One of my best friends is Ndebele. In an ideal world, saying this should mean nothing. In fact, it shouldn’t even be said.
But the world is not ideal and signifiers of difference are a way, a standard, of understanding ourselves and each other.
It is a surname that – if you are Zimbabwean – you will instantly recognise as not Shona, which is the dominant narrative of what it is to be Zimbabwean.
Everything and everyone else is not Shona, and therefore ‘other’.
Never mind about the ranking order of clans within the Shona tribe itself.
My friend and I made the discovery of our difference a few years ago when someone with a separatist agenda rammed into our Facebook conversation.
It was a conversation about the Highlanders versus Dynamos derby, that rush-of-blood-to-the-head sort of football match that comes every few months to remind us that we as Zimbabweans have not dealt with our tribalism demons quite yet.
My friend is talking about how she will support Bosso (Highlanders) to the death, while another friend is talking about how he will die for Dembare (Dynamos). It isn’t a serious enough conversation for the vitriolic interruption we receive from someone watching the conversation unfold.
Perhaps it is the jocular affirmations of allegiance to the death that rouse him. Perhaps it is the fact that we can even joke about death between the tribes.
But it becomes ugly. Along the lines of all Shona people being accomplices to murder. Silent bystanders to Gukurahundi, this unaddressed massacre in which tens of thousands of Ndebeles were massacred in the 1980s. About how my friend and I cannot and should not be friends because ‘my people’ will not let ‘her people’ speak ‘their language’ in ‘my people’s country’.
I am thinking how I don’t even follow this derby business. How it brings out the worst in football supporters from both teams and how it exacerbates a difference that was historically defined and constructed within our collective psyche by people with an agenda of segregation.
I try my best to wade through the conversation, riddle off my anti-tribalist credentials to this person. And I realise it will get me nowhere because he is angry. He is angry at me, at my name, at my being Shona.
My friend eventually deletes the post from her wall. She reprimands the person who has initiated the conversation; he offers a tepid non-apology. And then she comes to me in inbox and says she doesn’t like it. The fact that all of a sudden, we are different because someone has said that we are.
We try to choose to ignore the man’s comments. Because a few minutes ago, the division did not exist. A few minutes ago, we were neither Shona nor Ndebele. Neither the norm nor the other.
But we cannot hide that we are stunned for a few days; trying to recalibrate, attempting to reposition our friendship on the continuum of variables that have previously threatened its survival. Tribe has never been one of them… and yet now, we must consider it, unpack, look at it without blinking or flinching, decide if it matters, or discard it like a lie.
Tribe is real. Do you not come from one? Do you not have customs and traditions that go with it? Do you not take pride in its history?
Tribe is real.
And yet it is a lie.
It is how you have learnt to understand, or misunderstand people.
AmaShona yizinja. (Shona people are dogs)
Mandevere muri imbwa dzevanhu ndosaka muine nungo kuita basa rekugara nemapanga muhomwe muchitadza kuchengeta mari. (Ndebele people are dogs; that’s why you are lazy and carry knives in your pockets and fail to account for money)
Real comments you will find on Facebook threads and in conversations people have at dinner. Real words of real people who will not trust each other because something called tribe tells them not to.
I escort a Shona friend who has never been to Bulawayo to the city for the first time. He asks me what to do if someone comes at him with a knife.
It is 10 am. We are in the CBD, the very centre of the town in which I have grown up. I am disappointed. No, I am hurt. Does he really believe it? That everyone who is Ndebele in this place wields a knife and is ready to stab him for his money? Does the 439 kilometre distance between Bulawayo and Harare distort the truth so much, each kilometre adding a fraction more of factionalism?
Tribe is a lie.
It is a lie about how we should understand each other. How we should love, trust, perceive, believe, respond to. Tribe is a lie about why we should kill each other.
I am Shona. My best friend is Ndebele.
It is a lie. It is a convenient separatist lie, the full stop between those two clauses a detriment to cohesion.
Last week, I visited the Rwandan Genocide Memorial in Kigali.
The remains of over 250 000 people are buried at that memorial. You read about children hacked to death. Killed with the force of a blunt object. Children aged two, three, four; their shy-smiling-sweet black and white images blown up on pumpkin orange walls.
Innocent defenseless children who erred on the wrong side of tribe.
“Just as white privilege in colonial Africa separated poor whites from all “natives”, no matter what class they belonged to, so Tutsi privilege in colonial Rwanda set all Tutsi apart from all Hutu in their relation to power.”
Mamdai (2001: 97)
Where is our own Zimbabwean Genocide Memorial?
Can we call it that? Genocide? Or will it forever be a moment of madness?
Zimbabwe’s Memorial To A Moment of Madness.
Tribe is not a lie. It is real, even if we can’t actually see it. It is not a gene, or a code that features in your DNA. But it is as real as your name, as the way your accent and intonations sound different, depending on what tribal language you speak, or don’t speak. It is as real as a Highlanders and Dynamos derby because Ndebeles must support Bosso while Shonas must support Dembare.
Anything less is defection, deceit.
So yeah, I am Shona. And one of my best friends is not.
And still we live in those moments; those moments of maddening madness.