4 lessons for my daughter, from prior generations of Zimbabwean women

The generational relay

Many of the things my mother taught me, she learned from her mother. I, in turn, teach my daughter even without intending to. To each generation, knowledge is relayed, and so is the untaught duty to prepare the next. For younger generations, the appeal of our continent continues to wane. A continent whose DNA has evidently become bad governance. The Western world, a captain into new realms of possibility, has come to represent a symbol of hope and its culture now readily embraced. For my daughter’s generation, the allure of this Western culture is nothing short of overwhelming. Indigenous cultures are being slowly drowned and diminished, yet amazingly continue to have an influence on their people.

With the growing recognition of a global village, exists the possibility that one day my daughter will interact with people of various cultures. When her Japanese counterpart speaks of Kanji, and Greeks tell the myth of Zeus, what tales will my daughter have to tell? Her influences are from me. These include my cooking, the ways in which I interact with the wider society, my understanding of family, relationships, the worth I attach to myself and how I position myself in society. These elements shape and will continue to determine her perceptions, prejudices and ethical norms. All that has been culturally transmitted to me first within my home, are the lessons, which in the same manner are passed to my daughter.

1. Our staple is sadza and leafy vegetables

Each day she watches me cook, the same way I watched my mother. The sadza, a stiff meal (upfu) porridge, starchy and bland, almost as if with no flavor, is an all too familiar menu item synonymous with traditional Zimbabwean cuisine. Sadza from maize meal is the most common, and other varieties include sorghum (mapfunde) and millets (zviyo, mhunga). As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so it is with sadza. The cornerstone of getting it right is ensuring it cooks to satisfaction at the thin porridge stage (kukwata). If undercooked, the sadza is sticky and called mbodza. Serving it too thin, too thick or lumpy is just as undesirable. And when all is served, the crust at the bottom of the pot is its unmistakable mark.

Sadza, a stiff porridge, starchy and bland, almost as if with no flavor, is an all too familiar menu item synonymous with traditional Zimbabwean cuisine.

A major dietary component to accompany the starchy carbohydrate, of our everyday meal is the traditional leafy vegetables (muriwo). Pumpkin leaves (muboora), can be cooked together with the flowers and served mixed with peanut butter. The seeds can also be roasted (mutetenerwa) and served as a side dishOther leafy vegetable alternatives include tsunga, rape, and covo. These leaves, shredded and fresh or sun-dried, are cooked on their own, mixed with meat or mixed with peanut butter.

2. You are just as respectable and proper with the dhuku

Growing up, my mother wore the dhuku (head-wrap) so often, it was nothing newsworthy. As for my grandmother, I cannot recall a time she did not have her head wrapped. Today, I wear my dhuku to the office and it is the most visible feature of my attire; drawing so much attention as if I was scantily dressed. To me, wearing the dhuku has the same effect as if I had a braided hairstyle or any other synthetic hair fiber. My choice to wear the dhuku instead is influenced first by culture, recognizing how it has been worn by women in generations before me. It is a standing tradition which should in no way be viewed as a deviation from the norm.  For the majority of my peers the dhuku rule is, ‘you wrap your head at night and anytime around the house; outside of this the dhuku is a peculiar piece of attire.’

Wrapping my head is putting myself in the same boat as my mother, my grandmother, the housewife, the domestic worker, the dutiful daughter-in-law, and the traditional woman. I am neither different nor better than any of them.

As a modern career woman, wearing a dhuku in the face of negative connotations, stereotypes and confrontations is a bold communication of my sense of self and recognition of my identity. Wrapping my head is putting myself in the same boat as my mother, my grandmother, the housewife, the domestic worker, the dutiful daughter-in-law, and the traditional woman. I am neither different nor better than any of them, and so will unashamedly identify with them. From the countless positive responses I have received while clad in my dhuku comes the greatest lesson for my daughter – not to be belittled or limited by stereotypes.

3. Hama – ihama, hazvienzani nemutorwa

Translated as ‘a relative is a relative, he cannot be compared to a foreigner.’

