Stories from Dangamvura | ‘Kumusha ndekupi’: Matters of identity – MaBrandaya amongst the Shona

The mosque at Dangamvura, Mutare. Many Zimbabweans of migrant descent still face discrimination over identity

In this installment of Stories from Dangamvura, Chris Kabwato looks at the history of discrimination in Zimbabwe, and the longing for identity among the families of migrant groups in the country.


Benjamin. Benjani. Mpenjani. Benjani Mwaruwari. The role of the clerks at birth certificate offices gives a different meaning to the phrase “the power of the pen is mightier than the sword.”

Maybe we should talk of the power of the birth certificate clerks to rename and give people official identities that stand in contrast to what their families know. In July 2020, our great soccer player Mwaruwari was interviewed by South Africa’s sports presenter Robert Marawa. In that conversation, he revealed that his real name was Mpenjani – a Malawian name – but some official at the births office had contrived to mishear and put down the name as Benjani. Elsewhere the name would grow variations until we landed at Benjamin. wrote: The former Warriors captain’s name at birth was Mpenjani, but due to his father’s foreign accent, the pronunciation sounded like Benjani.

They quoted Mwaruwari:

When he went to do my birth certificate, they thought he said Benjani. So on my birth certificate, it is written Benjani…And when I was playing in Zimbabwe, the person who was writing the team-card didn’t look properly at my birth certificate. He thought Benjani was Benjamin, that is how this name Benjamin came from.”

What’s in a name?

Stephen Sinos Kabwato


What’s In a Name“, asks linguist Professor Alec Pongweni in a book of the same title.

To paraphrase Pongweni, at birth, an identity comes that speaks of a moment that a family could be going through. So, the name could be social, relating to lineage, descriptive of character or an event, or merely personal.

In Shona naming practice, people may acquire names in six different ways: two at birth as personal and lineage names, a third conferred by the diviner, a fourth descriptive of character, a fifth marking an important event, and a substitute replacement name, such as those of guerrillas fighting during the war of independence. 

So, any list of Shona names whether in a graduation book or telephone directory “is a palimpsest … one cannot but be struck by the wealth of information, historical, merely descriptive or picturesque, or social.”

What then happens to those with names unfamiliar that we butcher from Mpenjani to Benjamin?  Do they still participate in the festival of meaning or do they forever have to explain themselves?

Kabhwato. Kwabato. Kabwato. What if my father had not deliberately shortened our family name and it had remained Kabwatopenda – the canoe bopping in the water? It takes a while for any child to realise that they are different. Difference is something that somebody says you are not this, but that.

I became conscious that my name was different to Chihota or Mangwiro from people mutilating the name in pronunciation or asking me leading questions:

“Munoera chii?”  “Kumusha ndekupi?” “Sabhuku wenyu ndiani?”

“Munoera chii?” is a different way of asking “where is your rural home?” For those of us in Dangamvura, and of Malawian origin, we were “ma-born rokesheni” with no concept of a rural home in Zimbabwe. Personally, I had no desire to go anywhere where there was no electricity or running water.

It is at the point of difference that othering begins. The point of the birth of tropes of stereotyping: Achimwene, mubrandaya, mubwidi, muchawa, musena, mutevera njanji, mubvakure.  

The big daddy of insults came from the black leader with the Oxonian accent who called us totemless. You would have thought a “revolutionary” would understand the need for every person to have a sense of inclusion and belonging.

Aphiri and the expectations back home

When my father and his brother Scott earned their first packet of wages in South Africa in the 1950s they bought a bicycle and a blanket, put these on a train to Nyasaland with some friends. It was important for them to show that they had not forgotten the people at home. The ‘njinga’ would also be a source of pride and privilege for those at Chembe Village.

My father would later return to Nyasaland and then leave again forever in 1963 for Southern Rhodesia.

The story of the migrant and what they bring back is an intergenerational one. I know of someone who got seriously ill in Harare and then decided that he wanted to go back to Malawi, the place of his birth that he had left in the 1970s. He felt it was important to see out his last days with his father and brothers. He had only one request: buy me a jacket to wear so that I can arrive with dignity.

Zambian Nashil Pichen Kazembe’s song we had sung in jest was playing out as reality:

Aphiri anabwela kuchoka ku Harare
Anakhalako dzaka zosawelengeka ndithu
Pobwera kumuzi anabwela ndi situkesi
Mukati mwasutukezi munalibe kantu sure
Kumuzi anapeza makozo anaamwalila

As in the poem Havana Kudzokera, the migrant at times comes back to a homestead that has been taken over by lizards and spiderwebs and owls have crowned themselves monarchs.

