• The Mutoti Family (owners) (Supplied. )Source: Supplied.
If recent times have taught us anything, it's the importance of family-run stores and the support they provide to families like ours.
By
Julia Mawande

16 Sep 2021 - 9:15 AM  UPDATED 5 Oct 2021 - 2:07 PM

My five-year-old son shouts out in the middle of our local corner store, clutching a bottle of hair conditioner in his hands. "Look mum, Africans!" The whole place went silent for a moment before the owner, known affectionately as Uncle, bursts into laughter. 

My son is transfixed by the image on the bottle, a happy family who look like him, with incredibly great hair. Uncle is Zimbabwean - a friendly-family business owner who often freely gives out life advice while getting his customers hooked on samples of his signature spiced biltong. 

Uncle hands my son a packet of chips. "He is African after all, he should know what Simba chips taste like, consider it part of his education." 

I thanked Uncle. Before my son started negotiating his next treat, I mentioned he was half-Zimbabwean. At this, Uncle quickly corrected me, "He's not half, he is Zimbabwean."

I mentioned he was half-Zimbabwean. At this, Uncle quickly corrected me, "He's not half, he is Zimbabwean"

That was the moment I knew I had to stop using any term by halves to describe my children's ethnicity. 

In the past, like some knee-jerk reaction, I was quick to define myself as an Italian immigrant who married a Zimbabwean - the backstory I had on hand to satisfy people's curiosity when I was asked about my children. It's a question often wrapped in some 'well-meaning' compliment by strangers on the street, at the playground, or in the supermarket.

After my chat with Uncle, I realised how the language I have been using to describe my children may suggest to outsiders that they do not completely belong to either of those cultures; or worse, provoke feeling of inadequacy in our kids for not being 'sufficiently Italian or Zimbabwean'. 

Lucky for us, this is the kind of conversation you get to have in Moorooka, a cosmopolitan suburb known as 'Little Africa' in Brisbane. All around us are African hair salons, halal butchers, ethnic grocers, community coffee shops and restaurants that bring together an eclectic mix of diverse families and recent migrants alike.

I'll never forget the moment my daughter saw a version of herself on an advertisement placed in front of a local hair salon. She stopped in her tracks, captivated by the little girl with a similar hair texture to hers, before letting out an enormous squeal, "Mum, she looks like me!"

These neighbourhood businesses aren't just convenient - they also function as important community hubs. Uncle's corner store is one of them. From the moment I walked through the door on my first visit, I was greeted with a warm welcome from Uncle and his family, the kind of old-fashioned customer service that Myer could only dream of. The soothing sound of the Mbira made for the perfect soundtrack to browse the colour imported goodies that line the shelves. Children's books written in Shona, most Zimbabweans' mother tongue, serve as magnets to little hands walking into a snack-filled mini wonderland.

It goes without saying that small business owners have had a tough 18 months. But if recent times have shown us anything, it's the importance of family-run stores and the support they provide to culturally and linguistically diverse communities and families. 

Often a safe space to reminisce, connect, grown and learn, stores like Uncle's are as safe haven for people to gently encounter cultural lessons, practice language and strike up thoughtful conversations. I know first-hand how much of a positive impact it's had on my family. From discovering books and grocery items from home, to finding bottles of conditioners with families that look just like ours, my own kids have benefited hugely from being able to connect to their identities in a playful environment. 

Stores like Uncle's are as safe haven for people to gently encounter cultural lessons, practice language and strike up thoughtful conversations

After heeding Uncle's advice and stopped using the term 'half' to describe my children, I noticed a huge shift in their cultural ownership. Italian day at school became a huge deal - an opportunity for them to get involved and revel in all the wonderful things that make them connect to their roots; and a trip to Uncle's grocer made them light up with a sense of excitement. 

Most importantly, the kids now feel like they have access to the most crucial, highly sophisticated embodiment of one's culture - the ability to enjoy Zimbabwean crisps to their heart's content.  

Julia Mawande is a writer and presenter. She can be found on Instagram @juliamawande 

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