Hazvigoneki kuti mutorwa abva ava hama yako yeropa. Nyangwe hama yako ikambokuvenga zvayo asi kana wava munjodzi anotamburawo mukuedza kukubatsira. (Relatives cannot be bought or appointed; they are created in a natural way. This proverb stresses the very close ties of kith and kin, which go beyond friendship and provide true security in life.) Hamutyenei & Plangger, Tsumo – Shumo, 1987, Mambo Press, 2nd edition, p221

There is nothing more futile than trying to go it on your own or freeing yourself from the extended family in Shona society. I remember as a child how ploughing the fields was one long collective exercise for my father and his cousins, and an effective way to pool resources – labor, oxen, and ploughs. From an early age, the importance of unity, dependence on, and looking out for one another in not just the immediate but extended family, was demonstrated to me. So strong is the sense of oneness and responsibility for each other that for a number of Shona families, you will not easily tell apart a cousin from a sibling. For my daughter, her three uncles are her father, and so does she regard her cousins as her sisters and brothers. Once when my husband and his brothers were seated in the same room and my daughter called out for her father, they all responded in unison.

From an early age, the importance of unity, dependence on, and looking out for one another in not just the immediate but extended family, was demonstrated to me.

The woman can easily be identified as the custodian of the heritage of extended family due to the huge expectations placed on her from the moment she marries into a family. In many Shona homes, women take care of more than just their biological children, demonstrating their sense of duty toward, and unity with the extended family. Undeniably, a woman as a mother is a child’s first teacher, and from her conduct, the importance of family is learned.

4. There are musts to etiquette for every child growing up in Shona society

I read somewhere that manners and customs are a way of communicating and acknowledging being a member of a particular society. Lots of children today struggle on the very basics of etiquette, failing even under Western standards. As a parent, failing my daughter today is failing generations of tomorrow and ultimately failing my society. Children will emulate their elders; and as Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi wrote in his hit song Mbodza, it is the negative aspects that children easily master. It is then important to reinforce positive values. Greetings are a must, and more importantly, using the appropriate phrase at any given time.

‘Pwere dzinedzidza matauriro enyu, dzigovenga munhu nemaitiro enyu aya; twakashata twamunetaura, ndetunobatwa nepwere nekukasika.’ – from the song Mbodza by Tuku

My parents were uncompromising on the greeting of elders. There is a greeting for people one hasn’t seen in a fairly a long time. I was taught to greet people first with a handshake. Once everyone is settled, I then complete the greeting, as a woman, while kneeling and clapping with cupped hands saying, ‘makadii zvenyu (how are you)?’ The expected standard response to this is ‘tiripomakadiiwo (fine, and how are you)?’ In turn, my response would be ‘tiripo zvedu (we are fine).’ It’s interesting how in Shona greetings, the well-being of family and others is always regarded. For instance, the use of zvenyu (plural form of ‘you’), instead of zvako (singular form of ‘you’) when two people greet. As I have gotten older, confident and depending on my level of familiarity with those I greet, I have learned to customize and personalize the conversation.

Then there are greetings for people one regularly interacts with. In the morning it’s, ‘mangwanani (good morning)’ to which the response is ‘mangwananimarara (mamuka) sei. (Good morning. How have you slept)?’ In turn, the response is ‘tarara mararawo (tamuka mamukawo) (We slept well if you have).’ Again in turn the response is ‘tarara (tamuka) (we slept well).’

Similarly, for afternoons and evenings it’s, ‘masikati/manheru (good afternoon/good evening).’ The response is ‘masikati/manheru, maswera sei. (good afternoon/good evening. How has been your day)?’ In turn, the response is ‘taswera maswerawo (it has been a good day if yours has).’ Again, in turn, the response is ‘taswera (it has been a good day).’ There are a number of abridged variations to these greetings.

So as the lessons are taught, a challenge is posed to my daughter’s generation and generations to come. A challenge to abstain from adopting alien cultures that compromise on good manners and morals. This ultimately is a challenge to sustain the good aspects of our culture, even if only for the reason that we stand out and not blend in.

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