Although the migrant returns home empty-handed, their stay in the adopted country is precarious. Kudakwashe Manganga’s PhD dissertation is a fascinating read on migrant identities in Harare from 1890 to 1980 and how history repeats itself:

From the 1950s onwards, local Africans often complained that the “aliens” were taking away their jobs. Local school-leavers or local recent graduates had to compete with immigrants on the job market.

One, J. C. Mukwandi, wrote in the African Weekly of September 16, 1953, complaining that the “Nyasa” did not want the locals to be employed in the same capacity as themselves and whenever Africans from Nyasaland left their jobs, they would “hand it” to their countrymen. Mukwandi called on the Southern Rhodesia government to come to the rescue of the locals by making sure that non–Southern Rhodesian Africans were employed as labourers and not as office workers. He urged the government to exclude ‘alien’ Africans from urban areas. In response, the editor of the African Weekly noted that “to charge Nyasas with favouritism is to be unfair to them for this is a human trait. There are many Rhodesian Africans as there are Nyasas who are guilty of this practice.”

Matters of Religion and Culture

Any group of people that feels a level of marginalization attempts to negotiate spaces that can affirm them, networks of solidarity and common interest. Over the past one hundred years, the people originally from Nyasaland/Malawi have sought to create connections along lines of language, origins, religion and family relationships. Until the 1950s ChiNyanja was the dominant language of Harare/Mbare.

The mutual aid associations, especially burial societies, were until very recently influential in the organisation of my people. The funds were used in times of illness or if a person needed to return to Malawi.

Muslim women checking in on the author’s mother


Growing up in Dangamvura our identities were multifaceted. We were socialized into networks that centred ChiChewa and Malawian origins. At the first level was that those of our origins were relatives so they were designated with “maiguru”, “mainini”, “mbuya”, sekuru etc titles. We never asked how exactly we were related. The second level was religion. One religion was Islam and here we combined our Christian upbringing with madrasa classes or with rituals such as “sadaqa”.

Our sadaqah is a thanksgiving ceremony which we sing and dance all night, burn incense, pray, eat copious amounts of rice and chicken, drink tea and chat. Our Muslims leaders use the title Sheikh which we have corrupted to Che as in Che Rairo, Che Sugar, Che Brown and so forth.

The other form of religious organisation comes via the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) whose origins in Malawi are in the place of my father’s birth – Chembe Village, Mangochi District. The Presbyterian Church in Sakubva Township is vibrant with second and third generation Zimbabweans of Malawian origin fluent in ChiChewa and proud in singing a range of songs such as my family favourite Wina Ati Konda Ife (He Who Loves Us).

There is the music and the dance and that is most symbolised by Gule Wamkulu whose origins are in a secret cult. Originally this was a ritual dance performed by members of the Nyau brotherhood, a secret society of initiated men. Nyau members were responsible for the initiation of young men into adulthood rites of passage and would perform the Gule at the end of the initiation ceremony as a form of celebration. My father knew the songs and dances of Gule Wamkulu and he would perform for us on special family occasions.

Words as bullets, words as affirmation

Alick Macheso is proud of his Malawian heritage


Zex Manatsa was a humourous singer. For him every group could be a target from Mapostori to the Malawian. I recall in 1977 as JCJ (James Makamba) would be doing the Top Ten records of the week on radio and we would sing along to Musoro waTsomba [sic] – a song in which a character called Kaitano speaking Shona with an accent does not know the difference between the Green Arrows Band and Glen Norah. He mixes up the two. His Shona friend corrects him.

So what? you can ask. Where Zex made fun of the Malawian (not in any offensive or hateful way) in Chechule Anavala Bottom and Musoro wa Tsomba [sic], Simon Chimbetu embraced that “alien” identity fully in songs such as Chauta:

Chauta woo!

Tsiku loyamba lomwelija


Nkope yanga

Ndikhala ngati ndiliulira

Nkope yanga

Ndikhala ngati ndiliupita oro bwera

(God, why did you create me this way? My face looks like I’m crying, it looks like I am going/coming)

Years later, Shona-speaking Zimbabweans would embrace Alick Macheso’s Mundikumbuke, engaging on Twitter as to the meaning of the words. Was something turning – from ridicule to appreciation?

