SA Journal 4: The Foreignness Is Not Equal

This is something I complain about often: I knew who Hitler was, way before I knew what Hitler really did. It’s the power of heavily-circulated rhetoric. Even before you’re conscious of it, you’ve digested that if you have any sense in the world, you should hate him. I am still deeply disturbed that I didn’t know who King Leopold II was until the internet randomly educated me on him a few years ago. As I sit here in my room today, I detest Leopold several times more than I even care about Hitler, for what I think are obvious reasons. Not that I am trying to commit blasphemy or instigate some sort of Oppressor Olympics, but there’s a very important lesson in here.

I didn’t even know Zimbabwe’s colonial name was Rhodesia (and therefore had no clue who the hell Rhodes was) until I read Nervous Conditions in 2017. Twenty seventeen. I was nineteen years old when I found out. (If you knew the mission of the high school I went to and the variety of African classmates I went to school with, I think you would be a lot more ashamed for and with me.) Also, it was this very year that I read Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime (which is an 11/10 book, in my opinion), which presented Rhodes again, which is when I realized: yo. This guy colonized southern Africa, not just Zimbabwe. As you can see, I found out a lot of essential things at age nineteen. It amazes me how I was aware of the #FeesMustFall movement while it was happening, yet hadn’t ever heard a thing about the intertwined #DecolonizeUCT and #RhodesMustFall movements. If I’d known of at least the latter, maybe I’d have gotten wise a lot sooner than I did. Another lesson to be found here.

A year after finding out who Rhodes was, here I am in southern Africa again, with a lot more contextual knowledge of its history. Even though I haven’t been wise for very long, my first time in the Cape Town gardens with the group of majority-American study abroad students still stressed me all the way out because of the following incident: I expressed my incredulity about how a huge statue of Rhodes still stood right in the midst of the garden’s greenery, and insisted, quite vehemently, that it had to come down in the next few years. I was met, by several Americans, with a collective, “Huh? Who’s Rhodes?” reaction. When that happened, I wanted to sit down and cry.

It became even worse for me when my tour guide explained him to be “a really rich guy; owned a lot of property in Southern Africa; heavily involved in the diamond business—the DeBeers Company and so on…” I couldn’t help thinking that these were extremely kind and neutral words for a ruthless colonizer whose statue should have been demolished latest by 1995. Of course, such a mild summarization of Rhodes’ life and legacy produced reactions of, “Oh, okay, I see” reactions in everyone but me. Not “Oh my, what an evil man” reactions. I therefore considered the entire incident weird and inappropriate. It bothered me then, and it bothers me now. How many of these folks, I wondered, would leave South Africa with Rhodes’ name having already been half-forgotten and relegated to irrelevance in their minds?

What made it even worse than worse for me was how, a few minutes later, ignited by my comment about the statue having to come down, the conversation turned to the topic of all the decolonization attempts currently taking place particularly in American colleges; movements to remove statues and historical monuments related to racists or slavers, petitions to rename buildings that bear the names of notable bigots et cetera. I couldn’t help thinking, once again, “Okay, cool, but I don’t see how we were talking about Africa for thirty seconds, and now we’re going to spend the next half hour on America again.” I dissociated mentally from the conversation, not because the topic wasn’t relevant, but because of context and… everything else.

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I think, sometimes, I get disproportionately annoyed at some things, at least in comparison to the gravity and scale of what’s actually annoying me. It stems from years of built-up frustration about how the foreignness between different people, histories and knowledge just isn’t equal. Back in high school, while studying human geography, I was surprised to find out that “Americanization” was considered a synonym for “globalization.” Now, I’m merely surprised at how surprised I was then. Cultural exchange, education, and the enlightenment they’re supposed to be able to produce just isn’t manifesting at equal rates in all directions. The history of the globe is a violent one full of intense power-plays, and it’s most obvious for me in these moments. But so is people’s individual obstinacy.

Here’s an example of something I think I overreacted to: I was eating at an Ethiopian restaurant a few weeks ago with some Americans who kept freaking out about how good the injera was, yet seeming to almost deliberately refuse to learn the word injera. They continuously exclaimed things like, “Yo, what is this bread thing?! It’s sooo good!” And I would repeatedly tell them it’s called injera, because it’s called injera and I would like it to be called injera in a very similar way that I would insist bofrot be referred to as bofrot and not “this doughnut thing.” My companions, that evening, would acknowledge that they’d heard me, and then, a second later, repeat, “Dude! This bread!” I would state it again. I would be acknowledged. A few minutes later, “Ugh, I don’t even understand why this bread thing is so good!” Then one or two would look at me sheepishly, half-heartedly asking, “What did you say it was called again?” And I wanted to sit down and cry. Effort matters. It speaks volumes about one’s disposition towards things other than oneself, when effort is absent.

