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4 Things Zimbabweans Learn When They Move to France

France Zimbabwe
by Jo Jackson Feb 26, 2015

1. Africa is big.

Europe feels it’s important. And in many ways it is, but its inflated sense of self has led it to continually exaggerate its dimensions on the world map.

Growing up in Zimbabwe, there was always space, but I only came to fully appreciate just how much we had when I came to Europe.

To give you an idea, the distance between Stockholm and Madrid is more or less the same as the distance between Harare and Cape Town. If you can’t quite picture it, this map says it all… And that’s why you can get one-week travel packages to Europe.

2. Bilingual is a bare necessity.

One of the biggest challenges of moving to France was learning French.

While Zimbabwe has 16 official languages, the most widely spoken are Shona, Ndebele, and English. Despite being an import, English is the language of politics, commerce, television, and above all, education. I was taught Shona at school, but between bad teachers and moving schools a lot, I was never very good at it. Besides, there didn’t seem to be a need to speak it better.

When I arrived in France and picked up high school where I’d left off, some of my classmates would look me squarely in the eyes and ask me things like, “DO. YOU. KNOW. JACQUES. CHIRAC?”

It dawned on me that the flawed sentences coming out my mouth weren’t an accurate reflection of what was going on in my mind. My classmates were judging my intelligence on what I was able to say and couldn’t imagine that what I was actually thinking was very different. After all, their French thoughts and French speech were seamless, so why wouldn’t mine be too?

That’s when I had a kind of epiphany; I’d seen white people talk down to black people in that same way in Zimbabwe. It’s an attitude of privilege; the privilege of speaking the power-language. Why would I learn your language? You should speak my language better.

By being put on the other side of the language barrier, I could better understand the struggle of being judged in a second language. All of this made me realise that being unable to speak and understand Shona or Ndebele had created a vast cultural abyss between me and my fellow Zimbabweans.

Europe has convinced me of the necessity of being multi-lingual.

3. Tribalism is universal.

When I try to talk southern African politics with Europeans, more often than not they bring up tribalism. While this is an interesting and important prism to inspect current affairs through, the word is often uttered with a whiff of superiority; as if the very foundations of society in African countries are somehow a little primitive.

Several years of experience has taught me that tribalism is alive and well in Europe. They just call it “regionalism” or “national pride”.

Separatist movements are on the rise all over Europe, but even groups of people who feel united under one country and are practically indistinguishable from one another can harbour visceral dislike for each other. Neighbouring French departments are a great example of this. I’ve even heard of tire slashing if you park a car with a Les Landes number plate on the wrong street in the Pyrénées Atlantiques.

4. Predictability can get stifling.

Having just arrived from a country falling into ever-deeper dysfunction, it came as a relief to my parents when it didn’t really matter if we forgot to lock the car, or when they posted a letter and it actually arrived at its destination. We were pleasantly surprised when queuing for ages paid off. When power cuts were a rarity, petrol was abundant, and the supermarkets overflowed with excess.

While all of this might have given my parents a break from the intense stress that our country’s crisis had provoked, it dawned on us that such stability, reliability, and predictability has a flip side. When things always work out the way you expect, you grow complacent. You become inflexible. Since you never have to exercise your adaptability, your survival instinct gets a little rusty and you come to expect things as your due. It encourages the kind of mentality that expects there to be every flavour available at all times. Whether it’s over ice cream or something far more important, predictability generally leaves people a little less able to deal with life’s hiccups.

In a minor show of defiance, my mother began to ignore the lights at zebra crossings. When I asked why she didn’t wait for the little green man anymore, she said, “Look at all these people obeying like robots. They aren’t checking the road. They’re just counting on the lights. You need to think for yourself… Stay on your toes. Survival, man!”

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