Post-independence contradictions

In 2002 I wanted to renew my passport at Makombe Building. There was a problem. In 1993 a very helpful passport officer had scribbled on my birth certificate in blue ink: FATHER ALIEN. It was this that was to cause problems for me a decade later when our now exiled Professor and his mates had declared war on dual citizenship. Although clearly targeted at a certain racial group, those of us with foreign parentage were caught in the net.

“Go to the Malawian High Commission and renounce your citizenship. Bring the signed form back.” The catch was the Malawian High Commission said I was not their citizen and they could not assist. I persisted and I thus “renounced” a citizenship I had never taken.

But the ordeal was not over. A decade later as I tried to renew that same passport the order was different – “Go fetch your father. We note here that he has a Zimbabwean ID. He should not have that as he is an alien.”

But my challenges were a minor irritation to a privileged middle-class person who had options. The real brunt of imbecilic policies and practices has been borne by those of Malawian descent who worked on the commercial farms before the land reform programme.

Giving back the land to – oops – the Shona

I had a good friend called Karl Dorn who had retired to a farm in Darwendale which was owned by someone close to him. Karl had built a lovely home on a section of that farm. I would occasionally visit Karl and his partner, Ursula, and sit on their spacious verandah quaffing some chardonnay or a Zambezi.

The owner of that farm had a manager who could neither read nor write. He was from originally from Malawi and had been on the farm since the days of the farmer’s father. The manager had in turn trained the heir to successfully grow crops at what was reputed to be the largest asparagus farm in Africa (excluding the Maghreb). In early 2000 the farm was seized in the fast-track land resettlement programme. That experienced “Malawian” was an enemy by association.

The reports from the General Agriculture and Planation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ) from the late 1990s up to 2017 read like a horror story on what it means to be a “foreigner” and a farm worker. The exclusion of my people from land resettlement, the evictions, the exploitation by new farmers who claimed they did not have resources, the refusal by chiefs and headmen to allocate land…

A 2011 GAPWUZ report had a 32-year old Michael Elpheno, born in Zimbabwe, but considered a foreigner narrate his ordeal. He was evicted from a farm in Headlands in 2008 and then he brings in the cincher:

“I am originally from Malawi and hence had no rural homestead to return to in order to start subsistence farming…With talks of elections this year I fear we might be displaced again and do not know where to go or what else to do.”

The GAPWUZ report then sums up Michael’s plight:

“Most farm workers were not favourably considered in the land reform programme because they were regarded as people of alien origin and most of them lacked identification documents further adding to their marginalisation.”

I suppose my people were collateral in a greater cause for the indigenes.

Malawi: the 1994 moment

Chembe Village along Lake Malawi


My very first visit to Malawi in 1994 was an emotional trip for my father who had fled the country in 1963 because of political differences with Kamuzu Banda during the anti-colonial struggle. Now 30 years later with Banda defeated in multiparty elections, and old and infirm, it was safer to wade back into the crocodile’s river. We reconnected with many relatives and then made our way back. Stephen Sinos Kabwato had rooted himself in Zimbabwe, planted himself into the community of Mutare and was a respected family man, leader and advisor.

We did not know then that another social upheaval awaited us that would result in the family having to split across three countries – Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa.  The boil of fractured identities is one that the future will still need to address. By then it will even be more complex. But the great migration from Zimbabwe was to prove traumatic for those who had never had to contend with being called “aliens”.

When the royal child is a servant elsewhere

As the anti-migrant temperature rises in South Africa and elsewhere, one hopes that out of the hostile experiences of being “aliens” in other territories, Zimbabweans will become more sensitive to those who are denied birth certificates, and by extension, citizenship, and yet are second, third or even fourth generation descendants born and bred in the teapot country.

But those who may want to clean up the Shona race from the contamination of vanaAchimwene will have to contend with us having travelled from Dangamvura to go and marry a Zezuru in the heart of Musengezi. It complicates the identities of the future generation and any cleansing efforts.

LKJ and England

As the world recedes into primal tribal villages, I have begun to hold tightly to my Dangamvura, viewing it as a place of rooted identity, however the circumstances of the township coming into being. Whatever the future holds for “Malawians” – totemful or totemless – as a community we have the great dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson to capture our sentiment in Dread Inna Inglan:

Far noh mattah wat dey say,
Come wat may,
We are here to stay
Inna Inglan
Inna disya time yah…

Njanji ndisu takavaka.