Lessons from Zimbabwe: Colonialism

Unfortunate relics of a recent past

To start 2019, I took a vacation to Zimbabwe for two weeks on my way back to the US from working in China. While it was a short trip, being in another African country was an important experience, and allowed me to compare and contrast with my own country, Ethiopia. I thought I would write a few reflections on my time there, beginning with this one. This is not intended to be instructional or objective — I hope no one ever goes to a nation as a tourist and pretends to be an expert afterward. But I did have some useful takeaways from my experience, which I wanted to record and share.

My first post was about economics, you can read it here.

One of the most unfortunate parts of my trip to Zimbabwe this past January was going to Victoria Falls and finding that everything was still called Victoria Falls.

‘Victoria Falls’ is the name that David Livingstone gave the falls, after Queen Victoria, his monarch. He claimed he “discovered” what, of course, people living in the area had already known for centuries. The indigenous name is actually much more beautiful than ‘Victoria Falls’ — Mosi O Tunya, which means “the smoke that thunders” and is the name the Lozi people, who live in that region, gave the falls. It is now both the name of the falls themselves and the town that surrounds the falls.

I had heard there was some government effort to change the name, but it never stuck, or there wasn’t enough force put behind it. All the tourists and tourism companies around the falls (many catering to white people — Europeans, white South Africans, etc.) know the falls as Victoria Falls. I did notice ‘the falls’ or just ‘falls’ seemed to be how a lot of Zimbabweans called the area — something that was not the indigenous name but at least didn’t have Queen Victoria and that unfortunate history in the title.

In Victoria Falls National Park there is still a statue of David Livingstone.

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This was new to me, an Ethiopian, because Ethiopia has very few physical or linguistic reminders of the Italian occupation. This is because the Italian occupation was very short (about 5 years, with active resistance internally) and no country ever succeeded in colonizing Ethiopia. But because I had never been to another African nation, I never knew what the aftermath of a colonized nation looked like. Where Zimbabwe attempted to change David Livingstone’s name to the Lozi name, Ethiopia mostly deals with its own internal issues — debating about changing an Amhara name to an Oromo one, since in history different regional-ethnic groups occupied different parts of Ethiopia, for example. While this is an important discussion and a kind that has taken up a lot of the political space in Ethiopia for the past 2–4 years, and I certainly don’t mean to minimize that, having a point of comparison did make me feel that Ethiopians sometimes forget how good they have it.

Tourists that go to the falls are somewhat diverse. There are not many local Zimbabweans or Zambians who visit for tourism, but there are many Africans, and black Americans. But there were many, many groups of Europeans and white South Africans and white Americans. Some of the hotels and restaurants that my friend and falls rafting instructor, Elvis, took us too had a creepily colonial vibe —oil paintings of British royalty and old Western-style decor — probably because it hasn’t been that long since colonialism, though everyone seems to forget that. In more ‘touristy’ areas, we were often the only black people around that were not staff or servers.

That said, the tourism is very good for the local economy. Victoria Falls the town felt like it was unaffected by all the other issues in Zimbabwe. The roads were well paved and clear of potholes, the facilities and houses seemed a little nicer than some in Bulawayo. And this wealth is shared — locals can pay at many establishments with a steeply discounted price, sometimes by being allowed to pay Zimbabwean bond notes rather than US dollars.

I remembered sitting, back in Bulawayo, at a very nice coffee shop and sort of food court, with my friend Bothabo and his friend. I asked why some places in Bulawayo had very nice-looking and modern facilities, sometimes even next door to much more run down places. His friend gave an answer; the politician takes money and builds a nice-looking coffee shop that he owns, while the roads remain difficult and public buildings or hospitals less nicely furnished. This way, he further extorts money from the people who have already been robbed.

This was a comment or joke and not fact, of course, but who knows? We must place what has been done by others — colonialism and extortion and war — side by side with what has been done by some of the locals. In Ethiopia, too, this is an ongoing struggle and discussion. While Ethiopians like to believe they were unaffected by colonialism, that is impossible— the separation of Eritrea can be linked in many ways back to the Italian occupation, and no one can completely escape the ramifications of what is happening to all your neighbors. Ethiopian foreign policy has largely revolved around managing crises in the horn of Africa, crises which come with refugees and difficulty building infrastructure and other obstacles that directly affect Ethiopia’s progress and interests.

The lesson about colonialism I learned in Zimbabwe was simple, but important, at least for me. Colonialism cannot be blamed for everything, but it is still the root of everything. Colonialism is more than just the physical occupation of a nation, it is also the global power dynamic that often places certain nations at the bottom of the list for political relationships and investment. Even without the physical occupation of Africa, I am sure that such a power dynamic would have continued.

It is impossible to say what Africa would be like today without colonialism, but if I think of Ethiopia, at the very least, many more aspects of cultural identity would have been preserved, and that is not frivolous. The absence of that is something you feel as an individual, deep in your body, always in your subconscious, pride and shame and frustration.

It’s what I’m feeling now, sitting at home in Boston and writing, wondering how it will even begin to be possible to tackle all these huge issues. Wondering if there is anything I can do really, or if I should give up, since so much depends on governance and politics which are often out of my control. For now I will continue learning about the past and the present. For now I will continue thinking, dreaming, about the future.

MIT grad, robotics engineer, mixed. A place I write.

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