My family has been in Africa for 142 years. All my direct ancestors are buried here in southern Africa. Does that make me African?
Source: Roots – The Zimbabwean
That depends, many would say, ethnically no – my roots are in Scotland and Ireland and I suppose I could trace my ancestry even back to somewhere in northern Europe. My skin is what we call white – sort of pink and brown but nothing of the browns of Africa.
When I took my family to Europe for the first time in the early seventies, we travelled all over and even spent some time in Britain. But it was when we visited Scotland and Ireland that we felt most “at home” in a strange way. Travelling through Scotland in the mountains, there was a distinct feeling for me that somehow, this was where my roots lay – even though my family fled Scotland more than a thousand years ago. They were driven out of that country and travelled to Ireland during the conflicts with Robert the Bruce.
But there was no doubt that in Europe, we were strangers. It was no longer home for us as a family and when we landed back in Harare, we collectively concluded that this was really “home”. This is not an easy transition. We came as colonisers, we stayed and subjugated the people we came live amongst. We imposed our languages and our cultures and brought with us our legal systems, economic organisation and our religions. The cultures and norms of the people who already lived here were simply brushed aside as being “primitive” or even irrelevant to the new dispensation. Where colonisation was not by negotiation we simply took what we wanted by force.
But we were always a tiny minority whose will was imposed by force on a much larger population. As the people among whom we lived became more educated and imbibed skills and experience from their colonial masters, so the demand for a greater say in the affairs of State began to escalate. The outcome was inevitable and when the pressure became too great to resist, either the Colonial power in one form or another ceded power and control to an administration drawn from the indigenous population or the latter went to war and eventually took power from their colonial or settler masters.
Because those in power during the period of colonisation did little to prepare for the inevitable, the transition was, in most cases a disaster. The first post-independence government felt that they had the right to govern as they had brought liberation to their people. This attitude of entitlement would curse those countries so affected for many decades to come with real change only occurring once the “liberation generation” died out. Africa seems to be slowly emerging from that period of our history, as country after country sees a new generation emerge and take over without the impediments and baggage of the past.
For those of us who settled in the countries that went through this process, the transition to a majority rule government was extremely painful. We had lived as a privileged minority with control over the majority, many of whom served us in our homes and offices. I grew up in just such a situation – not knowing the people among whom I lived except as shadows that called me “Baas” or Nkosaan (little Lord). The man who carried me to school on the back of his bike was not a friend but at the same time was very much a member of the family.
Many westerners who had never lived in Africa found it impossible to understand these paternalistic relationships that evolved into lifelong loyal associations where the individuals involved might even give up their lives for the families they worked for. We would go on holiday to the coast, walk out the door leaving our staff in charge and with complete confidence that our trust was well founded. We were never disappointed.
For a young white like me growing up in Africa and having deep roots in the continents soil, life was pretty good. We got an excellent education at school, played sport with a passion and then went on to University or College before coming home to join the family firm or farm. We were never more than 3 per cent of the population but we saw no need to learn the local language or to even fraternise with the local population. Unbelievable as it may seem to many, we could go through our childhood without ever really meeting a black man or woman as an equal.
We would not compromise and inevitably we found ourselves fighting a war. The Americans called it a “low intensity guerrilla conflict” but we killed each other with great enthusiasm. After much wasted time and resources, after winning all the battles, the settlers lost the war and had a newly elected majority government imposed on them by the major powers, both regional and international. The most feared and even hated leader in the form of Robert Mugabe came to power.
He stunned everyone by making a dramatic “let’s forget the past to build a better future” speech and those whites who elected to stay, settled down with a wait and see attitude. For my own family we had long since decided that whatever faced us we were Africans and we would stay and try to make the new dispensation work. After the first five years, three quarters of the white population had left the country and those that remained were more or less settled down to life under a majority Government.
Mr Mugabe died last night in faraway Singapore and will not be mourned by many, but he did bring dignity, opportunity and self-reliance to the great majority in Zimbabwe. This is now a very different country to what it was and no black Zimbabwean would say they have not gained a great deal from the sacrifices of those, like Mugabe, who dedicated their lives to achieve a better life for the subjugated majority.
But for those of us who have adopted Africa as our home and tried to carve out for ourselves and our families a life on the continent, the struggle goes on to find out who we really are and where we belong. We see a steady stream of young African whites coming back to the country in which they grew up, unable to shake off the feeling that wherever their parents had taken them they were not at “home”. I know the feeling, some call it the African bug, but it is more than that, it is a discovery that somehow the rich soils of Africa have got between our toes and nowhere else on earth can really compete.
But that is our struggle and only time will tell if we have won or not and that judgement lies with our compatriots who are now almost all black or brown Africans with fuzzy hair. More subtle, but just as problematic is the question of roots for the young generation in Africa. They do not remember the struggle years, they are better educated and sophisticated than the generation before them. They speak French, English and Portuguese as first languages and they have often studied abroad and come home with a completely different culture to the one their parents grew up in.
Mugabe once called this generation a people “without a totem”. In Africa this might mean a lost generation or a generation without any understanding of their heritage. I agree with him that this is a sad development as we need to accept, as Africans, that we are different, not inferior. African culture has many features that are superior in many ways to the cultures of the developed world. Roots are important because they give us a sense of who we are and it distinguishes us from other versions of the human race. For me I am deeply proud to be accepted as a Zimbabwean in every way, because that is what I feel I am.