Being an immigrant living in South Africa, I have found myself having to answer this question more often than I remember ever having to when I still lived in Zimbabwe: “Are you Shona or Ndebele?”
While out and about a couple of weekends ago, I not only found myself having to answer this question for the umpteenth time, but I also found myself having to defend my answer: “I am half Shona, half Ndebele”.
Usually, the people who ask that are non-Zimbabweans and although they may be a bit baffled by my response, they never question it. Zimbabweans on the other hand, once establishing kinship tend to ask where in Zimbabwe I am from and not “who” in Zimbabwe I belong to and I suppose that is why I have hardly ever had to defend or explain my response on this side of the Limpopo. My questioner, who incidentally is Zimbabwean, however, asked the “who” and not the “where” and I suppose because he is familiar with our cultures and norms he wanted to know why I identify as both when I should be identifying as a member of the ethnic group my father belonged to.
The answer to that is very simple and that is I am my mother’s daughter. A lot of people have assumed before and will probably assume now that this is based on my feminist ideologies as they are presented to us Afrikans by Western world feminism but nothing could be further from the truth.
I was raised by my maternal grandparents. My mother fell pregnant with me when she was still in high school and although my grandparents were disappointed and angry, they did what very few parents in Zimbabwe at that time did and that was not pull my 17yr old mother out of school and force her into marriage. Instead, soon after I was born, she was sent back to school and my grandparents raised me as their child and my mother became my “sister” and her siblings my siblings. I suppose one can say they were progressive and not to mention that being educated helped some.
Although my grandparents always told me that I am their child, they also told me the truth about who my parents were, they never at any point claimed to be my biological parents or made me inherit my mother’s family name so to pre-adolescent Doreen, they were my parents and to adult Doreen they still are. I may not officially have been a Mpofu but I was raised, socialised and educated as one. I identified as one and Gaura was just a name that I wrote on my school books because I had to write something and apparently that something had to match what was on my birth certificate.
I only met my father when I was nine years old and his family and relatives when I was ten when my parents got married. That was the beginning of my induction into the Gaura family and the Gaura ways. Although everyone, including my maternal grandparents and my mother tried so hard to get me to accept that side of my family, I never fully accepted it and in a way they never fully accepted me. They will always be strangers and I will always be a Mpofu.
My great grandfather, on my mother’s side, who died when I was 12years old, was a Sangoma. I only found this out, or rather only got to fully understand and appreciate it much later as such talk and beliefs were somewhat taboo in my grandparents’ home. Ours was a Christian household so this was not really accepted in my family. Thankfully they have become more flexible though in their old age especially given my choice to no longer subscribe to Christianity.
My grandfather and his father were not estranged however, in fact we all enjoyed a wonderful relationship with Khulu Mangidi (a nickname he acquired in his youth on account of the fact that he smoked a pipe, like an English gentleman which is quite ironic if you think about it). We simply never talked about his gift. It is only in my adult years that I have chosen to get in touch with my aboriginal spirituality and to get a better understanding of our culture that I realise that I missed out on a wonderful opportunity to learn all I could from this great man.
During a traditional ceremony called kubika doro a few years ago, a relative from my mother’s side of the family who is a spirit medium, while under possession, told my mother’s family that although I am not mwana wekwa Mpofu (a Mpofu) they recognise me as such and they do not view me as a grandchild who belongs to the Gauras. Their choice to make this acknowledgement was apparently at the behest of my late mother’s spirit. Anyone who has any knowledge of the protocol within the different Zimbabwean cultures when it comes to recognition and genealogical identity will know that this is not done as it is considered a sign of disrespect to the Gaura family and their ancestors. We must however, bear in mind that one can not be sure if this has always been the case amongst the aboriginal people of this little section of Southern Afrika or if it is due to the Christian missions and the resultant colonization of the land and the people. After all, some historians postulate that a lot of tribes in the region of Zimbabwe and Mozambique were at some point matrilineal. Perhaps it was not just our mothers’ names we inherited but also their ancestors.
