Bye, Robert: The complexities of chipping away our oppression

Friday 24th November is the day Zimbabwe saw the swearing in of a new president, after what has been called a ‘bloodless coup’. It also marks the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the ruling party – one without Robert Mugabe. While the mood in Zimbabwe and amongst Zimbabwean communities the world over has been jubilant, what I have felt this week is a mixture of euphoria and anxiety, as I think deeply about the future of a people that have lost so much. This is my personal reflection on a system we desperately need to do away with to truly free ourselves of different forms of oppression.

Bye, Robert

My father had the kind of singing voice that could only be classified as atrocious. It was deep and lacked any sort of real tone or direction, and the only song I ever remember him sing from beginning to end, in three different languages, was our national anthem – a memory that still makes me cry with laughter whenever it crosses my mind. “Tone deaf and proud,” I would often call him.

In many ways, his tone deafness and pride in mediocrity extended beyond his attempts at singing, into his political life. He was a Zanu official for as long as I knew him, in different capacities. And it was his tone deafness – a characteristic shared by his former colleagues and our former president (that feels really good to say) that inevitably resulted in decades of state and police brutality, plundering of government resources, corruption, negligence and mismanagement at eye-watering levels. And so in essence, the same guttural voice that made me cry with laughter, made me seethe with anger at the horrid sate of affairs Zimbabweans were subjected to. Herein lies the complexity of where we find ourselves.

BOB 1
Robert Mugabe, the former President of Zimbabwe, will not be missed. Photo cred: http://bit.ly/2i3vyYO

For years, Zimbabweans have been speaking and writing about the shocking state of the country’s decline. We were ruled by a government that had no interest in listening to anything other than the voices that were powerful enough to silence others. Mugabe was an awful leader. So when he was forced to resign (please stop saying it was by choice; it wasn’t), I danced and cried for the end of his political power that had been used to bully, oppress and marginalise his own people. For many, his demise symbolised the beginnings of a long road to recovery. Zimbabweans, I believe, should celebrate each victory we win as deeply as we have mourned our losses over the years.

Hello, Emmerson – we need to talk

But as I write this today, Emmerson Mnangagwa has taken over as the head of state. He was a close ally of the president who was part of government throughout some of its most violent periods and actions: Gukurahundi, Operation Murambatsvina, the political violence in various election years and so on. He was and is part of a system that none of us can say has ever truly served all Zimbabweans. Our country is in a mess, and it will take more than just a change in leadership to fix it, which most people are very aware of.

Now, this is the situation we find ourselves in. But this is not the situation we have to stay in forever. As a young Zimbabwean, I was swimming in apathy and despair for longer than I’d like to admit, and that is a sentiment that is shared across socio-economic statuses and geographical locations. The removal of Robert was one small step in a series of many large steps that need to be taken for us to truly be free. And it seems naïve to celebrate his removal, considering who has replaced him. But it is possible to be anti-Mugabe without being pro-Mnangagwa. It is possible, that after years of oppression, silencing and being mocked by Robert’s leadership, his removal is the push that some young people need to start thinking about how to build our country. Anything that chips away at the feelings of apathy about my country, I welcome with open arms.

It may be too early to tell where everything is going, but what is clear is that the entrenched system of violence and intolerance for opposing poitical views needs to be dismantled. We as citizens need to think and act in ways that emphasise our desire for a country where everyone is afforded the same opportunities. We need to keep fighting for a country that we can be proud of, and where political leaders are not deified, but recognise that they are to serve our interests alone.

My father lost his life because of the very system and people whose power he helped to consolidate, and so violence begets violence. The system and the people in it are not going to willingly change for us. I think we need to keep speaking and collectively cure the ‘tone deafness’ of our political leadership as we move forward. And I think we need to give each other the space to celebrate small victories, while we work out how to achieve bigger ones.

 

‘Voting against my father’ – Tearing the fabric of violence.

Two days ago, the MDC-T youth held a demonstration in Harare to demand that ZEC put in place electoral reforms ahead of next year’s elections. The demonstration, as I read, began peacefully, but as usual the police violently cracked down on protesters. Those unfortunate enough to be in bank queues nearby were hit by the canon spray as well, while they experienced another violence of not being able to access the very money they have earned.

