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Ethnic minorities in rural Zimbabwe: identities and livelihoods

Another new book from the ever-impressive Unit of Zimbabwe Studies at Rhodes University, led by Kirk Helliker, is now out. It is called Livelihoods of Ethnic Minorities in Rural Zimbabwe and is edited by Kirk Helliker, Patience Chadambuka and Joshua Matanzima with 11 excellent chapters based on in-depth research along with the introduction. It’s (again) horribly expensive, but hopefully you can lay your hands on it via a library.

Despite the dominance of the Shona and Ndebele in popular and political constructions of Zimbabwe, there are many ethnicities within Zimbabwe’s borders. Some have come relatively recently; others have been there for centuries. The ethnicities covered in the book include Chewa, Tonga, Tshwa San, Shangaan, Basotho, Ndau and Hlengwe.

Ethnicity is described in the introduction terms of features such as “common descent, history or national origin; familial ties or kinship relationships; similar cultural and/or spiritual arrangements; and shared linguistic attributes”. And all intersecting with race, class, gender and other dimensions of difference. As the editors argue, an ethnic minority is not one that may be demographically small in size, although this is often the case, instead “the key question entails the relationship between ethnicity and power in a particular nation-state or even within a sub-region of a nation-state…. As a general trend, then, ethnicities excluded from power or incorporated into power in a subordinate manner are minority ethnicities.”

This is certainly the case with all those listed above in relation to the Shona or Ndebele. However, of course, as the book explains the there are multiple sub-categories within the Shona for example, notably, the Manyika, Zezuru, Ndau, Karanga and Korekore. And ‘the Shona’ just as with ‘the Ndebele’ was a construct, reinforced by colonial administration, Christian missionaries and subsequently a nationalist state.

The construction of ethnicity

As the book’s introduction explains, colonial power was exerted through a a divide-and-rule strategy: “This involved the emergence of political programmes, administrative structures and territorial spaces focusing on ethnicity. Hence, colonially constructed ethnic identities were mapped onto fixed territories (initially called the Reserves) and this took place alongside the reinventing of tribal or ethnic polities regulated by way of the dictates of British-inspired indirect rule, overseen by salaried and appointed chiefs.” Christian missionaries reinforced this through the translation of the bible into different sub-dialects of ‘Shona’.

The creation of Shona power has been a feature of nation-building since colonial times. Sometimes refracted through particular identities – most notably Zezuru in the Mugabe era and now perhaps Karanga under Mnangagwa – the assertion of a particular authoritarian ethno-nationalism has sometimes been brutal, most notably the Gukurahundi massacres of (mostly) Ndebele in Matabeleland in the 1980s.

As discussed in the introduction to the book, during the struggle for Independence, the nationalist movement became closely aligned to the revival of ethnic-cultural nationalisms, carefully mixing a nationalist rhetoric with enlisting people into the struggle by drawing on (often reinvented) pre-colonial histories and appeals to cultural and linguistic identities, a theme explored by Ndlovu-Gatsheni in his 2009 book “Do ‘Zimbabweans’ exist?” During the liberation war, as Schmidt explains for the Honde valley in her 2013 book “Colonialism and violence in Zimbabwe’, grievances against the colonial state were expressed in ‘vernacular mode’, not in terms of standard nationalist discourse.

Fluid and transitory ethnic identities

Ethnicities and identities are of course not fixed. Fluidity, transition, reinvention and reinterpretation characterise practices. As the editors explain there is always the “possibility of multiple forms of belonging existing simultaneously.” Indeed, this is almost always the case, as the cases explored in the empirical chapters of the book nicely show. This is not surprising as ethnicity must be negotiated in relation to livelihoods and particular political contexts. This is especially so where ‘minorities’ live, often in more marginal places away from centres of power and frequently on borders, where others with similar ethnic origin may live in a neighbouring state.

For example, in Zimbabwe, the Tonga have close links with Zambia and the Manyika and Ndau with Mozambique. Numerous studies of these borderlands show how ethnicity and livelihood practices are intertwined, as for example in Hughes’ study of Vhimba on the border with Mozambique. Here, a ‘flexible citizenship’ exists because people continuously move across the border. The mixing of different ethnicities has occurred continuously across Zimbabwe, in particular because of labour migration. The movement of many workers to farms and mines during the Federation era resulted in some areas being settled by those whose origins are from Malawi, Mozambique or Zambia. Displacement from the war in Mozambique had similar effects.

