Introduction: Who Am I? : Negotiation of Identity in A Post -Colonial State

Heather Sofield, English 119, Brown University, 1999


Part 1 of "Who Am I? : Negotiation of Identity in A Post -Colonial State"


In a postcolonial nation (for the purpose of this essay I will focus on Zimbabwe) the question of identity arises when one must define him/herself in the context of a rapidly changing society. It is perhaps helpful to conceptualize this notion like the negative space illustrated in Mukomberanwa's sculpture. If we imagine a citizen of a post colonial society to be in the same position as my hypothetical vase of flowers, how do we and more importantly, how does that person, conceptualize his identity? How do politics, history and the influences of foreign culture define that identity? Is it possible to stand solitary and independent? Or is definition dependent upon circumstances and environment? Perhaps it is both.

Traditionally, a large part of one's identity is derived from one's past, education and the socio-culture in which one matures. Where we come from and who our ancestors were becomes the foundation upon which we build. Then we use what we learn to position ourselves within our surrounding society. But what does one do when the society and culture one's grandparents and great grandparents knew is suddenly disappearing under the feet of a disparaging, disrespectful colonizing force? What is one to learn when the available education system was created and is still dominated by a foreign culture? How does one find a niche in a society obsessed with stigma?

Zimbabwe, formerly called Rhodesia first as a British colony and then under the independent government of Ian Smith, is an apt study of a post-colonial state. It has been only in the most recent few decades that Zimbabwe has achieved its political emancipation from colonial Rhodesians under both Smith and Britain. The 1980's and 1990's have been an era of emergence for this nation as it struggles to step forward into the new millennium as its own entity, though badly scarred from its experience under oppression.

It is impossible for this African state to return to the self it once was. Certain forces once set in motion are impossible to reverse. Such is the case with colonization. The consequences of imperial occupation will forever show their mark. Any person desiring a complete reversion to pre-colonial society will discover that those values and norms no longer exist. In their place is a set of hybrid values and norms the children of a troubled marriage of cultures. As we will discover, these hybrids are problematic and sometimes tragic for an individual struggling to make peace with whom s/he is. The pull of the past is akin to a gravitational force that holds these individuals to the earth while the rest of the western world bounces about on the moon. It is necessary for the citizens of Zimbabwe and the nation as a whole to somehow negotiate a compromise between the past and the future, between damage done and potential to be realized.

But, of course, this is far easier said than done. Too often it seems that in order to move forward one must completely forsake the past. And indeed, this precisely was the mandate of the colonizing white culture. All that was African was considered dark and heathenish, whereas "whiteness" and "white" culture represented the epitome of modernity. Therefore, all educational and missionary efforts in Africa were undertaken with the goal of "civilizing" the blacks. Only by abandonment of their entire culture, religion and ancestry and then adoption of the English replacements might these Africans achieve worth.


Who Am I? : Negotiation of Identity in A Post-Colonial State


Postcolonial Web Africa OV Zimbabwe OV Postcolonial Theory