When I was fifteen I carried out my first act of independence as a young adult. It was the first day of Form Three in Mr Manhimhanzi’s Shona class. On that day his first order of business in addressing the class had been to inquire – if any students would be discontinuing his Shona classes? Without hesitation I had stood up and with a teenage defiance in my stride I had smugly made my way out of that class. My relationship with my Shona teacher during my first two years of high school had been contemptous. So as pleased with myself as I was for walking out, I am sure he was equally happy to see the back of me. With the power of hindsight I see now that my smugness would have only served to reinforce a stereotype informed in his view by my unacceptable attitude towards my Shona studies. He couldn’t comprehend my incompetence when it came to writing in my mother tongue, especially compared to my budding literary skills in the English language. Something I suspect he strongly resented. On several occasions he had accused me of a contempt towards my mother tongue. I was snubbing my own culture and heritage. An accusation I equally resented. I felt that as the teacher he should have nurtured and encouraged me to apply myself more. Instead he regularly ridiculed me in front of the class, which further antagonised me. What I had failed to factor in was the school’s Draconian approach to the use of language. During the week speaking in Shona was a punishable offense. Having quit my Shona classes, all of a sudden Shona speaking was reserved for weekends. It didn’t bother me then. It should have.
My decision to walk out that day had also been reinforced by the ignorant assertion that I could already understand and speak the language so I didn’t need to formally learn it. It also was part of my grand plan to get perfect grades for my O-Level exams. I wasn’t going to have a repeat of my grade 7 and ZJC results were my Shona marks had been blemishes on otherwise perfect certificates. This hadn’t been through any fault of my own. Up to that point my formal education in Shona had been brief dalliances at the start and the end of my primary education. This was mainly because my family moved a lot when I was growing up. My Dad a Hotelier at the time was regularly dispatched to different parts of the country. As a result I would spend my first two years of primary school learning Shona as the vernacular language, before switching to Ndebele classes for my vernacular studies. I would study Ndebele consistently before having to move again in my final year of primary to a school were Shona was taught as the vernacular. I only studied Shona for two school terms before I had to take the national Grade Seven exams. I passed all my other subjects with flying colours. I failed Shona, dismally.
Years later when I finished high school and moved to Australia for my university studies my relationship with my mother tongue would take a turn. This time for the better. Ensconced in a new multicultural environment my self awareness magnified. My Shona culture and heritage became pivotal to my identity. For the first time I was desperate to speak Shona. On campus I was living in the Orde House a.k.a (UN)United Nations. This was the most diverse residence on campus with students from Maldives, Norway, Thailand, USA, Singapore, UK, Japan, Botswana and they even threw a few local bogans for good measure. We all communicated to each other in English. Conversations in Shona now came at a premium. To make matters worse there was only one other Shona speaker on campus. In those early days the almost daily phone calls with my Mum when my only real opportunity to use Shona. She would fuss over me. Was I settling well, eating properly, making any new friends?, and if so I should say hi to them. During these calls I soon realised that I struggled to speak fluidly in my mother tongue. I would catch myself mentally translating my thoughts from English to Shona. Often settling for Shonglish – Shona interjected with English for the words I couldn’t translate. This was the first time I regretted walking out of Mr Manhimhanzi’s Shona class. At home my parents had indulged and even encouraged our use of English in the home. Now confronted with this strange cocktail of cultures I wanted nothing more than to sip on my own home brew – Shona. I didn’t want to turn out like Mukadota.
One of the lasting memories from my childhood is from the show Mukadota. This show aired sometime in the early 90’s during the glory days of Zimbabwean television.The title character Mukadota was a triple threat – singer, actor,comedian. In one particular episode he returns from a short stint living America. Upon his return to the Motherland Mukadota pretends that he cannot converse in the vernacular. He tells his wife who had stayed behind that during his short stint in America, he forgot how to speak his mother tongue Shona. He also claims he can no longer eat any of the local dishes as his stomach is now accustomed to eating American goulash. A recipe he proceeds to teach his wife Amai Rwizi, who dutifully indulges his newly adopted eccentricities. Back then the proliferation of Zimbo’s in the diaspora was not what it is today. As such anyone who had been overseas was revered and their idiosyncrasies often accommodated. “Ngeve kuchirungu ava”. After he has settled in Mukadota is attacked and robbed by thugs. During the ensuing melee, Mukadota instinctively screams for help in the vernacular betraying his earlier claims. On being questioned his responds in Shonglish (a mix of Shona and English) saying “Mai Rwizi, pandarohwa tongue yangu yabva yaita loose.” which literally means when they beat me up my tongue was loosened. For some reason that episode has stayed quarantined in my memory’s museum.Until now.
After seven years in Australia, on my return to the Motherland I can safely say I didn’t turn out like Mukadota. So yes I speak it – reasonably well for a Shona dropout.