Of rats, donkeys and the CNN story
Dr Alex T. Magaisa
Those in the Diaspora will probably understand one’s desire to find food that comes close to what one has traditionally been used to. Many improvise and sometimes they are lucky to find a drink that really tastes like Mazowe or chips that taste like Zimbabwean chips. I thought I had been lucky when I discovered cold meat that looked and tasted very much like what we used to call French Polony in Zimbabwe. Then one day it all fell apart.
I was waiting in the queue at my local butcher, when an affable gentleman standing next to me greeted me very warmly and in the conversation that followed enquired about the meat I intended to buy. I pointed to him the meat that had captured my heart. Nothing could have prepared me for what followed. In a very animated voice, the gentleman said, “O, yes, the Mortadella! That’s very delicious! It’s made from donkey meat, you know. It’s a delicacy from Bologna (a region renowned for its food in Italy and I suspect the word “polony” is our feeble attempt to pronounce Bologna) It is very good and healthy meat. In Italy they give it to children, because it’s very good for the young ones. Good choice!”
Needless to say, I was stunned. The good gentleman must have noticed the sudden change in my appearance – I cannot recall but I must have registered a grim expression at the mention of the word “donkey”. He quickly added, “I hope I have not put you off”. “No, not at all”, I lied.
Memory can be a very rough lady, at the worst of times. It ensured that at that very moment I could clearly visualise the donkeys that belonged to old Chinyemba back in the village. No-one else had donkeys in the area. I grew up with the knowledge that man does not eat donkey meat. Old Chinyemba were just beasts of burden and no more. If a donkey died it was simply buried. No one slaughtered a donkey for meat. With the image of the donkey firmly in my mind, I could hardly believe that I had actually consumed donkey meat. I shuddered at the thought. But the irony was that I had actually enjoyed it.
Part of me wished the good gentleman had kept to himself and not told me. Now that I knew, which knowledge generated the memories of the donkey as I have known it fortified my own inhibitions. Perhaps one day I will overcome the barrier, but for now I have parked my desire and no matter how close the meat tastes like my beloved polony, I will not be making a trip to the butcher. I am embarrassed to ask my dear butcher. I would so love someone to tell me that the gentleman in the queue was lying but my research on the internet has produced mixed results but I can tell you that I have seen the word donkey mentioned in relation to Mortadella more than once!
This experience occurred around the same time when CNN ran a story in which it was reported that Zimbabweans are having it so hard that they are now surviving on rats. The story has since attracted much reaction both from those who support the government of Zimbabwe and also from some of its opponents. It is true that life has become unbearable for most people and stories abound on the means that people are adopting to make ends meet. Notwithstanding the desire to of CNN to depict the dire circumstances in Zimbabwe, it is quite possible that to the foreign eye the story conjures images of Zimbabweans more generally as rat-eaters. Questions have certainly been raised to those living among their foreign hosts about the character of Zimbabwean cuisine.
There are two questions here: whether or not Zimbabweans eat rats as a matter of course and secondly, whether or not they have been forced to eat rats as a result of the current hardships. Personally, I was not entirely convinced that in fact people in Zimbabwe are actually eating rats. Even if this might be true in a specific case, it was still difficult to believe the accuracy and fairness of a blanket headline about Zimbabweans generally eating rats. I know from personal experience that certainly mouse meat is considered a delicacy by some Zimbabweans, particularly the Shona communities. In fact, back in the villages there are experts renowned for their ability to set mice traps in the fields. The consumption of mice is not without controversy as those that do not eat mice find it rather strange perhaps in the same way that others find it strange that others eat frogs, donkeys, snakes, dogs or snails. Unsurprisingly, it is often a popular subject of banter between the Shona and the Ndebele people, all often done in good spirit.
As I have said, there is no denying that times are hard but to what extent can the CNN story be said to be representative of the means by which Zimbabweans are actually surviving? There are those who have been scathing about the report and others who have supported it as representing the dire circumstances under which people are surviving.
The one problem that is apparent is that in debating the Zimbabwean problem there are basically two distinct camps, with a third additional one that is less visible or perhaps less vocal.
The first is the camp that sees nothing wrong in Zimbabwe. This camp, which is aligned to the ruling Zanu PF party and the government prefers to put all blame on external factors and sometimes, natural causes. This camp is in denial about government responsibility or at least its contribution to the problems facing the country. They are even prepared to make bold but patently inaccurate and unachievable predictions such as how the economy will grow and how inflation will decline, only for purposes of raising false hope. This camp would dismiss the CNN report as an exaggeration designed to demonise the government and Zimbabwe. It would be characterised as the continuing hand of imperialism, continually coming in different guises to ridicule and undermine the African.
