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Zimbabwe Seeks Its Own Culture

A decade after independence, nation moves uneasily to define and adopt postcolonial tastes. ETHNIC AND NATIONAL IDENTITY

By Nina ShapiroSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 8, 1991


IN this southern African country of roughly 10 million people, Western culture has all but usurped the place of an African one. ``This isn't Africa,'' author Chenjerai Hove says of Harare, the capital city. ``This is Europe.'' Indeed, after a few days here, tourists expecting an adventure in mysterious bushland are apt to grumble that the city is not ``African'' enough.

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Zimbabweans themselves are starting to question the slant of their culture. Ten years after independence, many are asking how liberated are people who slavishly follow the tastes and trends of their former colonizers' culture. Reflecting a continental trend, a movement for cultural liberation has arisen. Intellectuals, artists, and government officials, decrying what they term ``neo-colonialism,'' are calling for Zimbabweans to develop their own culture.

The movement sometimes takes on a moral tone. American movies come under particular attack, criticized for their perceived emphasis on sex, violence, and materialism - all of which sum up the foundation of Western values in many eyes here.

Nonetheless, it is obvious that the drive for a distinct Zimbabwean culture is not grounded in moral indignation, but in a profound identity crisis. As Americans used to talk about ``finding themselves,'' Zimbabweans now speak about ``creating cultural identities.'' In the country's multiracial society, the crisis takes different forms but cuts across racial lines. Black, white, and Asian Zimbabweans are searching for a culture that reflects both their ethnic and national identities.

Colonialism forever changed African culture. It exposed Africans to a new culture - hailed by its importers as the only civilized one - and stymied development of local art. Colonialism is now gone, but its culture remains.

The idea of picking up African culture where it left off seems naive, if not patronizing. It also leaves white and Asian Africans out in the cold. Many Africans, left without a culture that expresses their postcolonial identities, are concluding that they must create a new one.

Tafateona P. Mahoso, director of the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe, is at the forefront of the movement for a national culture. Sitting on a hotel balcony appointed with patio furniture that called to Mr. Mahoso's mind the ``backwaters of New Jersey,'' he describes his vision of culture.

``Real culture,'' he says, ``is at the cutting edge of consciousness. It is concerned with the future while directly connected with the past.'' He differentiates between culture and custom, the latter being what most people call African culture: traditional dancing, primitive sculpture, and the like. Whereas custom is ``safe and contained,'' culture, Mahoso says, is always changing.

Mahoso believes art should express the meeting of modern and traditional worlds that takes place daily in Zimbabwe. ``I would like to see, for instance, how a grandmother coming to see her grandchild in Harare sees the Monomatapa [a skyscraping hotel].''

The quest for a national culture faces a complex set of obstacles. Probably the greatest is an inferiority complex left over from colonialism. The message that Western culture equals civilization is reinforced by an educational system, established by the British settlers, that still stresses Western literature, history, and geography.

``Do we have an African intellectual system? The answer is no,'' says Adam Latif, deputy chief psychologist for Zimbabwean schools. The notion that Western culture is a sign of progress, like tall buildings and electronic gadgets, is hard to shake off after such an education.

``The elite is intellectually in one place, emotionally in another,'' Mahoso says. ``You know [intellectually] that the right thing is to have confidence in your own culture, but emotionally you feel that to develop is to Europeanize.'' This contradiction is apparent even at his workplace, where - as in most offices - Western dress is required. ``I must wear a necktie even though it's directly opposed to what I do. They want me to look like a British mannequin while promoting my own culture.''