Being Zimbabwean on the land: some reflections on ZATT conversations

Taruvinga Magwiroto

At first glance, the notion of being Zimbabwean is not a particularly problematic one. However, as a row erupted about the appropriate language to use on the high-level Zimbabwe Agricultural Think Tank, it has alerted us to issues that go beyond agriculture: issues of identity and being Zimbabwean on the land today. This reflective essay seeks to make sense of these collective experiences, and perhaps illuminate possibilities for transcending complex problems steeped in a troubled past.

The conflict on language was triggered by the insistence by one scholar to use his vernacular language, rather than English, as the language of engagement. This was obviously a political stance, since said scholar was educated in Europe and could speak the English language as well as anybody. But this case involved no ordinary individual:  at the heart of the controversy was a scholar, researcher, war veteran, activist, agrarian anthropologist. In short, he was the kind of person who could enrich the conversations immensely. But on the other hand, rules are rules. Does the whole network bend over backwards to accommodate one individual? Should one individual, no matter how decorated, force the network to break its own rules?

This forced the admins of the group, of whom I am one, to make a tough decision. The general understanding was that English is the official language of engagement, though occasional use of vernacular was tolerated. This case not only tested the network’s resolve to keep its own rules: it also asked questions about the rationale of the very rules; and our understanding of what it means being a Zimbabwean on the land today.

Personally, I was conflicted. The member at the heart of the controversy was a senior colleague of mine. I was the one who had added him to the group. Moreover, I was ambivalent about the whole language issue. While I am perfectly at home with the English language, I am also aware that not everyone has similar facility in it. Should other people who are not as articulate in English be left behind, alienated, out of conversations involving their future because they can’t speak a foreign language? The language of colonialism, expropriation, plunder? For what? To appease the handful of white members of the group? To uphold a semblance of inclusivity? How about other tribes who if they insist on conversing in their own languages…the network must descend to Babel-like confusion of tongues! If English first among equals, should it assume that distinction at all? Doesn’t its use remind us every day of a historical yoke? Doesn’t its use reinforce that historical yoke?

On the other, isn’t the English language part of our legacy, to be embraced rather than hated? To be exploited rather than reviled? Are we not in fact inheritors of a “dual legacy”, that funny disembodied no-man’s land between not-being-exactly-western and not-being-exactly native?  Personally, I was in a thorough bind, have been for a long time. In the situation, I felt that the only way out for me was to facilitate a renegotiation of the rules of engagement, and try to process the problem through interpreting my own feelings towards the issue. Do we amend the rules?

The optics of expelling a member for speaking his native tongue in his mother land were terrible. The morality was unsupportable. In the end, we made a compromise. The ‘offending’ member was expelled for a brief period and re-added. But the episode had also other consequences: some ‘serious’ members of the networked exited in protest at the perceived goal displacement, the interminable scrutiny of the case. The argument was: “we are not here to discuss linguistics or politics or history. We are agriculturalists and actors in the sector. Let’s concentrate on what we do best, not waste time on side-shows.”

To me, that’s where the problem lies: the issue of language was not a side-show. It went to the heart of the matter. It really wasn’t just language, it was an issue of identity. Who are we? What does it mean, being Zimbabwean? What does it profit anyone, excelling in agriculture precariously perched on the shaky grounds on nationhood? What does it profit anyone, to master a science but lose a nation?

If we get all (agricultural) things correct, but fail to articulate what it means being Zimbabwean, we toil for nothing. Rhodesia had a very good economy. But because it had a shaky notion of nationhood, it eventually crumbled. As we seek to rebuild in the ruins of the past, let not that past continue to haunt and spook us. Instead, let it provide the key lessons that will help us illuminate what it means being Zimbabwean. Strong, proud, self-reliant. Not a Zimbabwe that uses the past to punish or pummel. But a Zimbabwe that must be based on strong notions of national interests and collective aspirations of all her peoples, of all shapes and hues.

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