Here is something I think I under-reacted to: Immediately after a UCT tour, a group of Americans were having a discussion in bleacher chairs behind me about how #DecolonizeUCT and #RhodesMustFall type movements weren’t really as important as people were making it seem, because yeah, sure, the past happened, but obviously none of would matter soon, now that we were in 2018, and people clearly aren’t as problematic now as they used to be. (I think it had flown over their heads that they were in a country that had only been democratic for a couple of years before they were born.) The entire conversation seemed to hinge on the false logic that people suddenly develop sense without anybody needing to protest, to fight inequality, fight for the right to be regarded as human, fight against systematic oppression. Because there’s definitely enough evidence in history of people magically developing sense with nobody’s help, right? *cue eye-roll*

The mad thing for me was how they were all agreeing with each other like, “Yeah, yeah, I totally know what you mean.” You’ve probably figured out by now that none of the people in the above conversation were Black. Listening to them, my hands were itching with the desire to backhand somebody one time. I settled for going on a rant to one of my new African-American friends who was sitting right beside me, about the shocking and complete disregard for context, the ignorance of their own ignorance, and their nonexistent knowledge of when to be quiet. Life is great.

Fun fact: about seventy percent of my Uber drivers in this city have been Zimbabwean. A significant percentage are Congolese as well, it seems. I’ve also been driven by a Burundian once. With these folks, almost as soon as I get into the car, they ask, “Akotowaa? I don’t know this kind of name. Where’s it from?” Ironically, it’s a different story with the South African drivers, who start chatting Xhosa or Zulu to me the moment I enter the car, and I have to be like, ei, paakyew, slow down for me, wai. It’s interesting for me that among Africans that I’ve been exposed to, there appears to be a heightened awareness to foreignness, and a consequent curiosity, when they are in countries other than their own. This relieves me.

One time, I was picked up by a Zimbabwean Uber driver who also immediately asked me where I’m from. I told him I came from Ghana, and he asked, “Where is that? Is it far from here?” That made me sad, but I proceeded to explain its geographical location to him. After he asked me to tell him more about life there, he said, “I’m from Zimbabwe. Have you ever heard of Zimbabwe?” And that made me even sadder. He seemed to consider it normal that a Ghanaian wouldn’t know of Zimbabwe. Another time, I was buying stationery from a shop at school, and as I was paying, the vendor saw my TwoCedi dashiki bag and asked me if I was East African. I denied and told her where I am from. And then I spent the next few minutes trying to answer all her questions about Ghana, a country about which she knew about as much as my Uber driver had. She apologized, at some point, for all her questions, because, “You know, over here, we just stick to ourselves and we don’t know anywhere else. Maybe a little Botswana, a little Zimbabwe, but the rest of Africa, we really don’t know anything about them. People like you are the only chance we get.” And I got sad. Just this past week, I experienced a similar thing with a vendor on campus, from whom I bought coffee. I had to open Instagram to show her pictures of Accra, because she was just insanely curious about this country she had zero knowledge of. It was kind of amusing, but you know, it also made me sad. The real tragedy, I think, is that every single one of these incidents would have disappointed me way more, had I not remembered that two years ago, I didn’t have a clue who Cecil John Rhodes was. The foreignness, mes amis, is not equal.

As a side note, something else that bothers me is that I’m an Africana Studies major who’s currently enjoying the opportunity to study Africana Studies-related things in an African country other than my own; yet it seems like everywhere I turn, I’m encountering non-students of this university (vendors etc.) who seem to want to know so much about parts of Africa other than SA. It just doesn’t sit right with me that people of a lower class than I am, are in the very same educational institution as I am, harbor the same curiosities about Africa as I do, but look at what I’m getting out of being here and what they’re not. Also, in my South African history class, there’s so much of the class’s content that nobody—neither South Africans nor foreigners—knew before being presented with the information through the course. So now, here I am, suspecting that I’m accumulating more random academic knowledge about South Africa than a good proportion of the South African population, and it’s just… an extremely weird feeling. =(

The foreignness is not equal, chale. At all.

-Akotowaa

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