Gender roles among BaTonga children

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GENDER and traditional customs have always defined people’s cultural way of life. 

The cultural dimensions among several Zimbabwean communities have always been debatable. 

Boys differ from girls on cultural dimensions, namely individualism-collectivism and masculinity-femininity. 

Among the BaTonga, a child is born and brought up within a complicated social structure of interest groups, such as family, lineage, clan and chiefdom. 

He or she is a member of all these several groups and each group plays a part in training him/her for life within the society.

To develop a communitarian orientation, the children are taught the history of their community, the correct use of their language and its devices, customs and values of the community, skills to enable them to survive and serve the community as well as respect for elders.

These values are directed towards the production of a complete individual who is able to fit into society, working for the edification of the community. 

The boys and girls are prepared for their positions in society according to their sex. 

These values are also sufficient to meet the needs of society. 

The values emanate from the existential conditions of the BaTonga people and address their felt needs acquired through observation, imitation, role playing or playing house, experimentation and direct instruction from the elders.

The differences between boys and girls are highly observed in most patriarchal societies, but are more defined in matriarchal societies like the BaTonga where boy children are given tougher roles than their girl counterparts when they are growing up. 

This, however, changes when they get older as the girls assume leadership roles as matriarchs.

Girls are taught to cook, wash, collect firewood, wild fruits and vegetables and tend the fields. 

Through primary socialisation from the mothers, BaTonga girls acquire 
appropriate language, both verbal and symbolic, as well as appropriate moral dispositions with the boys tasked tough roles to fend for the family. 
Pictures by Fidelis Manyange

They are also taught primary responsibilities for children as well as aesthetic and sanitary values of the community. 

The values include sitting properly, respectful verbal greetings and the accompanying gestures when greeting elders, eating habits and decorum in relating to others.

It is through the primary socialisation from the mother that the girl acquires appropriate language, both verbal and symbolic, as well as appropriate moral dispositions. 

The young girl is often placed under the care of the grandparents. 

The placement of the child with the grandparents and the subsequent interaction with other members of the family has a specific objective. 

The intention is to make the girl outward oriented. 

It is impressed upon the girl, both implicitly and explicitly, that every member of the community is important to her.

That is why any male member of the community of the same age as the girls’ father is to be addressed as father and has to behave like the father he is.

Similarly, any female member of the community of the same age as the mother of the child is to be addressed as mother. 

Those who are of the same sex, but still young, are to be addressed as brothers or sisters. 

All older men are grandfathers while all older women are grandmothers.

The awareness of these relationships creates in the girl, a consciousness of her social proximity to others and instil a sense of identification with the community. 

It is this relationship which can best be described as humanism which shapes the moral character of the girl and is the basis of indigenous BaTonga culture.

BaTonga boys have much tougher roles to learn than their girl counterparts as they have to learn to survive, create wealth, communicate with the spiritual realm, imbibe the ethical values of the community as well as classify animals, plants and other objects crucial to his existence. 

The boy is also expected to explain the geography, the flora and fauna of the area in which he resides as well as explore the history of his people through orature and locate the medicinal herbs for common ailments for both humans and domestic animals. 

As a result, just like any other indigenous tribe in other African communities, aimed at producing a wholesome man, the BaTonga boys are expected to farm, have cattle, own hectares of land, build, be a craftsman, be a herbalist, be a brave hunter, be a warrior and, above all, be able to interact with the living-dead for the welfare of the family. 

Likewise, a woman or girl is expected to be a mother, a wife, a herbalist, a farmer, a craftswoman and a counsellor. 

What is significant to note is the upbringing of BaTonga children inculcated with values emanating from our African culture. 

Consequently, these indigenous values provide alternative ways of knowing the world, different from that presented through Western values. 

In the process this develops authentically BaTonga ways of seeing reality and constructing meaning as opposed to mimetic ways engendered by Western values provided by missionaries.

The BaTonga values place emphasis on respect for human life and values that promote human well-being. 

Thus, children are taught to respect other people, to value human life and that which promotes human welfare. 

In line with hunhu/ubuntu, humanistic values inculcate respect for persons, empathetic caring, involved democratic citizenship as well as adherence to multi-culturalism. 

These values are respectfulness, dignity, kindliness, generosity, hard work, endurance, openness and availability to others while not feel threatened by others’ achievements.

Because of the values taught to their children, today as adults, when a male visitor arrives at a homestead in Binga, he is greeted by the female matriarch who kneels before the visitor facing sideways and clapping her hands while other women and children follow in similar fashion. 

The male or father of the homestead is the only one allowed to have a handshake with the visitor; he removes his hat and asks the stranger the nature of his visit.

Women bring in a calabash of water or traditional sorghum beer, depending on the visitor’s taste. 

The visitor is not allowed to sit in the family kitchen or near women and children; he is taken away to the special nganda where a unique array of stools are on display. 

The women greet visitors facing sideways as a sign of subservience; it is believed facing a male visitor is a sign of aggression or challenge to the visitor. 

By kneeling down, the women are showing the visitor he is welcome and is superior to them as females.

Today, even a crowd of rumpled fishermen are there to greet you with forearms tough from years of hauling nets on the Zambezi River and the frank gazes of people who believe with certainty that you are a visitor.

The elderly take every opportunity to welcome visitors with broken tooth smiles and wave at strangers.

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