The lion within

A mother discovers her son has an aptitude for adaptation growing up in Zimbabwe.

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"Do you know what my totem is?" asks Fadzai, my son's 9-year-old Shona playmate. She and Sam are climbing in my pantry, legs splayed out to balance on the shelves that line the walls. It's not entirely permitted behavior but my mind was – until now – on the French toast I'm trying to prepare for our lunch.

"Mum, what's a totem?" Sam, 7, asks. I turn to Fadzai. "It's an animal that represents your family, isn't it?" She nods. These are the other things I know about totems: that they are passed on like an unbroken thread through the generations, that you never must eat meat from your family totem. President Robert Mugabe's totem is a crocodile.

"My totem is a porcupine," Fadzai tells us importantly. She must have been reminded when she saw our porcupine quills, collected when we were last in Zimbabwe's Lowveld. They're on a shelf next to the light bulbs and a grubby lump of molding clay.

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Fadzai has already corrected me on my less-than-perfect housekeeping skills, taking the broom to sweep the floor earlier as I washed the dirty breakfast dishes hurriedly in cold water: "If my Gogo [Granny] could see this floor, she'd say: 'Do humans live here?' " she scolded.

"Porcupine is nungu in Shona," she says now.

"Mum, what's our totem?" asks Sam. Fadzai giggles. "White people don't have totems," she says with all the certainty of her extra two years.

Fadzai leaves for home at the end of the afternoon. But the totem question is most definitely not resolved.

"Ethan's totem is an elephant. He told the teacher at school," Sam announces at supper the next day. "He wants to belong," my husband says quietly. We face the challenge that ethnic minority parents throughout the world must have always faced: How do you help your child build a strong sense of identity while embracing the country – and culture – of his birth?

I was born in England, my husband here in Zimbabwe. With photos and stories, I have tried to patch together a history for our child, a white boy with a Shona second name who falls asleep to the sound of the bush babies crying in the neighbor's garden and who has never seen snow.

"See this brown-and-white picture: It's my grandmother, your great-grandmother, on her wedding day in the 1930s. No, I don't know who that cross-looking relative is in the corner of the picture. She's wearing a feather boa and she's glaring at the camera. Maybe she was an aunt?"

And: "When Dad was little, his father's friends nicknamed him Lion and he kept pet pigeons."

And: "My mum used to make Turkish Delight out of mashed potato and sugar. She made trays of it to eat on Bonfire Night, when it was very cold."

Sam's face lights up when I bring out the albums. But he still wants a totem.

I am beginning to think that this will be a problem I cannot solve when I visit Fadzai's aunt, Bridget, in a township in northern Harare. Bridget's sister comes with a jug of water and a plastic basin for me to wash my hands in before I take a cookie. We talk about Ngaa, Fadzai's brother, who has finally started to chatter at age 3 and who is terrified of Sam's pet hamster (but loves his toy cars).

I coo over Bridget's new baby, Tinaye-Ishe, and ask how her university course is going. Then I confess: "I have a problem." Sam is sad because he doesn't have a totem, I tell her. "So let him choose one," she replies. "Do you think that would be all right?" I say doubtfully. "Yeah, sure," she says, cuddling her son.

The rain drums on the tin roof. In the coziness of that tiny room, sofa and chairs squashed tight against the walls, I'm filled with gratitude for this family who – like so many of my Shona friends – have taken me and mine into their hearts and accepted us for all our foreignness.

Not only that, they have made us one of theirs.

"Tinaye-Ishe's mother says you can choose your own totem," I tell Sam at home. Then I find out that he has done just that. "It's shumba," he says. Lion: his father's childhood nickname. "I've already told my teacher."

I can patchwork all I like. But my son will pick his own patterns.

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