African · Essays

I am African, I am black and I am unique

The side effects of being a third culture kid are plenty, chief amongst them for me, an East African born in Lesotho and raised in South Africa, is not ever really belonging anywhere. And being an African in diaspora on the African continent tinges that experience with your hue. My father was an English lecturer so despite the East African tilt in his English, his (and quite frankly my mother’s as well) enunciation is skewed towards the British, and so it was passed onto their offspring. Whether through nurture or nature, or both is unclear and well pretty irrelevant now. My mother has a deep base in her voice, a level found to be attractive in women and so she passed that onto her daughters, so coupled with my British-sounding accent and base undertones, I often hear “you have such a lovely accent” from those who are more aware of their perceptions and for those who are tone deaf to their prejudices it would be more like “oh, you speak so well” or “where did you learn how to speak so well”. To which I enjoy answering, “oh this accent? I got it in Mthatha”. The looks of sheer confusion are worth it. EV. RY. TIME.
Now being born in the early 80s, I got the ‘pleasure’ of growing up in South Africa during and post Apartheid. I got to see the shift in treatment, representation and media content. I was fortunate in that I was raised in a former Bantustan, Transkei, and so whilst racism still existed there, it wasn’t as blatant as signs with slegs blanke – whites only. I grew up in a diverse and international community in Mthatha (or Umtata as it was spelt then), with families from throughout the African continent including countries like Zambia, Ghana and Uganda, to Japan, Poland, Australia and the United States. There were mixed race families, and South African families. The school I went to was filled with mostly white kids, and a hodgepodge mix of our international community, and a sprinkling of black South African friends. I later came to learn that white South African kids could go to that school for free and others had to pay. My parents were fortunately in a position to pay for our school fees and so we were in the minority of a public school that was treated like a private school because it catered mainly to white children. We had some great times there. Annual camp outs on our school field, Guy Fawkes day celebratory bon fire, playing for almost every sports team at my school and travelling to other small towns for sports events. But somewhere lurking in this Stepford wives city, was something less perfect.
My parents have always spoken to us in Luganda, but they didn’t want us to stand out too much, so encouraged our usage of English to ensure we assimilated as easily as possible into the South African landscape. It was a novel idea, that if we spoke English well we would be seen as equals. So I perfected my South African English, untainted by any African influence barring the British enunciations, and made many white friends. Post 1994, we saw an influx of black South African students, and I think this was the first time that I noticed that I had very few black South African friends. Now, I had plenty of black Ugandan friends, but they were family friends, friends by design and not by choice. So, this was my first time to begin to make Xhosa friends or rather black friends by choice, and they were amazing. So strong willed and vocal, and funny. But more than just black South Africans, we also saw coloureds coming in. We had mixed raced kids, but no coloureds and so I met coloureds who spoke isiXhosa, and were just as vocal and strong willed as their Xhosa brethren but maybe just a little bit funnier. Suddenly my diverse world became even more colourful and diverse and I became aware of what I had been missing out on. This beautifully diverse country’s cultures had been hidden from me for 13 years. So when we moved to East London and I attended a girls only school, I was not going to make that mistake again. I was going to meet and make friends with as many people from different backgrounds and upbringing as possible.
Being an ambivert, making friends or rather initiating contact with random folks is cake. And as I was a sporty geek, I charmed by team mates, class mates and teachers with equal ease. I had inside jokes with the hockey girls, swapped book reviews with library nerds, designed plans of chaos with the rebels, and sat back and listened to the black girls. You see, what my juvenile mind didn’t quite grasp was that unlike me, the average black girl didn’t have the freedom to be themselves. They were still defined by their colour. The first time I became aware of how my blackness wasn’t treated the same as a South African’s blackness was when a ‘good friend’ of mine, a white girl from suburbia East London had asked me why I was becoming more black. I was confused? What did more black mean? Was I getting darker? Well yeah, every winter I would spend my break time sitting in the sun and yeah, I was getting darker but I didn’t see that as an issue and was confused why she was so interested in knowing, unless she wanted some trade secrets? So I asked her what she meant by that, and she casually stated that I had been hanging out with the black girls a lot lately. I walked away confused. One, I was black so why would me hanging with some of my kinfolk make me blacker? Two, what did blacker even mean? I always thought black was a descriptor for my skin tone and not my behaviour or culture but now, I wasn’t sure.
