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History: The good, the bad and the ugly

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The feeling is surreal. Smoky monogrammed glass doors with polished brass handles.

An imposing grandfather clock; hand-carved, time-worn, heavy wooden furniture.

You can tell just by looking at this stuff that it has never seen the inside of a factory assembly line, it is lovingly hand-wrought.

Acres of space that has that “we have a lot of room” rather than the “we don’t have enough furniture” feeling.

Polished silver in glass cases and gleaming parquet floors, interrupted only by tastefully aged Persian rugs. I can smell the history, the class, and inevitably, the money.

The toilets would, I’m sure recoil at being given such a common label. They would rather be called powder rooms, and I can see why: a purple velvet ottoman, studded with what seems like hundreds of buttons.

Layers of burgundy organza drapes floating lazily in the breeze, pink feather boas flung casually on a hook in the wall and several sepia posters of Marilyn Monroe grace the walls. You can see why it would respond well to being called a powder room.

This is not the inside of a historic building in London, Paris or New York. This is the Bulawayo Club, a building of such grace and elegance, so tastefully decorated (well, apart from the rest rooms), it is what estate agents would call “perfectly appointed”.

The beauty of its graceful structure, its perfect proportions and its luxurious appeal is marred only by the heavy presence of colonisation that is nailed into every exquisite piece of furniture, that rings on the polished floors and stings in the incredible artwork that hangs on its walls. It is beautiful stuff; and yet, it is ugly.

Colonisation really should be considered a crime against humanity. So that in the event that global warming is in fact arrested, and the human race does get to continue, the generations that follow us will remember never to do it again.

Within the elegant walls of the club, there is an Independent Dialogue in progress and the discussion concerns the status of education in Zimbabwe.

Minister of Arts, Sports, Education and Culture, David Coltart, begins by paying tribute to President Robert Mugabe for the investment that the Zanu PF government made into education in the first decade after independence.

He talks about the injustice of the colonial system and how President Mugabe’s government successfully reversed that.

There is not a sound from the audience. As angry and aggrieved as people in Bulawayo are, no one can refute this simple fact.

The ugliness of colonisation is compounded by the insidious and generational nature of its impact. How many generations does it take to recover from its influence? No one can tell, because no one has ever recovered fully!

I am always amazed when white friends wonder out loud whether I should not be grateful, at least to a limited extent, to colonisation for things such as clean running water, electrical light, exposure to new ideas.

Sometimes I respond by wondering out loud whether I should also be grateful for the breakdown of family and social structures, for cultural subjugation and for a multitude of physical and mental illnesses, including HIV.

Occassionally I am tempted to remind them that the first things ever made by human beings were made in Africa.

But mostly I just admire their audacity, their one-dimensional outlook (life is so much simpler when you can only see your own point of view!) and their continuing air of entitlement.

The generational damage of colonisation exists on both sides. The perpetrator passes down his distorted viewpoint to the next generation in the same way the victim passes on his.

On a board above my desk there is a page torn from a magazine which features a Cartier watch.

I keep it there because this watch is an object of such beauty and craftsmanship that I simply enjoy looking at it.

I love Ndebele beading, and I love Shona sculpture too, but I don’t have pictures of them on my wall. Why is this? I am a product of colonisation.

On the one hand we want to celebrate our ability to “cross over”; to appreciate both the Western values surrounding beauty and aesthetics as well as our own. On the other hand we are uncomfortable because our support for African music, African art, and African culture lacks sincerity and spontaneity.

For all the good that post-independence education gave us, there is a gap in our education about Africa and what it means to be African and this is a gap which only the present generation can close. We also have a responsibility to ensure that our children do not grow up with the same gap.

A few years ago we were discussing dream holiday destinations and my (older white male) companion was waxing lyrical about Europe.

“You have to go to Italy” he said. “ The history, the culture, the food, the wine . . .” he was in rapture recounting his experiences there.

When I said I’d rather go to Nigeria, he was shocked at first. Then he gave me that look that people give you when they suddenly realise that you’re “not one of us”.

I still haven’t been to either Italy or Nigeria, and I will probably never be forced to make a choice.

But it gives me hope to hear that for the first time in Zimbabwe’s history students have textbooks for minority languages such as Venda, Tonga and Nambya.

It means that somebody somewhere is serious about closing that gap, and it suggests that the future is in safe hands.

Thembe Sachikonye writes in her personal capacity. Readers’ comments can be sent to localdrummer@newsday.co.zw

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