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Letter: Who is a real African?
President Robert Mugabe
President Robert Mugabe has strong views on African identity
Letter comes from southern Africa, where author and journalist Hamilton Wende has lived since childhood.

He suggests that recent events in neighbouring Zimbabwe have reignited the debate about "African identity".

What does it mean to be an African today?

I've asked myself that many times, both as a journalist and as someone who came as an immigrant to the continent as a little child with my mother and brother in the mid-1960s.

For whites, like me, and other minority groups, the situation in Zimbabwe has raised this question yet again.

The long years of white colonial rule and the destruction of traditional identities have distorted the notion of an African self, but in its search for a new, 21st-Century way of belonging, the continent cannot afford to ignore the truths of individual lives.

I was in the back of a pick-up truck driving through the green hills of Rwanda. We were squeezed in with a Rwandan soldier.

Whenever things go wrong, they get up and leave. They never stay when things are bad. I don't see how they can say they belong to Africa if they don't share our hardships.
The soldier, whose name was Jean-Paul, had spent many years in exile in Tanzania and he spoke excellent English, unlike many Rwandans whose only international language is French.

Jean-Paul was an intelligent, amusing man in his early 20s who, to be honest, was undergoing something of an identity crisis.

Here he was, an African with a languorous French name that rolled off the tongue like crisp Chardonnay, but who missed all the Anglophile aspects of his life in Tanzania.

He was particularly sorry not to be able to listen to Bob Dylan - an unusual choice of rock star for an African soldier, but then Jean-Paul, at heart, was a romantic.

At one point on our long, uncomfortable journey he started singing.

I'll always cherish the memory of Jean-Paul in the back of that van holding his AK-47 upright while he began softly chanting the lyrics to Blowin' in the Wind.

Years of exile

There was something very touching in listening to his sad, wistful voice singing Dylan as we wound our way past African villages dotted on the hillsides and young boys driving herds of long-horned cattle through the deep, shaded valleys.

Jean-Paul was a Tutsi, who are a minority in Rwanda, and he had lost many members of his family in the genocide in 1994, in which some 700,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered.

Genocide memorial site guardian with skulls
Rwandan survivors are a constant reminder of the genocide
Jean-Paul was deeply scarred by what had happened to his family, and to his people, but he didn't want to talk about the genocide much.

He wanted to find some way to look forward.

Rwanda had its problems, but he had come home at last, after well over a decade living as a refugee, to take his place in the country and to play his role in making it better.

But his years of exile had opened his life, and Jean-Paul took a wider view of Africa and of its place in the world.

He was fascinated by questions of identity and belonging on the continent.

Indian question

"What do you think about these Indians who live in Africa?" he asked me.

"They have their place like everyone else," I told him.

"But," he replied. "Whenever things go wrong, they get up and leave. They never stay when things are bad.

"I don't see how they can say they belong to Africa if they don't share our hardships."

He had a point, of course, and I knew that one might level the same accusation at many white Africans, including those from Zimbabwe.

"That's true," I told him. "But don't you think it's also up to Africa to create societies where they feel they can belong?"

Jean-Paul was silent for a long time.

He held onto the barrel of his rifle, steadying it against the movement of the van as it drove down the steep, winding road.

In the end, he looked at me.

"Yes," he said. "You're right. That is what we in Africa have to do."

Tribe or nation?

That conversation cuts right the heart of how Africa is to define itself in the future.

The grandiose illusions of the European empires have faded so often into a morass of shattered roads, ill-defended border posts and armed rebels roaming its famine-struck villages at will.

The nation-state has collapsed in much of the continent, leaving many Africans trapped between a colonial past that ruled over the destiny of their parents and a future of dictatorships over which they have no control.

Like elsewhere in the world, identity in Africa is no longer a simple matter of tribe or of nation.

Ethiopian soldier positions a rocket launcher
Tens of thousands perished in the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict
But, as I have learned living here and working as a journalist, all too often, old tribal or ethnic prejudices do define the way people see themselves and their neighbours.

A few years ago war erupted between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

It started with a border skirmish and rapidly escalated into full-scale trench warfare with jet planes, tanks and tens of thousands of troops launching frontal attacks from both sides.

The conflict was a terrible tragedy.

Eritrea had once been ruled by Ethiopia.


The present governments in both countries had fought side by side to liberate both Eritreans and Ethiopians from the oppressive rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Now, only a few years after the end of their joint liberation struggle, the two peoples had descended into open warfare.

What made it even worse is that many southern Eritreans and northern Ethiopians are from the same ethnic group, the Tigreans.

They speak the same language, and follow the same religion as Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.

Most of the fighting was concentrated about 100km south-east of the capital, Asmara, around the border town of Zalambessa.

When our news team arrived at the front line we saw soldiers in vehicles smeared with mud for camouflage.

Tanks were parked along the sides of the road. There were no farmers. The fields lay empty.

The people here are Tigreans - after the battle, they buried the dead Ethiopians who were Tigreans, but those two, they come from the south of Ethiopia
Eritrean translator
The Eritrean forces had just taken the area.

On the road, a darkened shed had been converted into a hospital.

Wounded soldiers lay in rows on the floor.

Fresh blood seeped through their bandages.

The silence of fear and pain filled the shadows.

The town was nestled in a rocky valley.

White-washed houses stood in neat rows. The spire of a church and the minaret of a mosque gleamed in the sunlight.

