I am deeply fascinated by different cultures and their influences on our individual identities. Culture is defined as the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. Some of the key identifiers of the different cultures are language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts. Whenever I have visited or lived in places with cultures alien to my own I have always tried to immerse myself into those cultures. I try to learn about and understand them. In some instances I have found myself assimilating certain elements of these cultures into my own individual culture. I am what you may call a culture vulture.
I consider myself lucky to have lived in different parts of the world. And all of my favourite places have one thing in common; they are cultural melting pots. These places all have a vast array of rich and vibrant cultures. They are microcosms of the global village and they satisfyingly cater to the struggling culture vulture in me.
My exposure to different cultures has not just been limited to the places I have called home. The mainstream media and the internet have also proved to be big influencers in my cultural explorations. The media promotes the narrative that popular Western culture is the default culture and project certain values as more desirable. I have admittedly been gullible enough to allow it to shape my perception of culture. But it is also through these platforms that I have been able to indulge in the writing, arts, music and even dress style and mannerisms of cultures I have not been physically exposed to.
When it comes to my own indigenous Shona culture I haven’t always embraced it or educated myself enough about its intricacies. I haven’t devoured it with the same hunger I have other cultures. I have taken it for granted and at times even looked at certain elements of Shona culture with disdain. For the longest time the defining characteristic of my Shona culture that I was familiar with was my mother tongue Shona. But even my relationship with Shona has been a complicated one. I have always been more comfortable expressing myself in English and it has been at the expense of my proficiency in Shona. It’s a big indictment of my (Shona) cultural ineptitude that I would struggle to write and complete this post in Shona.
I am not alone in this regard though. Even though the Shona language is probably the most significant remaining element of the culture most of my generation share my struggle. The majority of us are more fluent in English than in our Shona language. In fact you can sometimes be regarded as backward, barbaric and uncivilised (by fellow Shona’s) if you are not fluent in English, even if you are fluent in Shona. Some Shona people actually wear their inability to converse in the mother tongue as a badge of honour and their command of the English Language becomes a status thing.
When I think that outside of the Shona language most of my generation (myself included) would be hard pressed to clearly define what Shona or even Zimbabwean culture is I feel slightly embarrassed. If Zimbabwean culture is comprised of the things that make you accept me as a Zimbabwean then I would argue that ours is primarily an aspirational culture. Because that is the predominant narrative amongst Zimbabweans of which the Shona people are the majority. We are all so eager to embrace other cultures and hardly export or extol the virtues of our culture. As such our own culture suffocates under the weight of our collective inferiority complex. Where does this inferiority complex come from that makes us rubbish our own culture but then are so quick to embrace other cultures?
A big part of the blame for that lies with legacy of coloniasm. Ignorant and racist settlers scorned African culture and so many local people came to doubt the ways of their ancestors. When I look at the influence of colonialism on my Shona culture I realise that it not only diversified it but also heavily diluted it. With colonialism there was no cultural exchange. We were made to feel inferior and then encouraged by the colonisers to abandon most of our cultural values for the ‘more civilised’ ways of the west. Even though this legacy is shared by most African countries it seems Zimbabweans have experienced some of the more severe cultural erosion as compared to their African counterparts. Why this is I am not sure I completely understand but I do know that Zimbabwe is one of a few African countries for example that does not have a national dress.
Something I have picked up in some of the cultural melting pots I have fed from is that while it is beautiful thing to learn and even master other cultures it is also important to master your own culture first. That way you can contribute meaningfully and a cultural exchange occurs. Whenever I have made friends from other cultures or taken part in different cultural exchange events this is one area I know I have always come up short. It is an area I know most Zimbabweans would come up short, not because we don’t have our own culture but most of us haven’t embraced it enough.
I believe that a big reason for our cultural erosion is that most Zimbabweans even in the post colonial era confuse advancement and mordenisation for culture. There is a vast difference between advancement and culture. You can be advanced and modern without losing your culture. A good example is that of the mainstream Indian and Chinese communities that you will find in almost any part of the world. They have embraced globalisation but they hardly do so at the expense of their own indigenous cultures. As such in most of the major metropolitans of the world you will most likely find a China Town or an Indian restaurant. Even though they have assimilated into the global popular culture they have held onto certain elements of their culture that make them distinguishable in the global village.
Culture is not stagnant. It is as dynamic as it is intangible. However it’s dynamism should have its roots firmly implanted in individuals or communities being able to hold on to their core values. The values that define them. We should be flexible enough to incorporate values that help us grown and become better global citizens. I don’t believe that any one culture is better than the other but we can all learn something from each other’s cultures that will make us better human beings.
Culture might be intangible but it goes to the very core of our identity as individuals and communities. Our culture is supposed to provide a blueprint for the way we live and treat each other. For it to do that though we must be in a position to understand it and appreciate it. And that is a journey I intend to embark in the next couple of blogs I will write.
In my next post I am going to explore hunhu/ubuntu which is a common cultural theme not only in Zimbabwe, but throughout most of Southern Africa. Hunhu is about how we are expected to relate to and treat each other. As Shonas it is from hunhu that we are expected to find the blueprint from which to grow and maintain our culture from. I intend to further explore and understand the concept as well as share what I will learn in my next post.