New Curriculum: History the Temptress

New Curriculum: History the Temptress Coltart

Nathaniel Manheru The Other Side
About 1898 when the British South Africa Company (BSAC) thought it had broken the back of African resistance in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, a Methodist missionary, John White, penned an article in the Methodist Times of London. The article reflected on the smouldering rebellion from the perspective of the missionary who worked in present-day Chikomba District, specifically in the “Nengubo” area, now Nenguvo, often stretching as far southwards as “Umvuma”, now Mvuma, and as far northwards as Chishawasha. Fellow whites had been killed in the resistance, alongside a number of African evangelists and catechists who had sided with the white invader. In fact some 264 whites had been killed in the country at the outbreak of hostilities, mostly in Matabeleland. Many more died in the ensuing fight, forcing the imperial British government to send reinforcements to relieve pressure on, and rescue, its white kith and kin.

Blame it on incomplete conquest

Feelings ran high and hard, poisoning the atmosphere for a fair assessment of the whole affair. Easy, comfortable and “patriotic” explanations were invented to comfort battered whites, and to project a sense of a holy, Christian war overseas waged against barbaric heathens. To control and keep on top of the whole narrative, the BSAC itself issued an apologia to its London shareholders in the same year under the title of “Reports on the Native Disturbances in Rhodesia, 1896-97”. The reports blamed the disaffection and subsequent resistance to “the agents sent by the M’Limo to the Charter and Hartley districts”. Earl Grey, then administrator of Rhodesia, blamed the rebellion on the “incompleteness of the conquest of the Matabele Nation in 1893”, and to “the incapacity of a warlike and aristocratic race to give up their old habits, and accept their natural place in the peaceful and industrial organisation of a settled civilised community”.

The resistance owed to the quality of conquest, not on the fact of encroachment and conquest itself, so went white historiography, and of course on innate inability of an “aristocratic race” to accept and adjust to occupation! It conveniently did not address why a militarily unconquered and a non-aristocratic “race” called the Mashonas also rose in resistance, far longer resistance, than the aristocratic Ndebeles whose kingdom had been brought down militarily in 1893.

Mounted with authority and gun

Surprisingly, the missionary took what appeared to be an anti-establishment, anti-volk, anti-white line which blamed the rebellion on excesses of the colonial authorities, especially excesses perpetrated against the native population by “representatives of official justice”, principally law-enforcement officers and their Askaris whom White described as ordinarily “arrant cowards” but notorious tyrants once “mounted with a little authority and a rifle”. He hotly disputed the official press line which dismissed as “a cruel and wicked lie” explanations which linked the rebellion to mistreatment of natives, furnishing the counter-narrative with concrete instances of gratuitous power abuses by minions of the Company, including those tasked to collect the notorious hut tax.

He wrote: “In many districts, where previously considerable herds of cattle were to be found, now hardly one exists. I do not say that the Hut Tax ought to be discontinued; I do think, however, some just and less repulsive method of collecting ought to be devised”. He added that all these excesses, including those of sexual abuse of native women by white commissioners and farmers gave “the Mashona a very poor opinion of civilised justice and propriety”.

Spirit of Murenga

But like the official BSAC report, he also highlights the role of African spirituality in mobilising resistance, stressing the spirit of Murenga was behind the attack on white invaders. Still he thought the BSAC did not have to overreact: “These people (natives) are utterly savage and reason accordingly. The witch doctors are actually shrewd and cunning”. Of course the church felt challenged by the spirit of Murenga, which is why regardless of denominations, all missionaries unanimously supported the assault on African religion which, because it was inextricably connected to the African state, meant support for the occupation and overthrow of African governing systems.

“Murenga lies”

There is a specific conversational recall in White’s narrative which has motivated me to throw the spotlight on this missionary, his role and ideas. After the resistance, John White goes to an unnamed village where he is received with “loud protestations of friendship”. “What do you think now,” asked John (White), “of Murenga, the great spirit? What has he done for you, his followers?” “Murenga,” replied the chief, “has deceived us. He has lied.” “Then if Murenga lies,” John answered, “is it not time that you turned to the true God?” The immediate aftermath of the defeat was the ripe time for a new, intensified offensive for the new religion: “The widespread spiritual destitution shortly after the rebellion, is an eloquent, if dumb, appeal to the whole Church to go forward!”

