I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked that question but it never gets old. I don’t even know what that question means because African isn’t a language and Africa is a continent comprised of many countries where the languages spoken range from French to Zulu to Swahili to Afrikaans to languages I don’t even know.
I’m from South Africa where there are 11 official languages but very few people outside of my home country seem to know this. When I tell people that I’m South African they immediately think of what they see on National Geographic; men wearing loincloths while bare-chested women sit around a makeshift pot, with a lion or two in the background for dramatic effect.
When I moved to Qatar I got bombarded with crazy questions. I never knew that people viewed South Africa as a dry desert or a wild jungle but, I think those who asked those questions were even more baffled by the answers because they must have felt duped by what they’d seen on television.
I’ve decided to share common questions that I’ve been asked on being South African. I’m sure that any other South African reading this can relate because a friend of mine was asked similar questions when she moved out of South Africa.
The infamous, “Do you speak African?” pales in comparison to some other questions, here are a few others with answers I wish I’d given at the time.
Do you see lions on your way to school? Yes, which is why you always have to carry a spear. Just in case.
Do you ride elephants? It’s our only mode of transportation.
Are there lots of buildings in South Africa? No. We have trees instead. Some of us even have tree houses.
How can you get cold? You lived in Africa you should be used to the heat. The heat in Africa is so intense that the heat in the Middle East is as cold as a European winter.
You’re not black, are you really South African? I’ve used whitening cream since birth.
Is African your mother tongue? Yes. All Africans speak African that’s why an Egyptian can converse so easily with a Zimbabwean.
Do you eat grass soup? It’s my favourite meal, especially with a little sand as a pepper substitute.
Are you part of a tribe? Everyone in Africa is part of a tribe.
If you’re from South Africa why do you have an Arabic name? Every African has an African name but we choose other names for ourselves that are easier for foreigners to pronounce.
And those are just the questions at the top of my head. At first I found it amusing that anyone would view South Africa that way. Back then it was funny but as I’ve grown older these questions and assumptions can be quite annoying. So what if I have fair skin? So what if English is my first language? So what if I’ve never had to kill a wild animal for dinner? And no, running around topless is not part of my culture. Seriously, are you on crack? That’s what I want to ask when people ask these ridiculous questions.
But after watching films where they depict Africa as a poverty stricken illiterate nation with everyone living in huts with at least 5 of their family members deceased because of AIDS, while the remaining family members are either hunting animals or getting high, I can see why people believe these things. As ignorant as that perception is, it’s the universal view on Africa.
Africa is so diverse and there’s more to the continent than poverty and deprivation so why is it viewed as a solitary entity that exists outside of the ‘real’ world? And yes, Africa is a continent. I can’t stress that enough. Continent, not country.
I don’t think the images we’re accustomed to seeing should be erased but, those images don’t define Africa. They don’t define or even begin to describe what it is to be African. There’s a lot more to a people and their country and instead of believing what we see on television, why not speak to someone who’s from a country in Africa? We all have our own customs and traditions and I think it might surprise a lot of people to find out those differences; to find out that not all Africans share the same language and heritage and traditions.
For anyone who doesn’t know what Cape Town, South Africa looks like here are a few photos that I took when I still lived there:
This image was taken just as a lion ran across the road. “Why did the lion cross the road?” you might ask. To catch the gazelle on the other side. Duh. Every African has a gazelle in their backyard.