Chikwambo nebvuri … African communication philosophy and eurocentric advertising

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By Dr Tafataona Mahoso

AFRICAN darilogics and darelogics go beyond both monologics and dialogics because they are based on the two concepts of kuonesana and kushaura nekutsinhira as explained in previous instalments to this column. 

In this instalment my focus is on the application of the African understanding of the phenomena of chikwambo and bvuri to Eurocentric advertising.  

Historically the problem has been that the two African communication concepts of chikwambo and bvuri have been reduced to mere superstitions by limiting them to or selecting only their superstitious functions.

In communication terms, chikwambo means any new and attractive technology or formula sourced and monopolized by an over-ambitious and greedy member of a cultural grouping for the purpose of enabling the member secretly or otherwise take a short-cut to wealth or power at the expense of the group.

The ‘shadow’ in African philosophy has always represented the area of what is perceived or experienced which remains below the surface.  

Literally it is represented by the fact that everybody has its shadow, even when that shadow may not be visible.  

In African communication, the shadow (bvuri) is a foreboding warning that what we see is not all there is.  

The shadow is the hidden text. 

In written Eurocentric contracts and in advertisements it can be described as the ‘small print’.  

But the African view is that there is no visible print at all.  

There is only the rule that for every glorious ‘breakthrough’ there is a built-in blow-back for which society must be prepared.  

Water under the bridge can easily come back as Cyclone Eline or Cyclone Idai. 

The so-called ‘double-sword’ is more than double and can be viewed instead as a shadow.

One way of insuring that hidden warnings are shared is through the communication of the dariro.

λ At the level of the community or neighbourhood, the circle teaches that the harm inflicted on your neighbour’s child in that dariro is quite capable of being inflicted on your own child sitting in that same circle; the harm inflicted on your neighbour’s mother sitting in that dariro of mothers will sooner than later hit your mother, aunt, or sister occupying the same space in that circle.  

λ Therefore, you watch what may come from behind my back, while I watch what may come from behind you. If I face you from the South I see the North which is your back and you see the South which is my back. If I face you from the East I see the West which is your back and you see the East which is my back. In this way we have always been global; memory is global. Kuonesana must be an honest collective effort to make sure we cover the globe, the whole, in our quest for wisdom. North, South, East, West and so forth represent a lot more than a binary reality.

λ The circle therefore taught solidarity and acceptance of differing perspectives as daily common sense and practice.

λ In terms of generations, the dariro meant all generations sitting in the same circle. There was deliberate effort to reduce generational gaps in terms of understanding. 

When elders die to become ancestors, they are replaced instantly by new elders who close the gaps. This meant continuity of heritage and knowledge. It also meant that there were no sunset laws which declared that a grievance would expire after 25-50 years or even 500 years. 

A collective grievance of the family or community could only end by resolution, settlement, and reconciliation. In this sense slavery, colonialism and apartheid are unresolved crimes in the African Relational sense.

On January 16 2013, an anonymous writer published an attack on me in the form of a letter to the editor of NewsDay.  

The letter was called ‘Komboni Yatsva’. 

It was a highly emotional reaction to my ‘African Focus’ article in The Sunday Mail of January 13 2013 in which I had warned the people and Government of Zimbabwe about the deceptive content of advertisements for telecom-based money transfer platforms, especially ECOCASH.

More than seven years later on June 29 2020, Ambassador Christopher Mutsvangwa appeared on the News at Eight bulletin of ZTV explaining why the Government of Zimbabwe had clamped down on telecom-based money transfer platforms and how it was dangerous for the country to allow these platforms and their agents powers to create money when they were not even founded within the purview of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ).  

Ambassador Mutsvangwa wondered aloud, together with millions of Zimbabweans, how we as a nation could have allowed a situation to develop whereby new digital technologies had been used to create the biggest bank in Zimbabwe (moving up to 94 per cent of cash and creating money in its own right) under the Posts and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (PORTRAZ) and completely beyond the purview of the RBZ.  

My January 13 2013 article in The Sunday Mail was titled ‘Advertising and the tragedy of mistaking new imported gadgets for new thinking’. 

New gadgets may embody the investor’s thinking, but we as possible users need our own ideas about their adoption or adaptation for our own use.

I pointed out that a new technology should not be treated as if it were in itself an embodiment of new thinking on our part.  

In choosing it or rejecting it, society still needed to think-through the full meaning and process of its adoption, rejection or modification. 

