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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

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ONE of the easiest manifestations of Western culture to appropriate, the necktie achieved such popularity in the early days of colonialism that it was worn no matter what the occasion. Author Charles Mungoshi writes of farmers wearing ties even while plowing the fields.

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The degree to which Western culture is associated with success is underscored by the behavior of Indian and Pakistani immigrants who came here at the beginning of the century to improve their social and financial status.

Leaving behind deeply Asian cultures, Indians and Pakistanis tended to assimilate not into mass Zimbabwean culture, but into the ruling colonial one. The result is that Asians, by coming to Africa, have become Westernized.

``Western culture is seen as acceptable, as something to aspire to,'' says Mr. Latif, an Indian Zimbabwean.

Latif himself grew up identifying with the music of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. He read Shakespeare and admired the Victorian explorer David Livingstone. He calls himself a ``Western-oriented gentleman,'' although he believes strongly in the development of Zimbabwean culture.

The Asian Zimbabwean community here is still an insular community, conscious of ethnicity. Yet many Asian Zimbabweans have a strong national identity. ``I don't identify with India,'' says a Harare prosecuting attorney. ``My grandfather came to this country. I'm basically Zimbabwean.''

Latif is often offended by reaction to his presence at international conferences on education. ``People will say, `But you're not black, how can you represent Africa?' That infuriates me.''

For white Zimbabweans, particularly those who have rejected their colonial heritage, the question of cultural identity can be even more confusing. Raised by parents who called themselves Europeans, in houses with swimming pools and tennis courts that looked like the posh suburban homes of the West, many whites are not sure what makes them Zimbabwean besides their nationality.

``People like myself have to try to create a Zimbabwean identity,'' says Simon Bright, a filmmaker.

The belief, subconscious or otherwise, that Western culture is superior to African is apparent even among government officials who purport to support the development of a national culture. Government funding for local art is low and one of the largest allocations for a cultural production in recent years was a United States $3.4 million investment in the British-produced movie ``Cry Freedom,'' which was filmed here.

Celebrations for the 10th anniversary of independence this spring, according to Mahoso, illustrated the ``contradiction that runs through the whole system'' regarding culture. The National Arts Council submitted a proposal to the government for a dance performance rooted in Zimbabwean culture. ``At the last minute, all the performers, the choreographers, were chased away and the space was given over to the National Ballet,'' Mahoso says. ``It's not even good European ballet. It's an imitation of an imitation.

``I was so shocked,'' Mahoso says, ``I ended up going to Namibia during the celebration. I didn't want to see that trash.''

NO doubt the contradiction lamented by Mahoso is due in part to the fact that many Zimbabwean art forms are in an embryonic state. Daunted by Western culture, discouraged by poverty and colonialism, local artists have only begun to come into their own in the decade since independence.

The local film industry is a prime example. A July film festival that was meant to showcase movies from the southern African region showed mainly that the local industry is disorganized. Films from around the region arrived late, if at all, wrecking the published time schedule and opening up the festival to ridicule.

Still, Zimbabwe is making strides in a number of areas. For three years in a row, the country has won top international literary awards, this year for Shimmer Chinodya's novel, ``Harvest of Thorns.'' With singer Thomas Mapfumo in the lead, its musicians have become known throughout the world. And the monumental stone sculpture of Zimbabwe artists fetches high prices in London and New York galleries.

But in perhaps the greatest sign of insecurity, people look to the West to judge their own country's artists. It is usually only after winning European and American approval that local artists achieve popularity at home.