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Zenzele: A Letter to My Daughter, by J. Nozipo Maraire.

August 29, 2014

Zenzele: A Letter to My Daughter, by J. Nozipo Maraire.  Delta (1997), Paperback, 194 pages.


An exquisite book, written as a series of letters by a mother in Zimbabwe to her daughter who is leaving to go to college in America. The book is full of African stories, histories, and cultural values.

J. Nozipo Maraire was born in Rhodesia in 1964, as the violence began that eventually led to the establishment of the independent nation of Zimbabwe. Like Zenzele, she came to the United States for college and has become a neurosurgeon. With precision and beauty, her words express her loyalty to traditional Africa and her effort to sustain her heritage in a very different world.

This book is written, not in Maraire’s voice, but that of her mother, Shiri, known traditionally as “Amai Zenzele” (the mother of Zenzele).   Shiri is an impressive woman, no flat character naming specific traditions which must be observed. Instead, she is a woman who has lived a full life and is aware of aware of its frequent contradictions. She herself embodies both the old and the new. Growing up in a traditional village, she now lives in a city as the educated, well-traveled wife of a successful lawyer. Regular return visits to her village are part of how she balances her own life.  She urges her daughter to work out her own version of living between”the old and new, urban and rural.”  Sharing the stories of how she has developed her own balance is part of her responsibility as a mother.

Respecting and being loyal to her African roots is a major value that Shiri seeks to instill in Zenzele. She is critical of Africans of her own generation who have grabbed unthinkingly at the ways of white colonizers. Eager to insure that their children have the best of everything, she says too many have discarded their African past.

We simply rushed in to secure what the colonists had. We bought their homes, attended their schools, leased their offices, spoke their languages, played their sports, and courted their company. We denied our own culture, relieved to leave our primitive origins far away, in some forgotten village… We ceased to dream, to have our own vision of happiness and success… We have to acknowledge our dual citizenship.

She tells sad stories of those who no longer “remember their own language.”  For her, those who go abroad to study owe a debt to their homeland. These negative stories are balanced by the story of young girl born in America who returns to her father’s African homeland to fight for the people there. Zenzele is expected to live, not just for herself, but for Africa which depends on her.

In going to the lands of others, Zenzele must understand how she will be viewed by them. Both father and mother tell of their own humiliating experiences with Europeans and Americans who view them only as uneducated potential servants.

Unfortunately few Europeans regard Africans as equals. They see us in the indistinct haze of a colonial hangover. Be prepared to meet many who still see Africa as one large amorphous mass: The Dark Continent, a primeval swamp, misty and steaming, inhabited by Neanderthal creatures and cheerful but primitive natives…

To counter these beliefs, Africans must define themselves by beginning to write their own history.

Do not be fooled by the whitewashed apparent objectivity of the ivory tower. Until the ivory turns to a rainbow with all countries represented, you would do well to be suspicious of the so-called facts.

Until the lion learns to write, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter. So it is with us, too. History is simply the events as seen be a particular group, usually the ones with the mightiest pens and the most indelible ink.

Shiri has lived through the years of violence in which her people fought against the colonizers. She explains what changed when British Rhodesia became Zimbabwe by reminding her daughter of all the restrictions she had faced under British rule. Although the mother did not engage in fighting, her sister and close friend were among the rebels and tell her their stories. One woman, deeply engaged in the guerilla movement, explained that the final humiliation that drove her to rebel was simply that she wanted a dress – a dress she had admired and worked to buy –  that the storekeeper refused to sell to an African. Summing up the difference independence has meant to her, she states “I inhabited Rhodesia, but in Zimbabwe I lived.”

The last chapters of the book seem to be written somewhat later. Zenzele has departed to America, and her mother is back at her home village, thinking about religion and death. She remembers an incident from Zenzele’s childhood when they had visited an unusual chapel where the paintings contained black angels and a black god. Delighted, Zenzele had pronounced, “This one looks like me! Look at her hair, Mama, even her eyes. I could be an angel, too.” Her mother was also moved to see “an image of God in her own image and not the image of my oppressors.” For the first time she had found the God she had sought, not “the Teutonic God” that the missionaries had insisted she worship.

In writing through the voice of a mother in Zimbabwe, Maraire articulates the horrors of the colonization of countries and of people. Her criticism is both scathing and gentle. She refuses to blame all of Africa’s problems on colonization, but she shows us the insidious ways  colonizers tried to change people of other cultures. Sadly this practice continues today in the ways we continue to fit others into our own definitions of them. Maraire sees to the root of the problem in much the same way as Wole Soyinka does. She presents an alternative which combines loyalty to Africa with action in a modern, international world.

I cannot recommend Zenzele too strongly to readers from both Africa and from colonizing nations.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2014 9:13 am

    Why can’t you recomment Zenzele too strongly….?

    • September 14, 2014 12:06 pm

      I believe that Maraire’s depiction of honoring our own traditions while engaging in others could be valuable to us all. And she writes well.

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