The lost generation
During my years at a government girls’ school in Zimbabwe, it was a punishable offense to speak Shona. We were to speak English at all times, ‘the Queen’s English’, preferably. Our headmistress at the time explained this school rule by quoting the famous phrase: ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’. This, we found unintentionally amusing, as our school was more than 90% Shona-speaking, the teachers were all Shona-speaking (bar three) and our school was located in the centre of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, a country with a majority Shona-speaking population.
And this was in the 1990s.
So, whose Rome were we in? And which Romans were we meant to be imitating? For this was not an example of the cultural imperialism that was characteristic of colonial rule; this was an example of Shona-speaking Africans relegating their own language to second class status within their own school.
Indeed, our schooling system at the time was designed, in ways both subtle and manifest, to nurture a love and respect for western culture. In this case, the term ‘western culture’ is interchangeable with ‘white’, ‘British’, ‘European’ and ‘colonial’. From the design of the uniforms to the choice of school plays, from the house system to the language of instruction, everything about our schools sang the praises of the upper-class British public school tradition that had inspired them. It was as if the superiority of British culture was so clear and indisputable, that it was not necessary to even acknowledge other cultures, African or otherwise. The British way was the best, just as Cecil John Rhodes iterated so many years before when he called the Anglo-Saxon race the best on earth.
Small wonder that young Africans attending these schools preferred to use their Christian names, that Pepukai became Pep, that Mohamed became Mo, and that the Shona-tinged accent gradually slipped into a thick ‘Ja, hey’ Rhodie twang. In the majority of the established schools in Zimbabwe, both public and private, local culture, not to mention the wider African culture, was relegated to the marimba club and, if the school was really progressive, Shona drama – an almost embarrassing afterthought.
That is not to say that the government didn’t try. I have vivid memories of history books that discussed and refuted the European assertion that the Ancient Egyptians could not possibly have been an African people; that Great Zimbabwe was built by Arabs; that Africa was a dark continent with no history. I am grateful for the fact that, in the pages of our black and white government-issue text books, I learned that Africa was the cradle of mankind, that the Rozvi and the Mwenemutapa, the Zulu and the Ndebele, the Ashanti and the Fulani were all complex African kingdoms; that Africans had a rich heritage to reclaim and celebrate.
The trouble was we were too busy being groomed by the British-style school system and American popular culture to think too deeply about neo-colonialism, cultural imperialism and materialism. We were consummate cultural consumers: through books, film, sitcoms and music, we were fed a steady diet of American catch phrases, fashions and attitudes. Relatives based abroad, imported cars, and holidays spent in London all fed into our insatiable appetite for something foreign, something other than what was readily available on our own soil. We had no time for politics or activism; this was the era of Radio 3, the conduit through which Boyz II Men, Salt ‘n’ Pepa and Snoop Doggy Dogg reached our homes and our collective youth consciousness.
All this made us eager – impatient, even – to taste the delights of the west and impatient with the seemingly outdated demands of culture and tradition. Even more unpalatable was the idea that there could actually be something amiss with the cultures we were so keen to emulate, that we should be circumspect when accepting the west’s image of itself as progressive, liberal and democratic: in all ways, civilised. It was just so much easier to believe the hype, to believe in ‘the great white hope’. And, of course, way more cool.
How could Africa, with her political problems, economic hardships and drought-and-famine-charity-case image hope to compete?
I believe that our schooling prepared us to excel in the world of work, but did not imbue us with the passion, the zeal, the heart, to battle it out on the frontlines. When the going got tough, sometimes even before it got tough, we set our eyes on the promise of the American college degrees, the British pound, and the opportunities available in Europe.
We did not feel one shred of guilt or angst for abandoning our country. We had not felt at one with our own society for a long time, straddling as we had two very different cultures, leaning ever closer to the one that seemed to promise progress, advancement and the respect of our peers and the world at large. The alienation that began when we realised that going to the village was not the cool thing to do was actualised when we saw that our own country could never fulfil our criteria, economically, socially, politically or culturally. We were already foreigners in all but name. The flight to London or Washington, the adjustment to life overseas was so easy for us; we had seen it all before.
It was not so much that we abandoned our country as the divorce merely became final. We became more comfortable out of Africa than in it.
I say this, in all honesty, because I believe that I was one of those affected by this mentality. When I left Zimbabwe to pursue my studies in the UK, I had no intentions of returning except, possibly, to raise my kids and buy a house in Borrowdale, where I would have access to the requisite nanny, maid, gardener and a Nissan Pajero, my dream car at the time. I saw my country merely in terms of what it could offer me. And when I decided that the UK could offer me more, that was it, I did not think of ever returning to Africa, not to work, not to contribute towards change or development, not to raise my children as Africans. I felt no sense of loyalty, no sense of duty for I had absorbed the lessons of individualism well: it was all about me.
Our parents were made of sterner stuff. Their identities were clear, their principles firm. They learned the white man’s ways but they did not forget their own: they still gave their children African names and fed them sadza. Maybe because they could never hope to assimilate, because the colonial regime made it clear that they would never be good enough, they were bold enough to challenge the status quo: they dared to dream a different dream, dared to fight for it, dared to die for it.
Indeed, our parents’ generation was a generation of legends. Their names will not be erased from the books of history; they have changed the fates of nations. Whatever their personal shortcomings, no-one can deny the dedication and passion of Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Samora Machel, Joe Slovo, Nelson Mandela, Herbert Chitepo and, yes, even Robert Mugabe. They believed in a cause, they had principles and they had the courage, the determination and vision to see them through. Africa is an different place – we grew up in an entirely different Africa – because of them. So where are the visionaries of our generation, capable of reimagining and reforming our own societies? Indeed, where are our heroes?
To be fair, many of us are very successful in the world we have chosen for ourselves. Our neo-colonial education has stood us in good stead. But we are lacking something, so many of us. We don’t see it until we realise that it’s been ten years since we went ‘home’, that we married foreigners who do not understand our culture, that our children don’t even have African names, let alone speak our language themselves, that we could no longer see ourselves living in Africa because we have become so used to the hypnotising convenience of the west. We have no ideology therefore we have nothing to galvanise us. We are consumers in a global economy, as fast asleep as anyone else.
Maybe this magazine – and others like it – are a sign that things are changing; that, as young Africans, we are engaging once again with the idea of what it means to be African, what our role is in our African societies and, crucially, what kind of African societies we want to help create. We can do better than African Idol; we can do better than Miss Zimbabwe-UK; we can do better than African imitations of morally bankrupt shows like Big Brother.
The wise man is the one who learns from others’ mistakes, who uses received wisdom to chart a new path. Our parents established the Organisation of African Unity, they formed SADCC, they wrote the Freedom Charter, they fought armed police with stones, they created education programmes, they spread literacy and health care to the rural areas. They were prepared to sacrifice to create a new society. They dared to dream the impossible dream.
The question is, what legacy will our generation leave behind?
Na’ima B. Robert
This article was published in AfricaBe, a pan-African online magazine. Visit the site: www.africabe.com