I remember thinking of how common this all is – police brutality in the face of a fight for basic rights and freedoms and answers that citizens deserve. Our country has been smothered by a fabric of violence that permeates every aspect of our lives, and it is in our best interests to tear that fabric and start building the country we all really want. This piece is deeply personal, and speaks to my encounters with this state violence and how it’s shaped my view of politics. It’s been particularly difficult to write because of my proximity to perpetrators of this violence. I want nothing more than a fresh start for this country and for our people, and I believe it’s possible. But we have to take a hard look at the ways this fabric of violence was woven and how we’re continuing that violence, if we’re ever going to tear it.

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2005 was the last time I listened intently and uncritically to my father’s take on politics. I  had just begun the teenage phase where I was perpetually annoyed with my parents. But what I felt that day was deeper than mild annoyance, and I knew that. His convictions had stopped moving me; if anything, they began to cause confusion and discomfort, which eventually, years later, turned to something close to disappointment. He’s dead now, and I’m older; and thankfully I ask more questions than I did back then.

2005 was the year of Murambatsvina, the government’s operation to demolish informal housing and business structures in urban areas across the country. It had a profound impact on my relationship with politics and my understanding of state violence, even at that age. Zimbabwe was going through a painful economic slump which was only to worsen over the years, reaching the tipping point in 2008. The currency was weak and jobs were scarce. The informal economy served as a source of much-needed income for urban residents who couldn’t access the formal sector or who simply couldn’t survive on salaries paid in a currency that was worth less and less every day. It was also the first time I had ever even considered my father to be a perpetrator of violence.

That’s important. A perpetrator of violence.

It wouldn’t be the last time, and it began a complex period of both loving him dearly and making wonderful memories, but gradually despising what he represented politically.

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Murambatsvina’s destructive effects that plague our country to this day. Source: http://www.herzimbabwe.co.zw

Operation Murambatsvina was swift and brutal; carried out in the height of the winter cold, rendering hundreds of thousands homeless and desperate. You see, my father was pictured in one of our newspapers in a white dust-coat, holding a broom and sweeping away the remains of people’s make-shift structures. “We’re cleaning up the city,” he said, after I asked if this didn’t seem harsh to him. “I mean, we’ve issued warning after warning…we’ve been clear about this from the start.” He tried to make some comparison with an example I might understand, but by now I had stopped hearing him. I remember staring at the picture of him sweeping away the livelihoods of the people him and his colleagues implied were “filth”.

I try not to think of my father very often anymore. But when I do, it’s with a feeling of both deep fondness and deep disappointment. Some days the latter outweighs the former. To me, he symbolised a party that rose on the backs of passionate black people’s painful sacrifices, steadfast resolve and a leadership that could see the Zimbabwe that many couldn’t even dream of. But there was an underlying violence in their actions that I saw and understood to an extent, but couldn’t fully articulate, and that I desperately want us to rid ourselves of now.

Tearing the fabric

I grew up thinking the state had everyone’s best interests at heart. More often than not I’d hear the words “sovereignty”, “freedom”, and “independence”, as did everyone else really. Except I listened to them twice – both from the mouthpieces of the party and one specific mouthpiece, my dad. I was taught to associate Zanu-PF with freedom and black empowerment, but more importantly as the only source of political and economic freedom and empowerment. It was this portrayal of a single ‘saviour’ – the ‘pasi nemhandu-ness’ that labelled anything outside of the ruling party as enemy and ‘other’ – that threaded together the fabric of violence we’ve wrapped ourselves in.

For years we’ve been taught to see difference in political opinion as being an inherent threat or something to be shunned and destroyed immediately and without question. It’s infused in the slogans we chant at rallies, the Facebook comments on political party pages, the high school history books, the newspapers and news sites, the arguments during dinner and the WhatsApp groups we rant to. The violence is everywhere. It’s in the way MDC supporters feel entitled to our votes, and the way Zanu supporters are willing to do anything to win. It’s the reason why, when independent candidates or new parties come about, we’re quick to tear them down. We’ve done things the same way, over and over. We’ve covered ourselves completely with the fabric, tearing it occasionally, but never enough.

This is where we are. But it doesn’t have to be where we stay.

