From a kingdom to a nation: A Shona awakening

In Government by Tine Ndhlovu

Usually, when people ask me where I am from or what my background is  and I mention Zimbabwe, they pause for a bit and either ask “where is that?” or “you’re the first person I’ve met from Zimbabwe.” The continuous response that always strikes me the most, however, is “MUGABE? that’s the country with Robert Mugabe right?” 

After years of independence, it somehow seems that the greatest connection between Zimbabwe and the continent has been perceived through Robert Mugabe’s long presidency and dictatorship. 

From Africa’s breadbasket, to the second highest global inflation rate. It’s a country filled with diamonds and gold that somehow lacks the resources to extract its own wealth for its own use. The question we all ask is: “What went wrong?”  

I often hear Zimbabweans say that “they miss the old Zimbabwe.” Perhaps that ‘old Zimbabwe’ was that of a promised future that has not yet come to pass, or even that was never theirs but was rather land once seized under the British Crown. Who can we blame, for Zimbabwe’s tragic fall?

Even though Zimbabwe is made up of many tribal groups, it somehow seems that one tribal group has taken predominance over the entire nation; the same group that once ruled the area in the 15th century, known as Great Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe was one of the first significant empires to emerge in Southern Africa and was ruled by a hereditary monarchy of earlier Shona sub-groups. Though historians have said that they reached their peak of power and influence in the mid 15th century, they somehow managed to remerge in the 20th century with the building of the imagined state that was constructed on Shona political hegemony and national identity. 

My awakening

My culture was always very present within our household. I always knew I was Zimbabwean by descent, and we spoke Shona at home. From the stone decorations my mother would hang across the house, to the starches and peanut butter (Sadza neDovi) which would be laid on our table for dinner at night. I had visited Zimbabwe a number of times from a young age, but I never knew much about Zimbabwe as a nation. It was always another place that I saw as far away. Only when I went back to visit did I acknowledge my background again. 

One thing I realized the most about Shona people and their form of governance, was their use of proverbs. The use of Shona proverbs is an embodiment of the Shona people’s worldview, their philosophy of life, a conduit of their ethos, ideals and principles celebrated and cherished amongst the Shona community.

Ashamba/ haanokorewi (one who has waashed/ does not have stiff porridge broken for him) meaning: A cultured person is entitled to proper respect

Such as this proverb suggests, I felt like I not only owed respect  to myself, but I also owed it to my ancestors who paved the way and built the very ground the nation sits on. Though, it was only in 2014, when I took another trip to Zimbabwe on my own, where I began to question who I was as a Zimbabwean, but more specifically as a ‘Shona.’ It became so much more than Robert Mugabe and what people think of when they think Zimbabwe. The real question that I continued to ask myself is, “What happened to the Zimbabwe we learned about in our African Studies Classes?” Perhaps it got lost in a hopeless future? Or maybe this is the real Zimbabwe?

In our house, Shona was always the sub-category to our identity. It was only when I started to awaken with my sense of identity that being a Shona become a part of my national identity. There was no specific attribute that gave me a sense of awakening of my identity, but purely me allowing myself to open up and embrace my culture at hand. I always found it fascinating that I knew more about Shona people and culture through research than those who were raised and educated in Zimbabwe. I seemed to notice a divide; as much as the Shona people are seen as dominant, even the Shona’s themselves know little about their own history. It was only then that I truly saw myself as a Shona, and so my journey in discovering the Shona people began. I began to draw my lineage, my people, my nation to a kingdom so significant to our existence. So attached to the arbitrary border, I had to learn how to break down the walls which popularized my people into one nation and look back to a time when we were once a part of a greater kingdom. It was at this point where I asked myself: who are the Shona people and what does their form of governance say about nationalism?

Who are the Shona?

From the Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe to Monomutapa, there you will find traces of what is known today as the Shona people. They are made up of a long history that is diverse in ethnicity and culture. It was not until the 19th century that the people who resided around the ruins of Great Zimbabwe came to collectively be known as the ‘Shona.’ Shona is a Bantu language, but also a part of the Bantu group that can be found across the neighbouring borders of Mozambique, southern Zambia and Malawi, due to the implementation of arbitrary colonial borders. They subsume the largest ethnic group in Zimbabwe and are divided into sub-ethnic groups within the area, which consist of the Karanga, Manyika, Zezuru, Kore-Kore and Ndau. 

The Shona and their Great Kingdom

The Shona’s formed many kingdoms from 1100 AD onwards. Upon the decline of Great Zimbabwe, they formed the Monomotapa Kingdom in the 17th century, which was even closer to the trade routes of the Indian Ocean and had operations with the Portuguese. The political economy of the Shona people was based on land. The control of land use and cultivation was valuable for cattle-keeping and agriculture, and commanding gold and other trade routes. Control over land was the basis of their political power relations between the ruler of each clan group and their subjects. Gold mining was a significant source of wealth for the people of Great Zimbabwe, as they formed their commercial routes towards the Indian Ocean for trade with China, Persia and the Islamic Middle East. However, cattle for most of the period has remained a significant source of wealth for the Shona people. Great Zimbabwe was an epicentre for thriving professional masons. Since the early formation of the Kingdom, they followed a structured political organization of lineage. 

