- Crafting Identity in Zimbabwe and Mozambique
Elizabeth MacGonagle’s recent book, Crafting Identity in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, provides a rare and welcome contribution to the literature on Ndau communities that straddle the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. In an effort to historicize recent literature on identity in Zimbabwe, her book examines issues of Ndau identity from the fifteenth century through the nineteenth century, with a series of chapters exploring Ndau ethnicity, history, and society.
Chapter 1 provides a synopsis of Ndau history and introduces the main thesis that Ndau ethnic identity predates colonialism; this suggestion that ethnicity is precolonial contradicts the position of many anthropologists and historians, such as Terence Ranger, who have highlighted the colonial role in the emergence of ethnicity and tribalism in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. Chapter 2 advances these themes and addresses the writings of early Portuguese commentators in southern Africa. Chapters 3 and 4 examine the political, economic, and social means by which people in this area have formed common identities and dealt with outside interference. Chapters 5 and 6 address the specifics of Ndau practice as they solidify and shape local group identities, including ceremonial practices, features of adornment, and the court system. In the strongest section of the book, chapter 7, MacGonagle explores the legacy of the Gaza Nguni invasion and that of their final leader, Ngungunyana. Chapter 8 synthesizes these issues of past and present in Ndau society and concludes that “neither the pressures of colonialism nor the politics of nationalism created a sense of being Ndau. Evidence shows that Ndauness... was shaped as an ongoing practice in the precolonial period” (106).
MacGonagle’s thesis is difficult to defend, and the evidence she presents in a pithy 113 pages of text does little to support the main argument. While MacGonagle shows convincingly how variables such as political affiliation, language, familial ties, and spiritual practices bring people together in social identities that have been forming and reforming for centuries, these [End Page 167] variables of identification do not necessarily equal ethnicity; ethnicity and group identity are not the same thing. Ethnicity is but one potential variable that has been convincingly shown by other scholars (including Ranger) to be contingent on colonialism, modernism, and nationalism. Ethnicity is the product of a specific discourse that has reconfigured these longstanding variables of identification (such as language and political organization) in specific and historically contingent ways. MacGonagle’s interviews often suggest just how malleable and recent many of these collective identifications are; as one local Ndau man says to his son, “The Ndaus are your generation, but those of our generation are Shangani, madzviti” (107).
MacGonagle never defines identity or ethnicity, and it becomes difficult to determine if or when she distinguishes between the two. She also synthesizes the work of previous historians such as Beach, Rennie, and Liesegang without expanding meaningfully on their conclusions, and much of her well-researched investigation into Portuguese documents and the arrival of the Gaza Nguni actually supports the argument she challenges—that ethnicity, as a discursive variable of group identity, emerged out of political organization and external categorization. She demonstrates repeatedly how fluid “Ndau” identity was prior to colonialism, but there is little reason to suggest that these long-term collective identifications became ethnic identifications until more recently.
Despite these criticisms, MacGonagle’s research is thorough, and she humanizes and historicizes the ways in which communities now identified as Ndau emerged. The breadth of her interviews provides a sensitive portrayal of contemporary Ndau communities. Students and scholars of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and the role of ethnicity in southern African identity will find MacGonagle’s book a valuable resource.