The second is the camp that places exclusive blame for all the problems on the government. The argument that there are external factors that have also contributed to the problem is promptly dismissed and is often characterised as government propaganda designed to deny responsibility. In respect of a report such as the CNN piece on rat eating, this camp would justify it on the basis that the end justifies the means. They would argue that the government must be held responsible, its excesses and shortcomings must be reported even if the story contains potentially inaccurate messages. They would probably classify as “collateral damage”, whatever may be harmed by inaccurate reporting. They would say that the story is about the dire circumstances, which no one doubts exist and it is therefore pointless to take issue with the minute details so long as it paints the government in bad light, as it rightly deserves in their view. Both the first and second camps are prepared to go to excesses in the pursuit of their respective agendas.
Then there is a third camp, which tries to balance these two – by not subscribing to the excesses advocated by the first two. This camp is probably cautious but it is probably unpopular as it does not make sweeping statements or judgments that attract headlines or equally hostile reactions.
I think that on the one hand, there is some measure of merit in appreciating the CNN story not in its literal sense but as an expression of the greater picture. The story itself may not be the most accurate but nonetheless it does not detract from the fact that there is increasing poverty in Zimbabwe. Having said that, one has to question whether if the story is truly exaggerated as some have suggested, it is ever necessary at all to represent the Zimbabwean story in that way. In my view, it is possible to report the Zimbabwean story without exaggerating it. As some people have rightly stated, the story is bad enough already so there is really nothing to be gained from adding spice to it. Instead, it diverts attention from the real problems, giving cause to those that must rightly take responsibility to whinge and complain about Western interference and misrepresentations.
I can understand that in an atmosphere where there is competition for media space there is probably a desire to use the “shock and awe” approach to news reporting, because the most shocking and most bizarre story sells and therefore gets space. Foreign correspondents therefore may be trying too hard to be creative and come up with the story that sells. This is especially true in the case of Zimbabwe whose story has predictably become repetitive and less interesting. It is a story that no longer sells the way it did four or five years ago when it was fresh and captivating. The world media has other far more captivating stories to tell particularly in the Middle East. In these circumstances the most shocking and horrendous story gets attention and it probably explains the headline and contents of the CNN story.
However, as I have indicated, these arguments notwithstanding, it is not necessary to report the Zimbabwean story in a way that is not entirely accurate. As other analysts have so ably covered, there is no doubt that traditionally some sections of Zimbabwean society eat mice. Indeed there are more types of food that different Zimbabweans eat that may not be favourite or known dishes in other countries. Rats are creatures that cause panic and fear among certain parts of Western society, not least because of the Boubonic Plague, which wiped out millions centuries ago. Rats are known to habour a number of agents that affect human health.
To suggest therefore that people eat rats would be shocking to those communities and perhaps indicate the greatest level of poverty and perhaps conjure images of savages and depraved communities. In light of this, one might argue that to use the word “rats” as opposed t the more accurate “mice” is designed to conjure images and thoughts about a people that are hardly favourable. Now, I appreciate that people who have eaten mice have traditionally done so out of choice, as a delicacy during a certain period of the year. However, if people are now eating them on a daily basis as a matter of survival, then there is reason to appreciate the CNN story to the extent that it depicts the tough conditions under which people are living.
Finally, while appreciating that CNN may have reported the story the way they did simply out of a desire to highlight the Zimbabwean problem and not with any sinister intentions as has been suggested by some analysts, it may be helpful for them to understand why even neutrals among Africans may have felt aggrieved at the story. This they could do if they look back into history; specifically the history of research and writing in formerly colonised communities. African people, in common with other communities that were subjected to colonisation, have had a rough history in relation to research and representations of their society, culture and way of life. This is an issue that must be understood aside from the internal politics within the African countries.
From the time of early travellers, adventurers, explorers and missionaries, Africans have been written about and represented in ways that paid little regard to their views, needs and expectations. The travellers observed and interpreted what they saw though their own social and cultural lens. With time, the casual and informal observations and representations became authoritative statements and representations of Africa. This in turn informed the way in which others have traditionally perceived African society. These images and ignorance explain odd questions that Africans in Europe or America encounter about whether they actually live in trees and whether they actually live side by side with lions and hyenas.
The African people have seen this as hostile. In the same way, the media in the post-colonial period seems to fall into a similar mode. While they may genuinely believe to be doing the right thing for oppressed people, they sometimes fail to take a more critical and objective approach to the stories that they report. They make blanket statements that would tend to annoy the very same people they are trying to help.
It seems to me that while they must continue to work freely and report the stories emanating from Africa, they ought to take a critical approach to the assumptions, motivations and values that underlie the information gathering and reporting process within the dominant Western perspectives from which they operate. That way they can do a good job of reporting fairly and accurately while serving the needs and expectations of the people they seek to help. Above all, the story of Zimbabwe is bad enough and can be told without antagonizing or appearing to insult those that it seeks to help.
Dr Magaisa can be contacted at email@example.com
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