Language and Peace Building in Zimbabwe

Personal Reflections by Godwin Chigwedere

Part of my conflict transformation work involves facilitating discussions around Non-Violent Communication.  Increasingly, I have noted that human beings have serious challenges in putting across their views in a constructive way. Right now, I am struggling to find out if our failure to be human in our behaviour and communication is a result of our descent from our Godly, spiritual beings into Godless materialistic creatures or rather  the reverse, that –we are actually failing to rise above the basic animal instinct into higher forms of beings.

The question is whether humanity is in a process of evolving into higher forms or degenerating into base creatures? What motivation is there for humanity to so easily choose the violent mode of communication rather than the non-violent one and to choose violence over non-violence? I am sure there are as diverse views on this as there are different heads on our shoulders. In my work, I try to help people in their various social and professional circles to master a way of communication that helps them connect with their own humanity and the humanity of the other person rather than a communication model that dehumanizes the other. However, most responses to my attempts are that the education has come too late for my listeners and it is difficult for them to change. Most participants acknowledge that they use violent communication all the time. It has become their second nature!

Social scientists argue that at the core of all violence –verbal, psychological or physical- among family members, groups or nations is a thinking that attributes wrongness in others and dehumanizes them. This attribution of wrongness takes various forms including evaluations and labelling. The following Shona proverb captures it so well. “ Kana bere rave kuda kudya mwana waro rinotanga ramupomera mhosva yekunhuwa sembudzi.” When the hyena wants to eat its cub, it first accuses it of smelling like a goat. Once the hyena is convinced of this the cub is fair game. People from all walks of life and all levels of society have used labels like these to define other people and, on the basis of these labels, behaved accordingly towards them.

One day, driving home from a social soccer match, a nephew of mine who lives in the same neighbourhood with me made very disparaging remarks about women from one of the totems in Zimbabwe. The remarks insinuated that women from this totem group are loose, alcoholics and basically unfit for marriage. After vain attempts to advise him against such labelling tendencies I quietly advised him that my wife comes from that totemic group. He was embarrassed and evidently shocked. Although I could tell why he was embarrassed, I could not say why he looked that shocked. Perhaps believing his label on this totem, he couldn’t understand how I could have married one. He grew up hearing this and it has become part of his grain.

Growing up in different parts of the country I have heard various labels attached to certain groups of people. In my peace-building work I have deliberately sought out these labels to gauge political, racial, tribal and ethnic as well as gender and generational perceptions that are at the roots of our behaviours towards each other. I am always amazed by the repertoire of hate vocabulary at our disposal and how knowingly and unknowingly we have taught our children this language full of hurt, hate and vengeance.
Unfortunately, once these evaluations (and I am using the word evaluation here because it tells of how we attribute rightness and wrongness on the part of other people) and labels have been used long enough they gain credence and if a spark is applied to this hurt and hate, the violence that ensues is difficult to comprehend.

Conflicts around Africa and indeed beyond are replete with terms that subsequently justify whatever action is to be taken against those so identified. Some of the hate terms that have been used to define certain groups of people include;“madoadoa”, Kenya, “ Cockroaches” Rwanda, “Termites” Nigeria, “Jiggers” and “ a very fruitful Christmas” Uganda and “Dogs” Burundi.
While there were other forces at play there is no doubt that language played a pivotal role in dehumanizing the targets in all the massacres that have happened in conflict situations. It is not just the term. It is the image the term creates in peoples’ mindsets about the other that reduces our capacity to make rational judgments about our actions. An estimated 800 000 people died during the Rwandan genocide because of the labels created and fed into mindsets of the Hutu and Tutsi groups for generations. Decades after, the Rwandese nation and indeed the world is still trying to get to grips with the death and destruction.
In 2007-8, an estimated 800- 1500 people died and an estimated 180 000 -600 000 people were displaced in Kenya when an election dispute blew out of control.. The violence was reportedly targeted at Kikuyu ethnic group where initially 50 Kikuyu women and children living in non-traditional Kikuyu areas were locked up in a church and burnt alive. No doubt the people who perpetrated the killings had developed an understanding, a non human image of these Kikuyu people that took away both the victims and the killers’ humanity.

In South Africa, Xenophobic attacks erupted in 2008 then again in 2015. An estimated 20 000 people perished in Zimbabwe’s ‘Gukurahundi’ era. Around 16 people died in following the 2000 election and in 2008 an estimated 323 people perished at the hands of fellow countrymen. Other causes of the violence have been extensively explored. However, the role of language (labels, stereotypes and evaluations) in all these violent cases still remains to be adequately addressed. Rwandan perpetrators described their targets as ‘cockroaches’. In the 1980s’ Zimbabwean perpetrators described their targets as ‘dissidents’. Around 2000, the word ‘sell out’ which had been extensively used during the war of independence was revived, this time targeted at people supporting any other political party other than the party in power.

King Zwelithini described foreigners in South Africa as ‘lice’ that needed to be picked from the hair and exposed to the heat of the sun to die. What followed was sheer terror. The South African government will argue that they contained the violence that ensued and perhaps even compare the numbers of the dead to similar violent episodes in other parts of Africa. And, perhaps too, South Africans will pay attention to economic and other factors and rightly so. Yet the violence is as much about the seeds of hurt and hate sown through language as it is about those other factors. Very few concerned people will try to address the issue of labels, stereotypes and evaluations as used on foreigners in South Africa.

Apart from the usual “sellout’ label, Zimbabwe has of late adopted new labels- ‘gamatox’ and ‘weevils’. We may be in 2015 but signs are there to see that language in the form of labels is playing a part in describing and targeting of certain groups of people. The three words, “sellout”, “gamatox” and “weevils” are not just words. They carry so much more meaning outside their real denotations. They sow so much hate and hurt than can be fathomed now. Come 2018, unless a national intervention is carried out and we desist from using these labels, stereotypes and evaluations, these terms will play a huge role in how Zimbabwe will conduct itself and the amount of violence or peace that will prevail.

Armed with the lessons of our past failures, Zimbabwe and indeed the world will need to pay attention to the role of labels and evaluations of other sections of our communities in nation and peace-building. Zimbabwe needs leaders who will provide leadership in formulating and guiding the national discourse and ethos away from a language full of hatred and hurt towards a new language of non-violent communication.