I love finding a book that reads like a window into another culture. I recently had to read one for class; I chose Zenzele: A letter for my daughter by J. Nozipo Maraire. The purpose of the assignment was to learn how to better empathize with someone of a different culture. We had to present the culture the book was written from, in the voice of one of the characters — actually stepping outside ourselves and taking on another role in an attempt to listen to and understand a perspective different from our own.
I highly recommend the book. Beyond a touching memoir by a mother to her daughter, it’s a personal glimpse of post-colonial Africa. The writing is down to earth and doesn’t feel “academic.” To whet your appetite, I think I’ll simply copy the text of my report, drawn heavily from what the Zimbabwean mother wrote to her daughter, Zenzele. Listen to one mother’s insight:
Oh I didn’t hear you all come in. Welcome to Zimbabwe. Please excuse me, I’m just finishing a letter to my daughter, Zenzele. She has gone away to study in America…oh, that’s where you all are from, no? Ah, how my Zenzele dreamed of going to your country one day. I always knew I wouldn’t be able to stop her, and now she has gone. She is studying at Harvard. She hopes to be a doctor; she has made me so proud, even if I could never understand her – I could never answer my daughter’s endless questions and critiques. All I’ve got left to give her is some of the stories and lessons that have made me what I am, that have made Zimbabwe what it is. “It is an old woman’s privilege to impart her wisdom” and that’s why I’m writing this letter—if you will, it’s a “distillation of traditional African teaching, social commentary, and maternal concern.”
Ah my Zenzele… her ceaseless questions about our way of life here in Africa and the way the world is outside; her eagerness to learn as much as she can, more than I’d ever be able to tell her. I’ve traveled some with my husband the lawyer when we were younger, though never to your country. Why would I leave now? I’m getting old, and my home is here in Zimbabwe; when I was your age it was called Rhodesia…
But pardon me, I’m rambling on… why was it that you came to me? Ah yes to find out what should you do now since you’ve come here to Zimbabwe? Don’t stay in the city. Here we’re in Harare, but Zimbabwe is so much more than what you see in the city. Come to our villages. I will take you to Chakowa my village; it is the reason why I could never leave Zimbabwe. To leave my roots, my ancestors, my memories…would be to leave that which has nurtured me all these years. That is what I’m reminding Zenzele of in my letter, that the richness of our little traditions are hers; she may accept or reject them, but they form her foundation. It is there in the villages that you will glimpse “Africa’s most powerful resource”—the extended family that is our community, our own emotional, financial, and cultural safety net.
What else would I say to all of you newly arrived in Zimbabwe? Leave behind your money. I hope you know that foreign cash is not the answer to our problems.
The answers to our problems are probably not what you think they are; the problems may not even be what you think they are. Or rather, our problems may not be any more serious than your own problems. Ah how my husband used to rant about all that. He’d say, “We grow tea; they sell us the tea bags. We grow tobacco, they make the cigarettes. We grow the fruit; they sell us the jam. It is called ‘free trade,’ by one-half of the world and ‘economic exploitation’ by the other. They measure us by the balance of trade, the gross national product, the per capita income, and the infant mortality rate. Our indicators of health-care equity, education for all, the family, the drug-free schools, expenditure on services for the disabled and handicapped—these have no place in their economic ledgers. Yet these reflect our values and our achievements.”
No, the answer to our problems has little to do with economics. Africa and Zimbabwe will be whatever our children make of it, whatever Zenzele will make of it. “What we need is a cultural ecosystem, an eternal cycle of African regeneration, where our roots are firmly planted, growing deep in the earth and sowing in our children the seeds to reap another harvest. Each time one of our children is lost to the West, it is worse than losing a fruit; we also lose the seeds inside.” That’s also why I’m writing to my Zenzele, to remind her that her journey to America won’t end until she returns to Zimbabwe.
My daughter is in your country and here you are in mine. So leave behind your money, help us invest in our children and our children invest in us, and most importantly come with open eyes. See if you can develop an eye for our rainbow. At first, we will look to you as we do to others when we go overseas – “all one burdensome color: black.” In reality we are a great variety of shades from caramel to charcoal.
And while you’re here, you may just learn something from our way of life; you may be able to take something back with you. For instance I’ve heard of those dreadful nursing homes in your so-called civilized world – “whole villages of the senile and lame where they do not interfere with the hustle and bustle of daily commerce.” Maybe that is done so the aged are hidden away so that you do not remember that one day you shall all walk that path, that you shall one day grow slow and stooped as I am. According to our custom, though, “one generation takes care of another. We don’t put them away with all their wisdom and love.”
I’ve also heard about the great wealth of technology and material possessions in America. Leave that behind too. Here in Zimbabwe “our pride derives not from material things but in our closeness to the soil. That is where the African foundation is. We are still standing on the ground of our ancestors; we are rooted, where others were scattered. We have fought off those who sought to take this native earth from us, the colonizers, the big companies, the mercenaries, even the missionaries. We have struggled and won what was truly ours. Now we must fight the enemy within.”
The enemy within is one of our own making. We have participated in undermining the resource that is our children by not exposing them to our culture. “When Zimbabwe gained her independence, we all shared a common vision of a better life. The problem was that too many of us equated that better life with material success. My generation developed all the symptoms of the postcolonial syndrome: acquisition, imitation, and a loss of imagination. We simply rushed to secure what the colonialists had. We denied our own culture, relieved to leave our primitive origins far away, in some forgotten village. And so we believed ourselves sophisticated at last, integrated into the mainstream of cosmopolitan culture. We created an invisible white line of ultimate aspiration: to achieve what the Europeans had. We ceased to dream, to have our own vision of happiness and success. Our children got caught in some gray zone that was neither black culture nor truly white, either. We have to acknowledge our dual citizenship. We are urban and rural, old and new. We exist in contradictory time frames; in one we are creating computer programs for artificial intelligence and in another we are carrying a bucket to the river to fetch drinking water. It is our reality; we cannot run away from it. If we cannot fully resolve our dual citizenship as Africans, we must at least be honest with ourselves for the children’s sake.”
So yes, my country is a land of contradiction; be prepared for it. Try not to be too confused by it; we ourselves don’t always know how to handle it. And yet it is part of our identity and we are not ashamed of it. We are proud and we welcome those who come here to learn!
Reading this book was both touching and challenging. I was challenged by the reminder that a people’s “problems” are always more complex than may meet our eye as outsiders. Development comes with its own “problems,” especially development by outsiders. And I was touched by the call to remember one’s roots. I can relate to Zenzele’s critical eye for her own culture, her drive to explore the world and, in the process, leave her roots behind. But to think that the journey doesn’t end until you’ve returned to where you came from…
And one final thought from the book that’s yours to take or leave:
To love is a beautiful, mysterious event; do not miss it. Be neither too cautious nor too absorbed. Too many of us reason with our hearts and experience with our heads. It cannot be so. The heart knows no logic beyond need and desire; the head has no senses except the common and the pragmatic. Neither, frankly, is particularly useful in love, anyway. Rely on your sixth sense, that little voice within. There is no preparation or protection from the joy and pain of relationships. They are inseparable twins. One follows another. And make no mistake: Love is not gay abandon; it is to be courageous, to take risks, and to be disciplined.
After all, a mother’s letter to her daughter wouldn’t be complete without some love advice. Now it’s your turn — go find a book that takes you outside yourself and into a different culture. And let me know what you learn from it.