SA Journal 6: The Academic Part (Finally)

“How is school?” Well, school is a colonial institution designed to promote elitism within every sphere of the world that academia penetrates and produce a caliber of humans that promote the institutional hegemony while being made to believe they’re revolutionary… or otherwise keeping them too busy with “knowledge” production and consumption for them to do anything actually revolutionary, thanks for asking. 😊 Oh, you meant, like, what classes am I taking and stuff? Oops, my bad. LOL.


One of the most common questions I’ve been asked since coming here is how I’m finding the university system here in comparison to my experience of college in the US, so that approach is going to frame this post.

On a surface level, the differences between the two systems are obvious. A small, liberal arts college near Los Angeles with a student population of approximately 2000 students (6000 if you count everyone in the college consortium), against a huge university in Cape Town with a population of about 27,000. So, the number of students I pass by on a daily basis is definitely one big difference. To be honest, I’ve found myself wishing from time to time that I actually had gone to a huge traditional university rather than a small liberal arts college. (Put this in the context of the fact that I hate school and would rather not be in any institution at all.) Frankly, I like the freedom of being able to disappear. Here, lectures are lectures, and ideally, there are far too many students present in the hall for either professors or peers to meaningfully interact with all of them. If you don’t want to speak during class, you don’t have to, and you can get away with it for the entire semester if you’re playing your cards right. Also, especially on days when I cannot get out of bed to save my life, I’m grateful to be able to just not show up to class, without the pressure of teachers attacking me when I enter the room the following day, trying to act like nothing happened. If I had to guess, I’d say each of my classes has a lower-bound average of 70 students and an upper-bound average of 170 students technically enrolled. As to the number of students that actually show up regularly to lectures? Well, that figure is… LOL. As in, one of my classes is lucky to have even fifteen students per lecture.

Courses and majors here are arranged according to “faculty” and all the classes I’m taking are placed under the Humanities faculty, which is the only one I can speak on through experience. The general structure of things at UCT is that each undergrad class has lectures three times a week, which only last, on average, for 45 minutes. That’s the length of a lecture period here, and some lectures (or tutorials) may take up double-periods, which means they will be almost two hours long. Now you may think that being in school for 45 minutes, 3 times a week is a mere walk in the park, but that doesn’t take compulsory tutorials into account, nor does it indicate the irritation of sometimes having to walk thirty minutes up a mountain for one 45-minute class and then walk 20 mins back down the mountain because ta-da, you’ve finished for the day. (My Thursdays dey bore.)

Tutorials are these sessions that split the large classes into sections of averagely 15-20 students each, and are led by tutors rather than professors, although professors can also be tutors. The purpose of tutorials is to essentially, as I see it, replicate the ideal atmosphere of a tiny, liberal arts school classroom. They are supposed to be places where you can freely converse (with guidelines sometimes) about lecture material, ask for clarification, express personal opinions, and talk about assignments. As for me, I have found that while many lectures and a significant portion of the content I’ve been exposed to here are stimulating/relevant, tutorials tend to be downright useless. Unfortunately, it’s the tutorials for which mandatory attendance is enforced and from which consistent absence will result in being disqualified from writing end-of-sem exams and consequently, failing. Yes, the more useless one mmom is the one with consequences. It frustrates me to no end. Thankfully, we’re at the end of the semester and I can run away from them forever.

Tutors who aren’t professors are usually post-graduate students of some kind, working towards their Masters’ or PhD. Typically, they don’t attend lectures. Out of my three tutors, only one is present in actual course lectures—and that’s because she’s also the course professor. Tutors do sometimes have guidelines about what to discuss during the tutorials, but I must say, I don’t think whoever writes the guidelines attends lectures either. Tutorial conversations often end up being confused messes/wastes of time where the neither the tutors nor the students are really saying much, and then we end up talking about the prices of the new iPhones or, if someone is feeling gracious, being released early. I’d always rather be sleeping.