2016 was the first time I felt my heart awaken with the possibility of taking back what our leaders had stripped from us. It was a long, hard stare at the fabric and how long and thick it had become. It was an attempt to tear the fabric of violence and sew a different kind of fabric – one woven together with democracy and tolerance and the ability to oppose one another without feeling threatened and insecure. We’ve already started weaving a new fabric. We may have to undo a few knots or close a few gaps, but we should never stop trying. Our efforts are in every refusal to accept poor governance, every protest, every counter argument on vote-splitting, and every demand to have our dignity recognised by our leaders. It’s in every bit of encouragement we give to those who speak truth to power and fight for our rights, that the fabric starts to tear.

2017 was the first time my grief didn’t fully consume me. And it was the first time I felt a deep sense of longing for a better country, and that I actually thought a better country was within our reach. And I realised that even more than I loved my father, I love myself. I love myself and my country enough to help work towards a future I can be proud of, and enough to be part of tearing the fabric of violence alongside everyone who’s fighting for a new country too.

For African women whose silence hasn’t protected them.

Before the weight of adulthood came crushing down on me, I was one of the best 9 year-olds at maflau (dodge ball) in my cousin’s street. (This isn’t up for discussion. It’s a fact.) I was fast and I could catch well, much to the delight of my teammates. I took our games very seriously – we would play for hours on end, only breaking if we heard our names being called from inside the gate. The December holiday sun wouldn’t bother us; we’d tease each other, scrape our knees, form alliances and make bets, then scurry into our gates after being threatened with a beating if we didn’t get bathed before dinner time.

There was one particular day I channeled the confidence of a mediocre white man and strutted into the street. I knew I was ready to win that day. We played a long, hard game of maflau and as usual, I was the last one standing. I dodged the last few throws and caught the ball made of plastic bags and old rags, meaning all my teammates who had been knocked out, got to come back in. This upset one of the little boys for some reason, who suddenly said he wanted to go home. I immediately called him a sore loser and we got into a verbal altercation. “Alright fine! Let’s see how you’ll play then.” He said as he grabbed his ball (he made it, so it was his) from my hands and walked home. “Ona zvawaita Vimbai!” [You see what you’ve done now?] was the response I got from my teammates, most of them male. I couldn’t believe it. In my attempt to stand up for myself and them, I had alienated myself, and I should have simply kept quiet so we could at least have kept the games going. So we could ‘keep the peace’. Everyone walked away mumbling and throwing their hands, and my heart sank.

 

“Your silence will not save you.” – Audre Lorde

The first time I heard that quote, I squinted a little in the way you squint at a lecturer so they assume you’re thinking very deeply about what they said. In reality, it went in one ear and slipped out the other. I must have nodded as well, this being before I learned how to question my questions and wake up my ‘woke’. Once I got to thinking though, I remembered that hot day in December when my speaking ruined the day for all my friends. Silence is golden, my lily white primary school teacher would say when the black girls got too rowdy. Back then, I truly believed her. Back then, I chose silence because society had chosen it for me first, and I had lost a few friends temporarily because I had spoken up.

Silencing on social media

My Twitter Timeline is an interesting place to be. I learn and unlearn on it, and I encounter both wonderful, critical thinkers and horrid individuals, stuck in their horrid ways. Being feminist on Twitter often feels like you have a bull’s-eye pinned on your back, dodging misogynist bullets everywhere. Misogyny isn’t the same as sexism – inside of the soul of a misogynist is a cesspool of murky water bubbling over with a real hatred for women. Misogynists delight in the power of patriarchy in its ability to crush women’s self-esteem, dreams, opportunities and voices. They revel in discrediting any kind of attempt women make at empowering themselves, and then it manifests largely through seemingly harmless sexist tweets. The patriarchy tower stands tall on social media, and the misogynists renovate and repaint it daily a bright red, drawing even more attention to themselves. Misogynoir however, combines the misogynist’s hatred for women and black people, to make black women the target – bearers of the burden of race and gender discrimination.

Silencing is a common tactic – it’s been around for centuries, plaguing various vulnerable groups of people in the world, amplifying the voices of oppressors everywhere. I speak about social media because as a young adult, it is the one space that offers a multitude of opportunities to network, learn and be entertained, but also serves as a space of violence. As a young black African feminist, living in my feminist truth offline can be just as taxing as it is online. There are two things I have struggled and sometimes continue to struggle with online, that have resulted in my choosing silence from time to time: ‘Likeability’, and the violence of ‘teaching’ feminism online.

