Unpacking the Zimbabwean mess for diaspora kids

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THERE was only one incident in my childhood when I witnessed a parent dumbfounded by a child’s question. On a Saturday afternoon, I scaled the thorny hedge into our neighbour’s yard to find my friend Saidi dancing to the rhythm of his mother’s whips, a long stick freshly pruned from a peach tree.
In his tiny hands was something that looked like a transparent balloon. As she unleashed terror on his hopping limbs the mother kept mumbling something about Saidi “playing with adult things”.
The punishment duly meted out, the interrogation ensued. Where did you find that thing? Was it opened?
“Near the toilet at the tavern,” Saidi retorted, still rubbing his behind. “It’s not a balloon and you should not be blowing it,” she said.
Yet even in his moment of agony, Saidi’s inquisitive mind had not dimmed.
“But mum, how can it not be a balloon when it looks like the other ones we saw at Tinashe’s party?”
The mother looked momentarily speechless, her mouth ajar.
“Stop asking me silly questions and bury that thing somewhere far from my yard,” she eventually said.
Near the gate, Saidi and I wondered why this balloon had angered his mother. Days later, Saidi’s brother would pull the wool off our eyes by calling the balloon a ‘condom’ and vaguely explaining its use.
Still, we remained unconvinced that a balloon could have another name, and use. The lesson had however reached heart and mind: some balloons, especially those picked near the bar, were not permissible toys.
That was nearly three decades ago in Chakari, a tiny mining town nestled between Kadoma and Chegutu, but the stunned look on Saidi’s mum’s face has never rescinded in my memory. Something told me that my friend’s mother did not have the answer to his question.
Now just under half a decade short of my 40th birthday and raising two young daughters in the diaspora, I am also being pelted with awkward questions that leave me staggered like Saidi’s mother. The questions range from reproductive science to hardcore politics. One day you could be explaining where babies come from and the next they will ask if it’s true that Zuma is a crook.
In recent months, the questions have gravitated towards their country, Zimbabwe, perhaps because they are increasingly conscious of who they are. In a different time, those questions should be an opportunity for me to help them reconnect with their roots. I have proudly answered questions about the Liberation War, Victoria Falls, Great Zimbabwe and the elephants in Hwange National Park.Advertisement

I was doing fine until the questions turned to the absurdity of what is happening in Zimbabwe. On a recent visit back home, my mother had a torrid task explaining why electricity is said to have “gone” and water only “comes back” at night. My father had to explain why our money is called the US dollar.
Insulated by distance from the vagaries of a collapsing Zimbabwe, they find life there baffling. They cannot wrap their heads around what their cousins in Zimbabwe might consider normal. They have a complicated relationship with their motherland. And so, they ask questions to make sense of it all.
Many parents in the diaspora probably face the tricky task of trying to strike a balance between being brutally honest about the situation in Zimbabwe, and telling the story with enough empathy so their children don’t abhor their country.
You want the children to know the reality without thinking theirs is a wretched country. Ideally, the answers should be straightforward: Our country is being run by a cabal of corrupt, incompetent, dishonest, power-hungry and greedy people who have long ceased to care about the masses.
It’s a temptingly simple assessment, but one you cannot give your child without coming across as judgmental and even bitter. I raised my head to find the eldest, 10, glancing at a video a friend had sent me from President Robert Mugabe’s interface rally in Chinhoyi.

A Cde in serious trouble … Grace Mugabe (right) scolds George Charamba