Finding my Identity

As teenagers and high school students, the young adults in our community ask themselves at one point or another during their time here, “where do I fit in?” Tanya Nongera, Mandarin teacher at The Gunnery, originally from Harare Zimbabwe, addressed her journey of “fitting in” at different points in her life at a recent school meeting. I share her remarks here: 

Growing up, my mother typically addressed me in Shona (my mother language) and I usually replied in English. I understand Shona just fine, and the first words I ever spoke were most certainly mumblings that were meant to sound like Shona, but for some reason, my instinctive response was always English.

Let me give you a little context as to how I was raised. Both my parents are Shona, so I was born into a Shona speaking home. For the first 5 years of my life it was the language I heard and used the most.

Once I started school, English was the new fad; it was all I wanted to speak. I knew if I could just master the English language, I was well on my way to success. At age nine, I began boarding school in a part of Zimbabwe that is predominantly Ndebele speaking (a language most people outside of southern Africa affectionately refer to as one of “the clicking languages”). This could not have torn me further away from my heritage as a descendant of the Mashona. The longer I lived in Bulawayo, the more English I spoke, and the more English I spoke, the less Shona I spoke.

I knew enough to get by, and my family speaks English as well, so I never really paid much attention to it. But as I have grown older, I have become more intrigued by my cultural heritage, and I find myself speaking Shona more regularly, and telling people about life in Zimbabwe, but I’m also always searching for answers.

This is because the further I am away from home the more I yearn for that feeling of closeness, for that sense of belonging. Because, being one of many Zimbabweans in the diaspora, my fellow countrymen say I am not Zimbabwean enough to be Zimbabwean (I have been “Americanized” — so to speak), and on a daily basis I am also reminded that I am not American enough to be American. So where do I fit in?

As a result, I have spent a lot of time these past few years trying to know as much as I can about Zimbabwean customs. Take the TOTEMS for example. For those who don’t know what a totem is, in Zimbabwean culture, a Totem (Mitupo) is a way of identifying the clans that historically made up the ancient civilizations of the dynasties that ruled the Shona people from Great Zimbabwe.

Most symbols are closely associated with animal names, and they tend to follow the male lineage. My totem is a Porcupine (Nungu), and this is what unifies the collective pride and aspirations of my clan, our ancestors, and our future descendants. Nungu is a part of our identity, and we are often praised according to the characteristics of our totem using popular “praise poetry” (Madetembo).

I have also spent some time reading up on Shona proverbs; they have taught me a great deal about how my ancestors viewed the world, and the messages they relay are still relevant today.

For example: “Tsapata rukukwe hazvienzani nokuvata pasi”
Translation: A worn out mat is still a bed, it is not like sleeping on the ground,
Message: Half a loaf of bread is better than no bread at all.

Take another one of my favourite proverbs: “Chidokodoko chirere-muviri chikuru chinozouya wakora,”
Translation: Very little is enough sustenance for the body, more will come later when it is fat.
Message: From small beginnings come great things.

So, I pose this question to you, does doing all this research, and suddenly having this wealth of knowledge about ancient Zimbabwean customs make me more Zimbabwean? Or does it just make me better informed? I am inclined to agree with the latter. So if you ask me today who I am, I’ll say:

“I am a mish-mash of Nongera, Tarumbwa, Nungu, Soko, Shona, Ndebele, Zimbabwean, and ‘non-resident alien’” (apparently the best US immigration could do for foreigners was refer to us as aliens).

I am PROUDLY Zimbabwean. My ‘Zimbabweanness’ is such a big part of me, and although it has taken me this many years to truly appreciate what it means to be a Zimbo, no one can take that away from me. Don’t let other people define you. Be who you want to be and be steadfast in your beliefs. Your identity is yours, and only you can control the narrative.


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