What classes am I taking!? (Maybe I should use past tense since this is basically last week of lectures.) I’ve been taking 3 classes: History of South Africa (from the 1800s), a Media Studies course called Media, Power and Culture, and an African Studies course about Globalization in Africa. Undergrad degrees here are typically three years, and all my courses are second-year courses.

My disposition towards classes at the beginning of the semester was very different from my disposition now. I was incredibly excited at the beginning of the semester, mostly because of the lecture content and the professors. Most of my professors throughout the semester have evidently been extremely intelligent humans, possibly evenly split between male and female—and it has both surprised and pleased me that I’m not being forced to sit in rooms just to be bullshitted to. What I’m saying is: them dey talk sense. I’ve also been pleased to see many of my own personal sentiments reflected in their lectures. More on this later.

Although the African Studies class has interested me more in the recent past weeks, for a long time, my history class was my favorite class, for two main reasons: First, my history professor for most of the sem, a South African Indian woman, is one of the smartest individuals I’ve ever been taught by. It’s been a good while since I’ve been struck in awe of a professor. (Actually, the last time was two semesters ago, when I enjoyed school for the first time in several years. That guy had entire pages of novels memorized and he also builds trippy, philosophical, life-sized wooden objects based on W.E.B. Du Bois texts in his free time. Bloody brilliant weirdo.) She clearly knew exactly what she was talking about all the time and made no pretenses of neutrality. She always made it very clear which side of history she was choosing to be on and whose lens we should be learning it through. (Not the male, white or foreign one, that’s for sure.) Which brings me to my second point:

The content wasn’t a generic run-through of timelines, like I’ve unfortunately experienced with my African history classes back in the US. Here, I’m not being taught things in the format of X happened, then Y happened, all because A happened earlier, and that’s the only way to interpret that. Instead, the approach has been much more personal and localized. Most of our required readings were written by South Africans, about very specific events or people, thankfully not generic, “neutral,” general histories written by British white men. Reading the analysis of the Zulu AmaWasha guild’s origins and initiative, learning about Charlotte Maxexe’s feminism, reading Sol Plaatje’s accounts of events written in real-time, or seeing Sofasonke’s grandeur through my texts (when I was able to satisfactorily read them) brought me considerable pleasure. I remember thinking, “For once, I am being taught history the way I want to be taught history; not with an overarching “sense of things” and a few specifics, but with a lot of specifics, contextualized by an overarching “sense of things” in the background. It goes to show, I think, how many events and names my professor mentioned in the class that no-one—yes, including South African students—had even heard of. In that regard, I’m grateful for the class’s content.

My Globalization in Africa and Media Studies classes haven’t been quite as spectacular in terms of diversity of content, teaching style approach, and actual education. There’s really only a handful of things from both classes combined that I can honestly tell you I hadn’t known before—and these things were often peripheral information, not exactly what I was supposed to be taking away from the lecture. Cases in point: the medicinal quality of dassie (Afrikaans word for rock rabbit) poop, or the existence of the Tallensi ethnic group in Ghana. (Yes, I am Ghanaian. Yes, I had no idea.) At some point, it felt like the very same information kept being reiterated in different assigned texts and by different professors. (A note on professors; rarely would you have a single prof for each class all semester. There’s usually a main prof called the Convener, who teaches majority of the lectures, and then a rotation of guest lecturers that handle 1-3 weeks each. My aforementioned history class had the least amount of rotation, with only one guest lecturer other than my Convener, and the former covered only three weeks.)

The most exciting thing for me about these latter two classes, was that many of my frustrations with the current fundamental structure of the world were, for once, articulated in the classroom by professors who got me, rather than gaslighted me. One professor in my Media Studies class (some Coloured man whom I’m now slightly in love with—and apparently, he’s a spoken word artist too!) traced many of our societal problems, as Africans belonging to a shared continent as well as in relation to the rest of the world, back to “modernity,” which he insisted should be called colonial modernity, and I was like, Yoooo, this is what I’ve been saying, fam! And some other lecturer from my African Studies class spent two weeks explaining how (higher) education as we know it today, as an institutional way of managing knowledge production and distribution was literally created for the purpose of being a colonial tool (check it bro, the timelines coincide), and I was like, Thank you! Is this not what I’ve been trying to say my entire life?

