Issue 13.3, August 1998


Essay Excerpt

Subaltern Struggles and the Politics of Place: Remapping Resistance in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands

by Donald Moore

In August 1996, I climbed a steep ridge overlooking a portion of the Kaerezi River valley in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands, its rugged mountains cascading toward the sunrise over Mozambique. The well-worn path, carved by the feet of children's daily travels to the small school in the next river valley, snaked its way up the slope. Fresh tracks bore the imprint of an oxen-drawn sledge, a popular mode of transport despite its violation of state conservation law. Nationalist guerrillas and Rhodesian forces traversed the same terrain in the 1970s, when armed skirmishes dotted what was then the white-owned Gaeresi Ranch. At Independence, the land became the state-administered Kaerezi Resettlement Scheme.1 Fields were to be allocated to household heads, spatially separated from concentrated residential grids, to promote the administrative vision of orderly land use. Yet more than 15 years after Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, the planned linear resettlement grids consisted of unpeopled, barren plots marked by rusted metal stakes. Beyond these demarcated zones, local defiance of government policy inscribed the landscape with mud-and-wattle and sun-dried brick huts scattered across the river valley. Maize fields emanated from thatched huts in the heart of most homesteads, spreading out into pastures that climbed toward Mount Nyangani, Zimbabwe's highest peak. A bright blue cement house stood out sharply from the agrarian mosaic of green and brown hues.

The construction of this brightly painted house precipitated a heated controversy in the early 1990s when I was conducting fieldwork on popular perceptions of resettlement policy in Kaerezi. Built upon colonial land use planning principles that physically and functionally separated residential, grazing, and arable spaces, state resettlement efforts sought to move Kaerezi farmers from their historically dispersed residences, placing them in concentrated linear residential grids. In the early 1990s, government officials repeatedly voiced threats to evict all Kaerezians who refused to move into the planned linear "villages," demarcated spaces located far from the natural water points and springs where settlers had sited their homesteads.2 The local chief, in an effort to assert his ancestrally-claimed sovereignty over territory, forbade residents from entering into the scheme's planned settlements, constructing the landscape as the Tangwena chieftainship rather than a state administrative entity, the Kaerezi Resettlement Scheme. In 1996, defiance of that chiefly edict survived in the form of acement-walled blue house with an asbestos roof sited next to one of the scheme's single-track dirt roads.

Angela, a matriarch in her early sixties, prepared the two of us a cup of tea over an open fire in the thatched cook hut next to her bright blue house. She received her gift of a silk headscarf and sat by the fire, clapping her hands in a gendered and ritualized practice of offering respectful thanks. Adding animated impropriety to the occasion, Angela jumped up and slapped my hand repeatedly in what amounted to a high-five of sorts. She removed her own headscarf, proclaimed it "rubbish to be tossed away," and threw the balled-up fabric across the cook hut, adorning herself with the new material. As Angela chronicled the devastating impact of structural adjustment policies on her livelihood and those of her neighbors, she proudly showed me her asbestos-roofed and cement-walled house, an improvement over the initial sun-dried brick structure she had envisioned in 1992. Remittances from her most educated son, who worked in Bulawayo, a major city in Zimbabwe's south, enabled her family to purchase building materials from the district center and hire transport in the locally cash-strapped economy. Yet her husband still worked as a cattle herder for a nearby cooperative farm, earning a meager salary; she still marketed crops locally, relying on family labor rather than hiring it; and their cattle herd had not grown substantially over the past decade. In short, they showed no signs, beyond the house, of a privileged class position in the local or regional political economy. (344-345)

Moore, Donald. "Subaltern Struggles and the Politics of Place: Remapping Resistance in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands." Cultural Anthropology 13, no. 3 (1998): 344-381