Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Of Shattered Identities, My Grandfather, and Africa's Future...

By Shingi Mavima


"You know, sometimes I think the worst thing that colonization did was cloud our view of the past. Without the white man, we might be able to make better use of our history. We might look at some of our former practices and decide they are worth preserving. Others, we might grow out of. Unfortunately, the white man has made us very defensive. We end up clinging to all sorts of things that have out lived their usefulness. Polygamy, collective land ownership. These things worked well in their time, but now they most often become tools for abuse by men, by governments: and yet, if you say these things, you have been infected by Western ideology."- Dr. Rukia Odero from "Dreams from My Father" by Barack Obama

                                       Somewhere, beyond these Zimbabwean Hills, lives a legendary medicine man...


My grandfather, by traditional (and what I’ve since learnt, universal) standards, is a simple and noble man. For decades now, ‘Kulu’ (grandpa), as he is affectionately known by family and the community at large, has lived in the same house
. In this house, he raised seven children and sent each and every one of them into the world equipped to start their own households and careers. At some point, each one of his grandchildren has called this house ‘home’. Come to think of it, his entire extended family and other friends of the family who would drop by at convenient meal times can attest to that house being a landmark.

With his stature as a man of humble integrity, it should be no surprise that my grandfather holds a dear place in the heart of the entire community. He has been the figurehead at more weddings and funerals than I can ever hope to attend. He has counseled marriages and disciplined neighborhood children. When my grandmother passed away in 1999, I could have sworn people in their thousands came to the house and lodged for close to a week in mourning.

Oh, he is also the community’s defacto-medicine man. Put a pin in that thought-we’ll get back to it.

If we were to try and trace the root correlation of the vast array of Africa’s current tribulations, most scholars would boil it down to the legacy of colonialism. Colonialism robbed Africa of its sense of being; it set up market scales that are slope-sided to always benefit the West; it imposed, on every level, a culture foreign to the motherland- and then left it to fend for itself in that context.

Before I go too far, let me ensure I keep your attention until the end by declaring that this is not one of those cliché pieces demonizing the West or a lamentation wishing for the rewinding of the reality that was colonialism. The idea here is to paint a modern picture where cultures do not survive by imposition or subordination but rather, by being eclectic.

The greatest tragedy of colonialism was the loss of that incessant, savage pride that shows when people from other regions step onto the global scene. The absence of this fundamental identity manifests itself in how traditional problem-solving (for ex. Elder’s court) is laughable in the eyes of the elite; or the fact that your grasp of the European language passed down to you often serves as a factor in gauging your place on the social scale. In Shona, the colloquial term for a boss and/or anyone who pays you is ‘murungu wangu’; literally translating to “my white man”- a remnant from a time when almost all the black Africans were working on white-owned farms or European-operated businesses in the urban areas.

On a more tragic scale, the tragedy of colonialism reveals itself in some of the brutal dictatorships that have plagued the continent, and the constant need for assistance and approval from the West. Colonialism created an order in Africa that was disrupted when the Europeans left. In the absence of that order (hate it or love it), Africa has tried to survive by holding on to strings of a model designed to oppress her without fully allowing her soul to grow back to full maturity.

Take the USA, for example. For all their shortcomings and inconsistent popularity across the globe, it is undeniable that they have done well for themselves. A relatively younger nation (compared to most of Asia and Europe), they have risen to be an incontrovertible global power; and done so in several ways: their military might is unmatched, their cultural influence through music and film has been excellent, and their economy has been gigantic-among other things. If, however, we had to sum up the nation’s success in one word, it would be this: ownership.