Slowly the scales on my rose tinted glasses began to loosen. I began to be aware of my colour, of how black girls tolerated me but never quite bonded with me; and how as much as I could be besties with my white classmates, I just wasn’t one of them. And as I grew older and began adulting, I became even more aware of my race. Not my skin tone, that’s a whole other story, but the associations made with it. From white, coloured and Indian South Africans, I was instantly viewed as incompetent, lazy and when they got drunk instantly sexualised. I can’t tell you how many white men after a few shots would tell me how beautiful I was and the all the myriad of things they wanted to do to me. In hindsight, I should have been disgusted, but my low self-esteem lapped that ish up. To black South Africans, I was greeted in vernac and when I responded in English, I have a basic understanding of isiXhosa – yeah I know, shameful, but I probably know more isiXhosa than I do Luganda, so it’s honestly nothing personal, I really just suck at languages. No really. I lived in South Korea for 3 whole years and my sum total of Hanguel-mal (Korean), I learnt in my first 6 months there. I felt like a rockstar there. I could catch a taxi and get home, order food over the phone and even set myself up with internet. But if I had actually grasped the language, my taxi rides would have been filled with cultural exchanges, I could have customised my orders, and I would have negotiated a cheaper internet subscription. So yeah, my language qualms are my burden  to bare that someday, I hope to bury or at least lighten. So, when I respond in English, a look of confusion clouds my brethren’s eyes, as they try to compute how I, a very clearly black woman, cannot speak their language. When I was younger I was called a coconut, someone who wanted to be white and pretended not to speak isiXhosa. Once I explained my ethnicity, this was met with even more disbelief, because “you’re too pretty to be amaGhana” or “but you’re not dark”. Again, skin tone issues that I won’t get into, I am not light skinned but I’m not that smooth, dark charcoal hue that I honestly envy, either. My name being Anglo-Saxon helped to bring them around though, a trick card that my sisters with their isiXhosa names didn’t have in their arsenal, so it took some serious debating skills, which they possessed mind you, but some cases left unconvinced. As I grew older though, they began to believe me more easily, my accent tended to be the convincing factor. What had once been a comment I had been accustomed to hearing from white people, I began to hear more and more black people either complement me over my how lovely my accent was or asking me where I was from. Honestly, they thought I was American or British and I suspect weren’t too happy to hear I was an African who had gained this accent on this continent. Which I totally get, right. An African so westernised that I am considered western, which ironically is only cool if I actually was raised in the west.
So I thought, yay, I am no longer considered a coconut. Because honestly, I love being black, but no, I was still seen as an other, and unlike a coconut who could be convinced to love herself, I was now a Kwere Kwere or Amaghana. I was either taking their jobs or men; or I was an ally to the white people so that they could demonstrate what a good black looked like; or I was this dirty, poor African coming to take advantage of their advanced economy and infrastructure instead of working to fix my home country. No-one asked me how I ended up in South Africa, nor why I stayed. No-one knew I was raised here from the age of 6 months and that my father had been invited here to help educate the next generation of South African black leaders because whilst South Africa lacked in Tertiary educators, the rest of the continent flourished in them. They didn’t know that as I was not born nor raised in Uganda, that I was not automatically made a citizen. I have to apply to be one, so every time I visit Uganda, I have to pay for a visa. My passport is South African, because I am a South African citizen, and more than just the passport, I am shaped by my experiences here. When I used to watch rugby, it was to support the Springboks or South African teams in the Super Cup. I love biltong and braais, I mix vernac – African and Afrikaans – in my speech, I use just now and now now with the best of them; and I honestly believed everyone knew that robots was the universal term for traffic lights. These may seem superficial, but there are countless experiences and encounters that I have experienced in South Africa that I wouldn’t have been exposed to had I been raised in Uganda or Tanzania, things that make me South African.
So now we get to the trifector, not only am I not considered exactly black and certainly not white by white South Africans, and as ‘not quite one of us’ by South African blacks, but I am considered to be a sellout by my African diaspora family because I embrace both my Ugandan and South African influences. You see, when other African diaspora meet me and I tell them I am South African, they are confused. They want me to openly say I am Ugandan, they don’t want me to ignoring my roots. They assume by acknowledging my South Africaness, I am denying my Ugandaness. Its funny how if I had been raised in the US or England and called myself British and American, or a hybrid version ergo Ugandan-American, no-one would bat an eyelid. But let me say I am South African-Ugandan and the world stops spinning. So if I really want to embrace my roots, then I would need to acknowledge not only my Ugandaness, but also my Tanzanian connections, which ironically tie me back to South Africa – long story short, I have a relative who was isiZulu, so ironically embracing all of me, has proven me to South African ethnically and not just culturally, well partially at least.
So, here I am. A black, African woman who wants to embrace her skin, her cultures, and her uniqueness. I want the innocence of choice that I had when I still wore my rose-tinted glasses, but to be bright eyed and clear in how I view the world and the people in it, embracing all of the varieties it has to offer me. I love my accent, and the privileges it offers me, but I want to shirk the shame of knowing I have it because I don’t speak another language natively and I have never even been to England. This can only happen once I can speak at least one African language conversationally, so wish me luck in my endeavours to achieve this feat.
So, I am going to own it. You know, fake it until I make it. I am African, I am black and I am unique.
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