xeno what?

July 16, 2008

right now i am going through what i think most of you would erroneously call xenophobia. i refuse to call it “fear of the alien” for i know it’s not fear but hate. it is the feeling of rejection that most of us go through for just not being home (whatever home means). my friend tells me that home is a place where you jump into bed with all the dust on your feet. yea, this rejection that i feel reminds me of what has commonly been referred to as may 11th in south africa; this hate, this repel of the ‘outsider’.

today i feel the need to repost this article on what many made you believe was xenophobia…

THE SKIN-SAVING WORD THAT VERY FEW KNEW

One Mr. K told me that there are certain sounds that most of us in Sub Saharan Africa cannot pronounce because they are inexistent in our languages. I could not really make out why a sober university lecturer could say that to students of one-hell-of-a-course called Phonetics and Phonology. For those of us who have never seen the inside of a linguistics class, Phonetics and Phonology is a course that requires that every student opens his or her mouth at least twenty times (depending on the length of the paper) in the exam room. All the exam questions have to be read aloud for the student to get the answers right. Yes, I was talking about those inexistent sounds that Mr. K taught us about. He said they were called clicks. There were other words that Mr. K used (velar plosives, pharyngeal fricatives, and so on depending on the place and manner of articulation) but I did not bother to understand because after all I could not use such sounds. These clicks, Mr. K told us, were represented by the phonemes; /c/, /x/ and /q/ and other consonant clusters which still look awkward (is this an offensive word?) to me. If you have watched the film, The God’s must be Crazy, then you know what I am talking about. How many East and West Africans could pronounce N!xau? Yes, those are some of the sounds that Mr. K said, as an East African, I needn’t trouble my tongue with because that small piece of flesh called the tongue could bitterly revolt in protest.

Wondering where this phonetics lecture is leading to? Give me a minute…One thing that Mr. K did not tell me is that if I was planning to come down South, I should have been more attentive in those lectures than the rest of my course mates. Mr. K did not tell me that I would desperately (I am deliberately using the term) need the clicks and consonant clusters. Now I know. But when did I know that I so badly needed to practise these sounds in the discomfort of my bed? This one word, XENOPHOBIA and by the way, my dear student, the /x/ here is not a click. Over the past 11 days South Africa has been in the news for not only the wrong reasons, but for a rare reason. It is amazing how people sometimes manifest their self-hatred by hating that which tends to look like them. For several Europeans whose first encounter with Africa was through Jamie Uys’ portrayal of an African through N!xau, all Africans ought to be a homogenous species of bush men with a small loin cloth (that barely covers the essentials), running aimlessly and wearing a sheepish smile. Without delving too much into the racist discourses around such a misrepresentation of the African peoples, I want to keep it simple. Allow me to presuppose that holding all other factors constant, ceteris paribus, Africans are a group of people with more similarities than they have differences. But then, when do we start to hate each other because we are unhappy about our likeness? That is a discussion for another day.

A few South Africans have taken it upon themselves to pledge their loyalty to their dear country by ridding it of ‘unwanted parasites’. The whole idea is not funny regardless of how patriotic (do we still have patriotic citizens?) these people feel; what is funny is the strategy. I am talking of language as a strategy for elimination. This takes us back to Mr. K’s Phonetics and Phonology class. I am sure by now those of you who could not pronounce N!xau, can now pronounce gqugquza, uqoqo, ngcuka among others…Well done. But perhaps there is a word that, if you were at one Johannesburg Taxi rank over the weekend, would have put you in trouble. As a way of separating ‘them’ from ‘us’, people were ordered to queue for taxis [matatus] but could only get into any taxi on one seemingly simple condition: a one-word answer to the question, “What do you call the elbow in Zulu?” Perhaps I am simplifying the matter too much. The question was asked in a way that I can only afford to laugh at now. The ‘patriotic citizen’ would raise his elbow and showing it to you ask, in Zulu, “What is this?” Regardless of how many click sounds one knew, here was a single word, with no click, that could save a life but which many did not know. You must be thinking of what it is in your language…I do not know either but certainly the present times have forced me to research on the isiZulu equivalent of an elbow. By the way next time someone greets me in isiZulu, I might as well say, indololwanwe because my mind is set on the seemingly ‘right word’ to say as a foreigner in South Africa today. Indololwanwe is what they call the elbow in this ‘land of milk and honey’; the land of the Zulu; the Republic of South Africa.

Moral of the story?

Learn all the body parts in the eleven official languages of South Africa if you want to save your skin…you may not know what other body part they may ask you to name and in what language. Remember we sometimes laugh when it hurts so much for us to cry. Stay safe my fellow Kwerekweres and to my dear South African sisters and brothers here is some food for thought; “YOU are because WE are” (Desmond Tutu). Peace.

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