Zenzele: Sixteen Pieces of Advice from a Zimbabwean Mother to Her Daughter

I heard about Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter (1996) by J. Nozipo Maraire in the alumni magazine for the College of Humanities of my undergraduate university.  In that little publication, there’s a section called “Books that Made a Difference,” and I once had published there my thoughts on Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943).  I kept an eye on that column, and when a nice review of Zenzele appeared, I immediately got a copy of it because it sounded like such a great book.  I’m glad I finally had time during the holidays to sit down and read it.

zenzele cover

The novel is written in the form of a letter from a Zimbabwean mother to her daughter, a student at Harvard.  While there is certainly a narrative arc, I won’t go into all of the stories or the characters of the daughter and mother.  I think their relationship could be archetypal for any sort of generational relationship.  What I want to focus on today are the pieces of advice that are scattered through the story.  The mother has much wisdom to impart, and I see it as applicable to all of us, especially at the start of a new year with our changes and resolutions in mind.  Not all of the advice is given in a proscriptive manner, nor is it necessarily broad, but I choose to see the beauty and universality of these words and I choose to interpret some of the tacit advice.  I see much of this advice as translatable to current-day situations and my own experiences.  I will leave it to you to interpret these words through your own lenses.

Here are sixteen pieces of advice from a Zimbabwean mother to her daughter.

One

“Being an African woman is what you will make of it, Zenzele.  But never forget that for the majority, it also means to rise out of bed before others, to make the cold kitchen warm, to work the fields in the blazing heat, to walk for miles on dusty paths carrying water on your head, wood under your arms, and a baby on your back” (p. 41).

Two

“How I wished then that my body, too, if it had to droop and shrivel, for surely everyone’s did, would furl and decussate with grace to sculpt the victory of my spirit: that I, too, when heavy and bent with age, could caress my wrinkled lids and hold my sagging flesh as a majestic robe of a life well lived” (p. 45).

Three

“We grow the fruit; they sell us the jam.  It is called ‘free trade,’ by one-half of the world and ‘economic exploitation’ by the other. . . . Our indicators of health-care equity, education for all, the family, the drug-free schools, expenditure on services for the disabled and handicapped—these have no place in their economic ledgers.  Yet these reflect our values and our achievements.  All I am saying, my daughter, is to keep your eyes open out there, continue to ask as many questions of them as you do of us, and you will not get lost.  You will make us very proud, I am sure” (p. 77).

Four

“Until the lion learns to write, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.  So it is with us, too.  History is simply the events as seen by a particular group, usually the ones with the mightiest pens and the most indelible ink. . . . Until the ivory turns to a rainbow with all countries represented, you would do well to be suspicious of the so-called facts” (p. 79).

Five

“Prejudice is in the eyes of the beholder . . . Racism is a phenomenal thing; it is like a thick mist that obscures the vision and judgment of even great minds” (p. 85).

Six

“A racist can come in such pleasant attire and speak with such beguiling words that you almost forget the malevolence therein. . . . [I]t was just her paucity of experiences that had led her to be so foolish.  She had paid me neither compliment nor insult by her words.  You must never be flattered or dismayed by such remarks.  They are testimony to an appalling ignorance of African civilization.  Nothing more” (p. 91).

Seven

“My daughter, you will meet many men in life.  Allow none to tempt you to abandon your principles.  Follow what is right.  Stick to the path of honesty and integrity.  You are a strong girl; let no one break you.  There is not a man in the world who is worth your dignity.  Do not confuse self-sacrifice with love” (p. 111-112).

Eight

“[A]t the end of the day you will meet only two men in your life: One will make your hands tremble; the other will make them steady.  The first will be your passion of youth, but like the blazing fires of the bush, it will soon die to glowing embers, then cool ashes.  The second will enter your life quietly, like a thief in the night.  He will be like the mighty trees in the forest that we do not see before us, yet they are there, strong and tall; in rain and sun, they dig their roots deep and shade us with their leaves.  It is the second one who you must marry.  He will be a good husband and father to your children” (p. 113).

Nine

“Freedom is something you all take for granted.  Yet fifty—no, not even twenty years ago—it was a dream we dared not even dream of” (p. 169).

Ten

“It is disgraceful . . . to allow another person to make you their slave” (p. 172).

