#MemorableMultlinguals: the bilingual on the podium

The name does not matter because, if you are an interpreter or regularly participate in multilingual meetings, you have probably met one version or another of this person in the course of your career. When I think about them, I think about a guy because the majority of people on podiums still tend to be men and maybe also because men are often more eager to venture outside their area of competence. So for the sake of readability, let’s call this multilingual individual Peter but don’t get attached to the name because what matters is ultimately not him but the context that allows for someone like Peter to emerge.

My last encounter with Peter occurred during a bilingual meeting, where I was tasked with interpreting between German and French. As tends to be the case in Switzerland, the overwhelming majority of attendees were German speakers, and French speakers a tiny minority. The language distribution on the podium was even more skewed, since the first language of basically everyone up there was German. The interactivity of the meeting was low, i.e. most participants were not planning or expecting to intervene and had made the journey merely to receive information from their board and vote on different issues by show of hands. From an interpreting perspective, the linguistic setup was thus extremely imbalanced, more than 90% of utterances would have to be translated from German into French, and it was unclear what the distribution for the remaining 10% would be. Peter and his colleagues were sitting on the podium, ready to present an annual report about their different areas of expertise. Our French-speaking clients were sitting in their seats, clutching their headphones in the understanding that they would have to follow the entire meeting through their interpreters. This is where things get interesting.

The minoritized French speakers were very much aware that this was a multilingual meeting with interpretation. That awareness comes with being a minority and losing your communicative independence. The majority German speakers were, however, getting ready to attend a monolingual meeting. Barely any of them carried headphones to their seats, they took part in the meeting with the certainty of those who know that they will understand everything because that is just how the world works. That certainty, however, was shattered when a French speaker unexpectedly decided to take the floor and ask a question. This question was, of course, interpreted simultaneously into German, since that is the job we were recruited to do that day. However, we realized quickly that we were interpreting into the void given that none of the German speakers actually wore headphones, and just exchanged blank stares in horror, realizing all of a sudden that this was actually not a monolingual meeting at all.

Fortunately, Peter came to the rescue, taking the floor from the podium to hastily improvise a summary of the French speaker’s question in German. From an interpreting standpoint, the summary was neither complete nor particularly accurate. The main point the speaker had been trying to make fell flat. But balance had been restored, the German speakers had once again regained control over the situation. Not a single German speaking delegate got up to pick up headphones at the entrance of the room after this incident. They simply had not understood that the interpreters had also translated that part of the meeting, since the whole point of the interpreting provision was to cater for the (special?) needs of the minority.

To take on this task, Peter had to have an understanding of both the minority and the majority language, although he did not necessarily have to be fluent in both. Peters exist everywhere. Peters are a product of power asymmetries between groups of speakers. They exist because implicitly or explicitly, many speakers of the dominant language, whether English in international conferences or German in Switzerland, see interpretation as necessary to get their own message across, but not to hear the messages of the minority. They are surprised when put in a situation where they do not understand another speaker, used to being understood and heard wherever they go.

Peter’s presence points us to the limits of interpretation, and reminds me of what Bourdieu wrote nearly 30 years ago about “legitimate” linguistic competence: being able to make oneself understood is not the same as being able to make oneself heard. A message presented in the “wrong” language might be understood, yet not treated with the same care and not met with the same respect as a message presented in the “right” language. Bourdieu’s argument relates to speakers of the same language whose speech patterns (vocabulary, accent, prosody) do not have the same level of legitimacy, however, his thinking can be applied to multilingual settings as well. By jumping in to provide a consecutive summary, the resident bilingual ensures that a message can potentially be understood (or at least noticed) but this approach also signals to the speaker that their intervention is disruptive and amidst the commotion thus created, very unlikely to be heard.

While solving a communication problem in the short run, these bilinguals ultimately allow for a much bigger communication gap to continue unchallenged and for the majority language speakers to participate in what for them is essentially a monolingual meeting.

Professional interpreters might convince themselves that they see their role as making sure that a message uttered in one language is “understood” in the other language because that is what the principle of impartiality seems to dictate. However, I suspect that just like me, many colleagues have felt frustration or even mild anger when a delegate speaking “their” language makes a highly relevant point that is completely ignored by the other people in the room. So I guess that what we really want is for these messages to be heard, and when this is not the case, we feel poorly about our own performance and the relevance of our contribution.

