, I was an outsider… which suited me fine – my friends at school tended to be anything but white. I didn’t feel any urge to overcome the barriers to integrating with the white kids at school, and by associating with others even more ‘other’ than I, I added a layer of suspicion from them. And I didn’t fit in with the transient expatriate white community either. My family settled here, we weren’t going to move on after a few years, and our connection to Zimbabwe ended up being far stronger than to my parents’ countries of origin.
In fact, I only ever holidayed there. It was never home. The one time I spent any length of time in Europe as a child, the children there called me the ‘African Ape’. It’s something that amuses me now, but it wasn’t fun at the time, and I couldn’t wait to return home. Today, I understand that part of our identity is a social construct – in that time and place, I had more in common with any other non-white African who finds themselves an immigrant in Europe than those I look like on the surface.
Yes, there are the obvious physical aspects of identity that are a given. I cannot change the colour of my skin or the fact I’m male (barring extensive surgery), where I was born, who I was born to. But there is far more to identity than that, much of which is determined by the society I grew up in. Then, finally, there is a small part that might be the most important: what I chose to do with it. And this is by far the most precious part of my identity, perhaps because I’ve had to fight to defend it: I am African. That is not a given. There are people with a similar background to mine that don’t feel themselves as strongly African, or at all. There are white people whose families have been here far longer than mine, yet when I asked them where they are from, they’ll talk about Wales, Scotland, Ireland etc.
After a lifetime of being ‘other’, I can understand and empathize with fellow Zimbabweans who aren’t viewed as ‘fully Zimbabwean’ because the language they speak came from South Africa. Let us be clear – the majority of Zimbabweans in the southwest have totems, and there weren’t so many who came with Mzilikazi to begin with – so the construct of them as ‘less Zimbabwean’ isn’t anywhere close to accurate.
In this way, and others, I’ve come to understand on a very personal level the dysfunctional nature of identity in Zimbabwe. The artificial, politically expedient story of the realest Zimbabwean being a black man who speaks Shona and votes Zanu is a problem. The concept of a ‘shona person’ didn’t exist before colonial times. And the colonial divide-and-rule story of Zimbabwe being split into two ethnic groups is just as artificial. Zimbabweans are not split into two monolithic blocks. Those whose ancestors adopted Mzilikazi and his Impi’s language along with their protection were and still are related, and sometimes very closely, to the people today considered as ‘Shona’.
Besides that, there is a rich variety of peoples with distinct languages and culture, and we as a people are waking up to that and seeking to embrace and protect that heritage of diversity. Yet the old colonial and Cold War ideas are still with us and do damage. And we as a nation are at a pivotal point in our history. We no longer believe the old lies, but we have yet to fully explore and settle a very important question – what does it mean to be Zimbabwean?
To be continued