I grew up in a country run by a small White minority. When colonial Rhodesia became free Zimbabwe, many of my fellow White Africans “took the gap” – they left the country never to return. I am in contact with some of them. They are good people, but they miss the privilege that we had when half of the country’s resources were spent for a minority of five percent.
Some of them miss Zimbabwe for other reasons. Some have stayed in Zimbabwe, because Africa is home and they don’t want to live anywhere else. My question this evening is: What’s so special about Africa? What has caused White Africans to remain when they are no longer in control of the country? Why do some return after living elsewhere.
The answer varies from person to person, so I am speaking only from my own experience. I think that what I have to say applies more broadly, but you will have to talk with people from other countries in Africa to find out if what I say about Zimbabwe is true in their homes as well.
What’s so special about Africa?1. Some people point to the scenery and the animals out in the bush. Having an elephant stalk past your little rondavel, brushing against the window as it passes, is an incredible experience. I have driven through a herd of water buffalo – slowly, not wanting a stampede – with the sound of a Wild West movie playing inside my head. And the scenery! I was born near Victoria Falls – twice as wide as Niagara Falls and one and a half times as high. Immense and powerful, with spray that drenches the surrounding grassland and turns it into a rainforest.
The truth is, of course, that Africa is incredibly beautiful, but so is the rest of the world around us. From China’s Great Wall to the Canadian Rockies, from the Rift Valley in East Africa to the Ruwenzori Mountains of the Congo, from Iguassu Falls in Brazil to the Taj Mahal, we have beauty all around us. Africa is beautiful, but that is not the primary reason that anyone would choose to go back home to live there.
2. Some people remember their youth, and they think that what they had when they were young was clearly better than anything since. This would be true for those with whom I grew up. Often they are right, but they forget the human cost of what we had. I remember Rhodesia of old. There were 300,000 White people at the most, and about seven million Black people. The White schools were excellent, but there were only a handful of places for Black scholars.
I remember the situation when I was a teacher there in the early 1970s. Consider, after grade seven Black Zimbabweans took an exam to see who could go on for further studies. The top 12 percent went on to high school. Then after grade 12 (as we would call it), they took another exam, and this time the top eight percent went on to university or teacher training college. Roughly one out of 100 Black children were able to pursue higher education. No wonder we had high standards! The whole process was built on systemic injustice. Those who think that colonial Africa was better forget the human cost of the colonial system. Remembering the old days is no reason to call Africa special.
3. I know what I miss. I love Zimbabwean music and the sound of the people singing and speaking, laughing and being. There are certain foods that I miss. I miss biltong and Marie biscuits, lemon cremes and gooseberry jam. I miss the crumbly Cadbury’s chocolate I used to get in Bulawayo and the licorice that was actually more green than black. I miss buying shelled peas from the vendor on the way home, not to mention roasted peanuts poured into a funnel made out of newspaper. I miss mealies (corn on the cob) roasted over a charcoal fire.
I miss the African night, so dark that you can really see the stars. I miss idonsakusa and icela inkobi – the names of the morning and evening stars. I miss the Southern Cross, which you can’t see in the northern hemisphere. I miss the sounds of the birds, the grey lourie crying “G’way!” I miss the brightly coloured lizards that scamper about the rocks. And I miss the rocks themselves, big boulders that make themselves into mountains in the Matopo Hills, where I grew up. But none of these things are what I miss the most. None of these things are really what makes Africa special.
What makes Africa special?Our son once said that he wanted to go back to Zimbabwe to live. He was about 10 at the time and had been five years old when we left Zimbabwe. I asked him what was different about Zimbabwe from North America. He thought for a bit, and then replied, “In Africa, they treat people like people.” Bingo! That’s what’s special about Africa!
We have a saying in Zimbabwe. “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” Literally: A person is a person with people. More fully: You become a real person (fully human) in community, in relationship with other people. Desmond Tutu used to describe this quality of life in Africa as “Ubuntu” – humanness. When one person hurts, the whole community gathers around that person. When someone dies, we gather with the bereaved family and make sure they do not have to face death alone. When someone is in need, someone else will leave what they need at their door. No questions, no fuss, just care.
Canada is a great place, but we prioritize tasks over people. We care for each other, but we value getting things done even more. In Africa, we prioritize people over tasks. We want to get things done, but “in Africa, they treat people like people!” That’s what makes Africa special.