These kinds of things were satisfying to a point—because I was immensely grateful that these topics were being sensibly addressed somewhere. On the other hand, they soon led me into a peculiar kind of despair, resulting from the incessant articulation of problems. The despair isn’t because there aren’t solutions; it’s because there are, but either not enough people seem to be regarding them as emergencies/even consciously acknowledging them; or because the world systematically co-opts or strikes down insurgents. Depressing. Furthermore, my gratitude that these problems were being addressed soon fizzled out because then I started questioning why I was being required to sit down and be told things I’ve known about the world from time. (Admittedly, not everyone already thinks the way I think, but if they don’t, I hardly think a one-week guest lecture series is going to seriously transform their lives. There were quite a handful of intellectually stubborn individuals in my classes.)

One thing I’ve truly hated, though? Assignments. Their submission and weighting within the course is handled with such formal strictness, even though the assignments themselves are often given with confusing/vague instructions, are often nonfa tasks, and ultimately useless. (Purportedly, they’re useful for exam preparation, but I think exams are also ultimately useless, so there’s that.)

In conclusion, I feel like if there were a way to combine the bullshit-lacking informational content I’ve received here (minus tutorials) with the lax performance/deadline rules of American liberal arts college, it would be significantly less torturous than either on its own. That’s my final take on the structural comparisons. (Of course, the ideal would be to abolish the institution of higher education entirely, but since y’all don’t want to hear me, I’ll just personally walk away from it myself and suffer the consequences. Send money if you love me, because I’mma probably be broke soon. 😊)


SA Journal 5: So, I Hate Everybody, Allegedly.

“Have you settled down and made some new friends?” This was the second question my mother asked me on the phone several weeks ago, after, of course, “Have you found a church?”

I think, after every season of my life, I convince myself that I’m completely okay with being regarded by others as odd, excluded, ostracized, or seen as something other than normal. (The problem is that it ends up being a lie in every new context, and then I have to spend a while reaching this point all over again.) After more than a month spent in Ghana, during which my beloved country simultaneously frustrated me and restored my soul, this state of solitary self-acceptance is what I was clad in as I arrived in Cape Town. Prior to arriving at my apartment, I didn’t know if I’d have a roommate or not. Of course, I was praying to God that I’d be blessed with a single room; not only for independence purposes, but also for how brilliant a single room is as a tool of ostracizing myself as preemptive defense against others doing it to me.

Thankfully, my prayer request was granted. I discovered, upon arrival, that although I would be sharing common facilities with five other girls, I had been allocated one of two single bedrooms in the apartment. The only thing that could possibly have made this arrangement more perfect is if I had been placed in a single-person apartment.

Unfortunate spoiler alert: This story doesn’t have a happy ending.

I started meeting my roommates one by one, and most of them seemed almost excessively excited to be here. (Read: I could tell, almost immediately, that I was dealing with extroverts.) I myself was running very low on energy that day, in light of my anxiety attack the previous night, which had cost me at least a couple of hours of sleep. I had figured, however, that these people who had flown in from America—vast time difference, compared to my two-hour change and relatively short journey from Accra—would have been even more worn out and exhausted than I was.


Three of them started socializing with each other immediately, and then with friends from their home schools, then making entirely new friends, bonding over shared struggles around late luggage and other such matters.

Perhaps the first thing that indicated to them that there would certainly be divisions between myself and everyone else is that my best friend, Tronomie (also known as the primary reason I moved to Cape Town) had escorted me to the apartment and was helping me unpack. Aside shopping for a few necessities, I spent that first day at the apartment literally just unpacking clothes and lying down, half-asleep, conversing with my best friend. Truth be told, though: even if Tro hadn’t been around, it’s very unlikely that I’d have thrown myself head-first into socializing. I don’t think that’s a thing I will ever be good at. (Or even really want to be good at.)

