Award winning Zim designer on preserving African identities in the diaspora

EDINAH MASANGA |United Kingdom

Millions of Africans have left their continent in search of greener pastures. One popular destination is Europe where African immigrants find themselves immersed in a new culture and a new way of life, suddenly having to take on a new identity that fits into their new society.

In any setting, minorities always find themselves with a heightened sense of being different. But, different people do different things to fit in. Others try to change themselves in order to fit as much as possible into the new society while others get an even stronger resolve to preserve who they are. One such person is Zimbabwean fashion designer Zuwa Re, who immigrated to England close to a decade ago.

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Zuwa Re posing in her own designs

A few years after settling into her new life, Zuwa Re began to notice that clothes and dressing make a big part of who a person is. She realised that clothes can be used to carve out one’s unique identity.
But why is this young woman interested in preserving the African culture and identity in the diaspora?
“We do not have multiple identities, we are Africans first and we adopt other cultures but we are organically Africans and that is who we will forever be. We are influenced by our surroundings, so away from home, we have to work extra hard to preserve our culture and identity to erase a feeling of confusion, loss and helplessness,” she said.
Most of her work, she said, is meant to benefit children born to African parents in the diaspora.
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But why is it so important for children to be aware of their cultural background?
“I think that people can tell stories through clothes. Especially African prints. They tell many stories if one chooses to interpret them and impart that knowledge to her or his children. Because identity is taught by the parent or carer of that child. Children appreciate and internalise what they learn from people they trust, in this case, the parent or carer is the first teacher before the child is exposed to other education.
Children create attachments with their parents and are eager to learn and value and please their parents when they are younger. It is, therefore, the best time to teach the self-value, respect and pride.
We are fortunate to know our roots and we have to impart that wisdom upon our children.
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Zuwa Re posing in her own designs

Our ancestors had an oral tradition where they told stories around a fire, passing on knowledge from one generation to the other. Our history, especially African identities, because they are not so well documented, they can only stay alive if we continue talking about them to our children, teaching them about who they are, where they come from, what their culture means as well as their food and their values.

For example, if you look at it, the totem identity (where clans are named after animal species)  is an essential part of who we are as Zimbabweans, it helps us to identify our roots, lineage and our DNA. This helped generations upon generations to avoid complications associated with marrying the same DNA type even before there was a science to document these things. Our ancestors were clever enough to name these lineages after animals and thus preserve a people’s identity.
All these things we have to teach them to our children through talking, you know long back they used folklore to tell stories of importance, it is the same tradition we should carry on to preserve the African child’s identity in the diaspora”, she said
So I believe the best inheritance any parent can give their child is the knowledge of who they are. What tribe they come from, what totem and the cultural norms and values that come along with being a Zimbabwean for example. Simple things can help us raise strong and confident children who are culturally aware and proud of who they are.
With the rise of immigration, cross cultural and interracial marriages have also risen. Do these unions have an impact on a person’s culture or identity?
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Zuwa Re

“Cross cultural marriages have been there for ages, when this happens we need to teach them the best of both cultures because that is what makes them. Children will always choose which of the two cultures to identify with the most. It is, however, important to teach them who they are. Fashion is a less serious way of teaching the basic things so as designers we need to think carefully about the messages we are pushing and their impact and contribution to the preservation of our culture.
I always say fashion educates in a less serious way, and the messages have a magic bullet effect. We can make a positive change through fashion. We teach them best of our Zimbabwean culture and the best the best of the other culture. That way we have balanced children who have pride and knowledge of who they are. This avoids bullying as they are confident of they are. When a child knows themselves, they can achieve anything”, said Zuwa Re.
Zuwa Re, who holds a BSc in Media and Society studies from Midlands State University in Zimbabwe and a degree in health sciences became a designer as part of her own personal journey of reinventing herself.
“ I think life is a journey and you constantly discover and rediscover yourself. I came into the world of designing by nature. I did fashion and fabrics at Fletcher High School and I was one of the top students. My teacher Mrs Ndaguta was amazing and she made me think I could do anything and it is that belief that placed me where I am today. My greatest passion is to demystify the bad thing associated with culture, certain cultural practices and our beautiful country. I am preserving the beauty of the African woman through a mixture of vintage and modern creations. It is a journey and we are walking steadily”, she said

A model posing in another of Zuwa Re’s designs