A big part of patriarchy is its ability to ascribe particular gender identities and traits to women and men. Black women in particular are often portrayed as unnecessarily angry, bitter, and in need of a man to ‘tame’ them or domesticate them. Black women feminists are seen as troublemakers that hate men, seek to divide men and women in the fight against racism/oppression, and are therefore undesirable as romantic partners for men. (Note how all of this is steeped in heterosexual language as well). I and many women I know, were raised to be ‘likeable’. We were expected to be friendly always, even in situations where we were subject to violence. That time your creepy uncle demanded a hug and kiss and you were expected to oblige them and smile, cringing inwardly at the feel of their hand a little too close to your bum? Yeah. This spilled over into my teens and young adult years, until I realised that being ‘likeable’ often means being silent in the face of my own erasure. It meant fiercely denying that you were angry, bitter or headstrong in any way, lest you be undesirable to men. It meant shrinking myself to a size palatable for male tastes. It meant dying a little on the inside.

The second issue is something I still struggle with. From time to time another egg-avi individual will tweet “What is Feminism anyway? Is it not meant to oppress men?” or something equally as nauseating. And then the debate begins, the misogynists stretch their fingers and fire away, chipping away at some of the work black feminists have done to teach feminism online for years now. They are rarely ever robust, nuanced discussions – they are a chance for those who refuse to unlearn patriarchal ways of thinking to crawl out of their holes and gain a few retweets. I love speaking about what feminism can do, what it stands for and how it’s helped me. What I hate doing is having never-ending ‘debates’ about my humanity and inherent equality as a woman. It is violent to expect women to constantly ‘teach’ feminism to people who refuse to see beyond the myths created around it, and it sometimes pushes me into silence. But my silence hasn’t saved me.

The beauty of the feminist cohort that forms your posse on Twitter is unmatched. It’s a group of women who are tired of the oppression from white supremacy, black male misogyny and societies drenched in patriarchal norms. Speaking/tweeting about black African feminisms and their meaning for my life is what’s saved me. Speaking out against the daily exclusions and the erasure that black women face both off and online has made me more aware of the things in this world that need to change. I worry less about my likeability because that likeability has never guaranteed my safety, and I’m not interested in promoting things that endanger me and other black women. Silence is golden, they’ve told me. Well, me speaking is damn near priceless in my life.

Zimbabwe: My rekindled love affair.

“Fellow citizens – Wednesday 6th July 2016, we are shutting down Zimbabwe…we have decided to act. Citizens I want to invite you to do something to help save this country…We love Zimbabwe too much to keep watching it burn…Enough is enough!” – Evan Mawarire

I’m part of the group they call the “born-frees” – everyone who came after the triumphant victory against the ‘pink-noses’. Vasina mabvi. We were born into ‘freedom’. Freedom was supposedly waiting for us outside of the womb, Zimbabwe holding its arms open wide, ready to embrace us and carry us into our bright futures. And so began my love affair with my country. Our generation was to throw whiteness into the pit of Lucifer from whence it came and proudly declare our allegiance to the state and the man who engulfed it, and march into the promised land, singing songs of liberty.

We were the 90s babies. The ones who came out kicking and screaming when the big bad IMF had our economy in the palm of its hands, ‘socialism’ forgotten. The ones that were too young to remember or understand the food riots of ’98, who grew up hearing songs that likened British Prime Ministers to blair toilets and singing the praises of the man who was going to finally get our land back from the evil whites. We were the ones that were too young to remember or truly understand the violence and the politicking until much later. We were the ones that were going to benefit from the land taking and the election rigging (which was for the good of the nation of course), and the ‘cleaning up of the filth’ of the informal economy actors, the constant-loan taking and the DRC war-fighting and the excellent better-than-anywhere education we’d been given. We were going to eat the fruit of the regime that cared for nothing more than our well-being and our ownership of the land and resources they had fought so hard for. Well, supposedly.

