Do Zimbabweans Really Speak So Well?

In 1986 I was a ten year old boy going on eleven doing grade 6 at a highly rated government school in Bulawayo. One day our teacher, Mr. Lewis, a Welshman, says to me “You speak so well that if I was to close my eyes I would think I was listening to a white boy”. I was so pleased with myself I went home beaming and couldn’t wait to tell my parents about this amazing compliment Mr. Lewis had paid me. I cannot remember my mother’s reaction but my father said dryly, “and you think that is something to be proud of?” I was ten, what did I know? That day marked me for the rest of my life and informed my interest in history and how we Zimbabweans came to speak English to begin with.
I was reminded of that day when recently on Twitter I got into a debate with someone who believes Zimbabweans are superior to other Africans, especially Nigerians, because we speak English so well. Now it is one thing to think you are highly proficient in a particular language but it is totally another to laude this proficiency over others when the language in question is the result of colonial conquest and was forced upon your ancestors just as it was upon countless millions around the world. Can one really say they are superior because they have more fully adapted the ways and graces of those who formerly oppressed them?

Now don’t get me wrong, I fully understand the functionality of English as a medium in the world that we live in but I am also acutely aware of the way it has been used in the past and even today to obliterate indigenous culture, religion and thought. It is for these reasons that I see no reason for someone who is descendent from these obliterated cultures to celebrate their proficiency in English AND laude it over others who share the same scars of having their history robbed from them. I just don’t get it.

The discussions went on all day with many Zimbabweans telling the author of the claim that he was wrong in his assertions but he stubbornly held on. The low-point for me was when he responded to those who didn’t agree with him by tweeting “this isn’t going to expand anything. A lot of you are being primitive on here.” I was left wondering, if this was just his arrogance, ignorance or something worse. Had the black self-hate I read about online manifested itself in this young person? Did he really believe that his affinity to whiteness made him better than other black people? Was he really telling me of all the traits and talents he had developed, speaking English well was the one he prized most? If so, was he the only one? Soon enough others came out in support of this position but none with such fervour and commitment as he who started it all. He was unapologetic, as a Zimbabwean, he was proud to speak English so well and other Africans should just deal with the fact that we are just better at it.

Interestingly enough, at least two Nigerians contested this saying their English accent was better than that of Zimbabweans whilst a number of southern Africans, particularly South Africans, were insulted and none too polite in their responses. What this did show me though, was that the majority of interactions were united in their rejection of using English proficiency as a yardstick for superiority, in fact, they rejected the entire notion of one African being superior to another. This something that I take to heart because I have never understood the zeal with which our governments attempt to outdo each other in whatever ranking comes out of whatever organisation that claims to have authority of whatever sort. One that particularly bothers me is the manufactured fight between South Africa and Nigeria to be Africa’s biggest economy. As a collective we would be so much better off if we looked to the least developed countries on the continent and together worked to uplifting them out of that dire situation, but I digress.

The British were very good, no, uniquely excellent in spreading their language and culture across the world as part and parcel of their brand of global conquest for over six hundred years. It is wishful thinking to imagine we can erase that legacy in Zimbabwean minds in two generations but one hopes that with each generation this influence is tempered by our rediscovery of ourselves as a people with a past, present and future that is not dependent on affinity to the so-called global standard of doing things. As Zimbabweans, we need not speak so well to get ahead.

N.B. This post first appeared in Her Zimbabwe.

Of Carts And Donkeys: Why it is wrong to think exports will restore and sustain Zimbabwe’s economy.

Unlike the chicken and egg riddle, in economics, there is no question that a strong domestic economy is always the basis from which strong exports are built. This is why it remains a wonder to me that every other day there is talk of how Zimbabwe’s exporters need to ramp up production and take advantage of international markets. At the same time the Minister of Trade and Industry, Mike Bimha, is telling any foreigner who will listen that Zimbabwe is open for business with a vibrant domestic market. A few weeks ago Minister Bimha reportedly went as far as to invite a South African business delegation to take advantage of the current jobs bloodbath and set up shop in Zimbabwe because local industry is practically stalled. So local producers must export whilst the domestic market is serviced by foreign firms who come in and produce? How does this work? This is the same thinking with the Look East policy that has seen Chinese firms benefiting from generous investment initiatives going back at least a decade with no reciprocation. It is now clear there was never any incentive for the Chinese to do so to begin with because Zimbabwe did not negotiate a trade deal, they simply gave the family jewels away.

What Zimbabwe needs to do is focus on deepening the local economy, a Marshall Plan, if you will. The first step is to restore trust in the government, nobody puts in a country where those who run it cannot be trusted to honour their commitments unless they themselves are not trustworthy. Next would be to restore local industrial capacity to supply the domestic market by investing in base infrastructure such as roads, rail, electricity, education, telecommunications, health and housing. This can only be done once Zimbabwe becomes a viable investment destination, a factor largely determined by the level of government’s trustworthiness. For too long Zimbabwe has tried to sell itself as primarily a source of raw materials and a conduit to the continent with the domestic economy treated as ancillary to that. The central location of Zimbabwe previously made it ideal for channeling southern and central Africa’s produce to the ports of South Africa and Mozambique and imports up north. Any benefit falling to the local economy was more of mere consequence rather than actual intent. This is Zimbabwe’s colonial legacy, it is still strong and highly evident in the trade language of today’s government. But there is hope.

It is notable that barely days after President Mugabe gave his surprisingly brief State Of The Nation Address parliament is seized with passing a raft of laws aimed at creating a more investment friendly environment. Needless to say, last week’s visit by Nigerian businessman Aliko Dangote and the announcement of his intent to invest in Zimbabwe could not be coincidental. This has been borne out in various news stories of the behind the scenes negotiations culminating in last Monday’s whirlwind visit. The local broadcaster had hardly scrambled together their usual analysts and Dangote had already left Harare. Since then cabinet has approved all of Dangote’s projects, though I am not sure what that means as no plans have yet been presented to them, let alone drawn up. Meanwhile the Zimbabwe Investment Authority’s Nigel Chanakira has said they will not be found wanting when the time for issuing all necessary investment permits comes.

Whist I have many questions about what this deal means for how Zimbabwe conducts business I am cautiously optimistic. I am hoping government may just have finally painted themselves into a corner such that they have no room to mess this up as they have done countless times before. Another reason to like this deal is that it is totally about local capacity building to cater for Zimbabweans. The coal will be mined locally for domestic power generation to feed a cement plant that will primarily supply the local market. It is now to wait and see how local businesses are going to compliment these developments and thus deepen the economic multiplier effect.

This is what it means to put the domestic economy first. It is not prone to the whims of export markets and fancies of international commodity brokers. The more integrated the domestic economy, the better it will carry a country through any international crises. It is the donkey that will pull the proverbial cart and it must be fed. If such efforts can be replicated across other industrial sectors over the next ten years there is hope yet to see a Zimbabwe restored to it’s rightful economic status in our lifetime.