Going into Zimbabwe’s colonial history, I started my practical illustration with Nestlé’s notorious milk formula for babies which dominated ‘Third World’ markets in the 1960s and 1970s until it provoked a global counter-campaign which has now resulted in one of the most shocking realisations: The Ministry of Health and Child Care having to spend money to teach African women that ‘mother’s milk is best’ in order to promote breastfeeding!  

How did we come to such a ridiculous situation?  

The bedrock of African indigenous wisdom on health and nutrition was breastfeeding.

At any rate, in that January 13 2013 article I started with the Nestlé story before proceeding to ECOCASH and other money transfer platforms. 

Lactogen and Nestlé’s immaculate tin-can ‘mother’

When we were in primary school and early secondary school, Nestlé introduced a new technology which was advertised as an immaculate and clean tin-can ‘mother’ to replace the primitive, ignorant, dirty and unhygienic African mother.  

Clever, educated and progressive Africans were called upon to raise their children on a powdered milk product or formula called Lactogen.  

A plastic bottle and plastic nipple replaced the mother’s breast, which was put down as dirty, smelly and susceptible to millions of ‘germs’ and horrifying infections.

It took almost 20 years before enough scientific research was done to show that Nestlé’s baby milk formula was literally killing millions of babies in what was then called the ‘Third World’.  

By the time an effective international campaign was launched to stop the immaculate tin-can mother from killing more babies, we were already in graduate school in the US.

The reader can therefore imagine how bad my generation feel whenever the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare conducts nation-wide campaigns to ‘teach’ African mothers to breastfeed their babies and to teach African commu-nities that ‘mother’s milk is the best’! 

It took many years and millions of deceptive adverts get urbanised and ‘educated’ Africans to forget that ‘mother’s milk is best’ and eventually to get the rest of the society to suffer the same confusion, laziness and ignorance which we now see in how the so-called new social media are also being greeted and adopted.  

Indicative of this laziness is the repeated slogan: ‘Embrace technology’. 

The African understanding of ‘chikwambo’ is that one should never ‘embrace’ new technology as advertised by its salespersons.  

One should ‘harness technology’ only after strategic assessment in terms of the collective approach of ‘kuonesana’.

Current misreading of the ECOCASH frenzy

The history lesson I am pursuing is this: over more than a century, the same combination of confusion, laziness and ignorance has led to our misunderstanding of literacy, numeracy, missionary tracts, slides, Lactogen, the immaculate tin-can mother of Nestlé, the internet, the cellphone, Twitter, Facebook and now ECOCASH.

Consequences of misreading

The substitution of Lactogen and the plastic bottle and tit for mother’s milk did not only lead to massive malnutrition and poisoning among ‘Third World’ infants; it also led mothers and fathers of dying babies to blame themselves for the deaths of their babies and for the parents’ increasing impoverishment.

The adverts celebrating the arrival of the Nestlé tin-can mother and its displacement of the African mother used the guilty feelings of the African parents not just to get them to adopt the new baby formula but also to force them to personalise and accept their mass poverty as meaning that there was something wrong with themselves and not the colonial society which was providing such miraculous gadgets allegedly capable of replacing a whole mother. In that context Lactogen was the new chikwambo.

In other words, in the context of the aftermath of the Land Apportionment Act, the Land Tenure Act and the African Land Husbandry Act, Nestlé adverts served to place upon the dispossessed and land-hungry African woman the sole responsibility for her mounting poverty and helplessness.  

Why couldn’t she act cheerfully and confidently like the mother in Parade magazine who looked so well-fed and whose children appeared so chubby and cheerful, having been raised, according to the adverts, on Lactogen from the shiny tin-can mother?

In other words, the Nestlé tin-can mother appeared exactly at the time when poverty and malnutrition, induced through the forced removals of African communities from fertile lands, had become a real crisis. 

But precisely because such removals and the ensuing malnutrition meant deepening impoverishment – the majority of the mothers whose breast milk dried up due to malnutrition did not have the financial resources to sustain steady purchases of the Lactogen formula.  

So, the milk formula had to be over-diluted to last longer.  

The more diluted the Lactogen became the more deadly it was for the babies.

Meanwhile, the cheery Nestlé adverts served to hide the real economic catastrophe facing the dispossessed African communities dumped in what were called Tribal Trust Lands in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) or Bantustans in South Africa.

The polysemy of ECOCASH adverts 

Elsewhere I have warned against the potential of the telecoms-based fast money transfer system being used to buy voters during elections in exactly the same ways similar technology was used in Kenya to precipitate the chaos and crisis which destroyed the Kenyan electoral system in 2007.

