Zimbabwe. In forty years of independence, we have not yet established a sense of self-worthiness that is divorced from whiteness. When we see a video of a white person singing Shona or Ndebele or dancing mukongonya we get excited and share it widely. It makes us feel validated. “Murungu arikuimba nechishona.”
When, on the other hand, we see a picture, like the Peterhouse ‘spears and books’ photograph (above), we feel utterly aggrieved. The absolute outrage on social media was telling. Whiteness has besmirched us again. How dare they still look down upon us? We look at that picture and it hurts us, more than it angers us, because whiteness is the standard by which we measure our progress and whenever there is a hint that white people look down upon us, it hurts more than it actually should.
If, in the forty years since independence, we had re-established our understanding of own excellence, the same way we did when we built Great Zimbabwe. The same way we did in Timbuktu when we studied astronomy and mathematics in the 14th century. The same way we did when we built pyramids, invented paper and started universities and libraries before colonisation stepped upon the shores of the continent. If we had done this, it would not be existentially offensive whenever we suspect that we are being scorned again. We’d be like, “Whatever.”
When Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed, the global press was, in general, quick to admit that the airline was one of the best in the world (There were a few misguided journalists who spoke in absolute ignorance about a history of hijackings). Then on CNN, Richard Quest said this. “Ethiopian Airlines is a very, very well-run airline. There is no safety issue on Ethiopian. They’ve made it their business to be the African airline that operates like a western airline.”
Feelings were caught. Quest had let slip what many of his peers, and maybe even many black people, probably thought but never said. The Mail & Guardian published an opinion piece where they admonished him for this statement.
Yes, Quest was offside with his statement, but the question remains: What is the standard by which we measure how airlines operate? As Africans have we set our own standard? No. So, as much as it irks me to say this, it is the Western standard we use. But we must save face, right. Damn you, Quest. How dare you rowel us like this. It hurts. Ethiopian Airlines is awesome. Leave it at that.
If a white American were to crack a joke today about the Japanese being bad with electronics, it would neither be very funny nor exceedingly offensive. Because the Japanese have, in the over 70 years since World War II, proved themselves over and over again in that field. They don’t measure themselves in that area by how well they have done in relation to the West. The world doesn’t either. In this and other things, they have a sense of self-worth that is based on what they know about themselves and what they know the world knows about them.
What do we know about ourselves Zimbabwe? What does the world know about us?
Congolese philosopher, Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, in his 1988 book, The Invention of Africa, identified the major aspects of colonialism. One was obviously territorial expansion. Another was the transformation of consciousness. You only have to look at the way the global narrative on poverty and development plays out to understand that this aim was successful. We are up here in Harare trying to imitate London, Paris and New York. We see the world through the lens that they have crafted because we believe that there is no other viable way.
Let’s put the Peterhouse picture into perspective. This is a photograph from a little school in Zimbabwe. Yes, I too wonder what sort of rock the person who posted that image is living under, knowing the racial dynamics of our country and world. But Zimbabwe is a country run by black people. It has been for almost 40 years now. Why do we feel the world is falling apart every time a white person is racist? Where is our true sense of self-worth anchored? At this stage in our development as a nation, we should be able to look at misdemeanours like this and say, “there goes a misguided person. We need to tame that one,” without it becoming a big hoo-haa.
Yes, we carry the baggage of all the ways that racism has torn us apart. We cannot run away from that. But for as long as we continue to give others such an inordinate power to offend, we are effectively enslaved because we will always double check our actions, hold ourselves back and churn ourselves into immobility in the vortex of victimhood.
Another way to look at it is this; if we had, in our forty years post-independence, done well with our time and resources, instead of squandering them as we have, we would be able to look at that Peterhouse picture and very easily say, “There’s a photo that shows how the colonisers came to our land, bible in hand, and tried to dispossess us of everything, but we took up our spears (because we did – no shame in that) and fought long and hard. While we were fighting, some of us fell, but we carried on fighting. In the end, we won the war. Look at us now. Look at this great nation.”
When our fathers and mothers walked through ‘Salisbury’, in the 1960s and 70s, they walked in perpetual fear that some irritated white person might pick on them. Today, we can’t and shouldn’t walk around in a state of constantly being at the mercy of racist insensibilities. We should deal with these things appropriately when they come up without being thrown off track. We have bigger battles to fight.