My immediate next-door neighbor, a Jamaican girl, was more like me. I wouldn’t call her introverted, but I would call her several levels quieter than the others. At the very least, with her, I was able to strike up an acquaintance that was simultaneously pleasant and comfortable—a rare thing between myself and strangers.

I slept early that night—but I should have known the direction life was bound to take for the rest of the semester, when, in the evening, all these purportedly jetlagged Americans went for a night out at Long Street together, even though they were virtual strangers, got far more wasted than I think wise for one’s first night in a foreign country, and at least a few spent the night in rooms other than their own. For me, there can be fewer clearer messages of, “Akotowaa, you do not belong with these people.” (P.S. I know that through my words, one might mistakenly place value judgements on these people’s characters. It’s tragic, but I feel the need to point out that it’s not that I live with awful human beings; it’s just that I live with human beings who are generally as dissimilar in character from me as people can possibly get.)

Surprisingly (but unsurprisingly), the pattern of wasted-getting, bar-frequenting, late nights continued for the next two weeks. I, on the other hand, was struggling as usual to live inside my weak, tired-all-the-time body, which found it hard enough to last through all the daytime orientation activities. Side note: My first week in Cape Town, I think I must have drunk alcohol literally every single day, although I don’t think it helped my social anxiety in the least. Inevitably, by nighttime, I’d want nothing more than to spend the night either alone or with my best friend.

As is usual for my life, the brick wall dividing me from other human beings appeared gradually.

One day, Tronomie was over at my apartment; it was almost exactly a week since I’d arrived, and not once had I gone out at night with the rest of my roommates. Together, early in the evening, they began planning to attend an event my RA had recommended highly: trivia night at some bar, after which they’d planned to go out clubbing. With apparent eagerness, my roommates asked me if I wanted to come, then asked me to come, then started semi-aggressively coaxing me to come, even insisting that I bring Tronomie along; what would be the harm? If we hated the experience, we could always just come back, right?

Well, after much deliberation, guilt (on my part), and uncertainty (on Tronomie’s part), everybody got into Ubers and we soon found ourselves at the entrance to a bar that looked nothing like what I had expected, even from the outside. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that my Jamaican roommate and I got physically touched and verbally hassled by a man begging for money, right before we walked through the doors.

The actual bar was even more of a disappointment. The ongoing trivia looked like nothing I wanted to participate in; the place was overcrowded by an overwhelmingly Caucasian population; and worst of all, I could barely breathe from the thick, awful cigarette smoke.

Of course, my immediate reaction to realizing that it had been a grave mistake to leave the apartment, was to laugh. The roommate who had expended the most energy in encouraging everyone to come apologized at least five times. After a few hilariously sad minutes, Tro, my Jamaican roommate and I swiftly vacated the scene and returned home. The rest stayed and ended up enjoying themselves somewhat, probably in ways I will never be able to relate to. This would not be the last time something like this happened.

Now, I don’t know whether it’s collective cognitive dissonance or whatever, but this thing that we all first agreed was horrible when we first showed up, happened to be a weekly event that my other roommates attended subsequently, with significant frequency. If it’s not some sort of dissonance, I feel like people frequently lie around me for no good reason. For example, I might mention once how I dislike people in general and I prefer solitude. Then, randomly, in what feels like a performance staged for my sake, I will hear an unnecessarily loud conversation happening in the kitchen, about how much these individuals love, love, love being alone—even though, guess what… they’re literally always surrounded by people. And seem to be very comfortable with it, too.

