By Masimba Musodza
It was my first month in the UK, and I got a job at a construction site. Because I speak with rather a posh English accent rather than the Nigerian which most British people imagine to be typical of ALL Africans, and because I have dreadlocks, it was an easy mistake to make. My new workmates assumed I was of Jamaican origin.
“I hate them Africans, you know,” one of them said as a Nigerian colleague left the group. I asked him why, and he recited a long list of grievances, all of them ridiculous sounding to me. When the Nigerian found out I was Zimbabwean, he urged me to stick to my “own kind”, also reciting a long list of grievances against Jamaicans.
A few weeks later, I found work in Reading. There were more Caribbean people, and I made it a point of asking where exactly each person I made friends with was from. “I’m from the island you don’t love,” a lady said to me. When I asked her what she meant, she explained that “you” meant “Africans” and the land we were not supposed to love was Jamaica.
A few months later, there was a Jamaican woman on the bus shouting that Africans were cannibals. A West African man could not take it any longer and responded. The word “slave” was used.
Such unfortunate examples form an arsenal of ammunition to defend a very simplistic argument that places Jamaicans and Africans as mutual, irreconcilable enemies. At the time I was at the construction site, there was a heated debate in the papers on this very subject. Actually, it is grossly inaccurate to describe this as a debate, as it simply amounted to the spewing of prejudices held by the chattering classes on either side. I read a few lines and decided that I could not be bothered. I have always regarded myself above such prejudices and the discussions around them. In the world I inhabit, there is no place for such ideas. If there are people, whether in Jamaica, here in the UK or on the continent of Africa, who hold such views, it just goes to show that there are phenomenally and incorrigibly stupid people everywhere.
I now find myself drawn in to the discussion because of recent utterances by President Robert Mugabe, in which he describes Jamaicans in the sort of language that people like Nick Griffin would be proud of. The remarks are most unstatesmanlike by any standards, understandably outraging Jamaicans and decent people around the world and making us Zimbabweans cringe.
The reaction from Jamaica is commendably calm. The media there has provided for the possibility that these unfortunate remarks may have been the fabrication of Mugabe’s many critics. To me, the somewhat guarded approach of the Jamaican media and the government demonstrate a reluctance to confront the possibility that the man so revered in Jamaica as a Pan-African icon doesn’t reciprocate the affection. They also demonstrate a maturity and dignity that sharply contrast Mugabe’s shocking racist comments.
It would not be the first time that the Zimbabwean dictator had shown his contempt for ethnic minorities. His views on white people are widely aired. Less famous is his denigration of the millions of Zimbabweans of Malawian origin, whom he accused of being behind the MDC’s overwhelming support in the urban areas. Even less famous and obviously forgiven, as evidenced by allegations of Mossad support for his regime, are his “don’t be hard-hearted like Jews” (1992) comments.
I cannot confirm that Mr Mugabe did say those things about Jamaicans. I can confirm, however, that they reflect Mugabe’s views on Rastafarians, people who look like Rastafarians, the reggae culture etc are on record, as a flick through the pages of The Herald and The Sunday Mail from 1980 when Zimbabwe gained Independence will show. I also have the memory of a speech which was broadcast on the 26th of May 2006, in which Mugabe declared that he did not care about the courts, where many a dreadlocked professional or the parent of dreadlocked children have sought recourse, but he did not want to see such people in schools and colleges either as students or teachers.
Mr Mugabe is not alone in his view of Rastafarians and people who look like Rastafarians. A warning about the dangers of adopting the Rastafarian culture makes a reading passage in a school textbook. The media routinely depicts Rastafarians as juvenile delinquents, dangerous criminals, drug addicts. Senator Joseph Culverwell, then Minister for Education, once ordered a dreadlocked student out of the auditorium at a ceremony at the Harare Polytechnic for “not portraying authentic Zimbabwean culture”. He now lies interred at the Heroes Acre. One of his more recent successors, Dr Aenias Chigwedere, was also never afraid of a fight with the courts over the right of children with dreadlocks to attend school.
Because of such first-hand experience with the anti-Rastafarian sentiments of Zimbabwe’s ruling class, I have never been able to understand why so many Jamaican Rastafarian musicians lined up to visit the country at a time when there were widespread calls to isolate the Mugabe regime. I felt how many Black South Africans must have felt when Millie Jackson and the O’Jays came to play at Sun City. Was it the love of money? The regime has splashed out on image-building. Or was it that they are so gullible that they think anyone who can chant slogans and clench his fist is a revolutionary? True, Bob Marley came to perform on Independence Day in 1980. But everyone knows that it was Edgar Tekere, one of the nationalist leaders, who had links with the Caribbean community who was behind the Jamaican singer’s visit. And everyone knows that Bob Marley footed his own bill. Mr Mugabe was more interested in the other famous attendants on the memorable occasion, like Prince Charles and Camilla (whose husband was already in the country as Aide-de-Camp to the last Governor-General of Rhodesia)
Notwithstanding all this, however, the average Zimbabwean feels a great affection for Jamaica and its people. What is there not to love? Jamaicans are friendly, and open with their feelings. They make good music. They have contributed in so many ways to Africa, the land their forebears were so brutally removed from. They gave us Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley, and other luminaries. Zimbabweans have cheered Usain Bolt and other Jamaican athletes as if they were compatriots. Zimbabwe celebrated when Miss Jamaica won the Miss Universe title.