The Shona society is not constraining and rigid; their thinking is not constrained to definitive and restricting terms. The indirectness and ambiguity of their poetry and proverbs allow for many meanings and interpretations. This allows the meaning to evolve and fit current events. There is no apparent backwardness in a Shona society, but as a common proverb says, “one who looks behind to see the path of one’s forefathers, is a person who wants to see a better future”. However, we happen to be stuck between a generation of young adults who are seeking change and an older generation of leaders who are clinging to power. 

In the same light, Zimbabwe is a highly centralized government that has only seen a one-party government that has constituted the nation since its 1980s independence. We are talking about a government that is headed by a revolutionary party, and a party that is made up of imperialists]and  that has been funded by imperialism. Maybe I am a part of a different generation that feels the need to rescue the nation from the very group that once rescued the nation before. 

Kure kwegava ndokusina mutsubvu (If you do not exceed at your first, keep trying)

From a Kingdom to a nation, Zimbabwe is an example of how tribes modernize and reform themselves in different environments. The Shona emerged from the cultural and linguistic community to form a central hegemony, through the power of Robert Mugabe. With two ethnic leaders, Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo at the forefront of independence, Mugabe summoned nationalism amongst the Shona people, to consolidate his power over the nation and sideline his rival Nkomo. Given that the Shona made up 70% of the population, it became easy for Mugabe to gain power and continue the Shona majority rule throughout his 36-year presidency. The negative aspect of having tribal communities becoming political communities is that it makes way for tribalism and political assimilation of one’s tribal group across the entire nation. Since the defeat of Ndebele leader Joshua Nkomo in parliamentary politics, Zimbabwe has not been governed by any minority leader again. 

To an extent, Zimbabwe can be considered a Shona state. The constitution acknowledges 16 languages, but only embraces two of them nationally (Shona and English). Shona is widely taught in schools, but Ndebele, the second biggest tribal group is not. Under the Unitary accord of 1987, Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government placed Shona teachers into Ndebele schools and forced Ndebele teachers to teach at Shona schools, to ensure that everyone knew Shona and Shona would become the dominant language. For that, Ndebele’s tend to know Shona, but Shona’s do not know Ndebele. While one can see this as a natural form of assimilation, others still question tribalism. In the forty-years of independence, Zimbabwe has not seen a non-Shona head of state. One may ask, “What accommodation have the Shona made for other tribal groups?” I can respond and say no accommodation has been made. So, what does this mean? This means tribalism.

Although tribalism is seen as a taboo word, it’s an experience that the Shona government often sweeps under the rug as if it is not happening. Mutual distrusts between the Shona and Ndebele, has hindered the country’s progress. Perhaps, the Ndebele’s have come to terms with current political affairs and decided to give in. However, we cannot ignore the endless years of marginalization, institutionalism and neglect for the economic and political development of Ndebele and other minority groups. Even staple/traditional restaurants who write ‘sadza’ (traditional starch) in Shona on their menus in Ndebele populated regions, and not ‘Isistshwala’ in Ndebele. But to whom can they complain, when surrounded by a Shona government. Maybe if we were to build a new national identity in Zimbabwe, we should start from a community level, because at a national level, we are Shona. Although I am a Shona, I have found myself questioning Zimbabwe’s governance many times. 

Meeting myself at a crossroad

Between a kingdom that was so successful and a nation that is falling apart, as I begin my journey into understanding the Shona people, I try to piece together a hopeful future. And this can be the path to my awakening, where I not only look back to see a once-thriving civilization behind me, but a culture, language and history that shaped me. Shona is not just a language; a dictionary of words we use to communicate. It is more than a skill I can add to my resume. Shona represents my culture, my identity and the very culture that has taught me to be nurturing and respectful. This group of people built the very foundation Zimbabwe sits on. Although, we must not forget the other tribes who have been with us in building the very nation that exists today. From its Great ruins to the anti-colonial struggle, the intensity and power of this nationalism is not to be underestimated as it successfully drove itself from an artificial construct to a national construct. However, we can only hope to see change where not only do we see more women in positions of power, but we can see accommodations made to other tribal groups for greater unity and developmental progress. 

Nzombe huru yakabva mukurewa (big results have small but indispensable beginnings)

Here again, I meet you at a point where my journey continues in learning about the Shona people. This collective name has shaped our identity. It shaped our history and the journey of our ancestors. It shaped how we socialize, organize and govern ourselves against tribalism. If there’s one thing you can take from this journey, it is that much like the Shona people emphasized before borders were created, we must remember that Africa is made up of many kingdoms and empires, which had flourishing trade routes and civilizations that were amongst the richest in the world. As a popular Shona proverb states: “hakupere kuve neruzivo’’ (there is no limit to knowledge).