While at my graduation ceremony this year, I listened to our guest of honour, Graca Machel. One of the things she said is that “No culture should oppress a people.” This led me to think that if cultures should not oppress a people, does it then follow that no culture should oppress another? Culture is loosely defined as “ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society.” It can be macro or nuclear. Given that culture can be the behaviour of a family of five, a tribe, a race or a country. I examined how the sub-cultures in Zimbabwe have influenced the culture of a whole nation and whether or not these sub-cultures oppressed one another and or the people.
Cultures are driven by political and economic power. The conduit between people and culture is power. When the Ndebele people invaded what is now present day Matebeleland, on their run from Shaka Zulu, they were a people who had a different culture to that of the Rozvi people who inhabited that region. The Rozvi were a well-known people who had an established gold trade and were exporting minerals and receiving food and jewellery in exchange. However, the Ndebele, led by King Mzilikazi, had a stronger army and managed to kill the Rozvi King and overpower his government. Consequently, the Ndebele took over the land, the trade and the people who were led by the King.
As a result, the Rozvi had to learn the language, social behaviours and customs of the stronger political power. The two cultures could not co-exist in parallel to one another. One had to be stronger than the other, and the powerful one propagated its own culture. Even today, in our own homes, a child may pick up new ways of thinking from elsewhere, but as long as the child lives under the roof of their parent and is not in a position of power, their parent’s culture prevails.
Culture is used as a way to mould a way of thinking that instructs individuals to believe and follow the laws set out by the powers that be. A case in point is the example of the colonisation of Zimbabwe by the British. When the British came into Zimbabwe, they created a system that made sure that the black man would always be inferior. The facilities and resources afforded to the black man were inferior to those afforded to the white man.
This system allowed for the white man to propel the idea that the white man was superior in his ways and his culture, but most importantly, it was a system that allowed the minds of black men to be led into believing that they were second-class citizens and by default their culture as well. This gave the white man control over the black man, not just control effected through policy, but through mental conditioning. Culture was used as a potent psychological weapon to condition the black man’s mind into thinking that he was inferior and even though independence came and Zimbabwe was declared a sovereign state, this social conditioning is still present.
Just yesterday I walked into a pharmacy where I witnessed the power of culture. A black man walked in while I was standing in the queue and one of the two women at the counter greeted him. A white woman soon followed and both women at the counter excitedly greeted the white woman. Then the woman who had greeted both the man and the woman said to her friend, “Iwe ndakuona kuti unoda varungu” (I can see that you like white people) The friend replied, “Ah ehe ndinovada, ihama dzangu, munhumutema anondipei?” (Yes, I do, they are like my family. What will a black person ever give me?)They both laughed and continued to serve the people in the queue. This woman who believed that white people had more to offer her than her own fellow people believed this not because this is written in the law. Maybe it is what she learnt in the classroom. But most likely, it is because that is what her friends, parents, grandparents and fore-fathers have thought, displayed and showed her. It was the culture. The agreed upon social norm.
I suppose the beauty of culture is that it evolves and takes shape to suit the people of the time. A culture and its people, are like two lovers: after a while of being in love they start to fold into each other and become difficult to tell apart. Today in Zimbabwe, 35 years after independence we have formed our own culture. Our culture is and was influenced by the British during colonisation, the Ndebele during the Ndebele invasion, and the current media we are exposed to. Back home people call a wildebeest, ngongoni. Recently, my father asked someone what a wildebeest is called in Shona and they replied, ngongoni. He laughed and told the man that he was wrong, it is called mvumba in Shona. Both are correct. But our culture has taken from our different sub-cultures to form a new culture that amalgamates all influencing factors. Today Zimbabweans especially our parents’ generation and our grandparent’s generation, when they speak English, they speak in a British accent. We say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ to our teachers because the British used to tell children to do that as a sign of respect.
However, I think that cultures in their very nature oppress, especially the minority. Cultures subconsciously create a space where our minds and actions are restricted and all who fall out of the demarcated margins become ostracized outliers. I believe that cultures oppress because they tend to fulfil the wishes of the majority and or those in power. Those deemed weak and irrelevant are not taken into consideration when creating systems that cultivate cultures. It is necessary when in positions of influence to think of the minority and the socially marginalized. If we do not, then we as a people will never fully live in societies where all the people’s ideas, beliefs, customs and behaviours are represented.