“A nation can win freedom without its people being free” – Joshua Nkomo

A few dubious election results, a failed currency and a million march later, and here we are. The born-frees are largely unemployed, either hopelessly apathetic or violently loyal to the ruling party and generally uncertain of their futures. Us 90s babies are babies no more, and we’re faced with the harsh reality of adulthood and a failed relationship with the state. Needless to say, my love affair was short-lived, and it was only recently that the flames of the passion I have for my home were rekindled.

I remember reading about Pastor Evan and seeing a few of the #ThisFlag campaign photos from Zimbabweans around the world. Each photo and video told a story about my country’s flag, and how it represents us all. They told stories of the pain of being led by leaders who cared less for development and more for their personal enrichment. Corruption scandals all around, a collapsing health system, a dying economy and a brutalised people. Zimbabweans were tired of the lies, the cringe-worthy propaganda and the belittling of their struggles. The more tweets and posts I read, the angrier I got. My familial proximity to the violent system of the ruling party didn’t help either. The thick clouds of citizens’ disappointments, exhaustion and frustration finally burst, and it started to rain. What started as a peaceful protest and shutdown in Beitbridge on 1 July following the implementation of Statutory Instrument 64 of 2014, culminated in the razing of a ZIMRA warehouse and the looting of nearby shops. In Harare, kombi operators in Epworth, Ruwa, Zimre Park, Hatfield and Mabvuku/Tafara refused to operate, and barricaded roads leading out of the areas. Riot police officers were deployed in these areas and clashed with the operators and other residents who had joined in. My heart began to open. My anger turned to concern for my people, and my desire to dismantle the system that oppressed us, grew. When Pastor Evan was arrested, my heart broke again. But the scene of scores of Zimbabweans singing, praying and dancing outside the court-house gave me a feeling I can’t fully explain. It was like a release – all the love and admiration I had for my country and people who had been suppressed by decades of violence came gushing out of me. Salty tears streamed down my face as I saw what was the greatest display of unity and love that I’d seen in a long time.

Now we can sit and debate about how effective social media campaigns are in sparking a revolution throughout the country, but what I’m explaining here is the revolution in my heart. I know that there is work to be done and I know that our country needs more than hashtags and struggle songs to fix the myriad of things that have gone wrong. I know it takes dedication and passion and strategising and patience. And I know that I am fully prepared to play my part in fighting for the country that we deserve. A country that was fought for to make everyone’s life better.

My heart is open, my mind tuned in to the sounds of my people’s voices. I love Zimbabwe too much to keep watching it burn. Thank you to #ThisFlag and the wonderful people who have taken ownership of this message.

Now the work begins. Tichakunda. Hatichada, hatichatya.

 

Young, obscure and audaciously hopeful: Part II

[Read Part I here]

Nothing annoyed me more growing up than “kuoneka“. This is basically when you have to announce to your hosts/parents/elders that you are leaving their presence and may not see them for while (a while could be anything from a few hours to years, and the length of your announcement will depend on how long you’re leaving for). Now while this is by no means confined to my culture, I’ll speak from my own experience. My parents always took kuoneka very seriously when I was growing up. I couldn’t simply yell “Bye! See you soon!” and walk out (which is what I would have liked to do, honestly). I had to sit still with my legs together (or kneel, depending on who it was or where we were) and hands cupped, calmly announce how enjoyable that person’s company has been, smile as they jokingly coax me into staying by offering me food, nod my head several times to show attentiveness, wait for any words of unsolicited advice they might have, rise to my feet slowly, rapidly sit down when I realise they have started a new conversation with my parents, and then eventually walk out gracefully, and shout another quick “mosara zvakanaka” (stay well) as I leave. I was always terribly annoyed at how long it took to say a simple goodbye. Even if we had somewhere else to be, we had to oneka in the same, long-winded way.

There is a sense of urgency in my generation that I think made the formalities of my culture so annoying for me. We move quickly  (sometimes too quickly), often have to make immediate decisions, rely on instant gratification and we expect results yesterday. We are constantly on the move, constantly evolving and running to catch the next trend before the last one is fully over. We have our eyes fixed on the future and where we’re headed, but still look over our shoulder to the past and the history that has made us who we are. We leapfrog into new technologies and ways of life, we charge full speed ahead often without fully knowing what awaits us.