It’s not Peter’s fault, really. He means well.

But we can probably do a better job of making clients aware of the consequences of his approach, so that next time, he can use his platform to gently remind everyone in the room to just wear their bloody headphones and select the correct channel in advance. So that for once, the burden is on the speakers of the dominant language.

References:

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Why “Publish or Perish” is bad advice

Publish or perish sounds snappy and rings true, which is why we really need to ask ourselves whether it actually is. It is a phrase used by journalists and commentators to describe the current state of academia, and also passed on as advice from senior academics to their younger colleagues, and from junior academics to their peers. The argument that I will develop in this post is that it is not very good at either. Publish or perish is not in any way an accurate description of academia, nor is it sound advice for academics.

In fact, publish or perish is a meme that keeps many researchers stuck in what is inherently an abusive relationship with a system that gives them an illusion of agency that is just good enough to make them hang on.

Publish

Let me get the obvious one out of the way first: publish or perish has nothing to say about publication quality and instead seems to emphasize on quantity. After all, a high-quality publication takes time, sometimes years, and you are supposed to be publishing all the time. In many institutions there are formal or less formal publication targets and full time academic staff are expected to produce around 2 to 3 articles a year. This sounds like not much, ultimately, but it generally boils down to writing one high-level and several lower-level papers, or artificially splitting data sets from a single project into several subsets that can be published in separate papers. In many fields this has also led to a proliferation of second- and third-tier journals and an abundance of frankly rather mediocre articles. It also rewards academics for publishing basically anything, and a publication strategy that is based on writing few but very good publications almost looks like an act of resistance.

The way in which academic CVs are usually evaluated frankly does not help. Any prospective employer or funding body will argue that they will above all look at the quality of publications, not their quantity. But let’s be honest, they will not actually read your papers to see whether they are of good quality, they will use the impact factor of the journals you published in as a proxy for quality and that is deeply problematic. Not because the first-tier journals don’t publish quality – most of the time they do – but given the abundance of papers they receive (some journals reject over 95% of submissions), some excellent papers necessarily end up in the rejection pile, simply because they don’t fit with the stated aims of the journal or the preferences and interests of its editors. In addition, there are ways to get into high-level journals that might otherwise reject your paper, for example by applying for a Special Issue that is guest edited and comes with a pre-selected set of papers on a given theme. These papers will be published in the same journal, many authors might not mention “Special Issue” on their CV, and unless someone really takes the time to dig deeper, the impact factor of the journal is now on that author’s CV.

In addition, there are countless other variables that publish or perish fails to account for: different disciplines have different sizes, impact factors vary widely from field to field, editors and reviewers are only human and their decisions not always entirely fair or objective, and let me not get started on the politics of co-authorship and the order of authors on a paper and what that paper will then be “worth” on each of their CVs.

This is not to say that publishing is not good advice. I am infinitely grateful to those who encouraged me to just start publishing, even when I did not feel I had a legitimate voice within the discipline. Waiting until you feel that you have something important to say is not good advice – no discipline will accept a fundamental theoretical insight from someone who is completely unknown among her peers because she has never published a line of text before.

The problem with “publish or perish” is that it simplifies things to a fake binary distinction and glosses over the complexities that inhabit each of these three words. Speaking of binary systems…

Or

Computers rely on different types of basic logic gates to establish relationships between two inputs, A and B. We can view these inputs as different conditions that can each either be met (1 – true ) or not met (0 – false), and that can furthermore interact in several different ways. These interactions are generally illustrated by a matrix as follows:

A B
true true
true false
false true
false false

Each gate “opens”, i.e. turns a 0 into a 1, when there is a specific relationship between A and B.

  1. AND gates: A and B, have to be simultaneously true
  2. NAND gates: either one or both of the inputs, have to be false for the gate to open – the NAND gate is the opposite of the AND gate
  3. OR gates: either one or both of the inputs are true, i.e. condition A or B is met or condition A and B are met
  4. XOR gates: this gate is a true “or” condition, i.e. it opens only when inputs A or B are true not when both are true or when both are false.