Zimbabweans have interacted with Jamaicans from Independence, right from the performance by Bob Marley. The band Misty in Roots visited Zimbabwe and thought about settling here. They bought a farm, adopted Zimbabwean names like Tawanda and recorded Ishe Komborera Africa/Nkosi Sikelela ("God Bless Africa" originally a hymn by a South African, adopted by many liberation movements in Southern Africa as the national anthem, now only South Africa still uses it but it is the one known by my generation of Zimbabweans. It was said at a Nyahbinghi that the reason Misty in Roots abandoned the project was that some Zanu PF officials began to squabble over their claim to shares of the proceeds from the farm. Nonetheless, the Misty in Roots visit inspired many more Jamaicans to come over and many stayed on. Our police we trained by a Jamaican martial arts expert. Many of our musicians, and the Ministry of Education and Culture, acknowledge the role played by Trevor Hall (better known as Ras Jabulani) in organising the arts industries and mentoring musicians to become more professional. There was another lady who worked at the National Arts Council, I forget her last name but I met her at the last Zimbabwe International Film Festival I attended. At the Harare Polytechnic we had Olujima Nkrumah, whose son went to my junior school and who married a lady from my mother's neighbourhood. At the University of Zimbabwe, there was Professor Horace Campbell. I cut my writing teeth through The New Generation, a newspaper for children published by a Ben Hanson. The PTC (the old telephone and postal services parastatal) benefited from the expertise of a Jamaican technician. Ras Nkrumah was active in Rastafarian circles, and put up a fight for the right of dreadlocked youths to attend the Polytech. The first time I met him, it was only when he switched to English that I realised that he was not born in Zimbabwe, his command of ChiShona was perfect! When I was told I could not do the Journalism Diploma at the Polytech unless I had a haircut, someone advised me to see him.
I could cite other examples and there are many more that I do not know. None of these Jamaicans fit the description that President Mugabe has aired at all. Nor do the many Jamaicans that I have met in the UK. In my first year in the UK, I attended classes at a college where virtually all the students were either Jamaican or Zimbabwean. It was a chance for us to get to know these people better, and them to know us, and we made friends. We shared, I had to ask what all those dancehall songs I heard as a teenager actually meant, and many of them thought the whole of Africa was one homogenous entity. One girl, who had friends from Ghana, tried her Twi on me and was amazed to learn that it was as much gibberish to me as most other African languages. She said that “I mash up de place”, which I later learnt was a compliment.
At the various jobs I did over the last decade of my sojourn in the UK, I have come across many Jamaicans. Most of them hard workers. There have been many intermarriages between Zimbabweans and Jamaicans. And only two of such marriages known to me involved dreadlocks and Rastafari!
This is why I, like so many Zimbabweans, am appalled by Mr Mugabe’s unstatesmanlike and racist comments and wish to distance myself from them. Pragmatically, we would be surprised if he did apologise at all. There is a long list of people waiting for such an apology.
There is also a widespread sense of vindication among the Zimbabweans, especially those who have interacted much with Jamaicans. If there ever was anything likely to strain relations between ordinary Zimbabweans and Jamaicans, it is the displays of support and accolades that Jamaicans have showered the ageing dictator. All those musicians coming to perform in Zimbabwe, while people suffered, I wonder how they feel now. All those politicians who stood by his regime internationally at the UN, the Commonwealth etc. The Jamaicans are not the first supporters of Mr Mugabe who have been repaid in contempt. There are many local musicians who sang his praises and are now languishing in abject poverty. This too is typical of the Mugabe regime, it uses people like condoms, discarding them after use.
To the people of Jamaica, I think I speak for the overwhelming majority of my compatriots when I say that Zimbabweans do not share Mr Mugabe’s views. On the contrary, we hold Jamaicans in very high regard. Zimbabwe is open to Jamaicans and I am sure that Jamaica is open to Zimbabweans. We need to learn more about each other, exchange and interact more, but such interaction and association we have had so far makes Mugabe's outburst even more unjustified.
I am sure that there are many who do conform to Mr Mugabe’s unpleasant description, but there such people everywhere in the world, even in Zimbabwe. While not condoning such behaviour, most Zimbabweans are mindful of the fact that not a single marijuana-smoking, lazy Jamaican man has ever brought our country to its knees by claiming to champion Black economic empowerment while presiding over an orgy of corruption and embezzlement. No marijuana-smoking, lazy Jamaican man ever sent soldiers and youths to beat up, rape or detain defenceless citizens in order to persuade them to vote for him. As Bob Marley said, “soon, we’ll find out who is the real revolutionary.”
Obviously, not every Jamaican is going to get along with every Zimbabwean all the time. That too is normal in the course of human socialisation. But if such incidents do arise, I just want the people of Jamaica to understand that this will have nothing at all to do with Mr Mugabe’s utterances.