When someone asks you whether you mind sharing a room with someone from “another race” this messes with your brain in unpredictable ways. And you resent the person who implanted that question in your head. Now it sits there, like an intruder among all the other utterances of everyday life that you remember hearing. It hits you there and then that this question will leave an indelible mark on your mind, that your mind has been polluted, Chernobyl style. What is the half life of apartheid? In Bloemfontein at least, most off-campus residences still practice racial segregation. It is often sugar-coated, asking applicants to indicate their “preferred room mate” on a form that can be interpreted as asking for a specific name when it is actually used to indicate race.
Alamnesh cooks Shuro. While cooking, she names all the ingredients for me in Amharic and English. She later shows me the book she uses to learn English. It is written by an Ethiopian author who writes “BA in Journalism 2015” after his name, apparently to establish his expertise in language teaching. Many sample sentences involve conversations one might have in shops. Some sound very British and stiff, while others are translated so directly from Amharic that you have to mentally read them with an Ethiopian accent for them to make sense (“How are you?” “Thanks to God, I am well.”). Alamnesh needs to improve her English if she wants to get work in one of the shops in town.
I think of the Habesha shop keepers, embedded in a complex social network of dependencies and moral obligations. They are under pressure from their community to give work to Ethiopians, yet the South African context makes it crucial for them to provide work to locals. This is their best strategy to escape the wrath of impoverished communities in South Africa – a lesson learned through bloodshed a few years ago. Like pretty much every other group, African migrants too have become a target of violence in South Africa.
To the Habeshas I interact with, the difference between them and black South Africas could not be greater. They are perfectly oblivious to the fact that most white people cannot even make the difference between them and the local black population. “All the black students are thieves, you have to be very careful.” This warning from an Ethiopian PhD Student catches me off guard and I am not able to hide my disapproval of this kind of blanket statement. “Ok, maybe not all of them. But many.” The Ethiopian students here do not go out much. Compared to their rural home town in Ethiopia, Bloemfontein is a dangerous place. I understand the fear, but I at least want it to be evenly distributed and mess with people’s certainties a little bit. “You know, many of the white students are armed. Those are the ones I am most afraid of.” He considers this and agrees.
Food for thought.
“Do you mind sharing the kitchen with another race?” For the first time I feel genuinely angry. Not sad, just boiling with anger. “We have to ask you this question.” In some countries you would go to jail for asking me this question. “I mind sharing the kitchen with someone who answered yes to that question…” Her fake smile disappears but she still needs to sell her product, off-campus overpriced luxury accommodation for rich kids and visiting researchers looking for a simple solution to their Bloemfontein housing problem. Later, the manager is called and I am duly introduced (“This is Carmen, she wants to rent a room, she does not mind sharing with another race.”) Not even “a person of another race”, no just “another race”. Will they all fit in my kitchen? One billion Chinese, all at once?
They tell me that I will be sharing the kitchen with a coloured girl who already shared with a white girl before so she will not mind. I wonder whether the same girl would be as comfortable sharing the kitchen with a black girl. If I move there, I might try to find out. The financial details are explained to me by the financial manager. I have to sit in his office and as soon as the girl leaves he closes the door and apologizes for her lack of professionalism – she indicated a lower price than he will charge me now and he has no hesitation in making it look like it is her fault. As a result, I no longer feel angry at her but am annoyed at the smugness of my new interlocutor.
I cannot resist the temptation to ask him about the compulsory race question I was presented with earlier. I am curious to get his take on this. How would a black South African man explain this issue to a white woman from abroad? I give it a shot. The mental gymnastics he subsequently engages in are impressive. “You see, in South Africa it is like this. And not only white and black, even when I have Zulu and Sotho students, I cannot put them together because they have different cultures. And the Indian students like to live with other Indians because they are all vegetarians and so they do not want to share the kitchen with someone who eats meat.” Hm. “I am a vegetarian.” Also, on what planet is ‘black people also hate each other’ a good excuse for any of this? “Yes, but I am sure you do not mind sharing with someone who eats meat!” He triumphantly uses my lack of racial preference against me: the option ‘Do you mind sharing the kitchen with the same race?’ does not exist. And yet, after my experiences in the past days, that is the question I would have answered with a resounding yes.
I do not like how I feel right now. I feel like I need to justify myself somehow. He continues his explanations, apologizing again. Like the girl, he comes across as fake, just selling a product trying to find the right buttons to press for this particular customer. “I apologize but it is like this. I understand it might seem strange to you, I hope that three weeks from now you will come back and tell me that you have now gotten used to our context.”
“You don’t need to apologize. No, it is not strange, it is actually sad.” He swiftly agrees with me. “Yes, you are right, it is very sad.” I suspect he would have agreed with me regardless of what I said. If segregation is what customers want, then that is what for-profit residences will offer. Most customers seem to want this.