In Africa, the question I have learned to dread over the years is ‘so where are you from’ for the guffaws that follow my defensive answer.
A few months ago I went to go and see some actors, looking for people to work with once my company is up and running. I went into the stuffy little office, fan blowing wildly. The director was leaning back in his chair having his hair braided, too cool to be true. I tried to explain, in my halting (but getting there) Swahili that I’m from Zambia and I…
Him: From Zambia, huh. You’re not from Zambia.
Scorn on his face. He looked ready to spit.
Oh here we go again. I find this so very tedious. So the conversation goes like this:
Random person: Where are you from?
Random person: No, where are you reeeaally from? You are not Zambian. You are white.
Me: Well, I was born in South Africa
Random person: Uh huh
Me: I have lived in Zambia since I was a few months old.
Random person: Uh huh
Me: My mother was born in Malawi (but grew up in Zambia), my grandfather was born in Mozambique (spent all of his adult life - 60 years - in Zambia), my grandmother (and great grandmother) was born in India.
Random person: Uh huh
Me: My father was born in Germany, but I’ve-
Random person: Ah! You’re German.
Me: Part of me yes, although I don’t speak the language and I’ve never been there.
Random person: No, you’re German.
Me: Okay, whatever.
I am something of a mongrel. As far as I know my bloodline goes like this:
Father: German. Easy. I think (Geli?)
Mother: A mix of English, Irish, Welsh, East European, probably Jewish. All lost in the swirlings and eddyings of time. In some record book somewhere I guess.
In truth I have always felt completely, wholesomely and wholeheartedly Zambian. I grew up in a very rural, very small cul de sac of the county. An area my grandfather moved to (from neighbouring Malawi) in the 1930’s. He held a Zambian passport. The first president came to his funeral. Our family are accepted there as part of the community – my uncle is headman of our village. I lived in this gorgeous magical place for thirty odd years; I was initiated into womanhood as a Kunda (the tribe there) girl.
I first stepped foot off African soil just short of my 21st birthday. However all this is complicated and betrayed by the colour of my skin. Sad but true.
Ernest (http://rub2neurons.blogspot.com/) challenged everyone to write their life story in 6 words. Mine was “Right continent, wrong colour. Oh well.”
Everywhere I go people shout “Mzungu, mzungu” (white person, white person). Usually in Zambia I would give as good as I got, and people would either get really embarrassed and ashamed or just laugh and say “Ah, you are one of us!” but here my Swahili is not up to scratch (yet!) and a white person speaking Swahili is somehow not as shocking as an mzungu speaking Chinyanja!
Now I KNOW I am defensive about this and I probably shouldn’t be but it really pisses me off at times. Not always. Usually I just laugh and say “whatever” but sometimes it just feels like buffalo beans under my skin. Can you imagine me going up to a black person in London and saying “Hey, black person. Where are you from. You’re not from here” Can you imagine? It makes me cringe and go all cold, just thinking about it. But this happens to me here all. The. Time. Sometimes with disdain sometimes just out of curiosity.
Oh I so don’t want to get tangled up in this. It is a very very very complicated and explosive issue, with colonial history and all sorts of shit behind it. But frankly I think that discrimination is discrimination and to accept it is wrong. I think it somehow it is complicit to just shut up and accept it. It’s almost saying “ah, they don’t know what they’re saying, lets just keep quiet” or “Oh, because of how terrible colonialism was I deserve that comment” No! Bollocks, I say! Bollocks! Yes colonialism was heinous, monstrous and atrocious but I’M not a colonial. My parents and grandparents, yes they lived in colonial times, but they did no wrong. And even if they did it wasn’t ME. I did not lead an isolated childhood, (or adulthood) separated from the other kids in the area. I am very much a part of the community and having ranted on and on about this I’d like to say that in the part of Zambia that I’ve lived all these years I do not get these comments. If a new person comes in to the area and says “who is that white person” people usually say “that’s not a white person, that’s Miranda” So I guess I'm just...ah, I don't know what I'm trying to say.
Okaaay, I’m going to shut up now!