Clubhouse turned me into a lurker. An eyes-wide-open and ears-at-attention lurker.
I first heard about the app in February 2021, from my Twitter feed. A conversation of note — about labia pulling — caught my eye. I am an Android user and have no way of accessing the app, though I would love to. Even from the periphery, though, the conversations are transformational. Clubhouse has supplied Twitter with a steady stream of conversations that have made me blush and sparked my curiosity about my Zimbabwean heritage. For its candor and relative anonymity, the platform is unique.
Though my parents are from Zimbabwe, I lived in England from age 3 to 11 because my dad is a diplomat. From 2011 to 2016, when I was 12 to 17 years old, I attended boarding school in Mutare, the third largest city in the country, but it was impossible for me to fully immerse myself in Zimbabwean culture. Colonial legacies stood firm within the private school walls. Our lessons covered the history of Rome and Berlin, but Zimbabwean culture and heritage were never given the same attention.
My friends and I would sometimes whisper in our dorm rooms about cultural traditions, marriage ceremonies, and sex, but no one really knew what they were talking about. We exaggerated and made up stories to fill in the gaps. For those who have spent their entire lives in the diaspora, the longing for community is constant. In this, I am not alone.
In January, two 25-year-olds in England — Rutendo Kututwa, a social worker based in Lincolnshire, and Mutsa Mhende, a Ph.D. researcher at De Montfort University — created a Clubhouse room called Kuziva, which means “to know” in Shona, one of Zimbabwe’s native languages. Kututwa left Zimbabwe in 2005, and Mhende in 1997. The pair met on Twitter through mutual friends. After liking and commenting on the same posts, Mhende slid into Kututwa’s DMs to suggest that they become friends. On January 28, they hosted their first room, a conversation about totems, a cultural identity marker in Zimbabwe that represents belonging in a clan; 105 people attended.
My totem is Humba, a warthog, and Mhende’s totem is Soko Murehwa, a monkey. You can’t touch or see a totem, but it serves as identification of the family you come from. “Totems have supported people in the diaspora to create family relationships,” Mhende told me over the phone. In the diaspora, totems can help fill a gap in belonging. “There is more of a yearning for family connections because your blood relatives, for the most part, aren’t there.”
The live action of Clubhouse conversations makes them potent. “A social media platform that works through oral registers is the best way to translate traditional oral cultures,” Mhende told me.
Mhende and Kututwa host the room once a month, and many of their members are Zimbabweans living abroad. “There’s a palpable energy of people trying to connect,” Mhende said.
Even as an Android user, I am drawn into conversations that spill into my timeline. One night, I listened to a recording from a Clubhouse room where Zimbabwean single mothers spoke about immigrating to the U.K. with children. Later, I scrolled through my Twitter feed to read Zimbabweans debating what’s expected of a muroora, or daughter-in-law — spillover from conversations that started on the other app. When I read or listen to these conversations, I feel a vibrating sense of warmth.
The co-founders of Kuziva have been careful when navigating conversations in their rooms, especially ones that could be considered off-limits. “Our objective is never to frame anything as taboo. If something is taboo, it is largely because the white man made it so,” Mhende told me. “It has stripped us [of] the understanding of our culture.”
The tweet about labia pulling awakened in me a desire to reconnect with my Shona heritage. Conversations from high school came rushing back, where my classmates and I would lie to each other, pretending that we knew more than we did. One tweet, from a user named kj, resonated deeply with me: “I first came across #labiapulling when I was in boarding school in Harare. My roommates would walk around in the morning pulling and I was not aware of such a ritual. My mother never passed this down to me nor was it practiced in my household. My friend has had labia surgery,” she wrote. To find a space like Clubhouse where young Zimbabweans with similar questions to my own are active and expressive makes me feel slightly less alone.
The Zimbabwean diaspora community, as with any other, has suffered losses from the coronavirus pandemic. Bereavement, or kubata mawoko in Shona, is a communal effort. The translation of kubata mawoko literally means “to hold hands.” Touch is an essential part of healing in Zimbabwean funerals. In normal times, family members would gather to wail, cry, and sing together. Food would be prepared, and people would hold each other. None of this is possible in a pandemic. On February 7, Kuziva hosted a conversation called “The Importance of Kubata Mawoko to Zimbabweans” that lasted for two hours, with 35 participants from South Africa, Zambia, and the U.K. cycling through the room.
“The aim of the discussion was to hold each other in that space and talk about grief and express frustrations at how we can’t grieve in our traditional ways because of Covid,” Mhende said. “Kubata mawoko is all about touch and physical presence.” And where touch has been impossible, the intimacy of audio has helped Zimbabweans to process grief.
British-Zimbabweans are not the only diasporic community making use of Clubhouse. In Germany, 23-year-old Neil Muchemwa, a regular Clubhouse user who joined in February, told me he has found a sense of home in the rooms he has joined. “It’s great to just be able to speak Shona,” he said.
The relative anonymity of Clubhouse has also emboldened users to be honest and share stories that they might refrain from sharing on other platforms. Muchemwa has found himself in networking and business rooms where he typically knows no one.
“The beauty of Clubhouse is you don’t actually know the people personally; you just come to these random rooms and talk,” he said. “There’s more honesty.”