Culture clash: Exploring cultural and sexual identities from Zimbabwe to Australia
By: Tinashe Dune
“When I was your age…” was how my Zimbabwean mother would often begin her lecture-sermons. “If God were to see you now,” she would say, in her rich and powerful African accent, and I’d know I was in for a long one.
For many children growing up in the western world, the delivery of life lessons with a generous helping of admonishments is not uncommon. But I am uncommon. I was born in Zimbabwe and then moved to the UK before I was four. After missing the deadline to apply for citizenship offered by Britain following its retreat from Zimbabwe, my parents thought of the next best thing: America.
In the US, my parents worked, my sister started school and I went to day care. We hoped we’d become Americans. But when our application for American citizenship was denied, my family and I moved to Canada – to a very cold, very white and very rural small town, and we became Canadians.
In 2008 I came to Australia on my own to start my PhD. I got a job, then got married and had a baby, and now I am an Australian. So when people ask me “Where are you from?” I’m not sure how to answer. My cultural identity is ambiguous, even to myself, and I go through life on the fence or a balance beam – never really western and never really African, but always teetering from one culture to another.
In Zimbabwe,” my mother would continue, “you would be sent kumusha for your behaviour!” Kumusha literally means ‘your home’ when translated into English, but in Shona – the language and ethnic name for people of the Shona tribe – it means far more than that. Kumusha is where one’s ancestral family originated from, often in the rural and remote parts of Zimbabwe. In these areas, people live more traditional, less westernised lives.
“And then you will see how responsible young women are supposed to act,” my mother would continue. “I mean really! A sleeping over?!”
“It’s called a sleepover, not a ‘sleeping over’, and I’m just asking if I can go,” I would say.
“I know what it is called,” she would reply. “And will there be men at this sleeping over?”
“Men, what men?”
“Does this girl not have a father and didn’t you say she had brothers? So you know what I’m talking about.”
“Well, yes, they are her family and I guess they will be in the house, but they won’t be participating,” I would explain.
“Well, then you have your answer,” she would say. “If there are men, you aren’t going. You are lucky we even had this conversation. Kumusha you would never ask for such an audacious and inappropriate request. But because we are here in Canada, I am letting you play with talking to me like you are a western child. End of story.”
It wasn’t until I was about 16 that I was allowed to go to the movies with some girlfriends, and my mother instructed me on how to behave with regards to sexuality: avoid boys and men, and understand the very dire consequences of having sex.
I would always leave these conversations confused, and convinced that my mother was committed to ruining my social life and sexual development. Why couldn’t we have conversations like my friends had with their mothers – candid, open and reciprocal? I didn’t understand her, or what she was up against, until I was 22.
So perhaps we should take a look at where my parents came from – the Zimbabwe of the early 1950s. Pre-1980, Zimbabwe was a British colony named Rhodesia, after Cecil John Rhodes, a British imperialist.
My parents were born kumusha like most Black Rhodesians at the time, so you can imagine the conditions in which they were raised, and the challenges they faced in a British colony. Even though they were born and raised in rural and remote parts of the country, many worked on lavish estates on land overtaken by the British.
By the 1950s, Christianity was widespread among the Black Rhodesians as a result of intensive missionary work. The influence of European culture and Christianity was the basis upon which my parents began to understand sex and gender. These social structures shaped everything they did, whether or not they acknowledged it.
In those days, Black women were taught that they were ‘less than’ all white people, and ‘less than’ all men. To fulfill one’s role as a good Black woman, one needed to behave as ‘less than’. Following in the footsteps of white women, Black women were taught to be submissive, nurturing, self-sacrificing, domestic and asexual.
In all areas, men ruled and society was patriarchal, and the message was clear: a good girl was one who did not meddle in the affairs of men, was subservient to men (especially her husband) and did not desire ex or experience lust (these were believed to be the work of the devil, and only indulged by promiscuous women). A good girl also did everything in her power to avoid contact with boys or men, as any resultant sexual behaviour, consensual or coerced, was completely the girl’s responsibility. It was believed that boys couldn’t really help themselves when it came to sex and women.
So it was the responsibility of women to remain chaste and ‘pure’ – paradoxically, even after marriage and childbearing. It was a common social expectation that good mothers were asexual, and only endured intercourse to realize their true purpose of being a mother and a wife.
Christianity served to police and stigmatise sexuality, especially for women, and everyone seemed to buy into it (and they still do, to some extent). Even if you had to have sex as a marital duty, you weren’t allowed to enjoy it; this is an appalling prospect to many, but a staple element of gender and sex relations within many cultures around the world.
It wasn’t until University that I began to see the power dynamics and manipulations – which many call contemporary dating – at play. I saw that women with several sexual partners were labeled as ‘sluts’, while men with the same were fraternity heroes.
At this point, I started to think perhaps my mother was right: some people do engage in sex without truly valuing the person they have sex with. And then I started to hear other parts of the lecture-sermons, which I had selectively dismissed a decade before.
“Tinashe! You are a beautiful girl and you are very bright. I know this because you are my daughter. If I let you go to this party and someone does not treat you or your body with respect, I won’t be able to live with myself, and you most certainly would not forgive me later in life. You will say, ‘Mama, it was you who let me go to the party and now this is what has happened – it is your fault.’ And who else would be at fault except me? You deserve respect and to be valued at all times. I will accept no less.”