Because of the nature of our daily activities/services – social media, instant meals, rapid transport systems, mobile banking and so on – nothing is more utterly annoying than the sluggish responses we often receive from those who lead us. It reminds me of kuoneka in a way, when you’re at your grandmother’s rural home and you need to get back to Harare before it gets too dark, but she won’t stop talking. It’s that feeling that you cannot possibly interrupt her because she is obviously always right and wise and to be respected, versus your fear of not getting home safely. In many ways my grandmother represents the state here – elderly, a little slow, full of stories about past victories and struggles, always to be respected and always to have the last word, no matter how unhelpful it may be. And here we are, the impatient young grandchildren, checking our phones for the time, planning tomorrow’s activities in our heads, grateful for our grandmother, but starting to feel a little annoyed at her lack of urgency.

We want a future that’s better than the lives our parents lived. But we’re constantly faced with the painful and cringe-worthy old gospel music video mediocrity that leaves a bad taste in our mouths and a lingering and growing disillusionment.

 

Youth: our opportunity/advantage

empowerment mug
Our leaders have constantly encouraged the youth to take the mission and plans of ZIMASSET seriously.

Our relative obscurity means that we’re hyper-visible when needed by the state (youths rallied up for political gatherings, to carry out violence in different spaces or be the guinea pigs for another shallow ’empowerment’ scheme), but simultaneously invisible (no committed inclusion of voices and utilisation of youth talent to address development issues of the future). So often our visibility is dependent on the needs of the state machine, while the state continuously ignores us when we’re not needed. Our emancipation, while rooted in the principles our leaders continue to speak about, will not come from the state. They’re far too busy worrying about who stole panties in the war, which faction is leading in a succession race they continue to deny exists, and acts of “treason” against privately owned companies.

There’s a politics of ‘hope’ that dictates that we be forever hopeful for better days; waiting in anticipation for all to be well in our chaotic country. But as Oprah once said, ‘success is when preparation meets opportunity’, and the concept of ‘luck’ doesn’t exist. We cannot hope and be compelled to pray for our country by the very same leaders who have played a part in it needing prayer to begin with. We must hope and act. The amount of political work we have to do is immense (Political work is a broad term, not only meaning political party involvement). The amount of investment needed is colossal, but I wonder – if we won’t invest in ourselves, who should? If we don’t take the time to critically rethink our “mission” and goals as the future adult citizens of Zimbabwe, will we ever recover? If we don’t take the development of this country into our own hands, will we ever rebuild what’s crumbled over the years? There are so many of us in so many different sectors with such a diverse skills set. Young health practitioners, tell us what needs to be fixed in our health sector. Tell us how we can help. Young people in education, what are the key issues we should be focusing on? How can we help? Young engineers and town planners, how do we tackle more sustainable ways of living, especially for those excluded from state services? Our emancipation won’t only come from the state.

Now this is not to say that we should stop holding the state accountable – we must. But doing the same things and expecting the same results, upenzi (that’s madness). Relying on the systems that govern us now to suddenly fix everything is naive. Our advantage is our skills, our amazing standards of education, our passion for our country, and our sense of urgency. We have something to offer. Every single one of us. But we need to think outside of our relative obscurity and practically make moves to ‘be the change we want to see in the world’. We need to think generationally and break out of the rut that makes us think as far as tomorrow. We need to invest in ourselves, we need to help each other, we need to rise as a collective, we can’t keep leaving people behind. We are young, relatively obscure, and audaciously hopeful. The question remains, how do we harness these qualities for good and, as Queen B says, “Get in formation“?

*Part III will follow, with some practical questions, obstacles and solutions I’d like to explore with all of you 🙂 Please do let me know your thoughts in the meantime*

A short note on ‘Wokeness’

 Woke (adj.) – to be aware. 

Over and over again, we’re told that we’re in the age of rapid technological advances, widespread dissemination of information, and easy access to communication tools. This information age means exactly what it implies – we know stuff. We know about Monsanto and it’s terrible practices all over the world, we know about endangered coral reefs around Australia, we know about the plight of Palestinians as they endure the colonial occupation of the Israeli state. The group of ‘we’ has also grown exponentially. ‘We’ used to mean a few privileged people concentrated in the ‘developed’ world. Now it means people of varying backgrounds, nationalities, geographical spaces and socio-economic statuses. At the click of a button, we have streams of information at our fingertips, begging to be read, viewed, commented on, shared, liked, retweeted, ‘memed’ and screen grabbed for later use.

