Zimbabwe Seeks Its Own Culture

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

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.

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.''

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.

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.

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