Eleven

“[W]hat I hate about our churches—they teach people that they cannot do anything to change their lives.  All you can do is pray and leave your affairs in the hands of God.  As far as I am concerned, God helps those who help themselves” (p. 173).

Twelve

“Too many people give up too soon; they do not fight for what is truly theirs.  And the government, church, and television keep the average man so mired in petty concerns that he can no longer discern which battles are worth fighting for.  For that matter, even if he had a consciousness, he would be too exhausted to face a struggle. . . . They should be fighting for their land; it is theirs.  The evicted do not know housing laws, the maimed are ignorant of disability laws, the blind cannot read the rights of the handicapped, the battered wife has no idea of her rights, and so on” (p. 176).

Thirteen

“God takes whomever he pleases, whenever he pleases, almost as a mocking reminder of our helplessness” (p. 177).

Fourteen

“I no longer see the world as ready-made, requiring only that we occupy our own little spot and do unto others as we would have them do unto us, as they taught me at the Sunday school in Chakowa Mission.  Like your father, I am coming to understand that this world is as yet unfinished.  There is no Eden here save the one we create for one another.  Our mission is to complete and preserve the work that was started.  And that is why we are created in God’s image” (p. 185).

Fifteen

“It is true that I have had no great visions.  But I have loved, and surely this is enough.  It is to have tasted from the cup of milk and honey.  And what need do I have of shiny badges for bravery?  Courage is, after all, to take great risks—and in loving, I have known the pain of risk and loss” (p. 193).

Sixteen

“Should anyone ask what my contribution is to this world, I can only say that my conscience rests joyously with the knowledge that I had a hand in bringing you into it. . . . It is a pity that I have not more to leave you than words.  But what is a life, after all, but a story, some fiction and some truth?  In the end, there are words.  They are the very manifestations of our immortality” (p. 193).

I see value in all of these ideas, and I wouldn’t have noted them if I didn’t love them all.  However, I am leaning toward number fourteen as my favorite one.  Do you have a favorite?

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52 thoughts on “Zenzele: Sixteen Pieces of Advice from a Zimbabwean Mother to Her Daughter

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    1. I think you’d really like this one. And the full story behind quote two is awesome. It brought tears to my eyes. It really hits home how women are too hard on their bodies, along with the media pressure. I loved that one!

  1. WOW. These are so moving and so real. I like your #14, but I was compelled to say #8 and #12. Yet, they are all so profound. I am going to come back and reread them and share with others. Many thanks, BTG

        1. How wonderful! I am just now checking my email today and what a nice surprise! You are the best, BTG. Also, what does BTG stand for? I always pretend that it is “Be The Good.”

  2. Definately five and seven. Five because everyone in our own way has judged someone, even if it is ourselves ( something I am certain we are all guilty of).
    My grandmother who was from Burma had a saying, ‘look at the dirt in your own eyes first.’ This holds meaning for me and advice number five reminded me of this because we should refrain from judging others until we can see past our own faults.
    About number seven:- Unfortunately in the past I’ve compromised my happiness to make the men in my life happy. The advice this mother has given to her daughter is valuable in regards to not confuse self sacrifice with love.
    This sounds like an extremely thought provoking book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and responding to your post and look forward to adding this book to my reading list.

    O

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you read it and commented. I love what your grandmother said. So true! I would recommend this book. It’s full of so many interesting ideas.

  3. I liked # 6 because I realize now that a lot of things that are racist come from the mouths of people who aren’t trying to be hateful. They’re just not aware of what they are saying. I didn’t like #13 because I don’t believe from a biblical perspective that God takes people. People die for many reasons and God is really not to blame.

  4. Wow, those are riveting excerpts. I personally like the first and second best. The first reminds me a little of the Old Testament verse (Proverbs 31) about a virtuous woman. For some, this sounds like a life of subjugation, and I don’t know the context of the passage that you cite, but for me, it sounds like a woman of impact. The second evokes an image of a vessel for the rich life that a woman has lived, an image that I wish resonated with more of us. I will try to remember that when I go bathing suit shopping this summer…

    I will have to check this book out. I can use all the wisdom I can get!

  5. I read this book when it was first published back in 1996. I remember really liking it and recommending it to friends. Reading through the excerpts, I wish I had held on to the book.

  6. I took an African Literature course in college, and this was one of the books we read. I was completely blown away by it and it’s now one of my favorite books on my shelf. I honestly don’t have a favorite part, because I think each chapter has its own merits.