Now, woke people have always existed. Woke people were the Mother Theresas who saw a need to extend beyond the self and help those who were in need, with whatever capacity she had. Woke people were the Mbuya Nehandas who saw the intrinsic value of the black body and life, and refused to let the white colonial master define and oppress us. Woke people were the Rosa Parks’, who, in a single act of defiance, breathed more life into the movement against the segregation of black Americans. We’re surrounded by wokeness. By people who are self aware, and aware of the state of the world today and what it means to be who you are and look how you look and speak how you speak and be told what is normal and what is not, and what that does to human relationships. Being woke means critiquing your critiques. It means thinking about your thinking. You and I think the way we do largely because we were taught to think this way. We were trained and conditioned and pulled into this thinking. We were trained. We learned things that define us today, but that have also harmed us and others along the way. And so being woke means knowing and understanding this, and working everyday to UNlearn whatever harmful thinking or actions we were taught. We’re taught by all sorts of things – the media, our parents, our churches, peers, school teachers, sports coaches, domestic workers, children, partners and so on. And this is normal. It is normal to be taught how to behave and think. We’ve made it normal. But in as far as how these behaviours or thoughts are harmful, we need to REthink them. In other words, being woke is about dislodging yourself from what you believed were absolute truths, dismantling them, questioning them, and deciding to what extent they are harmful or not. It means building and tearing down, everyday.

Being woke extends beyond the self. While working on ourselves is important, being woke means reaching out to hold the hand of other wokies (woke people) who may be having a hard time being woke in their particular contexts. It means fighting for Team Woke as hard as you can in conversations, tweets, academic essays, blogs, economic decisions, travel choices, etc. It means that you respect multiplicity and contradictions, because you are constantly tearing down and building up, so what you think to be true today may not be so tomorrow. It means standing up for the fundamental right of every person to be themselves and to not let the world trample on their gender expressions, sexual orientations, race, disability, or sex.

Being woke is a full time job. It is the kind of work that can often make you super unlikeable, because you ask a lot of questions and you’re always finding the problems in people’s expressions. But I think it’s also about being able to pick apart the problematic things that surround us, explain them, leave that explanation out there, and be ready to be challenged on it. It means working with other people to rid ourselves of the prejudice, bigotry and chauvinism that we all show from time to time. Being woke is a process, and you never reach the peak of wokeness. There’s always something new to learn or some new form of expression to debunk and fully understand. Think of it as being on a continuum rather than two poles of un-wokeness and wokeness. It’s the very thing that makes me excited to learn more because I know that in learning, I am unlearning, and I’m doing my piece of intellectual work in the world. Not everyone will want you to be woke, and it is by no means your job to walk people through their racism or sexism or transphobia. But it is, I think, so much more beneficial if we share our unlearning moments so we can all learn from them. Put your little bit of wokeness out there and see what happens. Not everyone will agree and not everyone will like you, but at least you will have done the Lord’s work. 🙂

 

 

Young, obscure, but desperately hopeful: Part I

“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” – Franz Fanon

Days after the mass student protests across South Africa have died down (although we continue to stand and support UWC as they demand justice), I’m reflecting on what happened in the country I called home for four years. I am in awe of the strength and courage my friends and former classmates have shown in the face of violence, aloof and detached political leaders, and the constant erasure of black students’ histories. I applaud all of you for standing in your truths and making a difference that will benefit your children.

All of this got me thinking about what I and other young Zimbabweans will leave to those who come after us. I wonder about whether we all want the same thing, whether forming a coherent movement is something we could or even should do. I wonder about the prospects of fighting the injustice that pushes the youth further and further away from the resources our parents and grandparents fought for us to have. I wonder about this elusive ‘mission’ that our generation has in our country. Do we have one? Do we even want one? If we have one, are we fulfilling or betraying it?

 

Relative obscurity

Obscure (adj.) – not discovered or known about; uncertain.

