Dr Sekai Nenza on Wednesday
When we look back at those colonial movies and books with new knowledge, we may very well say, perhaps Mbuya was right, after all. We were taught many lies and propaganda about who we were and what we wanted to be.
DURING the colonial days, we learnt a lot from books and bioscopes at school. When we came back to the village homestead, we described to Mbuya VaMandirowesa, my grandmother, what we had seen and read.
She was not interested.
She said everything we saw were lies meant to corrupt our young minds.
Mbuya was like that. She did not like us going to school, getting immunised, being baptised and going to church.
She was against the dipping of cattle because she said there were diseases in the dip-tank.
Mbuya did not like radios because she said they only played for a short time then the battery died.
She did not like books, because she said everything written was a lie.
For her, the only truth were the stories passed on from generation to generation and not written.
Mbuya believed in stories of the days gone by before the white man came. She even went as far as telling us that the stories in the Bible about Jesus were untrue.
“But Mbuya, it is all true because it’s written down,” we tried to tell her. How can a child be the Son of God and yet He is born to a virgin? How was that possible? Mbuya would ask us, then scoff and take in her snuff and drink beer from a gourd.
In the end, we did not tell Mbuya about the Bible at all. But, after school, we still wanted to share stories with those children from the compound who did not go to school because education was not seen as very important in those days.
My father was a teacher and he introduced us to books and told us that education was the future. There was an ongoing battle between Mbuya and my father because Mbuya said why should children spend all day sitting on a desk listening to lies from the teachers when work was waiting to be done in the fields? My mother was never part of the education argument between Mbuya and my father. She quietly ignored this conflict and sent us to school without ever getting into any direct confrontation with Mbuya.
And so we went to school and brought books home to educate some of our friends who had never seen the door of a classroom.
“Mbuya knew the truth,” said my cousin Reuben, the one who is visiting from Australia. “These days, you can watch all kinds of unreal stuff in the movies and on the internet. I am so sick of the lies and the propaganda.”
“What is propaganda?” asked my cousin Piri, picking her teeth with a piece of grass that she had just picked up from the ground. We were relaxing back in the village, as we often do.
“Propaganda means lies and untruths. It’s a message that you are given to convince you to believe that something is true when it is not,” said my brother Sydney. Being a teacher, Sydney would know.
At one time, Sydney was the oldest son and grandchild in the whole extended family. Mbuya VaMandirowesa always referred to him as Mhofu, the eland, the first heir to the clan who was born after the family settled here, in what was then called the Tribal Trust Lands. This place was a jungle when my grandparents were moved from Chiwashira or Charter Estates to make room for European settlers in the early 1940s. Many girls were born here before Sydney came along.
Sydney went to boarding school at Kutama College and was educated by European priests. He learnt to swim wearing shorts and brought home pictures of himself, standing among many boys wearing only shorts. These were real pictures and not lies.
We showed Mbuya the photo of Sydney, standing next to European priests in robes that looked like long dresses. Mbuya laughed and said, why would Sydney want to be taught anything by men wearing women’s clothes?
I recall my mother telling us that we should not carry Sydney’s Kutama College Yearbook around anymore. What if Mbuya woke up one day and declared that her favourite Mhofu the eland will no longer be educated by the white man?
One day at school we learnt a story about Zuze, the boy who went to work on the white man’s farm and was asked to deliver loaves of bread to the next farm. The book had a picture of a very tall white man in a red jacket and tie, towering above a short confused Zuze holding a basket with loaves of bread.
In the story, Zuze also carried a letter from his boss to the other farmer. Zuze could not read. Somewhere along the path, Zuze decided to eat one whole loaf of bread. He convinced himself that nobody would know that one loaf was missing since there was no one around at all when Zuze made the long journey from one farm to the other.
In those days, European men had big farms. You could spend all morning walking on one farm and even get lost, because most of the land was virgin forest. But Zuze knew his way around the winding narrow paths. So Zuze went behind an anthill and ate the bread. With his stomach now full, Zuze continued on his delivery journey.
After receiving the eight loaves and reading the letter, Murungu, the European farmer, asked Zuze in Chilapalapa, the language used between masters and their servants in colonial Rhodesia: “Upi ro munye bread, Zuze? Ro Baas kaena ena nika wena nine bread but mina kona eight kupera. Why?” Surprised, Zuze asked Murungu where he got the information about eight loaves. Murungu said the letter told him so. Zuze was very alarmed. How can a letter speak?
Zuze asked for the letter and took it to a secluded place behind the anthill for interrogation. Speaking in Chilapalapa, Zuze said: “Imwe Akalata, munapita kumuzungu mudakanena kuti ndadya chingwa seli kwachizere ine!” Zuze went back to Murungu and said the letter did not speak.
Murungu ignored Zuze but he wrote to Zuze’s boss to say one loaf was missing. When confronted by his boss, Zuze said: “Zvino yatyenyi kududza kuneni?” meaning why was the letter afraid to speak to me? Zuze was immediately fired from his job.
We grew up singing a song about Zuze saying: “Zuze wakaba chingwa chemurungu akanochidya seri kwechidzere.” If we wanted to call someone a fool, we called him or her Zuze.
After Zuze, we discovered Tickey, the bioscope trickster. One year, long before independence, a bioscope arrived at St Columbus School. We sat in the dust in front and all the elders sat at the back, including the village head men and kraal heads. A big light shone on the classroom wall and suddenly, we saw people on the screen moving and talking. We screamed with excitement. The film called “The Adventures of Tickey” started rolling on the screen. Tickey was a very naughty young man who went to Salisbury and played funny tricks, cheating people and each time he did that, a white man chased after him.
Tickey ran very fast and almost flew (fast forward) over hills, rivers and mountains.
But the white man in the film always caught him and slapped him hard on the cheeks, telling him what a bad native boy he was.
We all laughed at Tickey’s silly tricks and called him a fool. At the end of the film, there was some music and scenes of white people walking in the city. Some people in the audience shook their heads, and marvelling at the film, they said, “Ah, murungu akangwara” (The white man is smart).
Back in the homestead, we called each other Tickey and emulated how he ran backwards and forwards until Mbuya said we will not be allowed to see any more lies or ghosts on the screen.
Over the years, we have learnt a lot from films and books. Tadzidza zvakawanda. But, some of what we learnt to be the truth in the past was not truth at all. These movies were made by the Colonial Films Unit of the British Empire with an aim to educate, entertain and laugh at ourselves through movies.
When we look back at those colonial movies and books with new knowledge, we may very well say, perhaps Mbuya was right, after all. We were taught many lies and propaganda about who we were and what we wanted to be. Some of these stories have stayed with us and shaped the way we see ourselves, up to this day.
Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.