  7. They are all wonderful and poignant, but my favorite is 12, because I do believe mankind has been held back by the dictates of the “church.” I would like to reblog this on my site. I found it from BTG, and his re-blog. Thanks for such a wonderful piece.

  8. I love the way you “reviewed” this book – thanks for sharing this good wisdom. #7 and #8 about men really spoke to me, even though I’ve been married now for more than 10 years. But those words are so true. I also love #16, because I often feel that way toward my own son. I think I too might only be able to leave him with my words, but I hope that, after a life time, it will be a lot.

    1. I think words can mean a lot, as this novel attests. I also love that the mother sees achievement in bringing her daughter into the world and helping her to navigate it. Sometimes those contributions are invisible, but this gives mothers some credit and permission to take joy and accomplishment in mothering. I identified with the one on men too. Luckily, I married the second guy!

  9. We traveled in South Africa last year. Such conrasts: the beauty of nature and squallor of shanty-towns built with dirt blocks, scrap wood, and corregated metal sheets. While this book appears to be a personal approach to parent-adult child communications, I can read the social and political poverty behind many of the quotes. Mugabe, and many other African leaders, play power games with their nation’s natural and human reasources. Thanks for extracting out these quotes.
    Oscar

    1. Great comment! I can definitely see some of the political behind these quotes, which I guess is why I loved them so much. They seemed specific, but they are more broad and universal than appears on the surface.

  10. Great post, Emily. I will have to go out and find a copy of this book. I really liked all the insights but for today, I’ll choose #2 as my favorite. It’s so easy to get mired down by the changes in our bodies over time, especially women, but men too I’d imagine. I absolutely adore “…that my body….would furl and decussate with grace to sculpt the victory of my spirit: that I, too, when heavy and bent with age, could caress my wrinkled lids and hold my sagging flesh as a majestic robe of a life well lived.” I love that she used decussate. I had to look it up. Just the idea that our bodies might actually indicate our spirit seems like a new idea, so non-western, and I love it. What a great perspective early in a new year. Perhaps my new year’s resolution should be that my body become a more true indication of my spirit and my life, not that I would bash my body into to an impossible ideal of a woman who I’m not.

    1. Well said, Denise. I think we could all be a little less critical of our bodies. I wish our media did a better job of not setting up false ideals. I am in my early thirties and I realized that I have more wrinkles than Nicole Kidman or, get this, Bob Costas! I agree that the philosophy in that quote is certainly non-Western and one that we could learn a lesson or two from.

  11. Reblogged this on maria mena and commented:
    Desde Zimbabue, una preciosa lección de vida: Zenzele, la carta de una madre a su hija. Gotitas de sabiduría para empezar el año. Un libro que quiero leer.

    Transcribo las 16 enseñanzas que esta bloggera extrajo del libro:

    One

    “Being an African woman is what you will make of it, Zenzele. But never forget that for the majority, it also means to rise out of bed before others, to make the cold kitchen warm, to work the fields in the blazing heat, to walk for miles on dusty paths carrying water on your head, wood under your arms, and a baby on your back” (p. 41).

    Two

    “How I wished then that my body, too, if it had to droop and shrivel, for surely everyone’s did, would furl and decussate with grace to sculpt the victory of my spirit: that I, too, when heavy and bent with age, could caress my wrinkled lids and hold my sagging flesh as a majestic robe of a life well lived” (p. 45).

    Three

    “We grow the fruit; they sell us the jam. It is called ‘free trade,’ by one-half of the world and ‘economic exploitation’ by the other. . . . Our indicators of health-care equity, education for all, the family, the drug-free schools, expenditure on services for the disabled and handicapped—these have no place in their economic ledgers. Yet these reflect our values and our achievements. All I am saying, my daughter, is to keep your eyes open out there, continue to ask as many questions of them as you do of us, and you will not get lost. You will make us very proud, I am sure” (p. 77).

    Four

    “Until the lion learns to write, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter. So it is with us, too. History is simply the events as seen by a particular group, usually the ones with the mightiest pens and the most indelible ink. . . . Until the ivory turns to a rainbow with all countries represented, you would do well to be suspicious of the so-called facts” (p. 79).

    Five

    “Prejudice is in the eyes of the beholder . . . Racism is a phenomenal thing; it is like a thick mist that obscures the vision and judgment of even great minds” (p. 85).

