Going back to campus after the end of every vacation always gets me nervous. I have this crippling sense of social anxiety that makes it nearly impossible to socialize with others on campus. A few of the people who have reluctantly become what I might as well call my circle of friends are more or less, well really they appear to be drinking mates more than anything else. And I can’t necessarily say that I am always keeping up with what happens or what is said during those exchanges. I usually find myself alive at the beginning of every morning, and for that I am grateful to the powers that be. Most of the time I keep to myself.
I don’t speak a word of Afrikaans. Besides the fact that we share a learning institution, there is nothing else that binds me to those who are fluent in the language. Our common points of reference are so limited that it’s nearly pointless for me to try and ingrain myself into that world; it would take much more than what’s necessary out of me.
It’s hard to have meaningful genuine conversations in any other language that is not English. At the same time, the incorrect perception that blacks who use nothing else but that language are somehow ‘better’ and ‘more enlightened’ makes me think twice before I enter into any exchange in a bid to avoid being labelled incorrectly and being seen as something I am not. Unless I’m on the extreme end of a very flagrant night, then really I wind up going on hour long tangents of thought and free conversation. Usually, I tend to stay away from those who easily force others into a corner and can’t imagine them as being anything else other than what they assume. It upsets my nerves.
On the other hand English itself is a language I’d like to think that I frown upon. I am against its use as a measure of intelligence and a marker of sophistication of sorts. In more ways than one speaking the language makes me feel like I have become overtly participant in the erosion and seemingly erasure of my own conscience. It makes me want to question if the voice of my thoughts is entirely my own or simply a reactionary voice drilled into my mind by years of gullible susceptibility to this language of education, business, literature and possibly the future.
It is frightening to realise that in as much as I used to think that education will ‘liberate me from ignorance’ and create sustainable paths towards something of a bright future, whatever that means, it has over the years slowly turned me into nothing but a product of what I have been taught. Over the years, without realising it, my participation in the system has guaranteed a means for me to explore the system further and perhaps even get to be an influential component of it. At the same time, my zeal for creativity has progressively been dwindling and with each day I lose a bit of whatever impetus I had of seeing ‘real change’ or making a timelessly significant contribution to the zeitgeist. All my years of education have instigated an endless war within me, one that leaves me treading an apparently empty street, regurgitating years of false knowledge to whoever cares enough to hear. Sometimes I think that I am losing my mind.
Education is steadily becoming the next great chasm that separates people; a good number of people derive their sense of worth from the amount of education they have received and those who have received a lesser education are deemed inferior in nearly every aspect of life. Their ‘truths’ are not really truths. Their input is scrutinized for loopholes. Their originality, if there is such a thing in the first place, is often ruthlessly questioned for authenticity.
Shona, my first language, is not common on campus. It is spoken by a few in whispers away from the ears of the general university populace. I think this is because people are simply trying to distance themselves away from the language and the implications it carries; the most direct one being that one is from Zimbabwe and is therefore Zimbabwean. Besides being able to understand and use Shona and other Zimbabwean languages, it is difficult, at least for me, to point exactly at what makes a person Zimbabwean or to describe the elusive factor that constitutes the essence of what it means to be Zimbabwean. In the past few years it was our general dislike for Mugabe’s regime. Now that he is gone, the mist has returned.
The ones who converse openly in Shona are usually the overzealous religious fanatic types that would want to drag someone to overnight prayer crusades as the basis for friendship. They cannot have a conversation on anything without finding the need to mention some prophet somebody or a prophetic something. I find conversation with them redundant. I get bored so easily in those situations. It leaves me with headaches that are just as horrible as the hangovers I usually get after drinking a little too much Russian Bear. In fact these conversations usually turn into heated altercations stemming out of the differences in opinions and general ways of living. They infuriate me. I tend to stay away from them as well.
I usually go to the library and do my work over there. Or read a book. Or write something. When I feel like hanging out with people, I catch a ride to another institution’s nearby campus and hang out with the eccentric others over there who have rather become reluctant friends; at least their judgements on my character are somehow palpable. As far as I’m concerned those are important attributes that aren’t found in most people, especially my people.
The thing is that I can bear anything that’s said to me in English, well I’ve been able to so far. It doesn’t invoke any resentment, or a sense of worthlessness or patriotic betrayal. It doesn’t go to any place of depth in me, unless if it’s written – (something about the written word has a lasting effect on my psych). It’s usually a fun continuing experiment on the uses and effects of English language and coming from a place where I use it secondarily, it’s rather an interesting game to play. I am simply mesmerised by other people’s reflections in the mirror of language. The differences are bearable, unlike the heart-wrenching Shona rebuttals that are associated with my people, the kinds that aren’t so far away from curses, ones that leave you rather paralysed from the heart outwards, making diving into a volcano an option far more preferable than continuing the diarrhoea that would have become your life in their eyes of the homeboys.
These altercations, especially if they are with those of my people who are on an apparent country-representing bid, the ones who make it a point to remind you at every inconvenient instant that they went to Eagleville, to St George’s, to Hartman House, – to some we’re-the-cum-of-this-country’s-education kind of school – rather leave you with a terrible sense of shame, as if, by being from Zimbabwe, you had naturally been trusted with the simple task of carrying the nation’s integrity on your shoulders and had, through your ‘wayward’ and rather impulsive way of being, shown concern enough to carefully place the integrity on the ground and then gracefully shit on it.
I stay away. I avoid trouble. My life, my way of thought, my daily routine and preferences don’t fall effortlessly into the cast that is the stereotype under which most of my people fall into. I like to think that I’ve made myself invincible to the rest, and yet I am somewhat still present enough to succumb, to a certain extent, to their influence. I feel it. It’s always there, making itself constantly known to me especially through, of course, language.
With all its implications, insinuations, inconsistencies, ironies and innuendos, English is like a jacket that I put on and off, according to the atmosphere around me. My spoken English is different depending on whom I am speaking to. Sometimes I find myself conversing in Pidgin, and other times I find myself going over past conversations just so that I can reacquaint myself with my intended gist.
Shona, on the other hand, is the integument that covers the skin of my thoughts. It is always there, poking holes into the fabric of my newfound reasoning. It is in the back somewhere whispering strange things about how it is the centre of my conscience, the very core out of which my being emanates from, and how all this mock impulsivity is an effort towards erasing it.
But is it even possible for me to erase my own identity? How can I want to wretch out the eyes through which I first saw the world and formed a perspective of it? How can I honestly convince myself that I can ‘graduate’ out of my own self and be anything else other than what I already am? And is any of this absolutely necessary?
Shona does not have to leave. It’ll never leave. It can’t leave. It’s always there somewhere growling in the abyss of my other forced thoughts. I get scared sometimes, like when it hurls me to a place of desperation after disagreements with those who recite poetry in it. And yet at times I also want to sink into its rather homely embrace, to bathe my entire being in it; when I open my old Ndau hymn book and softly sing back my old high school memories, taking myself back to that place again, in those moments I pledge my loyalty only to it…
But I am here, internally conflicted in this rather fragmented country where the diversity and the beauty of the languages that clothe the people around me seems to offer no place for my own. It rather banishes me to a place of solitude and silence, which to the onlooker appears to be some kind of quiet reserve, but is no different from forced indifference. It’s a place that makes it possible to accept inexpression and nonchalance as far much healthier alternatives than to constantly scream in the wind, to constantly be speaking but to no one in particular, to constantly just be wasting words.