Not mere ownership of resources (which is prime and important), but an ownership of your history, an ownership of your scars, an ownership of your successes, an ownership of your worth. When the US founding fathers revolted, they immediately began choosing what artifacts of the ‘Old World’ they would keep and which ones they would develop on their own so as to build the community most appropriate for their cause. For example, they kept the language, the base religion, and the main facets of the culture. On the other hand, it was decided that they wouldn’t have a monarch as the overall authority of the land (among other things). Is there anything intrinsically wrong with having a king presiding over you? Not necessarily- several monarchies, past and present, have endured and prospered. The reason the US deciding against a king is the main thrust of this writing: it was an aspect of a culture, albeit well-respected, that was not consistent with their own. The same ingenuity manifested itself in the development of sport and art forms borrowing bits from everywhere else in the world before rebranding itself as “All-American” (jazz, hip-hop, Hollywood, football, etc.) From the onset, they decided to OWN their process.

As globalization continues to blossom, there are more and more examples of this phenomenon in other thriving parts of the world. East Asia, for example, has done excellent in combining the best of Western trade models without foregoing their traditional social hierarchies and penchant for education. Another example is the notion of Bollywood, India’s hugely successful movie industry which, as the name suggests, is Hollywood-inspired and yet still maintains its essence in its own society.

Now, there is a thin yet crucial divide between the cultural surrender which leads to the development of a bastardized, watered-down culture, and conscious accumulation of imported and exported elements that come together to give modern societies a backbone. The latter is what I advocate here.

Oh, so I was telling you about my ‘Kulu’ earlier.

If you walk up to Kulu’s house, you will see the timeless measures of a ‘manned’ household: a small garden, a couple of dogs doubling as both pets and guards, and a fruit orchard. So timeless are these things that, had I not mentioned the fact that he is my grandfather, this description fits that of African communal medicine men for centuries now-and you would be forgiven for thinking he is what has been wrongly termed a ‘witch doctor’ by so-called scholars.

The truth is, my grandfather is a fully qualified nurse: well-learned in the science of medicine (formally Western, and traditional by experience). For more than 50 years now, he has worked at several hospitals in the region. With that much experience, he is as knowledgeable as any general practitioner anywhere. Now, in his retirement, he serves as the community ‘doctor’ (being a patriarchal community, people were never able to digest that a man- older and that knowledgeable- could be ‘just a nurse’) together with a couple of other seasoned practitioners. You can catch him at the house-converted-to-clinic a street away in his scrubs, still diagnosing illnesses, weighing babies, directing people to specialists, etc.

And Dangamvura, Mutare (the neighborhood) is a much better place for it. People do not only have someone in close quarters to go to for a cost that makes sense to them, they have that in the form of someone they already respect and trust. In past (or present) rural communities, he would easily have been a chief or some high-ranking official. In Dangamvura (an urban neighborhood), he serves those exact same roles but in a different context. In ‘Kulu’, we see a perfect example of established African values and modernity coexisting. It symbolizes an eclectic partnership of the wisdom and social structures that have been built over millennia, now paired up with the fruits of modern science and globalization.

The imperial/colonial notion, used time and again to justify conquest, tells us that there is no space for ‘old ways in a new world.’ The opposite is true. No community can exist and thrive, in the purest sense, by letting go all that ever made it stand. Conversely, no community can exist by stubbornly holding on to its old ways in the face of external development. Africa will not flourish by duplicating social, political and economic models that have proved successful in other regions at its expense. Rather, it stands to rise from the ashes through an integration of their cherished values and what the rest of the world has to offer: a successful Africa that the Africans OWN in every respect.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well let me ask you....have you ever seen the Nicolas Roeg film:

"The man who fell to earth" starring David Bowie?

I ask because this film was my introduction to the term "social ecology" many years ago, and I didn't really understand the meaning of this film until a real life horror derailed me in 2005.

I will say no more...However,

That's the problem.


The entity you characterize isn't really the west...its the white Christian God.

It's the control of all wealth and social/religous identity.

It's the desire and ability to interfere with progress and natural selection.

It's the muck in which human kind departs from logic.

Protect all that's left of what's valuable.

Cherish the things that work, and be suspicious when they are changed.

Be insane, frightening, and undiagnosed, till they can't do a damn thing to slow you down.

Why not?

Nice peice.

We've already been colonized, many times over and over again.

Just be grateful to sit at the table with human beings.

Hold on to all the good stuff and take notes.

Thanks a lot.