A Zimbabwean in Paris

My first thought was to skip over the border to go and live South Africa’s still blooming flower of freedom. But during a whole decade of our horror, many South Africans have not exhibited the same welcoming attitude that we gave them during their days of despair. Neither have their leaders expressed disgust at our desolation as we did at theirs.

Ordinary South Africans can beat or kill you apartheid-style simply for being a foreigner, forgetting our shared history of pain and forgiveness and how we housed them during their cold days.

Still, I could not really blame South Africans for the human-made cesspit in my homeland. For the past decade, my country has been like a dim star in Southern Africa, washed in the blood, sweat and tears of a people denied the right to a life of dignity.

As other countries in the region have progressed, led by South Africa, my leaders have chosen to go down the path of self-aggrandisement, uprooting anything that tries to raise up the voice of reason. They cut off people’s lips and buttocks and gouged people’s eyes out because they dared to speak their mind.

Put simply, by 2008, living in a country where we have no say in the shape of our destiny, no matter how much we wish and cry, had become too much for my little family. So 10 months ago, my wife Michelle and I packed our bags and our baby son, Tadana, and left for Paris, France.

We were determined to bloom in Paris in spite of the language odds that were against us. Though diaspora commonly carries a sense of displacement, we were ready to fall into its arms as if it were a longed-for lover.

But, as if the spirit of home has endless legs, we found ourselves singing lullabies to our son – lullabies that have been passed down for generations in Zimbabwe – so that he could get up on his feet and start to walk on his own.

After months of sustained encouragement, Michelle and I stared one day in amazement as he hobbled 30 steps back and forth across the living room in our rented apartment in Paris. Tadana wriggled his hands and giggled. 

And, as we had done for his first birthday in August, we clapped our hands for him and sang an old-time Zimbabwean lullaby. That brought a rush of memories of my home country.

Though most of Michelle’s family and mine still live in Zimbabwe, we are connected to the country now only by memories and an ever-shining hope that, one day, some day, Zimbabwe will bloom again like a flame lily.

Having Tadana has been a bonus and a blessing in a strange land where we don’t speak the language or understand the customs. Everyone lights up for Tadana and this makes it easier for locals to overlook our limited French.

Most Parisians look glum and generally avoid eye contact when they are on the Metro, the city’s underground train system and speediest local transport. But the first time we took Tadana on the Metro, I was struck by the number of benevolent gazes that came our way.

I thought maybe the Parisians had mistaken Michelle and me for celebrities. Of course, it was not long before this egotistical thought was shattered. The attention was being lavished on Tadana. Now I know: even the glummest of Parisian commuters will gush all the love you can imagine on babies.

Most important of all, being in the diaspora has made us appreciate everything we have, including the new friends we are making along the way.

Maybe its God’s wish that my generation spread out and broadcast itself across the face of the universe.

If anything, when our tyrant is finally plucked, we will still have one word to pass to the next generation: freedom is like an egg, take care not to break it. Because when it breaks, it can be quite hard to put it together again.

So far, it’s been quite a trip, much like South Africa’s first decade. If anything, I have learned to think outside stereotypes.

Having grown up hearing all sorts of stuff about how French people react when you speak in English, I never thought I would survive here. At the end of the day, the Parisians are a cosmopolitan lot and are as human as humans can be.

And for me, the lesson is that stereotypes are better left where they belong: in the trash heap.

Chief K Masimba Biriwasha is a children’s writer. He is working for the Unesco in Paris. He is also the author of the popular New Dad’s Diary for the M&G’s Voices of Africa series. His blog is at http://ziviso.wordpress.com/