So what about publish or perish? The linking word parades as an “OR” but is actually an “XOR” gate, creating a binary opposition between two conditions that cannot simultaneously be true: you publish (A) or you perish (B). Several implications can be derived from this initial statement, and all of them are, to put it mildly, pretty much total bullshit:

If you don’t publish, you will perish.
If you publish, you will not perish.
If you did not perish, it is because you published.
If you perish, it is because you did not publish.

These statements arguably all sound much less snappy than “publish or perish”, which is exactly why it became a meme that is passed from person to person and effectively circumvents our critical reasoning. It sounds right and that’s about it. But the “if statements” above show publish or perish for what it is: a shortcut that establishes a direct correlation where none exists.

This is not to say that publishing is not a necessary requirement to attain legitimacy in the academic field. It very much is. There are people who have achieved tenure despite a poor publication record but they are the exception and not the rule, often owing their early tenure to largely arbitrary lucky circumstances, like good timing, a good network within their institution or discipline, and the retirement of a professor in their field shortly after they obtain their PhD. These are not things one should ever count on or plan for so publishing is still better than not publishing. For each of these success stories of early tenure, I have heard at least two stories of such early tenure being expected and then prevented by the arrival of a better qualified candidate. So while entitlement is never good advice, it is healthy to keep in mind that luck and randomness also play a role in all of this, especially when professorships are awarded “for life” and retirements end up skipping several generations of academics altogether (who were academically too young when a post became vacant and are biologically too old when it becomes vacant again). This means that many people will simply not be eligible to apply for certain posts because of bad timing.

But even if publishing is necessary, it is not a sufficient requirement to get promoted, tenured or even just extended and this is one aspect we tend to regularly forget or conveniently deny. Many sharp minds have left academia despite a solid publication record, simply because the number of academics far outstrips the number of available posts, scholarships and stipends. That is the reality of things. The statistics are murky and hard to come by, but it is safe to say that only a minority of those currently trying to obtain their PhD will remain in academia upon graduating, and only a minority of those currently employed as post-doctoral researchers will get long-term contracts or tenure. In the US there are now as many Ph.D.s working in the private sector as in academia, and that number includes all generations of academics and non-academics currently in employment, which means that the proportion for younger generations is likely much higher.

Many of those have left academia by choice, in pursuit of higher salaries, better working conditions and more stability. Others have left academia with a heavy heart, simply because they have reached the conclusion that the field has no place for them. Some of them probably did not have a good publication record. But I would bet that, on average, they probably had about as many publications as their peers when they left academia. They perished even though they published.

There really is no logic gate linking publishing to perishing. You can publish and perish, not publish and not perish, publish and not perish, and not publish and perish. Not perishing in academia is as much about competence as it is about luck, networking and randomness. Ask those who spent the year 2019 putting together funding applications about Corona viruses or pandemics, thinking that they would once again get rejection after rejection because their research was not considered topical enough…

It is not flattering to think about our professional successes as owed in large part to randomness and we therefore don’t. We try to tell ourselves tales of competence and merit. But the truth is, for every person who holds a PhD, there exist thousands of other people with equally (or more) brilliant minds who never got a chance to engage in higher education. Our social positioning is the result of a complex web of factors and we only have a limited amount of control over a limited number of them.

It is easy to think of a system that puts you on top as a meritocracy. That does not make it true.

Perish

While some ‘doctors’ are working in the private sector, others have decided to continue to hang on to highly precarious academic ‘posts’ that are often nothing more than exploitative makeshift arrangements where you are paid to teach and ‘allowed’ to use the institution’s name as an affiliation for the research you publish in your own time and without pay. They are still in the running to get tenure. They have not “perished”.

The third word in our little meme is by far the most toxic. It encourages academics to remain in a system that can be exploitative and abusive by depicting the alternative as inherently worse. It comes from the same brand of reasoning that encourages women to stay in abusive relationships, and justifies gender-based violence as inevitable. Yes, really. Hyperbolic, much? Probably a bit. On a meta-level. Just to drive home the point that leaving academia and dying are two very different things. Leaving academia is an individual decision, or sometimes simply the result of circumstances beyond our control. It is not a form of “giving up”. You are not leaving academia because of an inability to fight hard enough to stay, you are leaving because you decided that you now want to fight a different battle altogether. And that is fine.

