Hey Zimbos, why so serious?

Society & Culture | By Shaun Matsheza, Communication Professional | 02 October 2015

Zimbabweans have a very specific script of how a ‘grown up’ acts, and any deviation from that is likely to draw a lot of disapproving stares. We simply have no time for fun, or child’s play. Ask Seh Calaz, with Zimbabweans, hasi mafunnies. It gets to me sometimes. 

I have my best ideas when I’m in play mode, that’s why I’m in my late twenties and I still enjoy flying kites. I could easily spend an afternoon making figurines out of play dough, in fact I often do. Sometimes, I want to go out into the rain and simply enjoy it. I find great joy when I am engrossed in a challenging jigsaw puzzle, and don’t even try me when it comes to scrabble. But I have to do all these things on the ‘down low’, otherwise I’d be told to ‘grow up’, and to ‘act like an adult’. 

I don’t mean to say we don’t have a funny bone. We do. But even when you take a close look at the most successful ‘classical’ Zimbabwean comedians, the list reveals a lot about us as a society. Paraffin, Mukadota, Mutirowafanza, Gringo, Kapfupi: all of them occupy the ‘clown’ slot in the comic spectrum. We laugh at them mostly, not with them. We have never been that good at laughing at ourselves, not really. Zimbos like to look ‘dignified’ all the time, and there’s nothing dignified about an adult enjoying ‘child’s play’.

But what’s the big problem with fun? Perhaps our overly serious approach to life is a hangover from colonial times, when our people simply did not have the luxury to take things lightly. Back then, leisure time was a preserve of the elite, and fun was something you stole. Serving the needs of the colonial system was what determined everyday life, and time for fun was carved away from actual ‘surviving’ time. Play time was a reprieve from the tedium of a system that saw us only as beasts of labour, means through which to get things done. 

Perhaps that is why we as a society have a problem with mafunnies. A man who engages in mafunnies suggests that he is done with the serious task of staying alive, so where does he get the time for fun? Our ambiguous attitude to fun expresses itself, for example, in how we approach our educational curriculum. The way we train our young people in some ways stifles their creativity, and emphasizes prestige over passion. I know many people who are today stuck in professions they are miserable in, simply because they chose ‘serious’ professions. 

There was a big hullaballoo in 2014 when Oliver Mtukudzi intimated that he wasted a lot of time going to school, as his passion was elsewhere.

I think many commentators missed the main gist of his revelation. Tuku was not blasting school per se, but the way the education system limits the possibilities open to scholars. His success outside of the conventions of society vindicates him. 

I was always made to believe that the time I spent doing the things I enjoyed was time stolen from the ‘serious things’ that I was supposed to be engaged in. Our education system placed emphasis on the attaining of ‘five O’levels’ (it still does), rather than on discovering the things that we enjoy doing, and therefore are likely to become good at. 

I remember my own high school days… I handled my school work, but there were other things that I found infinitely more interesting. I had more fun in the Quiz Club, where we had to condense tons of information and have it at our fingertips. I loved public speaking, where we’d have to craft a story that could keep a critical audience’s attention for a full five minutes. In writing my speeches, I learned how to weave a tale that could enthral an audience, and how to modulate my voice to keep their attention. I can never forget the afternoons spent honing arguments with the debate club, trying to figure out holes in our own propositions and to anticipate the opposition’s attack. What about Creative Writers Club, where we played journalists and tried to publish a magazine every term? 

I had more fun in those clubs- and the other multitude I was in- than I ever did in class. The instructive element here is that it is the skills and techniques I learned in those extracurricular activities that stand me in good stead today in my career as a communication professional, and not the rote learning of poetry or the intricacies of chemical reactions that I had to do to make sure I passed my exams ‘with flying colours’- as if that was the only key to success in life. 

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with getting educated and taking schoolwork seriously. We pride ourselves on that as a nation, and we’re good at it. And there’s absolutely no problem with people who had as much fun counting atoms as I did crafting arguments; that’s just the beauty of human diversity. 

But what are the consequences of being such a serious lot? I have been lucky to get the opportunity to travel, and I’ve had a glimpse of the different ways in which societies can be arranged. I can safely say that our focus on ‘the serious stuff’ limits the creativity and innovative potential inherent in our society. People who cannot laugh at themselves are more risk averse; afraid of making mistakes. Creativity and innovation thrive where people are intrinsically motivated, and there’s not greater motivator than simple pure unadulterated fun. 

What makes you tick? What is it that you’d rather do, if you didn’t have to do anything else at all? No bills to pay, no family to appease, no in-laws to impress; when is it that you feel you have the most fun? That’s the question your high school self should have been asked, because your answer to that question is probably the best way to figure out what you’re best at. It seems to me a waste to not pursue it to the best of your ability as soon as you can. This has to begin with a school curriculum that helps us in figuring out where we are happiest. 

Some wise guy, probably Confucius, came up with the saying “choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I’m glad that, like Tuku, I found that job, but the honest truth is that the education system I went through had very little to do with it. As a society, we need to loosen up, and be open to the multitude of possible career paths. We should place life satisfaction as a priority when advising young people on career choices. That way, we can reduce the number of people who do things because they have to, and instead foster more motivated workers. We can enhance our chances as a society by embracing the inherent value of fun.

In Europe, because young people are encouraged in the things they find interesting, many people end up making a living through their hobbies. “Oh, the kid seems to like tinkering with electronic gadgets, let’s get him a professional toolset, give him access to a place where he can practise.” And it’s no surprise when the kid becomes more technically savvy than the smart Zimbabwean with a university degree who can quote complex theory but gets flustered with actual practical work. 

In our current mode of thinking, when you do something ‘for fun’, and it does not fall into the traditional conservative definition of ‘productive things to do’, then it is not something worth pursuing: in other
words, ‘mafunnies’ 

 

Innovation is a constant of human nature; we will always be coming up with new things and new ways of doing things. Even with our less than ideal education system, we have fostered creativity and come up with out-of-the-box solutions for many of the problems that bedevil this our great House of Stones. But our progression need not be incidental. Becoming an adult should not mean discarding that sense of wonder that makes children amazing. We can find ways of having fun, while each contributing to the well-being of our society. We should learn to take ourselves less seriously, realize that there is more to a good life and happiness than the prestige that comes from fulfilling narrow and conservative definitions of success. So let us fly those kites, play those games, and create- Ngatiitei mafunnies.