‘Remembering Colonialism in Zim’

For the next hundred years, Africans in Mashonaland and Matabeleland were subjected to racially discriminatory and oppressive treatments. They lost their land, political rights, and livelihood sources.

On September 13, 1890, Lieutenant Edward Tyndale-Biscoe hoisted the Union Jack on the kopje overlooking Fort Salisbury (Harare). This signified the official colonisation of Zimbabwe by Cecil John Rhode’s British South Africa Company (BSAC).

For the next hundred years, Africans in Mashonaland and Matabeleland were subjected to racially discriminatory and oppressive treatments. They lost their land, political rights, and livelihood sources.

They lived through experiences that they bitterly resented and aggressively detested until they decided to take up arms to fight colonialism in a protracted liberation war that we all know as the Second Chimurenga (1964-1980).

This war led to the country’s independence in 1980. However, colonialism brought about fundamental changes that permanently affected the economic, political, and social aspects of African lives. That colonialism is long gone does not necessarily mean that it was eradicated because it was an entrenched system which still leaves in people’s memories today.

One ought to ask therefore, how do people remember colonialism? What do they remember about it? Who do they remember in their recollections? What constitutes remembrance? Who recollects the memory? Where does the recollection take place?

Remembering Colonialism in Zimbabwe by Ivan Marowa and Ushehwedu Kufakurinani provides some interesting answers to these questions.

In a lucid and commonsensical fashion, the book revisits the years of colonial encounter (1890-1980) through the lens of memory and remembering.

The central argument of the book is that colonial experiences and stories are an indispensable part of Zimbabwe’s history that cannot be ignored, no matter how good or how bad they are.

It makes this observation borrowing from Stevenson’s argument that ‘‘the past is myself, my own history, the seed of my present thoughts, the mold of my present disposition.’’

 The book is a welcome contribution to the fields of memory studies and decoloniality.  Historically, the ability of African people to think, theorise and interpret the world from their perspective has been encumbered by Eurocentrism. Consequently, their knowledge and experiences have lost their value and their epistemic virtue.

By bringing up seemingly obscure and forgotten experiences of the colonial years, this book shows us that history looks different and complete when it is recollected in an inclusive and thorough format that accommodates the big and the small, the destructive and the glorious, the horrendous and the exhilarating, the peaceful and the violent, the foreign and the indigenous encounters of the past.

The book is divided into 10 chapters that examine different aspects of colonial history. Building from the work of other historians of memory, the book begins with a discussion of conceptual aspects of memory studies, that is, collective and individual memory.

It argues that in any recollection of memory, it is the individual who is at the center of remembering. The individual takes the initiative, has the agency to remember and can also suppress what he or she remembers.

The individual can decide to suppress certain events, people, and places. The individual is also capable of forgetting and the propensity to forget is in itself a way of remembering.

The book also notes that groups may possess shared or collective memory and remembering, but it is the connection between individual memories that form a collective memory.

Therefore, collective memory looks at a narrow version of people’s memories and represents a narrow version of what transpired in the past. 

To illustrate these thematic points, the book examines some interesting aspects of Zimbabwe’s colonial history that have been overlooked or largely ignored in conventional literature on colonialism in Zimbabwe.

In chapter three, contributors Jairos Kudakwashe Bhowa and Noah Kupeta examine concealed discourses of colonial memory in President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Heroes’ Acre speeches.

They show how these speeches were perpetually used to influence public opinion and memory of colonialism by valorising and eulogising certain characters, events, and places.

In chapter four, Nicholas Govo, Benice Farai Nkomo and Owen Mangiza discuss how the post-colonial government has used state machinery and colonial legislations that replicate those of the colonial system thereby ending all hope for a break with the colonial past.

In chapters five and six, Fananidzo Muchemwa and Zvinashe Mamvura trace the continuing impact of colonialism across areas as diverse as dress code, culture, and place naming.

 They show how political meaning is engraved onto the physical landscape, societal values, norms, and standards.

In chapter seven, Bernard Kusena examines how the colonial government dealt with food security, paying particular attention to droughts and irrigation. In chapter eight, Aldrin Magaya looks at the church, missionaries, and the construction of Black masculinities in Eastern Zimbabwe in the first half of the 20th century. In chapter nine, Simon Bvurire examines the Bakalanga narratives on evictions from Matobo Hills.

The BaKalanga are a southern Bantu ethnic group mainly inhabiting Matabeleland in Zimbabwe, northern Botswana, and parts of the Limpopo Province in South Africa. In chapter ten, Precious Makoni and Ushehwedu Kufakurinani examine the National Housewives Register in Zimbabwe’s History, 1970s to 1980s, a white women’s organisation. This chapter takes this seemingly obscure and forgotten experience to tell a story of proto feminism.

From these different contributions we learn that perceptions of colonialism are diverse, fluid, complex, and divided. They present varied experiences.

Memory and history are sites of contestation because we have different ways of looking at things.

There is no one narrative about colonialism, it is difficult if not impossible to remember it the same way.

There can be a national memory about colonialism but there are always going to be specific experiences of different encounters given the fact that different racial and ethnic groups experienced colonialism in different ways.

The contributions in the book do not, however, dismiss the idea of a national memory, they only emphasise that it is one way of looking at the past.

They show that there are other memories, and these memories need to be approached from different angles and we should appreciate whatever they say and not dismiss them as false.

Even though we claim that there is one truth about colonialism there will never be that one truth.

The idea of one truth can be conceived as a political observation but from an academic perspective there is never one truth.

Chikumbu is a Zimbabwean historian, columnist and lecturer. He is currently a teaching associate, PhD (Abd) candidate and Frederick Gilbert Bauer research fellow in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the United States.

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