By Rumbi Makanga
I cannot help but spend time thinking about my identity. Finding yourself immersed in a culture that is at the same time dominant and also dismissive of alternatives, intentionally or otherwise, leaves your sense of self somewhat affected, if not shattered. I realise only too late that I am standing in a strange house where the walls are painted an unfamiliar colour and the chairs are not strong enough to hold me.
This profound shift in my sense of being can trace its roots to the journey I made when I flew the 7,363 miles from Harare to London. At the age of nine, my young mind had only managed to envisage all the things I would gain in making this momentous journey. The solemnity in my goodbyes was capped by the more urgent feeling of excitement. The prospect of seeing this mythical land that was colloquially known as ‘London’ was overpowering. Ari ku UK, ku London, was the common refrain, and I was ready to be indulged in all that London had to offer. I saw snow-white Christmases. I saw myself surrounded by white faces that spoke with a refined English unlike the coarse Heenglish I was accustomed to. My belly had already rumbled and tumbled at the thought of sampling a wide array of new feasts, and I’d imagined a new set of friends, fashioned out of an amalgamation of Enid Blyton characters.
The first few years were not a challenge. I was overawed, overwhelmed and overexcited. I obligingly traded in my robots for their traffic lights. I fancied their daffodils as a yellow jacaranda. I even stopped speaking Shona in public, as it felt like a betrayal to the good grace of the British people for allowing me to be here. I marvelled at how different the architectural landscape was, and certainly noted the lack of squat rotund structures, anywhere. I grew up in the city, so I knew tall buildings, bright lights and concrete jungles, but I was shocked to find that even the simplest existences of these strange creatures was a luxury compared to the deprivation I had seen in my brief African experience. Even their houses that were packed together closely were quite unlike the ones I’d seen in high density townships. Those houses had sat closely like fat women gossiping at lunchtime, and they exuded bustle and colour. The streets were a playground, a football pitch, a jungle for young adventurers like me. It was a place where old men would sit on plastic white garden chairs and heckle some unasked for advice for each person on how they could improve their lives. I never knew the names of any of our neighbours on Britannia Road. The British houses sat in an awkward closeness, like people on the tube.
The first few years were not a challenge, there was still much to discover. But eventually the strange became overfamiliar, the exciting new tastes lost their sizzle on my tongue and my coarse Heenglish transformed into polite, refined English. Finally, I arrived at a point where I stopped considering myself an explorer chartering a vast, new territory. The house I lived in started feeling familiar. I knew the grooves in the wall where the plaster was not perfectly smooth, I knew the cobblestone that was loose on the driveway, and I could navigate my way in the dark on those nights when sleep evaded me. I even started apologising when other people bumped into me in the street, once even when an old man ran into me with his mobility scooter. Thoughts of the motherland were a stream that turned into a trickle that eventually dried up.
I didn’t know that place anymore. I became a stranger in the place that had made me. I separated myself from the red dust of my childhood with smart trainers from London. Slowly, but surely, I transformed into a person moulded by the strictures of the culture I hadn’t consciously chosen, but had accepted and embraced in my fragile early teen years. I rejected and suppressed the African in me, wanting to disassociate myself with the political and cultural embarrassments back home.
All was well, or seemed well, until I had a crisis of identity at the still-young age of fifteen. It was then that it dawned on me that I was no longer an African, while nowhere near being a British girl. I was trapped at a dead end in a no man’s land whilst an intense battle raged on inside of me. At first I thought I had to polarise my identity and since being English had evidently not worked, I sought to revert to being Heenglish.
I tried to tap into the forgotten memories of my African childhood. And it felt African, not Zimbabwean. The very concept of borders and nationality seemed unnecessary to the young me. I played games of Zimbabwe-Zambia-Zimbabwe on the Kariba dam. I made my parents drive me to Pietersburg once so I too could go to the South African border and see what all the fuss was about. And at the end of it all, all I remember is the feeling of freedom riding in the backseat of the car, watching greeny-yellowy brown bush whizz past. I remember the vervet monkey we told my sister would become her new mother if she didn’t eat her food. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and tiptoeing to the floor-to-ceiling curtains so I could open the French doors and see if South Africa smelled different. If it wasn’t for the stamps in my passport, I would have told you there wasn’t a border at all.
It was in this way that I started to rediscover myself and allowed long forgotten and long buried memories to resurface. It was in this way that I started out on a journey to meet the African in me again in the passionate embrace reserved for long lost family and reunited lovers. It was a sad realisation, however, that in my years of rejecting Africa, I hadn’t noticed it retaliate and reject me. It didn’t matter that it now annoyed me when people said things like “oh those poor little Africans”, without giving thought to the unfortunate British children who had never tasted the joy of Cerelac or polony or porridge ne dovi. I was still desensitised to people incorrectly pronouncing my name and I still had a confused accent, too pliable to the pull of the accent nearest to me. Africa laughed at my English accent. It chastised my need for order, had no care for my lack of patience and certainly did not care to know about how things were done kumhiri kwekungu (overseas). If ours had once been a loving relationship, the love was now lost.
And here I am now, frantically trying to hold it all together, the British and the African – the Zimbabwean with the pariah green-bomba passport. I take mild solace in the impossible-looking feat the balancing rocks accomplish, allow myself to be soothed by images of the wide jacaranda tree lined avenues I travelled down to get to junior school and continue on my stubborn quest to find a can of Spar-letta pine-nut on the British Isles.
Walking in the footsteps of the many before me who have suffered from unrequited love, I persist in my advances. Africa will know me yet.