Being an ‘other’: Identity and belonging in Zimbabwe

*This piece was first published on Her Zimbabwe*

I went to a workshop recently. It was the kind of workshop where youths are encouraged to speak about the problems they face in society and how to fix them. Usually, these kinds of workshops bore me to death. We talk about the same issues we’ve been talking about for years, the government is informed of our pleas, they do nothing, and we come back, have a go again and convince ourselves we’re making progress. It’s exhausting, really.

But this time was different.

I walked into the building, signed a register, and was greeted by a young man who, every time he finished a sentence, flicked back his locks and mentioned something about liking my outfit. He showed me to his table and complained about the heat, laughing in intervals and barely letting me get a word in. He was delightful.

The discussions started.

It became evident that there was a sizeable group of members from the queer community taking part. Queer meaning either gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, trans-gendered. I felt slightly taken aback because this is not the kind of thing you see often in this country. What was even more striking was how nuanced the discussions were. Health matters didn’t just refer to the stigmas of teenage pregnancy and the usual PowerPoint on HIV and AIDS. Instead, they included the added victimisation many members of the queer community face when speaking to medical practitioners about methods of safe sex, STIs and their treatment.

I listened to them speak about the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia coming up on May 17th and the worldwide movement to have voices of the LGBTiQ community heard in matters of policy-making. Most importantly, I heard stories of grappling with identities, being ostracised, assaulted and excluded from society because of their identities.  At that point, my heterosexual and its attendant privilege stared at me in the face. I understood for the first time just how much we can ‘other’ and silence those in our society whose stories we seldom hear or even seek out.

An ‘other’ is a person on the outside – someone who doesn’t fit into our ‘normal’ understanding of what it means to be human.

An ‘other’ stands on the edges of society, barred from belonging in the community, chastised and ridiculed for being ‘different’. By virtue of your identity, you are either more or less of a human being in the eyes of society. This made me think more about which identities in our societies are seen to be the norm, and which ones are side-lined and victimised.

Belonging

Recently, our President made a comment about the xenophobic attacks in South Africa. He said Kalangas in this country are known for being uneducated people who cross over to South Africa in droves and once there, they engage in petty crime, hence the backlash against so many Zimbabweans in South Africa. The irony of this statement is that in addressing xenophobic attitudes and violence in South Africa, he in turn discriminated against an ethnic group in Zimbabwe. Whether the president was only referring to the stereotype or was indeed making xenophobic comments has been debated in the media. But the point is that the stereotype exists; and it is damaging as these are believed to be true by more people than I am comfortable with.

And this begs the question of how our identities and perceived identities ‘other’ us in our very own societies.

During the xenophobic attacks, President Zuma asked one of the most telling questions that touches on the issue of belonging in the African context. “Why are their [surrounding countries’] citizens not in their countries and in South Africa?” Now, there are many answers to his question which highlight some of the failures of other African states to cater for the basic needs of their own people, including our own.

But what Zuma is really saying is “You do not belong here”.

You may be just as human as us, you may be here legally, you may even be contributing to the economic growth of South Africa, but as someone who does not have citizenship, you do not belong. You are an ‘other’.  Your identity is incongruent with the requirements of belonging in South Africa. Your identity is the fundamental barrier between you being an ‘other’ and you being included.

Belonging means you have a sense of security about your acceptance in a group or society. It means that you feel like your life, concerns, goals, passions matter to the group and that you do not have to prove your humanity to anyone there.

It is, in our context, the spirit of Ubuntu – ‘I am because we are’.

Is it more important to ‘belong’ in Zimbabwe as a Zimbabwean even though you have no source of income, or is it more important to be financially stable, even if they say you do not belong in South Africa? How much value do we place on belonging? Who decides for us who belongs?

The queer community could argue that they may be Zimbabweans by citizenship, but that many do not believe they really belong. To be an ‘othered other’ therefore means to experience layers of discrimination based on your identity. To be Zimbabwean and foreign in South Africa, to be Kalanga and female, to be young and gay, or white and gay, to be Zimbabwean, female and foreign. And so while many of us are said to ‘belong’ here because we are Zimbabwean, or because we are African, many of us are ‘othered’ for one reason or another – standing on the edge of humanity, looking in.