Dendere reshiri: The bird’s nest

Democracy, History in the making, Human Rights, Politics

The bird’s nest

There is a proverb amongst the Shona people in my country-Zimbabwe-which says

“Ziva kwaunobva, mudzimu weshiri uri mudendere” “Know where you are from, a bird’s ancestors are found in its nest”

This proverb speaks to the value of cultural heritage and roots. Once the bird’s nest is destroyed, its history and cultural heritage are gone. Destroying the nest kills the link between the bird’s current existence and its past. It’s in that old nest that memories of the past were made. Even though the bird may build another nest to create a new home for itself, that home carries no memories of the past nor does it have any value beyond the fact that it is just another nest. Preserving one’s cultural heritage is critical, not only for historical purposes but also for cultural value- linking past, future and present generations.

Montpelier, Monticello and  Ashlawn Highland 

Homes

The homes of 3 US presidents, James Madison’s Montpelier (top), Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (centre) declared a world heritage site by UNESCO and James Monroe’s Ashlawn Highland (bottom).

In the past 3 weeks, I spent time in and at three of America’s 44 presidents’ homes. These homes and plantations belong to three of America’s founding fathers: Monticello, home of the third President Thomas Jefferson, Ashlawn Highland- home of the fourth president James Monroe and – Montpelier,   home of the fifth President James Madison. Roaming around on these estates, I have come to know how these three bookworms designed the foundations of the American democracy as it is known today.

The three musketeers

The three leaders had certain values in common that leaders should emulate:

  1. They were revolutionary. They believed that a nation—their nation—could be built on the idea that people can govern themselves.  Jefferson—the visionary imagined an independent united American nation and so wrote the Declaration of Independence spelling out the aspirations of its people. Madison-the intellectual, realised that the aspirations contained in the Declaration could only find true practical meaning in another document that clearly spelled out how they could be achieved- the Constitution. Monroe-the operationalist, excelled in enlarging the American territory through his negotiations with the French and his diplomatic skills gained America the space and support it needed in the international world order.
  2. They were well read and multi-lingual. All had libraries in their homes and between them owned thousands of books in as many as seven languages: English, French, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew and German. It is from reading these books that they formed the ideas they pronounced so eloquently, which ideas shaped their nation’s history.
  3. Except for one thing, they believed in learning from other contexts. Because they spoke and understood many languages, they developed knowledge and connections to other countries’ histories, politics, cultures and traditions. The lessons that they gleaned from the French influenced the decor in their homes. Jefferson’s groomed estate consists of plants flaunted from Africa, Asia and his many travels to Europe. Their common fault, and exception to the listening trait, was their refusal to consider advice from their great friend and ally, Gilbert Du Motier- The Marquis de Lafayette, to give up and free the slaves they owned as the French had done in 1794. How such visionary men failed to see or refused to act on the injustice of slavery is something that will always diminish their greatness in my mind, as with any leader who blatantly ignores or commits human atrocities.
  4. They were patriotic. In all they did, these three men came together to plan and strategise on how to build a stronger and united America. Jefferson was about rights and revolution, Madison about structure and governance, while Monroe focused on international relations and diplomacy.

Through tours with capable guides, and observing the cultural heritage that the Americans have preserved of the men who designed their political system, I reaffirmed the value of doing the same in Zimbabwe.

Our language

Language connects us to our history and traditions. It is our heritage. Denigrating our own language and attempting to mould ourselves into a monolingual community gives us a false sense of security that we fit in with those we emulate. What it really does is to create a sense of deficiency in us, especially when we realise that our command of the foreign language is incomparable to that of native speakers. We may write in foreign languages to be understood by many. We can also learn other languages to learn about other cultures. We must never think our own languages are valueless. We need to develop pride in and value our own local languages.

Our history, our heritage

Monuments

Above are 3 of Zimbabwe’s most beautiful cultural heritage sites, the Chinhoyi Caves(top), Khami Ruins(middle) and Great Zimbabwe Ruins (bottom)-declared a world heritage site by UNESCO and the biggest man-made stone ruins on the continent

We need to know our history; who we are, where we are and where we are going including the stories of the men and women who have made our country what it is today. We may not have memoirs, letters or written documents narrating history but we do have the oral tradition of storytelling, which has passed folk-tales across generations. Story-telling can be used to pass down our history, recognising the limitations that come with it. We need to tell our own stories and give our own account of our history. We must preserve our monuments of national pride. We have done well in Zimbabwe to preserve cultural heritage sites such as the Great Zimbabwe, the Chinhoyi Caves and the Khami Ruins but we must do more to recall and record our history.

Another African proverb aptly put, “Until lions have their own historian, accounts of the hunt will always celebrate the hunter.” African history is predominantly told from the perspective of our former colonisers; books and maps are in colonial languages, mostly written by missionaries and mercenaries. As long as this persists, the account we have remains incomplete. We must tell our own history! We need to preserve our nests, as they will forever serve as reference points for future generations. As Malcom X said, “History is a people’s memory, and without a memory, man is demoted to the lower animals.”

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