In the book, Chadambuka looks at Chewa people, originally from Malawi, who lived and worked on white commercial farms in Zimbabwe since the 1950s. During the land reform many former farmworkers were displaced with some moving to communal areas or others being incorporated into the post-land reform settings. Many had lost all connection with their parents’ or even grandparents’ homes, but did not have true ‘Zimbabwean’ identities. The case study of Bushu communal areas in Shamva District, looks at how ex-farmworkers had to reinvent themselves in these new spaces in struggles over land and resources.

Those who remained on farms or moved to urban areas and remained in larger groups were able to draw on their original cultural identities to support their ‘community’, as Daimon explains for those with Malawian ancestry and who practise their Nyau/GuleWamkulu cultural dances as a form of self-identification and support in harsh times. In the same way, as Mujere explains, the Basotho migrants who were allocated freehold in ‘African Purchase Areas’ had to seek new ways of belonging, becoming integrated in a relatively elite ‘master farmer’ class of Shona farmer in Masvingo, and later becoming involved in nationalist movements with their new compatriots.

Many rural areas across Zimbabwe have had long histories of migration, with Gokwe being a case in point. Here ethnicity becomes crucial as newcomers clash with indigenes over land, religion and cultural practices, while the state tries to impose strict ordering through resettlement and land improvement schemes. In a number of papers, Nyambara, for example, explores how the Shangwe and Madheruka fought over differences in farming and religious practices, with the former following traditional religion and the latter adopting Christianity.

Ethnic conflicts and development

Ethnicised conflicts arise during the implementation of rural development in areas where there are mixes of people. A number of chapters highlight this for wildlife related development – which occurs on the margins of the country where such ethnic diversity is pronounced. The CAMPFIRE programme, for example, has seen many such disputes, for example between the Tshwa San and Kalanga/Ndebele in Bulilimangwe and Binga, as described by a while back by Madzudzo and Dzingirai. In the book, Jani looks at another part of the country – Chapoto Ward in the north of Zimbabwe- where the Doma and Chikunda compete for resources in the context of wildlife use. The Doma are deemed to be subservient because of their ethnic position and lose out. This affects their livelihood opportunities in relation to rural development programmes.

As the editors note, “Just as ethnicity may condition livelihood strategies, changes in livelihood options likely affect ethnic identity”, resulting in shifts and compromises in how people present themselves, at least publicly. As McGregor has shown, in Binga, Tonga people voted en masse for the opposition, as the ZANU-PF rhetoric about land reform did not resonate, as they wanted land back that had been taken for conservation and the flooding of the Kariba dam not white commercial farming, as Matanzima and Marowa explore in the book.

Land reform and ethnic contests

Fast-track land reform was explicitly not aimed restitution but was seen by the state as a national project of redistribution for all Zimbabweans. However, this did not prevent ethnic conflicts arising in parts of the country where resentments arose from the imposition of Shona or Ndebele settlers in ‘their’ land.

As Wolmer explains in his 2007 book, Shangaan people were motivated by ancestral-ethnic claims, and have argued strongly for restitution including in the sugar estates. As Ndhlovu shows in his chapter, the history of the Chisa people is a story of endless displacement but combined with resistance. While benefiting from land through the land reform programme, their claims to ancestral land within the Gonarezhou national park has not disappeared.

In the same way, Ndau identity was significant for those occupying plantations in the Eastern Highlands or commercial farms in Chipinge as shown in studies by Marongwe and Zamchiya. As Nyachega and Sagonda show, those who took over land – in their case the Aberfoyle/Katiyo tea estates – new livelihoods linked to new identities had to be generated. With tea in decline, they had to generate new options, resulting in the massive ‘banana boom’ in this region, with claims staked on often questionable claims around cultural-ethnic belonging.

In many areas, including our own sites in Masvingo, this reinvention of ethnic origins has fuelled multiple disputes over land and authority, including numerous on-going contests over chieftaincies and headman positions. Claims to land through past residence, the presence of grave sites and so on is often tenuous, but reflective of the power of ethnic histories in current land politics.

Land, livelihoods and ethnic identity

This is an important book as it uncovers the diversity of ethnicities and identities in Zimbabwe, rescuing Zimbabwe’s story from one that focuses only on the contests between the Shona and Ndebele. The ethnic landscape – and senses of belonging, identity and cultural association – is much richer and more contested and fluid. And importantly, this landscape shapes and is shaped by livelihoods and the ways land is used. For those concerned with land and livelihoods this is a crucial issue, and the book is an important resource.

Lead photo of Jacob Mahenehene and family from Chikombedzi

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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