    Six

    “A racist can come in such pleasant attire and speak with such beguiling words that you almost forget the malevolence therein. . . . [I]t was just her paucity of experiences that had led her to be so foolish. She had paid me neither compliment nor insult by her words. You must never be flattered or dismayed by such remarks. They are testimony to an appalling ignorance of African civilization. Nothing more” (p. 91).

    Seven

    “My daughter, you will meet many men in life. Allow none to tempt you to abandon your principles. Follow what is right. Stick to the path of honesty and integrity. You are a strong girl; let no one break you. There is not a man in the world who is worth your dignity. Do not confuse self-sacrifice with love” (p. 111-112).

    Eight

    “[A]t the end of the day you will meet only two men in your life: One will make your hands tremble; the other will make them steady. The first will be your passion of youth, but like the blazing fires of the bush, it will soon die to glowing embers, then cool ashes. The second will enter your life quietly, like a thief in the night. He will be like the mighty trees in the forest that we do not see before us, yet they are there, strong and tall; in rain and sun, they dig their roots deep and shade us with their leaves. It is the second one who you must marry. He will be a good husband and father to your children” (p. 113).

    Nine

    “Freedom is something you all take for granted. Yet fifty—no, not even twenty years ago—it was a dream we dared not even dream of” (p. 169).

    Ten

    “It is disgraceful . . . to allow another person to make you their slave” (p. 172).

    Eleven

    “[W]hat I hate about our churches—they teach people that they cannot do anything to change their lives. All you can do is pray and leave your affairs in the hands of God. As far as I am concerned, God helps those who help themselves” (p. 173).

    Twelve

    “Too many people give up too soon; they do not fight for what is truly theirs. And the government, church, and television keep the average man so mired in petty concerns that he can no longer discern which battles are worth fighting for. For that matter, even if he had a consciousness, he would be too exhausted to face a struggle. . . . They should be fighting for their land; it is theirs. The evicted do not know housing laws, the maimed are ignorant of disability laws, the blind cannot read the rights of the handicapped, the battered wife has no idea of her rights, and so on” (p. 176).

    Thirteen

    “God takes whomever he pleases, whenever he pleases, almost as a mocking reminder of our helplessness” (p. 177).

    Fourteen

    “I no longer see the world as ready-made, requiring only that we occupy our own little spot and do unto others as we would have them do unto us, as they taught me at the Sunday school in Chakowa Mission. Like your father, I am coming to understand that this world is as yet unfinished. There is no Eden here save the one we create for one another. Our mission is to complete and preserve the work that was started. And that is why we are created in God’s image” (p. 185).

    Fifteen

    “It is true that I have had no great visions. But I have loved, and surely this is enough. It is to have tasted from the cup of milk and honey. And what need do I have of shiny badges for bravery? Courage is, after all, to take great risks—and in loving, I have known the pain of risk and loss” (p. 193).

    Sixteen

    “Should anyone ask what my contribution is to this world, I can only say that my conscience rests joyously with the knowledge that I had a hand in bringing you into it. . . . It is a pity that I have not more to leave you than words. But what is a life, after all, but a story, some fiction and some truth? In the end, there are words. They are the very manifestations of our immortality” (p. 193).

  12. Wow.. now I definitely need to read this book. Sadly it is not there on the kindle store and is not available in hardcover/paperback my country except at a rather prohibitive cost 😦 Will go start scouring libraries and second-hand bookstores.

    Do you know any other good books with similar advice for young women growing up in an environment of prejudice?

    1. I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Let me think about it though. I hope you find this one. I do know that a good one for boys about this topic is The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay.

  13. I really enjoyed these passages. #s 3 and 4 are my favorites.

    Sometimes I’ve found books that are written in the form of letters to be disappointing. It seems to me that can sometimes be a way for an author to avoid the hard work of telling a story with complexity and depth that can’t be captured in a “letter.” These passages are, however, beautifully written.

    It is very important that voices like this be heard, if we are to appreciate continuing legacy of colonialism. Thanks very sharing these.

    1. You raise some excellent points. I haven’t really liked books organized like this either, but this one worked. And yes, it is important to continue to address colonialism. This book does that deftly.

  14. When a book like this is published you can stand tall and and be proud to say you are Zimbabwean #4…its absolutely true I mean what about all the people who lived legendary lives but never put pen to paper

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