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“Do you speak African?”

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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:

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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.

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9 thoughts on ““Do you speak African?”

  1. I’m pretty sure this perception of Africa is so widespread that if you tell someone that Ethiopia has been Christian since the 4th century they wouldn’t believe you. Not only that, people never associate the African continent with Egypt or Libya, which is weird since they have been very prominent African countries. In fact Ronald Reagan said that Libya was in the Middle East, precisely because of this stereotype of Africa being a “Black” continent and people do not seem to know or can’t grasp the fact that Arabs are some of the most prominent ethnic groups there. The Romans (who were the ones to name the region Africa in the first place) and other Semitic peoples have been there for literally centuries. The famous Hannibal was from Africa, most specifically Carthage, but I’m pretty sure many people wouldn’t know this. Africa can easily be associated just as much with Roman temples and idols of Semitic gods as with this dumb idea that all Africans live with lions.

  2. Thanks for a short lesson on African. Now, given enough practice and time, I am sure to be fluent in the language. 😉

    But seriously – 11 official languages?
    That’s amazing!
    Are you planning to beat India someday? – We have 18 here..
    🙂

    Is there a ‘widely spoken’ language in SA?

    1. Haha, don’t worry African is easy, I’m sure you’ll be speaking the language in no time.
      I don’t think there’s a widely spoken language in SA, it depends on which area you’re in…where I’m from it’s mainly Afrikaans and English. What languages do you speak?

      1. In India, the most widely spoken is Hindi (40 percent approx). Then we have a huge number of other languages – Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, Kannada, etc.l language

        Almost all literates know English…

        So a general person here here knows to communicate in 3 languages – a regional language, Hindi and English.
        For myself, it is Hindi, English and Bengali.

        A query – ‘Ubuntu’ is an African word as far as I know; which language is it and what does it mean?

  3. I studied abroad in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa for five and a half months. I loved my time there – although I too received similar questions before I went and after I came back. One of my favorite ones was “Where is South Africa?”

  4. 🙂 I can sympathise. I was born in Zimbabwe. My kids have always enjoyed telling their friends that “My mum is from Africa”…because it sounds exotic or something, I don’t know. The first question my paler than pale, so white they are almost luminous children get asked is “So is your mum black?”

    1. Hahaha, wow. It’s ridiculous but I don’t think these assumptions and generalisations are going away anytime soon. I used to play along and tell people that I eat tree bark and they believed me.

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