It doesn’t help that I also have that depression thing that often makes me retreat to my room and try to suppress my sobs because I literally cannot be bothered to have to explain to any concerned individuals why the hell I’m crying with no legitimate trigger. The depression part is particularly interesting because I think my attempts to hide it from everyone via solitude, more than anything, is what leads to the false construction of me in others’ minds as aloof, supercilious, and full of distaste for everybody other than myself. Emmom, it’s not their fault. How are they supposed to know that I cut a conversation short because if I didn’t leave for my room at that very moment to cry, I would have baselessly screamed their heads and the roof off? 😊

In the first couple of weeks, I found people with whom it appeared I had things in common. But I’m designed in a very weird way, such that even when I have things in common with people, my design makes certain that we can’t comfortably be friends. Even though I seem to have a natural deficiency in clicking with people at all, I can occasionally form meaningful one-on-one friendships with others. I think those are the best kinds of friendships, anyway. They feel less pretentious to me, more intimate, more intellectual, and appear to offer much greater space to unwrap the layers of self, giving involved persons time to get used to each new layer before another is revealed. It’s a laborious process, but it is so far the only one that works for me. Here is one of the reasons why it doesn’t succeed often: Given that I’m so anti-collective, making friends with me usually involves dissociating from the larger collective, which I will never be a part of. Making friends with me usually means choosing to be set apart from The Rest, and most people, even if they share my interests, aren’t comfortable with making one friend, maybe two, for an extended period of time, when they could be going out every night with eight instead. That’s why I think my best friendships are formed with other individuals who are also disinclined towards large collectives. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be many of us in existence.

I don’t think people are very good at dealing with odd individuals. I think most of the actions they take in reaction to us are designed to ease their own discomfort rather than ours. In other words, I think my separateness makes other people uncomfortable.

As the division between myself and others grew, when my increasing discomfort began to show more, I would hold myself carefully apart from people, mostly to make them feel neither uncomfortable nor obligated to engage me. At first, it wouldn’t work, because people would treat me like they felt sorry for me. They would try to initiate largely uninteresting small-talk like, “How was your day?” or “How are you finding your classes?” And then, while I legitimately tried to give a meaningful answer, they would only half-listen, then respond with something hella generic like, “Wow, that’s really cool.” It would relieve both of us when they gave up on conversing with my boring-ass, over-sabi self and returned to their regular group conversations about the boys they’ve been seeing on Tinder or how lit they got last night.

The false-attempt-inclusive energy took a few weeks to dissipate. Before that, my roommates would extend incredibly (which is to say, “not credible”) polite invitations to me for various things, but either my tiredness or the fact that I’d already made prior plans with Tronomie would cause me to sheepishly and guiltily turn down the offer. After my continuous rejections, my frequent absences (usually to Tronomie’s house), and Tronomie’s frequent presence in my apartment, everyone soon gave up on trying to get me to do anything with them, which I think was a more natural arrangement for all involved parties.

To this day, our social plans hardly intersect. For instance, I would be cooking in the kitchen, then everyone else in the apartment would collectively and without regard for my presence, step out to a pre-planned dinner I knew nothing about. Or, on a random day, everyone would go out together to see a movie, which I’d only find out about because I went to the kitchen to make tea and saw people getting ready to request Ubers. Or, I’d wake up super late on a Saturday and find everyone returning from breakfast at one of Cape Town’s notable weekend food markets. It is as if we all collectively agreed that Akotowaa does not exist to do anything social with anyone else.

But we also can’t ignore the fact at least half of my roommates think I hate them. I am not making this up. Different ones have said, literally to my face, and on different occasions, “I feel like you secretly hate all of us.” So, that’s that, then. I allegedly hate everyone, and I don’t think I can do anything to dispel this notion, because I’m just on a different wavelength than they are. (Read: I’m hella boring. Which I should really come to terms with, because doing all my favorite, boring things brings me so much genuine joy that I don’t know why I’m still often ashamed of it.)

Surprisingly enough, the few pleasant acquaintance-ships I have made have been mostly school- or classroom-based. I suppose classrooms are where I speak the most because I’m emotionally invested in what I choose to study (mostly), opinionated and whatever, so that becomes a space where interaction tends to happen without having to be forced.

