Shona Love in Canada: A Zimbabwean Mother's Story

At seven and nine, both my kids- Chidiwa and Batani speak fluent English and have a rich vocabulary that would rival that of any 16 year old. I am proud of their accomplishments, but prouder still that my kids can hold a conversation in my native dialect: Shona!

You ask how I got here with kids who left Zimbabwe at ages 2 and 4 and I tell you that it was no easy deal. It took dedication and consistency between my husband and I to get my older kid who was 6 - at the time we started teaching them the language - to accept the fact that what we were saying to him wasn’t gibberish, and that it was actually his native dialect.

I will take you back to how it all started.

One day I was at the grocery store with my older son, Batani, who had just turned 6 at the time when he started throwing a tantrum because I wouldn’t let him push the shopping cart.  I went down on my knees to his level and did the “stop it dear, or mummy will get upset with you” speech. I hugged him and told him to calm down. I threatened to take away his privileges indefinitely. Of course, he did not stop; yes I was cross, and no I could do nothing further about his attitude.

Why? I attempt to spank the little behind or even yell at the child just once and you get the evil eye from onlookers! I even risk getting arrested for child abuse. You remember how it was back home when your mom applauded your neighbour for spanking you because you were naughty? Well, it’s not that way here.

Here, even though it is your sole responsibility to raise your child, I feel like no one wants to see you actually do it. Any disciplinary tone is almost always interpreted as you being abusive.

So after Batani’s display at the store, I started researching ways that I could tame him during such outbursts. I applied all the different suggestions I garnered from the mommy blogs but nothing worked. About a month later, while out shopping for a dress, I ran into a Nigerian friend, Kike, and her little daughter.

Kike’s little girl, Ayo, who is a year older than Batani, was cranky and upset over something. As an outlet, she started tugging at her mother’s sleeves and yelling at the top of her lungs. Kike gave her a look - a look that I recognised all too well because my mom invented it - and she mouthed some words I did not quite catch.

Immediately, the little girl sat down quietly and picked up her little storybook as if nothing ever happened. It was pure, un-adulterated magic and, of course, I wanted in on Kike’s secret.

“I need to know what just went down. How did you get her to submit to your authority without yelling, stooping or spanking?”

Kike laughed and told me:

“I gave her an order in Yoruba. An order that has repercussions that she could face should she not obey.”

Yoruba? A seven year old born and bred here in Canada could understand Yoruba?  

“That is the only way I communicate with her when we are out and about.” Kike said.  She said she could scold the child, give her instructions or encourage her when she was being nice - all in her local language - sheltered from prying eyes and ears of the local busybodies. She also told me other benefits to having Ayo learn Yoruba from such a young age and I stared at her in awe as she laid them all out on the table.

Kike’s words were like music to my ears and I could not wait to get home to apply these nuggets of wisdom. I have been so engrossed with having my kids fit into the new system that I had failed to uphold and give credence to the system that had made us, their parents, the upstanding and I dare say, outstanding adults we had become!

My husband was excited once I told him all I gathered from Kike. We decided right then that we would only speak our language at home because the kids could only learn from hearing us. We would teach them the language and all the associated nuances.

We would teach them our culture and teach them to appreciate their roots without compromising their love for their new home, Canada. Our parents scolded us when we did wrong, members of the community scolded us when we did wrong and we were going to teach them to expect and respect such character-moulding opportunities.

We would teach them to search out historical facts about the land of their birth and we will teach them how to enrich their relations and relationships with the cultural gold that runs through their veins. For them, Zimbabwe was not going to be a faraway, irrelevant country that their “parents are originally from.”

Zimbabwe would be home and we were going to teach them to pass this love for the great and beautiful country down the lineage.

Only two years of consistently speaking the language to them and doling out discipline the Zimbabwean way, I saw my kids transform dramatically. Their appreciation for things cultural deepened tremendously and they became more engaged with their environment and very respectful of, and polite to people around.

Although I initially took on the project so I could scold my children in public without blame, other unforeseen yet beautiful dividends to our new lifestyle were soon uncovered. Shona quickly became not just a language in which we communicated, but also something of a secret code that my kids and I or the entire family could switch to whenever we wanted to gossip or discuss something private!

I watch my children speaking in their Canadian accent with their friends at the playground at school or in church and it fascinates me deeply knowing that hours later they could be going all Shona with their grandparents. We will be visiting Zimbabwe later in 2014 and I cannot wait to see how shocked members of the family will be when my kids tell them all about life in Canada in a familiar language.

My heart swells with pride because I have a feeling my husband and I have gifted our kids with something precious and for which they will be eternally grateful. 


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