Zimbabweans are diverse, stop assuming we are all Shona.
My friends and I went to a Zimbabwe Society meeting on campus and to our dismay, it was basically Harare Society, because everyone spoke exclusively in Shona, made Shona pop culture references, and played only Shona music. A girl asked us, “how can you be Zimbabwean and not speak Shona?” To which we wondered what Zimbabwe exactly this society represented because the Zimbabwe we know has sixteen official languages. To say we felt erased is an understatement. After that, I had one thought: Some Shonas need to stop acting like they’re the prefects of Zimbabweanness.
Last month, I tweeted that Zimbabwe has 13 other official indigenous languages besides Shona, in addition to English and sign language: Ndebele, Kalanga, Tonga, Chibarwe, Chewa, Shangani, Nambya, Ndau, Xhosa, Sotho, Venda, Tswana and Tshwao (Khoisan). To my surprise, people including Zimbabweans were discovering this for the first time. Doesn’t this show that there’s something deeply flawed about our mainstream culture and education system if the general populace is unaware of Zimbabwe’s diversity?
Most Ndebeles I know make an effort to learn Shona. All my Bulawayo-grown friends at the University of Zimbabwe could speak Shona within mere months of living in Harare, even though their academic environment is English. However, I know Shonas who’ve lived in Bulawayo for years but never bothered to learn Ndebele, and they think that’s normal. No, Tendai and Chipo, it’s not normal.
Not learning a language is a choice. I’ve lived in Bulawayo since birth, but in Grade 7, I got a notebook and spent days on end making my great grandpa teach me Shona words and phrases. Within days, I could construct some sentences, and today I understand quite a bit of Shona. All this despite living in Bulawayo where Shona is never spoken except by some arrogant roadblock policemen who fine you for imaginary offences then laugh after you drive off.
I’m tired of pretty much almost every policeman ever speaking to us in Shona. We can’t even breathe in our own province, Matebeleland, which literally translates to “Land of the Ndebele” but they insist on Shona. This just shows the arrogance of some Shona people and their entitlement to every ethnic minority making space for them, even in spaces which are clearly dominated by these ethnicities. Shona privilege is real, and Shonas’ oblivion of this is a privilege.
Some Shona people are privileged enough to afford to not know a single letter of IsiNdebele(or any other local language whatsoever) and still not encounter any problem almost anywhere in Zim. So the simple answer is, for the most part, PRIVILEGE.
It’s one thing speaking Shona in Harare, but it’s another imposing it on people in their own provinces. Ironically, when I speak Ndebele in Harare, Shonas get offended and say “tinotaura chiShona pano” (we speak Shona here). So manje why don’t you reflect that energy in non-Shona spaces? I could even argue that almost every policeman in Bulawayo being Shona proves that there’s a degree of tribalism in the selection process but that’s a conversation for another day.
Some Shona speakers go beyond refusing to learn our languages, they even defile our languages. For starters, Harare Shonas pronounce Bulawayo like “Bhuluweyo” but what’s “Bhuluweyo”?
MDC-A spokesperson, Fadzayi Mahere, made that mistake, was called out, and like a decent human being, she apologized in Ndebele and says she’s been learning Ndebele since. This is the leader we want, but the leader we got ensured growing up non-Shona meant missing every presidential speech because Mugabe spoke in Shona, with no interpreter, showing he didn’t value 30% of Zimbabwe’s population. He wasn’t our Head of State, he was the Head of Shonas.
Meanwhile, Shona Twitter dismissed Mahere’s mistake as no big deal because Ndebeles can’t pronounce Masvingo. Frankly, the “-sv” sound is almost impossible to pronounce if Ndebele is your first language, whereas Bulawayo isn’t hard to pronounce, given its similarity to the v sound in Shona. If she had mispronounced “qh” or “xh” maybe you could give that excuse, because they’re difficult to pronounce with a Shona tongue.
My second example is Continental Rice’s “Ndebele” instructions. Just read this:
I don’t know what language that is, but it’s not Ndebele. I read those instructions and accidentally summoned a demon. Three whole provinces of Ndebele speakers but they didn’t bother to find someone fluent to write Ndebele instructions. This shows the lack of respect some Shonas have for minorities. Whoever wrote those instructions was like, “inini as iShona elidhobha-dhobhayo, I’ve got this.” This shows the extent that language minorities are marginalized.