So yeah. In case you’ve been wondering, that’s how my social life in South Africa’s been going. No doubt, I will soon (if I haven’t already) get to that stage where I’m comfortable with being odd again. In the meantime, the discomfort and shame shall continue to linger without my permission.


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.


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.


SA Journal 3: Reflections on African Tourism

One of my professors here said, in the very first lecture—and I paraphrase only slightly—when white people landed on the shores of Africa, they did not see people. They saw resources, they saw nature, they saw land, all free for the taking. They chose not to recognize that real, legitimate human beings already inhabited this continent; if they had, history would have been a completely different story.


I thought about African tourism a lot, my first couple of weeks here, particularly within the South African context, and even more specifically, within the context of Cape Town. Naturally, a few touristy things have been part of my introductory experience to this city. But personally, speaking as an African from one of the most important countries on the continent when it comes to slave history and colonialism, I have been processing some of my experiences rather differently from many of my American counterparts who are also on this study abroad program.

In the first week, one of my RA’s led a walking tour through Cape Town city. For context, he is both South African and Black. I think he is a truly wonderful human being, and that he gave an effective and comprehensible summary of Cape Town’s history, as well as the explanations for some of the things we saw and places we passed through. I learned things like where festivals happen, where the Muslim population is concentrated, why South Africa has three capitals—random things like that. Since I was neither writing nor taking many pictures, a lot of it has flown out of my head through my ear. There are, however, a couple of things about his tone and diction at certain times that have lingered in my mind for a while.

A handful of times, he would say variations of the sentence, “It’s very, very difficult to talk about the history of Cape Town without talking about [race/colonialism/slavery].” These felt like apologetic disclaimers, which he gave in specific areas—like in front of the Iziko Slave Lodge or something—right before he would give us context about the place. Every time he said that, I wanted, but didn’t dare, to interject. I would have otherwise liked to tell him to speak the history as it is, without preamble, disclaimer, or apology, and especially not with repeated ones. I wanted to remind him that anybody else’s discomfort would not be his responsibility. Of course, I believe the reason the disclaimers even made an appearance is because the majority of this tour group was comprised of (white) Americans on the African continent for the first time. I can’t imagine that the statements could have been directed at anyone else. But, I mean, if we had all come to Cape Town to learn about the city, the country or the continent it’s in, then allow the learning to happen, even if (or, especially if) it would make most of us “tourists” highly uncomfortable. We should have been left to hold ourselves responsible for our own responses, without the need for him to mince words.

On at least three different occasions, he used the word “discovered” as he was speaking. Once upon a time, the Portuguese “discovered” the city, or the British “discovered” gold, or the Afrikaners “discovered” something or the other. For me, at least, it’s not like being presented with African history through this lens is a new experience; my colonized Ghanaian primary school education gave me enough of that to last me a lifetime, thank you very much—but all of us on the program were at least halfway through college. I would call us adults, if even very loosely. Surely, that calls for a far more critical mode of presentation than this?

I zoned out several times just reflecting on the semantics of “discovery.” I suppose, in a sense, according to the most literal definition of the word, it would be contextually accurate. However, that doesn’t automatically make it contextually appropriate. True, to discover is not to invent; it is to literally come into consciousness of something that is already there. But using the word does beg this question: To whom exactly was the newly “discovered” thing previously “covered”? Because if the answer isn’t “everyone,” we ought to think twice about centering the people it was previously covered to—as though the history of a place only began when They arrived. And so, we are back to the essence of this post’s first paragraph: when They came, were there or weren’t there already people here?

Touring an African city is great and all, but I would like to be presented information from the point of view of the not-colonizer, especially if the words are coming out of a native person’s mouth. Framework is important. Because, you see, whenever I hear “[European person/people] discovered…,” I translate it automatically to “[European person/people] saw a new opportunity to exploit/steal/colonize/manipulate…” Which is what I think tour guides should be saying. But I suppose the impartation of these words is usually a job guides are trying to get paid for, and employers might not think my proposed readjustment of the framework is very good for business.