Abandoned boots, ammunition boxes, and spent cartridges were scattered along the main street.

Behind a row of stone houses, we found a rocky outcrop where Ethiopian troops had made a last stand.

The shattered rock gleamed white where mortar shells had exploded. Streaks of blood were hard and dry in the baking sun.

Across a patch of waste ground lay the abandoned corpse of an Ethiopian soldier.

In the shade of a bombed-out house across the street was another body. It seemed strange that two bodies had been left behind to rot.

I asked our Eritrean translator about it. He shook his head angrily.

"The people here are Tigreans. After the battle, they buried the dead Ethiopians who were Tigreans, but those two, they come from the south of Ethiopia.

"The Tigreans call them 'blacks' - they won't touch them!"


Africa is not uniquely prone to racial or tribal hatreds: one has only to look at the Balkans, the Middle East, Afghanistan or Northern Ireland to know that such a view is simplistic.

It was much worse for the black people who lived on the farm - they lost everything
Elizabeth, white farmer
But it is true that the collapse of much of Africa is about a lack of vision, an inability of so many leaders to forge a new identity out of the ruins of the colonial era.

They have failed to create societies where their citizens of all races and tribes feel they can safely belong.

And Zimbabwe is one of the saddest examples of this. A once prosperous, stable country is now teetering on the brink of disaster.

In South Africa where I live, some weeks ago I talked to a white Zimbabwean whose farm had been taken away by President Robert Mugabe.

Her name was Elizabeth. She is in her 60s and most her life had been spent in Zimbabwe.

In fact, she and her husband left the old Rhodesia in the 1970s and returned to live in a black-ruled Zimbabwe in 1980 at the end of the bitter bush war that had been fought against white rule.

Faith in Africa

It was an act of faith in Africa and Africans that many of her white countrymen were unable to make.

Elizabeth was saddened, and deeply hurt by what had happened to her and to Zimbabwe in the last few years; but she refused to give in to bitterness.

"We had good years," she said simply. "That's what I have to remember. And now they are over."

"But," she added. "It was much worse for the black people who lived on the farm. They lost everything.

"We gave them what we could, but in the end they had to leave. They have no jobs now, no way of earning a living."

White farmers in Zimbabwe
Some 3,000 white Zimbabwean farmers have lost their land

"They're the ones who are going to suffer the most. We are lucky, we could come down to South Africa, but they've got nowhere to go."

Robert Mugabe has ruled his country like so many other African despots, where loyalty to tribe and race or clan is synonymous with citizenship.

But in the beginning there was another vision.

When he came to power in 1980, after leading the war to end white minority rule, he took the podium at the independence celebrations and spoke of a new vision for Zimbabwe.

He talked of a country where black and white and Shona and Matabele might live together in peace.

Blurred vision

Zimbabwe was to be a model for Africa, and for the world.

But within months of becoming president, he betrayed this promise.

He launched a brutal, but secretive, campaign called the "Gukuruhundi" - or "the wind that blows away the chaff".

He loosed his predominantly Shona 5th Brigade on the people of Matabeleland.

They swept through the villages of southern Zimbabwe, torturing, raping and murdering.

Some 10,000 people were killed, buried in unmarked graves or thrown down mine shafts.

Zimbabwe torture victim
The opposition complain of widespread intimidation

It was a campaign that people like the Rwandan Tutsi soldier Jean-Paul would recognise.

At the heart of the killing lay a twisted notion of identity.

Matabeles were considered to be "dissidents" - an alleged danger to the unity of the nation, and hence impure Zimbabweans.

Their existence jeopardised the power base of Robert Mugabe, so thousands were killed.

Today, anyone - Matabele, white or Shona - who threatens him risks imprisonment, torture, even death.

I asked Elizabeth something that Jean-Paul might have asked: Would she go back one day?

"It's too late for us," she told me. "We'll be too old to go back. There's no future for us there anymore."

Progress of change

Despite everything, though, she had refused to give up her faith in Africa.

"You must understand," she said. "How much good is happening in Zimbabwe."

"Good?" I asked, more than a little surprised.

"Everywhere you go in Zimbabwe people will come up to you and say quietly 'We don't agree with the government. We don't think it's whites who are destroying the country.'

"When you consider the history of Zimbabwe, that means a lot.

"Something new is happening there.

"People are learning for the first time to really look beyond race, and to see themselves as Zimbabweans instead."

Black Zimbabweans have suffered far more under Robert Mugabe than whites, but, despite everything, the vast majority of them have refused to give in to the rage that follows in the wake of despair.

Map of Zimbabwe

In the trips I have made to Zimbabwe in recent years, I have found that this sense of wanting to create a new nation and a new identity has been a powerful unifying force among ordinary people - black and white.

The road ahead is not easy.

Things will get worse in Zimbabwe; there is no solution in sight. It would be naive to say there were.

But there can be no doubt that a new vision for Zimbabwe is growing in the silence that his police and army impose on its citizens.

Life there is filled with hardships, but somehow it still goes on.

Slowly power and its illusions are slipping away from Robert Mugabe.

The country may yet fulfil the promise that was betrayed after independence.

All across Africa, people like Elizabeth, Jean-Paul and myself are watching, and hoping.

Hamilton Wende is a freelance writer and television producer. He is a regular contributor to From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4 on the BBC.

His articles have appeared in many international and South African newspapers and magazines.

Letter is a new BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters reflects on the latest political, cultural or social developments in their region.


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