I began to realise that perhaps my mother wasn’t trying to ruin my life, rather she was trying to ensure that I and others ascribed appropriate value to it. I came to realise that I was taught to abstain from sex because Shona women are to be valued. I was taught that Shona women and Black women are not ‘less than’, and I needed to do my part in transforming the image of Black women. I was taught that I should only share the most special and vulnerable aspects of myself with someone who proved they deserved me, because I was one of many women who would change the world. My mother had big dreams.
When I was 22, I learnt this lesson quite starkly. I went on a date with a man, and afterwards spent some time at his home, where one thing led to another. We had a decent time – I didn’t really know him, and he didn’t know me, so I couldn’t relax enough to fully enjoy it. I figured that was alright; you win some and you lose some.
The next morning I certainly felt like a real loser when I discovered the condom we used had been left inside me. You can imagine my alarm, confusion and anger. Why didn’t he say anything? How could I have been so stupid? Was I really demonstrating value in myself by choosing someone who didn’t value me enough to alert me to the mishap?
I needed support to navigate the situation and was not sure who to turn to. I had friends, of course, but they didn’t quite understand when I tried to explain the lessons my parents gave on sex and gender. Then it became clear. I needed to call my mother.
I was expecting the lecture-sermon – I knew it was going to be a good one, too – but I needed to hear it. There was comfort in knowing what I was going to be told in a situation in which I felt I had no control. When my mother picked up the phone, I told her the story and there was a pause. I was preparing myself for the admonishments when she said, “It’s okay. These things happen. How do you feel?”
What?! Was this my mother talking? Her unmistakable accent reassured me it was, but where was this coming from? After explaining how I felt, she replied, “I’m so sorry, honey. The first thing you need to do is…” She went on to guide me through navigating health clinics and getting follow-up appointments. She talked to me about how to deal with the man I had slept with and how to cope with my feelings of worry, guilt and fear, and to remember that I was a strong, bright girl who could get through anything.
Following this catalytic moment, I truly began to understand what my parents were up against. They were two people raising cross-cultural children in a social and cultural environment that was very different from the one they grew up in. Images of sex and gender relations appear more boldly in media in western countries, and youth are permitted to engage in sexual, sexualised and sexualising behaviour much sooner than youth in Zimbabwe.
In western countries, girls wear make-up, short skirts and high heels sooner than most Zimbabwean girls. I only got glimpses of these differences when we made trips back to Zimbabwe, so growing up in a western setting was challenging for me: my parents would deliver one message while the rest of society delivered another. My friends, their parents, the media and the general public all seemed to agree that girls and boys should mix, go on dates and experience sexuality.
My parents were outnumbered. Parenting cross-culturally must have been so hard. I don’t know how they managed.
My experience of trying to navigate the culture clash between western and Zimbabwean ideologies on sex and gender led me to research sexuality within marginalised populations.
I investigate the intersections between various identities and have come to realise that no-one’s identity is as straightforward as it may seem. During my postdoctoral fellowship, I interviewed women exploring their bisexuality for the first time, and the freedom and discrimination that came with it. I have done focus groups with young people who live double-lives, as they fear their parents may not accept their sexual orientation, and interviews with migrants who contend with parenting across cultures.
I also had the opportunity to work with senior colleagues on a book based on our research with transgender men in Australia, called Female-to-Male (FtM) Transgender People’s Experiences in Australia: A National Study. From this work I began to understand two very important things. Firstly, that the experiences of marginalised populations are often very similar and present opportunities for unity and understanding. Secondly, that I needed to figure out more about where I and my parents were from, and what that meant to me and my understanding of sexuality.
One research project led me to speak with a few groups of ageing Shona-Zimbabwean women living permanently in Australia who were raising cross-cultural children. From their stories, I learnt that the views my parents had were culturally, socially and politically embedded. These women reiterated every point my parents had ever made, and gave me insight into the challenges faced by parents in cross cultural settings.
From all my experience and research, I believe that sexuality is among the most complex aspects of the human experience. This is because it involves every aspect of our being, whether we acknowledge it or not, and manifests itself in every element of our lives. Our sexuality is expressed in the way we dress, our interactions with others, how we raise children and how we perceive people from other cultures.
Women of all ethnic backgrounds living in the western world have to manage sexuality across cultures. The women of previous generations were often faced with more stringent societal attitudes towards sexuality and gender, which restricted their freedom. For Generation X and Y women, changing attitudes to sexuality and gender in the western world mean that women must contend with the remnants of archaic expectations of women and their sexuality, as well as more modern expectations to be sexually adventurous and available.
One thing that is certainly different, and that stands out from previous generations of women around the world, is that my right to make choices about my sexuality, and to get help when I need support, is explicit, protected and enforced.
When I last went shopping with my mother, I was shocked by the amount of gluteal flesh young women display these days. “Heavens,” I said. “Did their mother let them go out of the house wearing those shorts?”
My mother said calmly, “Tinashe! I thought you were progressive. That is the fashion these days and I am glad the old days are over.”
My mother is full of surprises. I now know that she was never out to destroy my social life and sexual development. She was only trying to protect me from the realities of how women were treated in the world in which she had been raised.
At the core was the message that I should value myself and my body. Now that I have my own daughter, I look forward to passing on these lessons, because she, like all girl children, is bright, beautiful and will change the world. I’ll probably drop the lecture-sermon delivery though.
Dr. Tinashe Dune’s research, teaching and publications focus on sexual marginalisation and health inequities. Since completing her PhD in 2011, she has published a multitude of books, book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles, and presented at numerous conferences. Tinashe has also interned at the World Health Organisation in Geneva, Switzerland.
This article originally appeared in Archer Magazine #5.