But in this article, I am addressing something less obvious about the EcoCash and other money transfer services adverts, as follows:

Like all the other promotions of new technology going back to the early missionaries and colonisers, the ECOCASH adverts especially divide the people of Zimbabwe between those who are condemned and have been left behind because they are not part of the digital system, on one hand, and the progressive and happy people who belong to the brave new world of the future, in fact, those who now own the future because they subscribe to ECOCASH. Sometimes the adverts use evolutionary metaphors, with those left behind facing extinction like dinosaurs. 

Like the characters who sold missionary tracts and the Nestlé’s tin-can mother in the middle of a national catastrophe, the characters in ECOCASHh adverts have to be exuberant characters who must appear to be immune to illegal sanctions, who do not suffer unemployment, who do not miss the Zim dollar, and who do not mention the crushing liquidity crunch or the current recession.

ECOCASH subscribers cannot become indebted or fail to meet any cash commitments. Indebtedness is banished, according to the adverts.

Like the Nestlé adverts, the ECOCASH adverts also focus on convenience, speed, safety and security. Just as the Nestlé adverts made it seem as if there were mountains of Lactogen available and accessible to every poor mother on earth, the EcoCash adverts also make penniless people feel that the mere act of subscribing to this new system will make limitless mountains of cash suddenly available and accessible to every Todo who owns a cellphone handset.

Whether by default or by intention, the ECOCASH  adverts, in their airy cheer and exuberance, are serving to divert viewers and listeners away from the real debilitating  poverty, lack of cash, lack of employment, poor and declining  business, and a pervasive depression fuelled by illegal Anglo-Saxon sanctions.

Whether by default or by intention, the ECOCASH adverts avoid alerting viewers and listeners to the awful living conditions caused by illegal sanctions.  For instance, if I pay rates by ECOCASH to Harare City Council, will that clear all the mountains of rubbish, unclog all the broken sewers and make the raw sewage vanish? After all, subscribing to ECOCASH is presented as a miracle-making decision! Can we all now receive running water in our town and cities because we have subscribed to ECOCASH?

How the real chikwambo finally appeared: The extortion of premium cash payments by ECOCASH agents

By 2019, the real chikwambo hidden by ECOCASH adverts showed up in the form of ECOCASH agents who sold hard cash in exchange for electronic cash at premium rates ranging from 30 percent to 60 percent.   

Because hard cash was hard for most ordinary wage earners to get from their banks, the first ethical question which arose was how those agents were able to amass so much cash in the first place.  

The second question was about the unscrupulous and callous attitudes of the agents towards their clients.  

People earning low wages and paid electronically through their banks were losing up to 60 percent of their earnings to ECOCASH agents in order to access hard cash.  

The third ethical issue was that an agent who was able to collect a 60 percent premium on every electronic dollar surrendered to him in exchange for cash ended up not only creating money out of thin air but also helped to push up inflation through those wild premiums.

I would therefore end by inviting the reader to connect the frenzy over ECOCASH to the frenzy about miracle money and the discovery of divine gold which we hear from certain churches who also divide our people between those non-subscribers who have been left behind and the subscribers who now may own the future only because they subscribe.  

Divine gold and miracle cash are now superior to the Dzimbahwe gold and land assets which Nehanda, Herbert Chitepo and Jason Moyo died for.

Enter the new super-chikwambo, the US dollar

The US dollar in Zimbabwe is the biggest chikwambo.  

It has divided fuel service stations between those with endless queues and those without queues.  

It has divided our people between a minority using ‘mari inotenga’ and a huge majority who have only ‘mari isikatengi’.

What this new frenzy hides is the reality that ‘mari inotenga’ is the new name for what our ancestors called ‘mari yechibharo’, which meant rape money as well as money used to pay the white coloniser’s head tax  on every African adult male.  

Chibharo was an ingenious term or concept fusing the meaning of rape with the meaning of the hated head tax which was also named ‘chibharo’.

Now the key to understanding the full meaning of mari inotenga is to ask: “Mari inotenga inotengenyi, yakatengenyi, yakatenga ani naani?”  

After all, the late leader of the bandit RENAMO Alfonso Dhlakama was on the payroll of the former apartheid regime, receiving US$800 per month.

Those who asked the US and Europe to stop Zimbabwe’s land revolution by imposing illegal and racist sanctions on the people were also given ‘mari inotenga’.

How the US dollar is a true ‘chikwambo’ in African communication terms has to be developed through another instalment.

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