Wednesday, September 3, 2008

So where are you from? No where are you reeeaally from?

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.

For instance:
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?
Me: Zambia
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 ( 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!


BlouKous said...

Oh how fantastic to find another angry soul. (or maybe frustrated is a better word) I'm not quite in your boat, but I keep getting the "you cant be from Africa because you're not black" which makes me spitting mad, because where the hell else am I from them? Outer Space?

tam said...

Funny. When I was in Malawi, I was asked that, as I, too, always am. And I did the same spiel you do, with the, oh and I went to school in Blantyre for 5 years, and I don't really know where I'm from (apologise apologise) but without exception everyone I spoke to, as soon as I said the school bit, immediately said, Oh well, you're Malawian then. Sure, its partially politeness but it also doesn't happen to me anywhere else. SO there you go, you can be Malawian. I mean, thats where Mom was born, so...

Oh. But then I was very excited to be in Zomba hospital and I said, "My Mother was born in this hospital." And the nice surgeon said, "Not this one. She was probably born in the hospital on the hill. That was the one for white people."

You're right. Its bollocks.

tam said...

Oh look an albino.

(Sorry, but y'know. couldn't resist)

Miranda said...

Heh heh. You're right. In Zambia - and Malawi - as soon as I've spoken Chinyanja (or mentioned NJC) the wall comes down and people are 'oh wow, yes you are Zambian'. But here, I haven't felt that. But hey, I've only been here 9 months so can't really judge yet. Yesterday for the first time when someone asked me where I was from I told them my dad was German just to try it out for size...

And now on the google blogger thingy it says "choose an identity" Hmmm, lets see now....

OH and now that my surname is Rashid that REALLY confuses people! Everyone says "Ah, you are a Muslim"

Chimera said...

Well at least you know where you are from and what in your true heart is 'home'. You are in fact Zambian aristocracy - your lineage noble and distinguished. You are a Kunda..imagine! There are thousands of expatriate children like myself who have no defining culture or language to claim but only a vague sense of being 'other'..fitting nowhere. (Unless you count Lusaka Barfly an identitiy...)
On the 'where are you from' it is annoying but standard as it is for the millions of British Asians who still, even as third or forth generation, get asked..'so where are you 'really' from'? I understand the frustration but then perhaps all you have to do is smile enigmatically and mutter something about Michael Jackson..
Tanvi x

Val said...

i agree its all bollocks!! I hate generalisations - dont want to be in one myself so try never to put other people in them.. but that 'where are you from?' thing... its confusing even on the short term. Round here I am surrounded by people being lumped into categories and it drives me stir crazy.
Its also the difference between 'indigenous' people and 'non-indigenous'..... what do they imply????
is this just confused people trying to confuse everyone else??
At least you know where you are from :-)... germany wasnt it??

Janelle said...

you did it eh mo? shot!
so um. where the hell are we from then eh?
where you were born?
wherever you wanna be from i guess. it makes us into wizards. HAH!

ExAfrica said...

Had to fill in the school forms today.

Ethnic: ?

Daughter says "African". No honey - you are not quite African American (as the nearest box to tick said). I'm American - Father South African - she born in HRE. "but I am African and I am American."

When I first arrived in the US at her almost 5 years of age - her first ever time living here - she told everyone - and no one cared - that she was Zimbabwean, South African, and Mozambican.

Where's the box for that?

(Mind the form said "ethnic" not ethnicity, not race, just "ethnic" I am temped to answer "Yes".)

Still kicking myself for not getting her a Zim passport whilst we had the chance. But I day

Angela said...

Oh Miranda, chifukwa chiani? Kapena nde patsa tandiza by saying,nde li bweno, secomo, and that`s all that counts. I am a splendid mixture of cultures and inheritances, and I love my country Zambia, and now tell me your story!
Yes, your Dad is German, but his mother was of French (Huguenot) descent, and aren`t we all mixtures of some kind? And even among the Germans there are some real cool people, so no reason to be ashamed ( we are NOT all Nazis, even if the movies tell you so). So don`t get angry at stupid people, just smile at them and start talking Chinyanja, wherever you are confronted with this. They`ll understand then who you really are.
And maybe I SHOULD teach you some German, just for fun?

Miranda said...

Bloukous - yes indeed!

Tanvi - you are right of course. I am REALLY lucky to have grown up where I have and at least have some sense of (shifting)identity. Thanks.

Val, yeah, it's all a little confusing....

J - yes wizards. Love it.

ExAfrica - that's hilarious! Love it

Geli - thanks for the family history. I know we're all mixed which is great and I love it. I shouldn't get so worked upand take it all so SERIOUSLY!! Well remembered on the Chinyanja - wow!! Yes, I SHOULD learn German. Let me master Swahili first and then German next.xx