Before I begin, I just want to say…e be like say “chatterbox” be some Uber driver prerequisite or something. Also, I suspect several people daily have noteworthy conversations with Uber drivers, enough that there should probably be a website/blog dedicated just to recording drivers’ experiences. Maybe one already exists. If you find one, tell me. It might be interesting enough to hold my attention.
A few weeks ago, I needed to get to the mall pretty quickly, too fast to afford to take my bicycle. So, as much as I hate to spend money, I decided to take an Uber. For the first time ever, I got a Black woman as my Uber driver.
You know how it is when Uber drivers pick you up on college campuses. Nearly the first question they’re going to ask you is what your major is – and soon enough, this woman brought the troublesome question up. Now, I don’t know if I am incriminating myself by blogging my answer to it, but I told her the truth: that I was contemplating between English major and Africana Studies major. Now see, the latter option got her excited, as an African-American woman, although at that point, she hadn’t yet caught completely on to the fact that I am African ankasa.
She started going on and on about how she used to be a teacher and how her goal had been to start a Swahili class for Black people. In her opinion, it was a sad thing that all these Black people had lost their native tongue through slavery and being uprooted to America, and then forced to learn English, and even that, circumstances had not allowed many of them to learn it well. She broke off for a while to lament about her cousin or uncle or something who spoke only broken English and what a pity that was. You see, she told me believed that once all the Black people learned their true native language (Swahili), they would be able to communicate, unite and break out of oppressive dominance structures.
I could tell that she was sincere and incredibly passionate about everything she was saying, including her goal to bring in Swahili speakers to teach a group of Black people including herself their rightful language. She was probably in her forties, you know. And here I was, a teenage college student, casually about to shatter this idealistic bubble she must have lived in for decades. I didn’t yet fully realize the extent of her knowledge either. So, without thinking much, I casually pointed out that because I was from West Africa, I did not speak Swahili.
Yo. This woman nearly stopped the car. Her “what?!” reaction was so profound. Only then did I realize that she legit believed that all Africans spoke Swahili. I wonder if she had ever met another straight-off-the-continent West African before in her life.
So, now that she had attempted to register that different languages were spoken between West Africa and East Africa, her next question was, understandably, what language West Africans spoke. Language. Singular. And I honestly felt sad about what I was about to reveal to her: that there was no single language; there were multiple. Not just in West Africa, but throughout the continent, including the countries that did speak Swahili.
Imagine the most stereotypically indoctrinated child discovering for the first time that his/her parents, not Santa Claus, puts presents under the tree on Christmas. That’s what her dismay reminded me of. I couldn’t even count the number of shocked variations of “Are you being serious right now?” that escaped her lips.
She asked me where I was from and I said Ghana. She asked me what language was spoken in Ghana. I told her I didn’t know the exact number of languages because there were several, and I only spoke one. (And then she wanted to confirm that Swahili truly wasn’t one of them.) She marveled over this for a few minutes and tried to wrap her mind around this knowledge, then wrap the knowledge around her dream of teaching African-Americans how to speak African languages. She wasted no time in trying to incorporate all of it. She began to re-strategize out loud, going, well, fine, then. I’ll just have to make sure my class teaches all the African languages. She still wasn’t fully getting it. I had to tell her that as small as Ghana itself was, even I didn’t know how possible it was to become fluent in all its languages and I doubted the possibility. To become fluently conversational in the major languages, yes, I could envision that. But all the dialects of Ghana alone? Massa, forget. To try to teach all the languages of Africa? How big was this classroom she envisioned, and how many decades at the least could each student spare?
I can’t remember the last time I had ever seen anybody so profoundly sad. She nearly gave up on the idea completely there and then, because she said she couldn’t see the point of having a class in the first place if she couldn’t teach every language. And how could Black people unite, then, even if people from the northern part of one country could barely communicate with people from the south? There was clearly no point. I told her not to give up on the idea just yet, that she could go ahead and try to set it up, and if she wanted to do more than Swahili, she would just have to pick and choose between which other African languages to include.
She asked me at some point why everyone else she knew didn’t seem to know there were even African languages besides Swahili. I said, well, I couldn’t fully answer that question, I could only hypothesize – and my hypotheses were that Swahili itself is probably one of the most widely-spoken African languages, and that it has either infusions of Arabic or roots in it, and of course, it is the primary (frequently only) African language of whose existence Americans generally teach their students of.
I wouldn’t say that this incident was as dramatically revealing for me as it was for her, but I definitely can say that I was struck by it. You’re always struck when something you always assumed to be an obvious piece of knowledge – common sense, even – turns out not to be a part of someone else’s knowledge framework. Goodness knows, I’ve probably given several people throughout my life similar shocks as a result of my ignorance, but oh well. It was an interesting conversation nonetheless.
“And we were jealous you had a homeland, a native tongue and your parents spoke it
and we were just the offspring of the broken.
Hopeless, so we all learnt Swahili as if we knew we were from that region
Silly, we know,
but what you ‘posed to do when all you know,
Your closest cultural customs are similar to your captors’?”
-Propaganda, “Three Cord Bond”