My Journey To The PAN Project

by Teni Chitanana

I was born and raised in Hippo Valley Estates, a sugar producing settlement in Chiredzi district, South East of Zimbabwe.  We lived in sections and villages. Our Village was called Bondo in Section 14. Growing up, we lived in such a small and closed community where we knew each other sometimes to alarming details, given we had communal toilets and bathrooms shared by at least 7 families. My primary school was a few kilometers away from Bondo village while my high school was nearly 20km away. The journeys to school and around our villages cemented some strong friendships within which we shared dreams and imagination. One  thing I vividly remember is that the average person’s dream (meaning almost everyone) was to be the biggest person in our ecosystem, the Section Manager. These were the guys who rode motorbikes, ‘order our parents around’ and lived in electrified houses. That kind of dream was achievable, but definitely difficult.

On holidays we would go to our communal village,  just under 100km away. As we we growing half of the teenage boys and later on girls, would drop out of school, cross the border into the neighboring South Africa. Once in SouthAfrica they would get odd jobs in farms and cities. These undocumented expatriates would come back once in a year with groceries, new clothes, and trendy bicycles. The most inspiring among them brought back solar panels and corrugated iron sheets to roof their ‘soon to be built houses’. The next generations would follow their elder siblings’ examples and so the cycle continued (not much has changed).

Back in Bondo village, we would always congregate at the local bar where my friends, who were much older and better read, would tell stories from far away places. They would mention names like James Hardly Chase, Dostoyevsky, Orwell, Ngugi, Achebe, Chenjerai Hove and Marechera. “These are big guns” , they would tell me. One of my friends played chess and  had been to Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city. He narrated his interaction with the city in stunning detail. The occasional chats about the world out there and random access to stale newspapers made me want to break out and try to do more than being the local big shot. 

My challenge was the lack of practical tangible examples and stories of what alternative success would be. Where I found stories, they were too distant and far removed from my realities. The siblings’ border jumping into South Africa, bringing food, clothes and bikes was tangible example. These were the things we needed, getting them would completely address our needs. My books and stories felt out of place and therefore not good enough to answer the present and pressing questions or at least mould my imagination within the scope of what I could possibly do. 

One might be tempted to think that the narrative gap has been filled by social media. I personally adore the power and reach of tools such as Google, Facebook and Whatsapp messenger, in Zimbabwe for instance. I am equally fascinated by the urgency of platforms like Twitter, which have made breaking news a realtime experience. However, I feel that these macro platforms though getting to levels of ubiquity, they are limited in the nature of deliberation, the extend of stories and the lifespan of issues. Even the traditional mass media has caught on in the “now” hype making long term stories and human stories trickle through the sieve’s holes.

I strongly believe that  as a people we need images to  identify with and narratives to inspire us. We need human stories, that may or may not have trended on social media, a bit of news and opinions, precise but with a textbook depth in analysis. We need to curate ideas, create discourse that lives beyond the breaking news. This will potentially help us to imagine our communities into the future.