Our education—and mainstream culture in general—is biased towards Shonas. Remember our Grade 1 readers? The characters were Tendai and Chipo. Remember primary school, our lessons in Social Studies about Zimbabwe’s history—which really was just Shona history. We learnt about the Munhumutapa and Rozvi states—Shona civilisations—and absolutely nothing else about other ethnicities which lived in Zimbabwe even before Shonas did.
The only thing we learnt about Khoisan people, Zimbabwe’s first inhabitants, was that they were hunter-gatherers who painted on caves—but surely, they are an ethnic group with so much more depth in terms of culture and spirituality. Worse still, their language, Tshwao, was codified legally as “Khoisan” but Khoisan isn’t a language, it’s an ethnic group with subgroups speaking numerous languages. That’s as senseless as saying “African” is a language.
The only other tribe which was mentioned in Social Studies was the Ndebele, but only in relation to King Lobengula’s role at the start of colonization. This aspect of history has always been framed in such a way that Ndebeles were practically labelled as sellouts who sold our country for a bag of sugar and the Shonas were our liberators, a narrative which fuels tribalism. A narrative which fuelled the genocide of 20,000-30,000 Ndebele who were labelled “dissidents”. Colonisation didn’t even unfold that way—Cecil Rhodes violated the Rudd Concession and violently seized our land.
Our curriculum’s history conveniently forgets most non-Shona First Liberation Struggle heroes at the time, only recognizing Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi, who are Shona, as though all other ethnicities just sat on a rock watching the drama unfold while wearing 3D glasses and eating uxakuxaku. Ironically, the struggle was started by Ndebele civilians and troops in Matebeleland, with Mlimo, a Ndebele spiritual leader being the frontline instigator of resistance against European colonisation yet his name was never mentioned at school. Shonas only joined after Mlimo mobilized the Ndebele but history has been Shona-washed.
All Bulawayo’s streets—except King Lobengula Street—were named after Shona 2nd Chimurenga/Umvukela heroes only, only giving Joshua Nkomo his own street a few years ago, decades after independence.
As for Zimbabwe’s other ethnic groups, people think Kalangas, Tongas and other minorities are mystical beings who drink water from a calabash and play drums all day in a mountain shrouded by mystical clouds, but these are normal people like us with a distinct language and culture; they only seem not to exist because we erase them, acting like only Shonas and Ndebeles exist. They seem not to exist because due to the inferior status given to minorities, they’ve been forced to assimilate the language and culture of Shonas or Ndebeles to survive. Ndebeles are shadowed by Shonas and minority ethnicities are shadowed by both.
But doesn’t this undermine diversity? What’s the point of officially recognizing these languages on paper yet in reality they need to identify as Shona or Ndebele because our mainstream culture doesn’t allow space for their expression? Our Ministry of Education needs to do better to promote true diversity. We need to have all these tribes in the school curriculum and educate our children of each one’s history, culture, language and spirituality.
We need an explicitly pro-diversity stance like South Africa’s. South Africa’s 11 indigenous languages aren’t a little-known fact, it’s something widely publicized in pop culture and entrenched in their education. If you go to different regions in South Africa, most notices and public announcements are written in English, Afrikaans and the indigenous language spoken in that region. For example, my university is University of Pretoria/Universiteit van Pretoria/Yunibesithi ya Pretoria. All signs on campus are written in all three languages, because these are spoken in Pretoria. But in Zimbabwe, regardless of the languages spoken in the province, most public signs are written in English, Shona and if we’re lucky, in Ndebele.
This has even led to outsiders also assuming all Zimbabweans are Shona. People tell my best friend baSotho can’t be Zimbabwean; so what is she? A potato? When I’m in Pretoria, once I say I’m Zimbabwean, people ask if I speak Shona. Then they’ll say my name doesn’t “sound” Zimbabwean. Kanti are we supposed to have names like Loveness, Givemore and Freedom? Like, oh, sorry my parents didn’t pick my name from the Official Names List from the National Zimbabwean Names Council.
The most annoying bit is once I say I’m Zimbabwean, a Shona person will break out into deep Shona without asking what I speak, showing their disregard and invalidation of other ethnicities’ existence. What part of “Zoleka Zinhle Mazibuko” says I am Shona?
We really need to reform our popular culture. We need adverts that bring visibility to minority groups. We need the official government website to give intricate profiles to each ethnic group in Zimbabwe for the public to educate themselves. We need the curriculum to be revised. We need Shonas to learn Ndebele as compulsory, or whichever language of the region. We need companies to realise not all customers are Shona. Most importantly, we need Shonas to make an active effort to teach themselves these languages and learn more about minorities.