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The number of Zimbabweans currently living in London has led to some wags renaming the UK capital “Harare North”. Lennon Misha describes the different waves of migration.

Migration from Zimbabwe has taken place mostly in three major phases. The first was soon after Zimbabwean independence in 1980, when white Rhodesians left the country, fearing retribution, or aghast at the prospects of being governed by a “black government”.

The second major phase, especially for South Africa, occurred during the Gukurahundi atrocities of the mid-1980s, when N’debele people were forced to flee the country to South Africa. Recent narratives have of course predominantly focused on the third and most recent, post-2000 wave of migration, against the background of socio-political and economic meltdown in Zimbabwe. 

Outside these phases, which provide useful conceptual and analytical categories, Zimbabweans have still been on the move. While migration can often be accompanied by images of misery and sensationalist tales of crisis, that go hand in hand with a stereotypical narrative about the postcolonial African state, I like many have been struck by the resilience of those who have managed to negotiate being elsewhere, and the complexities and intricacies of their lives.

During my time in Johannesburg, and in London, I have spent time with many Zimbabweans who have moved country, and fallen between the cracks and crevices of the different generational phases of migration. It has been a rich opportunity to glean an understanding of being Zimbabwean in the elsewhere.

A group that has not received as much attention in the hegemonic discourse on Zimbabwean migration is those who came to Britain in the 70s, when Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia, who partook in the transnational anti-colonial movements, and were active during decolonisation.

While the emphasis in recent years has been on the post-2000 mobilities of Zimbabweans, and the exceptionalisation and sensationalisation of the circumstances of their presence in Britain, (black) Zimbabwean presence has always been, and should necessarily be seen as part of, a genealogy of the experience of the other, the stranger, the black body in Britain.  

One man who has been very important to my understanding and experience of being Zimbabwean in Britain is Mudhara Wala, who came to Britain in the 1970s as a teenager, and has played an active part in the African music scene since then. I spent a lot of time with Wala, attending concerts, carnivals, and navigating a city, London, that has changed a lot since the days of Fred Zindi and The Stars of Liberty, the Bhundu Boys, and a then-active Africa Centre. 

When I asked Wala to share with me some of his early memories of Britain, he confided that on arriving from a racist Rhodesian regime, he was “able to feel the racial tension which was in the air in Britain”. He had arrived after the “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” era, when such signs were openly displayed, for example in pub windows. He went on:  “The ‘rivers of blood’ speech by Enoch Powell was still topical then. Skinheads were marauding the streets with one thing on their minds, to beat up any foreigners they come across. Racial tensions were quite high and this was later to result in riots further down the line, in 1980. The Caribbean and African communities were in isolation and people were grouping together as a form of security. There were tensions between the communities, as they were always suspicious of one another. It is in this context that music and racism pulled the people together… reggae was the beat of the day… many late night ‘blues’ started mushrooming in these communities, and different people began patronising house parties [the focus being dub reggae, ganja and Red Stripe]. Coming together for the two groups meant there was strength in numbers, thus it bringing the two communities together. 

“The lyrics of the music were appealing to all the black communities because they were about the day to day struggles they were facing in a foreign land. Then came Bob Marley with the same lyrics [but] with a new angle on unity and the empowerment of people of African descent. Coming from Rhodesia, this was like a breath of fresh air. At the time I left, you had no access to this type of music on the radio or in the shops – it was simply not encouraged.”

Helping me to follow how Zimbabweans have negotiated identity and being in Britain, and the place music occupies therein, Wala offered me insights into the complexities of Zimbabwean presence, straddling the Rhodesia-Britain-Zimbabwe matrix, making clear it produced a relationship to Britain defined by  different historical moments than those that have shaped the experience of, for example, those involved in the third phase of migration to Britain.

Achille Mbembe has argued that with a history of the colonial reorganisation of space and the disciplining of the body, music acts to free the imagination and enables people to sing of what cannot be talked about. This is well illustrated by Wala’s experience.

Seeking to forge a Pan-African aesthetic and practice in their lives in Britain, Wala formed the Limpopo Club with some friends. He said that it was a conscious effort to create a platform for African music in the UK; here, Africans could “showcase their culture in the best possible way, that tells our own stories, replicate a  social environment that we had grown up with at home, and more, in that we had a pan-African programme, another conscious effort to bring all cultures together under one roof at the Africa Centre. As the club grew in popularity and stature it attracted different [races & sexes]. It grew in popularity as an essential part of the social fabric in London.

“At one point we were trying to fight the image which the club was gradually getting, as a pick-up
joint were white women came in to pick up students, and black students came in to pick up white

“Having said that, it must be noted genuine relationships blossomed here as well, which has resulted in a generation of children born in this era. However, we steered the ship in the right direction, putting music on the map. The Limpopo Club served as home from home for musicians, and groups coming to tour the UK/Europe were launched [there] – Baba Maal; Angelique Kidjo; Thomas Mapfumo; the Bhundu Boys, to name a few.”