This begs yet another question of centrality, given that African tourism is indeed a business. Which people are being centered as the users? Who exactly is the content (not the economic gains, although that too) of the tourism meant to serve? Because I suspect African tourism would look very different if it were being directed towards, for instance, other Africans. To an African, it is not necessary to explain what Africa is from scratch, babying your listeners; tourism might then be more like reading a paragraph aloud to someone than introducing them to an entirely new alphabet. So, I wondered, as I was listening to my RA speak, if or how his delivery might have changed if the tour group was made up of non-South African Africans, rather than majority-white Americans.


Also in my first week here, I went on a deeply disappointing peninsula tour, during which I spent most of the time sitting in a bus and listening to a bona fide Englishman drone on and on about Cape Town’s history. Yes, you read right: an Englishman. At first, I thought he might be an Afrikaner/white South African—which would have come with its own set of problems too—but then I know what an English accent sounds like. My suspicions were confirmed when he began passing comments such as: “Back in my part of the world…” or “When I first came to South Africa…” Ah, I just want someone to tell me how (I’m lying, o, I don’t want to know) an Englishman ends up being hired as a tour guide for, of all places in the world, a South African city?

As if his existence and presence weren’t problematic enough, during the tour, he said several, several things that made me stop and go, “Ah.” Most of his monologues were facts about Cape Town’s natural environment, or about the colonizers’ activities within Cape Town’s natural environment. We’re back to the first paragraph of this post again. When They came, were there people here or nah?! On the few occasions that native Capetonians came up, his comments would either be inherently inappropriate, or delivered in ridiculously insensitive ways.

“There was a shipwreck here,” he would say. “All the British sailors survived, and all the slaves perished.” And then he would continue like what he said hadn’t meant a thing.

“The Hottentots used to inhabit this area,” he would say, and I would think Oh thank God, we’re about to learn something about actual Africans. Then he would continue, “Unfortunately, they were exterminated.” That one really hit me in the chest. Is extermination a world you use for rodents, or is it a word you truly believe is an appropriate way to refer to the genocides your race committed? Trying to regulate my blood pressure can be a struggle as uphill as climbing Devil’s Peak. (Which I haven’t done yet, by the way. Eventually, chale.)



What, I think, bothers me the most about Cape Town tourism—and most attempts to sell or teach about Africa—is its willingness to center anything but Africans themselves. I know for a fact that there’s a lot to say about how Africans interacted with their own physical spaces, and that for no legitimate reason, these were things I was simply not being told. (The reason I know many things now is through the South African history class that I’m taking.) Passing by or through a Cape Town brewery, for instance, I expect to be told—in addition to how essential beer is to the Capetonian industry or whatever—about how local beer brewing culture was pioneered by African women in some of the tensest political periods of the nation. But, like, nah. My “tourism” of Cape Town hasn’t meant finding out about South African people, it’s meant going up Table Mountain, or learning about all the great Safari trips I could take—you know, if I actually had sika. I imagine, if I were someone other than myself, I might have been very comfortable with having spent a week in “Africa” and, upon going home, knowing that all I have to show for it are selfies of me with a baboon, me in a cable car, and my new knowledge of what a freakin’ dassie is.



The concept of tourism is itself very strange to me, primarily because it’s a business. African tourism makes me uncomfortable because it truly feels, sometimes, like voyeurism; European tourism makes me uncomfortable because it feels like paying colonizers money to be presented with the results of their massive exploitation of other people, which are being passed off as legitimate European accomplishments; American tourism makes me uncomfortable just because of globalization/Amercanization, and sheer capitalism. I’ve never experienced Asian tourism, but I know that at this point, I just sound like a dissenter who’s entirely unsatisfied with anything she comes across in life. So that’s great.

More journal entries forthcoming!