My multicultural challenges and lessons

September 26th, 2019 Posted by Michelle Mpofu The future, Employee Experience, Diversity

Being born to a Zimbabwean mum and a South African dad gave me an insight into cultural diversity. Dad being Ndebele, Mum being Shona, my first language was Shona (mother tongue). We would have family gatherings where I could relate more to my maternal family than my father’s side. Being a kid, I found myself loving one side more than the other, which I regret now, later in life – though I don’t think it was a matter of choice, I just think I felt a sense of belonging when I was with my mum’s side of the family. My sister and I would visit my dad’s family from time to time, and we would be treated differently to my cousins. We got special treatment from my granny, but when it came to playing with other kids in the neighbourhood, it was a different story. None of those kids could speak Shona or English. All I did was watch them play because they felt I was an intruder.

In 1995, Mum died in a terrible accident, leaving me, my dad and my then 4-year-old sister. I was 8. I cannot remember everything, but I remember how cultural differences caused a few hiccups during the funeral. Mum’s family had its own rituals, the same as Dad’s family. There were disagreements, and I remember seeing dad so upset. Mum was laid to rest. The next week my mum’s cousin’s sister was sent to my dad’s house to come and take over Mum’s duties. My dad was against the whole idea and sent her back home. Then, Mum’s family decided to come and get all her belongings, including kitchenware – because, according to culture, no other woman can use my mum’s kitchenware unless the woman is from within the family.

Life changed. We stayed with dad and my aunt (Dad’s sister) who too could not speak Shona. I was now attending school in Matabeleland North, and in no time I picked up the language and could speak Ndebele perfectly. I would visit my maternal grandma every August holiday, but my Shona was fading because I spoke so little of it where I was. In high school, I started realising there was a serious hatred among various tribes because of the Gukurahundi massacre. This was when thousands of Ndebele people (estimates say around 20,000) were killed by Mugabe’s 5th brigade.

This stimulated so much hate amongst the Shona and Ndebele – we were taught to hate them. I was told from a young age that I must not date Shona men. Mind you, my mum was Shona! Sadly I lost everyone from Mum’s family – they all passed away, so I no longer had anything tying me to the Shona people.

After college, I found a job at Sandton College, which was Ugandan owned. My boss was a Congolese lady by the name of Stella. She was so good to us. She believed in democratic leadership and did not discriminate; everyone was treated fairly. She taught me to love people regardless of their nationality. She encouraged the use of a universal language in the workplace. She was older than us, but the generational gap was never an issue. No seniority was exploited; we were all equal. Then, in August 2018, Mam Stella left Sandton college for France. It was a sad moment for all of us, but we had to let her go.  

In 2015, I met the man who is now my husband, and I liked him a lot. We got along so well and spoke the same language – it turns out he was Shona but grew up amongst the Ndebele people. This was a challenge for us because of our families. I loved him regardless of tribe, but our families felt otherwise. Love always wins though. We managed to bring them together, although not completely. He has been my great support system; we get along well and respect each other’s cultures.

I remember attending my interview at Tenaka, where I work now. It didn’t feel like an interview. Immediately when I met them, I knew I could work here. I was so excited. Martin and Stuart are the most humble people I’ve ever met. I felt so welcome. The culture at Tenaka is amazing: employees come first and are involved in decision making regardless of the position you may hold. There is equality in gender, race as well as culture – there is acceptance.

Overall, I have learnt that we are all human beings despite colour or culture. And I want to pass this on to my children. I have developed a fascination for wanting to know more about people and their cultures – the food they eat. The greatness of God’s creation. The only way to do justice to this is through acceptance and respect.

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