Struggle for Territory: Graves, Symbols, Memory and the Politics of Forgetting


I vividly remember how caterpillars came and razed our homesteads. In the stillness of night, we were awakened by the noise of the Caterpillar and Bulldozers. By then I was still young. But the memories are still fresh and alive in my mind as I write. Barely has our struggle been acknowledged in history. The forgotten struggle of the Tangwena people in Eastern Nyanga. It is a tale of people suffering for territory to put it in Donald Moore’s words. Maybe we are a forgotten people. Imagine working up one morning to find the whole village in rubbles. How could you react suddenly waking up to hear that your land has been parceled to a company known as Cold Comfort? We were told the Company had a Court Order and had (title deeds)/ rights to the land we believed rightfully belonged to us. We lost the rights to our land. Indeed the law failed to act as a ‘shield’ to protect us as villagers instead it was used as a ‘spear’ and offensive tool to further dispossess and impoverish the Tangwena people.

Having said the above it should be noted that, in history there is always a striking similarity in how governments treat the ruled in a similar way in different historical epochs. During the era of colonialism the Tangwena people in Eastern Zimbabwe were forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands by the colonial white settler regime. Firstly, they were made to believe that they had settled into a National Park, hence the colonial administrators justified their evictions. The Tangwena people in defiance of the colonial evictions fled to Mozambique before finally relocating back as noted by Moore (1999). Years later in an independent Zimbabwe, the Tangwena people still experienced the same fate under black majoritarian rule. Akin to previous pre and colonial evictions brute force was used to dispossess the Tangwena people of their ancestral land in post-colonial Zimbabwe. After having witnessed the legacy of evictions, many elderly people by then, started  asking  in hushed tones  ‘is this what we fought for’?

Even as of today I can still recreate the images of women holding their small babies crying as they watched their huts  and granaries being razed down by the caterpillars. They could not hold back their tears as they were being dispossessed of their source of livelihood (land). Although the peasants had been blessed by the Gods with the Trout Fish in the surrounding rivers and dams, many could not imagine engaging in de-peasantisation by shifting from an agrarian livelihood to non-agrarian livelihoods like fishing. At the epicenter of the peasant’s struggle was the thorny issue of competing cultural constructions of the landscape itself – a rainmaking territory and a chieftainship (Tangwena people) as noted by (Moore 1999). All the above cultural contestations were tied to the cultural politics of identity, tribe and belonging.

This story is indeed a tale of two communities resisting the concept of development through dispossession. Many years later, I am now doing my Masters study, and I come face to face with the sad irony of history. They say history will never repeat itself but I saw history repeating itself. As I interviewed them, they gave shocking narratives of how they internalized their graves as symbols of recreating and reconnecting with their loved ones. They are a small community, which used to be a laid back community-that is before the so called ‘diamond rush’ began in 2006. The discovery and the subsequent mining of the Chiadzwa diamonds witnessed forcible displacement of many villagers out of their ancestral land to a disused farm along the Harare–Mutare highway (Odzi area) at a specific locality known as Arda Transau. This was done under the government’s development induced displacement programme. As I am doing my data collection I come to realize that the community is emotionally attached to its ancestral lands. Indeed there is cultural politics of identity, territory and community that is strongly alive in their hearts and minds.

 ‘The only thing I am praying to God right now is for them to spare the graves of my children’, she was wearing a sorrowful face. I looked at her and she shifted her eyes avoiding mine. I was battling with tears. I wanted to empathize and sympathize with her. She plucked a leaf from the nearby shrub and started chewing. Before she could swallow I saw her spitting to the ground. A tear was sliding down from the corner of her eye lid; I saw mucus running down her nostrils. I offered her a piece of softex tissue. ‘Thank you my son’. That’s all she could say. Instead she used the back of her hand to wipe the mucus! I sighed to myself. God help the troubled poor soul. It was so touching witnessing a 92 year old granny shedding tears. I ended the interview.

 I felt bad; with my pen and voice recorder and writing pad I had aroused deeper emotional feelings in her. She was now trying to reconnect with her deceased children. As I sat on the reed mat I equated myself to a messenger who brings bad news to the village.  This old woman, like many other villagers they had sacrificed their land, history, heritage, rights and entitlements for the ‘diamond ring’ they will never dream of wearing nor appreciate its beauty. Neither do they know about Antwerp (world diamond processing city) in Belgium.

As I interacted with them, the Chiadzwa people lamented passionately about the loss of identity given their emotional, spiritual and physical ties to the land in Chiadzwa. It is the issue of exhumation and destruction of the graves of their relatives that made them to resist the relocations. In an African setting grave enables one to connect with the dead. Graves play a very symbolic role in an African society. Most Africans, including the Chiadzwa people believes that the dead are part of the living. But with the commercialization of the diamond mining in Zimbabwe, memories proved to have no place in the hearts of government officials. As they struggle for territory, they struggle for memory, they struggle for re-memorialisation, and they struggle against the memory of forgetting about their ancestral lands, norms, practices and values. They viewed relocation to an alien land in itself as a psychological alienation from one’s roots. They viewed relocation as a form of ethnocide-a process in which their culture would become distinct.

Who are these people? These are the people of Chiadzwa in Eastern Zimbabwe. The same happened to the Tangwena people. As for the Tangwena people many years have passed by, but their memories are still fresh. This is a tale of two communities suffering for territory, graves, memory and the politics of forgetting.





We “[h]ear the voices; the cries of the affected beings. We choose to Ignore. People have to be awakened! Truths have to be told! And I am writing to bear witness!”* This is a tale of two communities found at the crossroads. History may not repeat itself but it may rhyme.



4 thoughts on “Struggle for Territory: Graves, Symbols, Memory and the Politics of Forgetting

  1. Poignant statement

    Development-induced displacement is the forcing of communities and individuals out of their homes, often also their homelands, for the purposes of economic development. It is a subset of forced migration. It has been historically associated with the construction of dams for hydroelectric power and irrigation purposes but also appears due to many other activities, such as mining and the creation of military installations, airports, industrial plants, weapon testing grounds, railways, road developments, urbanization, conservation projects, forestry, etc. Development-induced displacement is a social problem affecting multiple levels of human organization, from tribal and village communities to well-developed urban areas.

    According to many specialists (e.g. Bogumil Terminski, 2012) at least fifteen million people each year are forced to leave their homes following big development projects (dams, irrigation projects, highways, urbanization, mining, conservation of nature, etc.).

    Development-induced displacement or the forced migration in the name of development is affecting more and more people as countries move from developing to developed nations. The people that face such migration are often helpless, suppressed by the power and laws of nations.

    The lack of rehabilitation policies for migrants means that they are often compensated only monetarily – without proper mechanisms for addressing their grievances or political support to improve their livelihoods.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s