In a way, places like the Africa Centre, and the spaces they created, became part of the invention of home in the elsewhere, or an expression and consequence of a homing desire. When the existence of such emplacement is threatened or obliterated by capital and precarity, a sense of erasure can ensue. 

For Wala and many of the older Zimbabweans and members of the African diaspora, the loss of the Africa Centre as a place becomes part of a broader loss of the gains made with the promise of “multicultural” Britain, and a destabilisation of the possibilities of engendering a different sense of “black”, built on an understanding of political and musical, artistic and other forms of heritage.

To appropriate the words of Zygmunt Bauman, what gets lost is both a sense of having built together, and the opportunity to burn together. That refusal of death through emplacement becomes imperilled.

Aside from Wala’s experience, and that of others who have shared certain historical moments with him, I also came to know several young Zimbabweans who came to Britain in the third phase, leaving Zimbabwe in a moment that has become coterminous with decline, and arriving in a very different Britain to the one Wala found in the 70s.

One of these was Catherine. Having been active in the church from a young age, attending Catholic school in Zimbabwe before she left for the UK, she has remained a prominent member of the church, taking leadership positions in the congregation. She told me that religion remains an anchor in her life. 

Of our many conversations, I remember one where I played the devil’s advocate and prodded her about why, if religion was at all useful, it had not saved Zimbabwe from its political and economic demise. I had been invited to start attending sessions called Soul Food at a church near Tottenham Court Road, at which my scepticism might be reduced, or even conquered by the fervent truths of the gospel!

As I challenged Catherine, she started to tell me about her journey, leaving Zimbabwe at the height of the socio-economic and political crisis, her experiences with religion and music, and her experience as a young Zimbabwean woman in the UK.

Some told me that the Zimbabweans arriving post-2000 were espousing different kinds of politics, and eschewing the liberatory aesthetic that was the currency in previous times. I would argue, however, from the stories she shared with me, her feelings on Zimbabwe and Britain, and her experience as a young Zimbabwean woman, interested not just in consuming music, but in producing it, that she and those regarded as being of her ilk are not less political.

I recognise that in exploring the experiences of a young Zimbabwean woman in contemporary Britain, one needs to reconceptualise and reinvent location, corporeality, subjectivities, and dominant historical narratives, when situating blackness and black femininity within a displaced, or “anywhere” framework.

Having left Zimbabwe around 2005, Catherine had been in the UK for over a decade. She explained that her family, like many, had left Zimbabwe because of the economic and political situation, and because her parents wanted them to have a better education, and broader experiences. Leaving Zimbabwe had been harder than she had imagined it would be, having just started high school. The experience of Woodford, Essex, became a sort of awakening, an awareness of herself
not just as an African migrant, but as a young black woman, who had to justify and legitimise her presence in the UK.

She jokingly mentioned how she had been asked at one point in high school if she was a princess, because typical Africans could not afford to live in Woodford and educate their children there. I laughed with her, yet also recognising the discomfort and precarity
that accompanies inhabiting a body that one feels is marked.

This generation of Zimbabweans comes to Britain when “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” is no longer the open mantra. To not have the explicit significations, in language and other forms, as experienced by Wala and that earlier generation of Zimbabweans, of alienation and lived marginality is, however, not to have alienation and marginality as material.

Catherine expressed her dissonance with the contradictions of finding an anchor in religion, recognising for example the constructions of Zimbabwean “womanhood” that she did not agree with that the church promotes. As with Wala, I sought her experiences with music in Britain. She had a specific relationship to religious music, and to a world of new technology that has produced forms of music production and circulation, and transnational connections, different to those current during Wala’s time. Zimbabwean experiences of Britain have been closely tied to memory and events in Zimbabwe. With a wistful tone, she shared some of her experiences in Britain, from tour gigs by Oliver Mtukudzi and Thomas Mapfumo.

“…Then we had good old Zimfest to look forward to, because they brought in a different line-up and also because Zimfest was done during the day,” she said. “In 2008… after every Shona mass at church, we would sing Ishe komborerai Africa/Nkosi Sikele Africa [God Bless Africa], then ishe komborerai Zimbabwe… It was always sad… the priest would always start by telling us how things in Zim were getting worse and so on, and how we needed to pray… it was deeply spiritual as well!” she said.

“Also – in Zimbabwe girls don’t serve at the altar at mass, because it’s all down to the bishop…  in England girls do!”

Catherine’s story, like Wala’s, reveals the differences that the historical moments of departure and arrival produce in migrants’ lives.

Their stories also point to the importance of excavating within the cracks, the silences, or the muted aspects of migrant existence, in moments where abjection threatens to dominant and endure. The intricacies of the lives of Zimbabweans in Britain also serve as a reminder of the endurance of the encounter with otherness, with the strange, because even though hierarchies of arrival and departure may exist, and differences in political positions abound, both Catherine and Wala, at different moments, like others in their position, have had to engage with the fact of blackness in Britain. 

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