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Where did we go wrong?


Did you know that the literal meaning of the Zulu greeting “Sawubona” is “I see you”?

In Shona we respond “Tiripo kana muripo” which can be literally translated to “I am well if you are well” but really means “I am well. Are you well?”

Contrast this with greetings like “Good morning/Bonjour (Good day-French/Kalimera (Good day-Portuguese)” which concern themselves with the elements or the time of day, rather than the person.

In ChiChewa “Muli bwanji?”, means “Are you well?”, in KiSwahili the literal meaning of the greeting “Hujambo” is “Do you have any problems?”

Where am I going with this? Acknowledging the existence and importance of others is an important element in many African greetings, as is concern with their well-being. We are preoccupied with one anotherness.

When I was a little girl my mother would often receive gifts from neighbours and relatives, usually in the form of some sort of harvest from their garden, and I learnt that one should never return a vessel to its owner in an empty state. Accordingly, we would always find something to put in whatever container had been sent to us.

Sometimes this was quite funny, like if someone sent you a jar of jam and you returned the jar with a pumpkin, which of course would never fit in a little jar.

But it was the principle that counted, and even as children we understood the importance of reciprocity.

This week, I received a parcel in a big brown box. It was from my father’s sister in Bulawayo and it contained a yield of mangoes from her garden.

Apparently even at a distance of more than 400km, the principle of harvest-sharing applies! I suppose this is even more important where grandchildren are involved.

Along with the mangoes, she also sent me two hymn books and a list of my Khumalo praise names.

The list covered a full A4 page and included some old favourites (Matshobana kaMzilikazi), as well as some I hadn’t heard before (Ngangezwe!).

When I asked the colleague with whom I share an office, for the English word for “Izibongo” he said, “Err . . . I don’t think there is a word for that in English, because in the West they don’t thank anyone that profusely!”

So where then, have we gone wrong? African cultural practice is deeply concerned with issues of family, community and collective responsibility.

With such a rich cultural heritage, a sense of one anotherness so strong that it is reinforced in daily greetings, a heritage of thanking and praising and generally “bigging” each other up, a practice of continuous reciprocation, why do we live in the deplorable state of communal irresponsibility that we do today?

Why do we have so many leaders who only think of taking and not of giving back?

Why should scourges like the clean-up exercise (Murambatsvina), with their resultant devastation of lives, families and communities even exist?

Why should a people who have hundreds of years’ worth of consensus-driven community spirit need an “organ” (whatever that means!) of Healing and Reconcilliation? Isn’t the “organ” made up of every Zimbabwean man, woman and child?

We are the most vital of vital organs! So where did we go wrong, and more importantly, what are we going to do about it now?

It’s all too easy to blame colonisation, modernisation, westernisation and of course sanctions.

But is it really fair and at what point do we begin to assume the responsibility for ourselves?

I ask these questions, not because I have the answers, but because I am hoping we will begin a process of introspection that will one day yield a solution.

In his book aptly titled Being African, Professor Mandivamba Rukuni says:

“Unless we Africans rediscover ourselves, our roots and heritage and embrace and understand, even love everything that made our ancestors survive and thrive for millions of years, unless we understand how our ancestors succeeded so well in creating a dynamic society in the past, we cannot create a new modern African society.”

I am not sure I agree with him entirely, but I do believe there is work to be done in terms of Africans looking back at what makes us African, and embracing all that is good and worthwhile in our history to apply it to contemporary times and current problems.

We are quick to pick up tips on how social media can support political movements. But what about social media being used to preserve the important parts of our heritage, our unique cultural proposition, language and values?

Our obsession with politics overshadows so many other opportunities to do good, and perhaps this is where the real revolution is required.

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