In my teens I read Egyptian writer and feminist activist Nawal El Saadawi’s autobiography A Daughter of Isis and in her introduction she wrote something that resonated within me:
I loved my mother more than my father. But he removed my mother’s name from next to mine, and wrote down his instead. I kept asking myself why he had done that. When I asked him he said, “It is God’s will.” That was the first time I had heard the word God. I learnt that he lived in the heavens. I could not love anyone who removed my mother’s name from next to mine, who abolished her as though she did not exist.
I identified with El Saadawi in that moment. I did not understand why I was being forced to belong to someone I did not love. I never loved my father. Prior to meeting him I loved the idea of him. The man I imagined he was but when I met him and especially when I went to live with my parents at 16, I realised that I had no bond with him and I would never love him. I knew why but I did not understand why I was being forced to belong to a people I had no connection with.
Today I have a better understanding of that but I also have a better understanding of the bond between my mother and I and the bond between most mothers and their children. For a very long time, aeons ago, people had no real understanding of conception and believed that women fell pregnant on their own and perhaps this attributed to the Goddess worship that was common place in those times and vice versa. The logic was, because women are the personification of the Goddess and the Goddess is the creator of life therefore they have the power to make themselves pregnant and create life. This reinforced matriarchy and matriliny within these communities therefore making women the centre of social and biological hereditary derivation. Uncertainty around paternity also contributed to the existence of such a social structure.
Although the modern times in which we live have presented us with more logical and accurate explanations and we now know that to have been an incorrect interpretation of conception I am still fond of that notion and not necessarily from a mystical perspective but certainly a spiritual one. Yes a woman needs a man to conceive and yes it is the SRY gene that’s said to set developmental pathways towards maleness in the Y chromosome thereby determining the sex of a child but even though people believe that we get half our DNA from our mother and half our DNA from our father, some scientists maintain that this is not entirely accurate as there is one small piece of DNA that is inherited only through our mothers, the energy generating Mitochondrial DNA aka the Eve Gene. We all inherit this from our mothers, and only our mothers. It is only inherited through the female line. That little bit of extra goodness that only mama can hook you up with. Even in male children who inherit the Y gene from their fathers they still get the little extra from their mothers in the form of the Eve Gene.
It is because I acknowledge this and I know that my father is a part of my complete being that I always acknowledge my Shona “half” but even with this realisation and acceptance of the scientific, I still choose her. It is my mother I bonded with from inception. It is my mother who gave me life and sustained it. Do not get me wrong, I am not dismissing the importance of men in the lives of their offspring nor am I saying that all women who have children are good mothers to their children or that people cannot love their father as much or possibly even more than their mothers as that would not only be very false but also ill informed. Because I do not believe that being a mother and being a father are necessarily mutually exclusive when it comes to parenting – when not confining the self to the limitations of gender and sex, a mother is very capable of being a father to her child and a father a mother to his – I therefore do not think a hierarchy should exist. However, someone already beat me to it and a hierarchy does exist and as it stands it’s the father who takes precedence. Irrespective of whether or not he is present or he is a loving father. It is his family’s name you inherit when you are born even though there is always room for doubt when it comes to paternity. It is his cultures and customs you are expected to know and practice and it is his people you should recognise and affiliate yourself with and not those of your mother.
People subconsciously and even ignorantly for some, venerate the mother and her true role in the life of a child. Father Time has secretly preserved the long forgotten and banished Mother Earth in one of the most powerful and influential instruments of all, language. In our language i.e. the words we assign certain things and the methods of verbal identification, we secretly proclaim the true importance of our mothers and if you are so inclined, the Goddess. Our personification of nature, our countries of origin and our vernacular languages is not only feminine but it is also maternal i.e. Mother Nature, Motherland and Mother Tongue. In Shona and isiNdebele, when you are hurt, anguished or afraid people exclaim the words Amaiwe or Maibabo which when translated loosely is a cry to one’s mother for rescue, relief or comfort.
I personally do not believe in the existence of a hierarchy when it comes to parenting and genealogical identity but if people are going to insist on one and not only that but try and ram one down my throat I am going to tell you that I am my mother’s daughter and I belong to my mother’s people. It is not only about where society positions you in people’s lives. It is also about what position you have earned in people’s lives. I am made up of two parts but if you are going to insist I pick one in order to establish my identity I pick that of my mother. After all: