By J. Nozipo Mar
New York: Crown Publishers, 1996
ISBN # 0-517-70242-8
194 pagess

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2008

The transition from traditional Zimbabwean village life to modern western civilization is an astonishing change. Zenzele’s mother, a very learned and sensitive woman, remains centered in that particular African world and convinced of its beauty and power as a way to be in the world. She has raised her daughter to that tradition, and now, while her daughter is at Harvard University she writes this letter to remind Zenzele who she is and from whence she comes, and finally to emphasize the beauty and wonder of Zenzele’s own culture.

The book appears to be one single long letter. There is no evidence of any reply from Zenzele along the way. However, she often does refer back to earlier face to face discussions they’ve had since Zenzele appears to have adopted most of her radical feminism and modernism before going off to college in the U.S.

The “letter” is a stunningly beautiful and moving book. Amai Zenzele, the mother’s proper name, while steeped in Zimbabwean culture and quite proud of that fact, is sensitive to what she recognizes as some wisdom in her rebellious daughter’s world view.

Amai Zenzele lived through the terrible indignity of being part of a nation of blacks in Britain’s colony of Rhodesia and tells Zenzele:

“I had inhabited Rhodesia, but in Zimbabwe, I lived.”

The letter touched me deeply. It tries to persuade Zenzele of profound values in traditional Zimbabwean culture, yet it’s filled with deep love for and understanding of Zenzele, and sensitivity toward values which she sees in Zenzele’s rebellious new ways.

It is often said that the youth of each generation rebels against the culture of their parents’ generation, seeing the new ways as progressive and superior to the old ways, often even seen as primitive.

But I think the stakes are higher in these letters and the cultural differences at issue are ones where change spans much more than a single generation. Throughout much of the world there is a dramatic change rushing forward that goes back to at least the days before the Industrial Revolution. In any culture where the dominant economy was pre-industrial farming the culture tended to strongly value family, the group before the individual and demanded enormous respect toward the elders of family and the village. While people always seemed to have struggled for greater material security, comfort and ease, the general expectation was a much lower level of material comfort even for the well to do.

In industrial societies there seems to be a dramatic shift toward radical individualism, and a more vigorous pursuit of material comfort and ease as the norm. The elderly are folks more to tolerate as best one can, but to overcome in nearly every way.

Amai Zenzele sees this struggle only in terms of the threat that western culture of the U.S. poses to her daughter in living away from traditional Zimbabwean culture, but I think much more is going on in these letters than either of the main characters sees and perhaps even more than the author herself sees.

When Zenzele is semi-horrified at one cultural practice of her African village her mother tells her:

“I am being serious, Zenzele. You must not take the Western anthropologists’ view of our culture. They perceive our culture through their lens.”

When Zenzele protests to the “meaning” of a cultural practice on the grounds that it violates the dignity of women, her mother responds:

“You cannot reject a custom simply because it is vulnerable to abuse. That is like not going to church because there are so many hypocrites there…”

But the letters are no mere sermons to Zenzele. Her mother respects his daughter’s vehement modern feminism and she says:

“… I had no answers to your questions, which dropped like little bombs to disturb my orderly, swept, waxed and shiny world. Ever since you had burst into womanhood with your fervent egalitarianism and sweet idealism, the complete foundation of my morning reveries had been shattered.”

Perhaps these letters are as important for her mother as to Zenzele.

The one thing that did surprise and fascinated me by its absence, was the lack of any sense that there were also class problems to deal with. The Zenzele family is obviously quite rich with a number of servants at their home. These class divisions and all that goes with them never seem to enter Amai Zenzele’s consciousness, and much of what she describes as racial issues in Zimbabwe may also be seen as having a significant element of class differences as well.

This is one of the best written and touching books I’ve read in a long time. Amai Zenzele’s deep respect for her daughter’s radical feminism was so powerful and well done that I quickly purchased three copies to pass on to three younger women I know who I think will much appreciate that particular analysis. I’m awaiting the arrival of those gifts to pass on as soon possible. My own copy I’m passing on to my partner, a woman of my own age who has embraced much of that feminism, but whom I know will be moved and touched by Amai Zenzele’s own recognition of those positive values in her daughter’s new world.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu