“You want something African, right?”
I am leaning on the granite kitchen counter when my host mom, Elta, asks me this. I have just asked her for advice on where I can buy clothes in Harare. I hesitate to answer.
What does she mean? I do want something I couldn’t find at home in the states. I do want something indicative of the culture here. Two weeks ago, before I arrived in Zimbabwe’s capital city, I would have responded enthusiastically.
But bustling about the kitchen, Elta wears a suit and slacks home from work. Elta is “proudly African,” but African garb is nowhere to be found in her closet. Actually, I wouldn’t call her home décor “African” either—no stone sculptures to speak to Zimbabwe’s carving tradition, no brightly colored walls. For dinner, Elta serves chicken, vegetable sauce and rice (sometimes sadza, Zimbabwe’s claim to fame, a polenta-like dish), with ice cream for dessert.
This westernization is true for many of the people I’ve seen and met in Harare. The city streets do not boast colorful, patterned outfits. I spot the occasional woman carrying a basket on her head or a large bag of rice, and many women carry their babies on their backs, strapped in towels. The billboards are written in English, almost no Shona to be found. Most Zimbabweans practice Christianity and go to church on Sundays. A private girl’s high school puts on a production of Broadway’s Cats. Reps Theater season line up had included Rent and Miss Julie. Where is the “African”?
The problem with Elta’s question: bringing home something distinctly African would mean diverging from the culture surrounding me—a culture that feels largely Western.
Before I go on, I have to be clear about the perspective from which I am experiencing Zimbabwe. I can’t claim to fully understand a place where I’ve lived for not even a month. For one thing, I spend my days in the capital city. I imagine you will find the same westernization phenomenon in many African large cities. Young professionals working in the city will be less traditional than elderly living in rural areas. I didn’t encounter traditional greetings, clapping (different ways for men and women) and a slight bow or curtsy, until I drove thirty minutes outside of Harare.
I am also living in one of Harare’s more affluent suburbs, Bluffhill. With wealth, it seems, comes more westernization. In one of the working class suburbs, Kuwadzana, the “African vibe” is stronger. There, your sister’s son is yours, and you can really see how family (extended family included) takes precedence over social class dynamics in a way it doesn’t in the states.
In the way that people relate to one another, there is something African that I can’t fully explain. “If you’re African, people expect you to act a certain way,” my host mom Elta told me. For example, people here often go to work less focused on results and more focused on building relationships with their coworkers.
Still, I think there is validity to the largely Western experience I have had so far. Stephanie, a Princeton alum (the Great Class of 2008) born and now living in Zimbabwe, admits that the culture here is more diluted, comparing it a place like Nigeria. Even at the flea market, prints and patterned tops come not from Zimbabwe but from other African countries.
What the West considers “African,” here is generally considered “traditional.” On the one hand, Zimbabwe wants to look forward, leaving its past behind it, gaining its footing in the modern world. On the other, a Westernized Harare does not want just to be another version of a growing American or European city. Africa does not have the luxury of time to modernize and adapt tradition to the modern world: what European countries have had centuries to do, African countries have decades.
Though it’s hard to find anything “African” in the contemporary dress and cuisine of Zimbabweans in Harare, you can find it in the music, dance, and, as I’ve gotten to know more intimately, the contemporary art.
I watched contemporary Zimbabwean band Mokoomba perform live at the Book Café, a hub for democratic space in the city. Their music would not fit into the traditional music night at the café, which features the mbira, but it is clearly African. Interestingly, though, Zimbabweans in Harare sometimes have trouble connecting with Mokoomba, who come from Victoria Falls and sing in Tonga instead of Shona. The band may have more international success than local, a phenomenon you can find in the contemporary visual art as well.
The contemporary art scene is not what I would call well-known, locally or internationally, but it is growing. The contemporary art I’ve seen coming from the artists associated with First Floor Gallery Harare, where I’m interning, is distinctly African, but it is not traditional. One artist, Terrence Musekiwa, responds to Zimbabwe’s history in stone sculpture in a way that merges tradition and modernity. Another, Wycliffe Mundopa, reflects on the condition of women and children in Harare’s ghettos. Moffat Takadiwa uses discarded objects in his work that reveal the challenges and triumphs of Mbare’s people (dish soap bottle caps reveal a nation of people that have overcome economic crisis). The contemporary art scene is one source of African culture today, unique and exciting.
Harare is not trying to be Western. From what I have observed, some elements of Zimbabwean culture, like the food and the dress, have gone Western. Others, like the art and music, have not let go of their roots and are trying to move forward without forgetting where they came from.
~ Ally Markovich '17
“You want something African, right?”