David Coltart

David Coltart

Ex- Rhodie at the helm

The guys in the Education ministry have done splendidly well to overhaul the national educational curricula. This was long overdue, and would never have found traction under an ex-Rhodesian personality we had for an education minister under the GNU. Far from engineering a new curriculum, he sought to reinforce the Rhodesian ethos through donor funding of educational material. But one does not want to be too hard on a man from whom we can only expect a hostile educational philosophy.

Many ministers hailing from the African race and from Zanu-PF passed through the educational ministry leaving the educational status quo undisturbed. These to me did more harm than a tactless ex-Rhodie whose obnoxious views excite attention, resistance and focus on us. Coltart got all of us to re-think the whole educational menu we serve our children in school.

National confidence

There is now a clear recognition that the whole thing rests on a value system which is hostile and foreign to our collective personality and highly unlikely to give us a sense of self-worth and confidence both in our country and in the world. Reality is changed by confident actors and confidence is a function of a personality moored in values that confirm that same personality. So I am less interested in technical things like vocationalisation of the curricula, important though that is. I am addressing the issue of the value system that should undergird the curricula to make them truly Zimbabwean and supportive of our collective confidence.

Passing as first nature

What actuates this piece is a real danger I foresee, the danger of thinking that an overhauled curriculum translates to an overhauled educational system, indeed an overhauled teaching. We will continue to have the same teacher in the classroom, the same books for teaching and referencing, indeed the same victim pupil. Between a revised curriculum and a revised educational system is a vast, uncertain gap, and unless there is purposeful supportive intervention, we are likely to have our educational past as the default mode. There is and will be huge inertia, one reinforced not by teacher recklessness, but by a teacher’s regard and concern for the taught.

The reflex of the teacher is passing the child forward. It is not necessarily about equipping the child with a new value system which is emancipatory. And retaining the educational status quo, not overhauling it, ensures that the child sails through the technical gates that lead to successful certification. Much worse, the parents expect no less than certificated passes, making them unlikely partners in the new quest for other curricula.

About content, stupid!

Another and arguably key consideration is availability of teaching material that concretise in the classroom the search for a new educational sensibility. In the absence of new teaching materials, little else will change. It is about teaching content, stupid! Our teachers, inventive though they may try to be, have not been dynamic content developers, less so in circumstances in which the examination philosophy encourages formulaic, exam-geared teaching to the building of emancipatory knowledge and a questioning mind. You teach to pass your class; you read to pass an examination. Both leave little room for time-wasting experimentation, more so when the educational term is present and given.

Learning from the Chinese

The other day I had an opportunity to look at Chinese tertiary educational philosophy. Foreign students are required and expected to master Chinese history, culture, values and systems, regardless of course pursued. These Chinese values are foundational, with their placement in the curriculum making them inescapable to the mind under tuition. We tried that once, early on at Independence. There was spirited resistance from private schools which belonged to whites and/or churches. Our curriculum innovators made themselves vulnerable by hoisting their argument on introducing socialism in the educational system.

That was not a clever change strategy given the Rhodesian ethos which was still intact, and the dominance of the church in purveying education. The obnoxious colonial curriculum could have been successfully contested by simply demanding an inclusion of an Afrocentric perspective in history and other value-laden disciplines. That would have been consistent with the liberation ethos without dragging in the whole debate on socialism. Above all, emphasis should have been in developing new teaching materials, supported by a new examination philosophy that did not have to echo the Cambridge examination. I am not so sure that zimsec which itself came about amidst spirited contestation came any close to effecting that critical disengagement. It could not have, given today’s felt need to overhaul the system.

Celebrating petals of the daffodil

However, we play it, history and cultural studies are key to underpinning the overhaul of national curricula. It is the more so when your own identity, history and culture have been challenged so systematically through a historiography which pre-dates colonialism and outlives the formal demise of that same colonialism. The attack on our African-ness intensified in the 15th Century with our encounter with the Portuguese. The attack on our African-ness persisted after 1980 with the persistence of neo-colonial structures and thoughts. A people exposed to such a ‘long duree’ of hostile narrative cannot have continuity for a worldview, indeed cannot afford to focus on the petals of the daffodil. They should be wedded to change yet here we have been, admiring the colourful scales of colonial education, ignoring the deadly bite beneath this admirable reptilian aesthete.

Indentured scholarship

I have chosen to illustrate the problem through the subject of history, excerpting the BSAC and John White narrative in respect of a key and foundational phase in our narrative of resistance. Often, it is not the distortions of colonial history which injure the mind. Rather, it is the illusion that liberal white historians and missionary do-gooders have dealt with the problem of a bad, falsifying and denigrators racist historiography. The illusion that historians like Beach, Roberts or Ranger have challenged settler historiography. The illusion that a whole crop of native historians have since risen, granting us some comfort that if it is a Mlambo then it must be Afrocentric.

What time cleanses

We overlook the tentacles and stranglehold over the African scholastic mind which proponents of settler historiography have enjoyed through a battery of scholarship offers, admissions and institutionalised doctoral supervision and patronage. Those highly worshipped settler scholars have reproduced themselves through this impregnable network. They have encouraged a scholarship of hurrying past our denigration on grounds that enough work has been done already, yet white histories which appear critical of settler historiography have been deployed strategically to pre-empt a radical re-reading of our past.

It is much worse now, three decades after Independence. A whole group of Rhodesian civil servants and Rhodesia Front advisers and activists have now been cleansed by time and post-colonial forgetfulness to re-launch themselves anew as dispassionate writers of history. That includes curators of Rhodesian history and trusted biographers of the likes of Welensky and Ian Smith. It also includes security operators of Rhodesia. These have become the new narrators of history, the sanctified knowers of history we dutifully teach in classes.

A narrative of subtleties

Much worse when testimonies of historical stature and import are linked to missionaries and church leaders who founded our denominations. John White was not just a Methodist missionary; he was a founder actor in the whole story on Waddilove. He incarnates the sanctity of the church, with his pioneering role washing away all sins and connections. He brought light, our guilt-laden histories assert.

He supported the African cause; don’t you see his comments which were critical of the BSAC? The bottom-line is that we have received a bad historiography which has been developed in such a sophisticated way that it is disarming and so full of racist subtleties to the point of making their unpacking quite some effort. The challenge is the courage and intellectual stamina to challenge that which seems to favour, to support us, to civilize us.

Breaking the soul of a people

The gist of John White’s version of the wars of resistance is to make a plea for a humane colonialism, never to challenge the whole notion of imperial occupation. He does not question the correctness of occupation of Zimbabwe; he questions the poor selection and deployment of human tools to validate that occupation by making it seductive or at the very least tolerable. Much worse, he is buoyed by white victory and even secured by the subsequent white establishment to the point of going on a proselytising offensive, post-African defeat. The BSAC bullet broke the back of the rebellion; John White’s bible broke the soul of the rebellion. The generation that lost the war passed on; the personality that lost its soul lives forever in us, the scions of that resistance. And to get a people to dismiss and repudiate their Murenga, their M’Limo, as a liar, is to get a people to repudiate the spiritual essence of their being. It is to deny a curriculum of its identity predicates.

Dr Lazarus Dokora

Dr Lazarus Dokora

A new historiography

And that is my little point to Minister Dokora and Secretary Utete-Masango. A new curriculum needs a new history, is underpinned by a new narrative. This is not a new problem. All post-colonial societies have come through it, have adopted different strategies of curing it, with varying successes. I am fascinated by the Indian approach where the Government there simply availed funds to leading Indian scholars to research and write authoritative Indian civilisation history from times that Indian man remembers to 1947. The year 1947 marked the year the Raj fell. The key outcome was a series of periodised publications which not only gave facts of history, but fended off any attacks and distortions of that history by marauding western historians. Today any person studying Indian history has to come to terms with that authoritative historiography which has since become the basis of composing teaching materials. UNESCO did the same for the continental history. Can this be done for Zimbabwe? Who by? When? How? Food for thought.


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