How colonialism destroyed African families

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Highway Queen
By Virginia Phiri
Published by Corals Services (2010).
ISBN: 978 07974 4029 6

RECENTLY the world commemorated ‘Mother’s Day’.
The role and the love of a mother cannot be easily matched.
Mothers will go to great lengths to ensure the well-being of their families hence they play a critical role in shaping the family and the world at large.
In her book Highway Queen, Virginia Phiri explores the hurdles that women in general, and mothers in particular, go through in their quest to do the best for their children and spouses — sometimes putting their own lives at risk.
All this is out of love.
The book centres on the character of Sophie, a happy and content housewife who has four children and also stays with her ailing mother-in-law.
Her husband, Steven, has a decent job at a local factory as a supervisor. He is a respectable man in the society.
“As a supervisor at a big textile factory, my husband Steven was a respectable man. He was able to provide for his family. We had our own house. The mortgage and other expenses were taken care of on time.”
Things were fine until Steven lost his job at the factory where he and other many families in the neighbourhood worked.
And the retrenchment package lasted only three months.
It was a struggle to pay for the mortgage and the family eventually lost the house.
Steven secured another low wage job but got frustrated after three months and he resigned.
Out of frustration, he ended up taking kachasu (a potent alcoholic concoction) as a way of escaping from his pain as a result of failure to fend for his family.
Other business ventures by Sophie were not viable:
“I tried all sorts of odd jobs such as ice-cream vending, street cleaning and shop assistance but they didn’t pay well. The money wasn’t enough for our needs. At times I walked to work in order to save money but that didn’t help either. In the end I decided to quit.”
Vegetable selling did not help either because of the municipal police raids and twice Sophie was nearly run over by cars while fleeing the raids.
All these efforts are unable to raise money for a township house and school fees for the children and they move to a squatter camp.
The husband no longer participates in making decisions as the kachasu now controls him.
Life in the squatter camp is difficult:
“There was a large number of orphans. Parents had died leaving children to fend for themselves. Relatives were not willing to take care of them, so they remained at the camp. There were at least three to five funerals per day at the camp. Most old people had nowhere to go. They struggled with everyone else.”
Through her book, Phiri shows how the African family structure has been destroyed in modern day.
It was unheard of in the closely knit family structure during the pre-colonial era that relatives would not be willing to take care of children of the deceased.
No matter how many they were, ‘vana vaigovanwa’ (the children were shared) among the relatives.
Phiri also exposes how people now prefer to struggle in urban areas rather than go back to the village where agriculture is the most reliable source of livelihood.
The colonial mentality that if one is not formally employed his/her life ceases to be is one of the weaknesses of colonial education.
One is content to work in a white-owned factory for years getting very little remuneration and does not even think about investing in his/her own business until the day of retrenchment.
This was the same predicament that people who worked on farms and in factories in Zimbabwe found themselves in.
When they got old, they left their positions on the farms or factories to their children and retired to the village.
The poverty cycle continued.
However, President Robert Mugabe’s Government has worked towards reversing the colonial mentality and has taught everyone to be his/her own boss.
Indigenous farmers are not on farms as workers but as owners and the informal sector has become the major contributor to the country’s GDP.
Almost everyone, including those employed formally, is an entrepreneur.
Funds are being distributed to the small and medium enterprises, the youth and women to encourage equal participation.
With financial support, women are cushioned from the evil world where predators take advantage of the vulnerable.
In her quest to raise money for her family, Sophie is raped twice, exposing her to HIV/AIDS and she keeps quiet in order to keep her family intact.
Eventually she contracts HIV but she has managed to take her children back to school and provide enough for her family.
She gets a stand and starts building it with the hope of leaving a house for her children should she get ill or die.
Things get worse when her husband’s leg is amputated. She has to raise money for his medical expenses while finishing her housing project.
After all these efforts, she realises that the land developer was dubious and all her sweat and risks were in vain.
In the end the family goes to stay in the rural areas.

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