I have written about my privilege before and the bad taste it leaves in my mouth because it was and is at the expense of something or someone. I am acutely aware of it, particularly when I’m home. I recognise that my opportunities in life have largely been because of my privileged prior education and a father whose occupation and political position afforded me this. I am aware of the sacrifices that went into creating the country I now call home, and the violence and pain that came as a result of it. I am also aware of the choices our government has made over the years to enact policies that were emancipatory in nature, but did not deliver the level of emancipation citizens had hoped for. I am aware of the beast of the global economy and neoliberalist frameworks and ideologies that continue to emphasise high growth for development, and how difficult it is to form emancipatory politics for indigenous peoples in such an environment. I am aware of just how much work needs to be done to ‘fix’ our country, and that my generation is next in line to carry out this ‘fixing’.

And yet…I find myself in this ‘relative obscurity’. I feel somewhat helpless and uncertain as a young Zimbabwean today. I find myself wondering how to even begin to tackle the formidable systems of bad governance, misrepresentation of facts, a lack of accountability of government officials and entities as well as big business, a patriarchal, misogynist society, and a less than satisfying legal system. We know what we’re up against, but do we know how to change it? Violence begets violence, and the government perceives any slightest challenge to their authority as violence against them, that warrants riot police and batons. I am constantly speaking and tweeting about the state of our country, and I am constantly hearing the same thing from young people: we are tired of mediocrity and failures, but how do we fight the system?

Again, that relative obscurity – that uncertainty and fear.

fanon

I remember when I was in high school in 2008 before the elections. I went to a private school and lived in a low density area so of course physical political violence wasn’t something I was familiar with. My privilege blinded me. My cousin however, went to a school where kids were missing school because they had been rounded up and forced to go to a rally to chant and shout slogans. Refusal to do so was punished by beating. Scores of youths were effectively taught that in order to succeed, your lifeline must be linked to Zanu’s machine of mass connections, wealth and resources. That the violence against them and the violence they were being recruited to enact was for the greater good of the nation. Their thoughts, actions and dreams had to be in line with the party’s. Their very words had to reflect a deep love and commitment to this ongoing revolutionary movement, or they were out of line and were to be disciplined. To add to this pain was the sight of their parents who fought day and night to keep food on the table, often too stressed or worn out to even consider fighting the powers that oppressed us all.

Obscurity.

Have we not reached a point where, as Fanon says, “we can no longer breathe?” Is the air not thick with structural violence and the stench of broken promises? At whose expense are we ‘breathing’? Have our lungs become so accustomed to the smog that we’ve learned to survive? Have our eyes not watered with the level of patriarchy oozing out of our society? Or is it because in our privileged logic we took some oxygen tanks as we climbed the ladder of wealth and it’s just business as usual. Where does or should change come from? From the government? Because that seems a little unlikely to me at this point. We are disengaged from the state’s logic of it being the bearer of liberation and freedom. The state isn’t working for most people.

Do we have a mission?

Broadly speaking, yes, I think we do. Right now however, I do believe that we’re going about our own singular missions. Getting degrees or finding work, trying to stay afloat and trying to stay as far from anything that may jeopardise our singular missions. We’re hustling on a street corner or burning the midnight oil in a dorm room, or praying for a call-back from an employer, or starting businesses we’re afraid will not work. We’re trying. We’re moving carefully and recklessly simultaneously – redefining and restructuring our lives so we maximise the opportunities that were afforded us. Some of us are doing well, and some need more time, and most still need the support structures that a state should be providing. The point is that we’re constantly moving and thinking and worrying about our futures, but our singular futures. And I think this was something life taught us to do. We know our country needs fixing and we know what kinds of obstacles await us were we to try and overcome them. But we have no cohesive movement.  Should we be thinking and redefining and restructuring together? I think we should be.

Part of being young and obscure means that you have no certainty and you’re not set in stone. And I think that is something we should be seeing as a strength. We have so much knowledge, we are aware of so much. Why aren’t we using it collectively to start shaping the country we want to pass on to the next generation? Perhaps we should be finding this elusive mission for our generation apart and together. Apart we’re doing the best we can, and trying to make as big a splash as we can. But maybe it’s time to really sit and have a think about what we want, why we want it, how we can make it happen, and what resistance we’ll face. And maybe it’s time for those who can breathe and who profit off of others not breathing to share the oxygen.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! This was really me thinking out loud, but part two will hopefully have a few ideas and challenges I may have for us all. 🙂