Many professional fields that apply rigorous entrance requirements – both academia and conference interpreting come to mind here – end up exerting a cult-like pull on their members. Leaving the field is viewed by its members almost as an act of treason. The parallels between conference interpreting and academia are quite staggering here. In both cases, people who leave the field are seen as intellectually lazy or not hard-working enough, in line with the myth of meritocracy that members tell themselves to allow the field to self-perpetuate with all its inequalities. And in both cases, the people who occupy entry-level positions in the field (recent graduates in interpreting, doctoral and post-doctoral researchers in academia) are the ones most actively questioning the rules of the game, making everyone else extremely uncomfortable in the process. Especially, I shall add, those who still want to believe in the ideal of a meritocracy and have been shielded from the limitations of their own agency-centric world view by a hefty dose of privilege.

The aura of meritocracy, together with a mismatch of hopeful candidates and available positions, do, after all, contribute to giving the field an aura of exclusivity, desirability, and importance, which all further enhance the symbolic capital of those occupying positions of power within it. Everyone else is expendable. Your struggle is not a bug, it is a feature.

Bottom line

If like me you enjoy research and writing: please continue publishing. Develop a publication strategy that suits your personality and your situation. But publish what you find relevant. Persevere to get your message out there, to be part of a discussion that you really care about. Enjoy the ride for its own sake.

However, do not publish merely to get promoted or tenured, to “not perish”. Because when that is the primary aim guiding your publication game, the time invested will not be time enjoyed but time stolen from yourself, your family and your friends. That time is not coming back.

The correlation between publishing and not perishing is spurious (and the internet has its very entertaining rabbit hole of those to go down on a rainy day) and the return on investment might therefore be disappointing. The only reward you might get for a publication is the process in itself and how it has contributed to your intellectual growth. It sounds cheesy and not at all snappy, but it is true and in itself an enormous privilege in today’s troubled times. Don’t mess it up by writing about stuff that you only marginally care about, just because you think it will get you somewhere professionally. Or do – I am not judging you, really. I am just trying to be mindful of what I spend my own time on.

Then again, don’t take advice from someone who has just spent a lot of time writing a blog post that has zero value on her academic CV.

Histoire d’un retour au pays natal

Walking through Paris this morning I came across an Islamic funeral service. Given the number of Muslims in France you might wonder what is the big deal. Nothing, really, except that it made me think about something that has been on my mind for some time: death and exile.

Migrants, in particular the generation that has experienced transnational relocation first-hand, are often asked if or when they are planning to return to their country of origin. This question tends to produce awkward silence, apologetic shrugs, a hesitant “no” or an avalanche of explanations as to why exile is inevitable. In most cases the question is unwelcome, sometimes met with outright hostility. The question of returning home is taboo for several reasons.

First, it is often asked from within a general mindset that rejects migration, strives to make it temporary and refuses migrants any pathway towards becoming full members of their new society. A general suspicion towards those eager to ask this question whenever they see someone looking ostensibly “exotic” is therefore fully warranted.

Yet even when the question is raised among friends, and without xenophobic undertones, things can get awkward real quick. For starters, there are of course those for who left their country under violent and traumatic circumstances, and for whom the impossibility of return is an open wound that is better not stoked. However, for the overwhelming majority of migrants the question of return awakes much less dramatic memories. Rather, it breaks a taboo in that it forces them to think about something that people in general prefer to suppress, namely that we are not really individuals but merely nodes in a complex network of relationships, dependencies and reciprocal exchanges. In other words, once you leave your country “life happens” and life keeps happening. You might marry someone from a different location, your children might be born in your country of residence or identify strongly with it, and a return to the homeland has become as impossible as a return to the past.

I have heard many migrants talk about returning “home” once they retire, and yet, once their grandchildren are born in their country of residence, they remain, forever postponing the intended relocation. What matters is not so much the implementation of the idea but the idea itself, the knowledge that one ‘could’ (even though, for all practical purposes one cannot) go back one day. This idea is deeply ingrained in the identity of any migrant.

“Why does it matter?” you might wonder. “If they are not going back then why not just say so? Is this another one of those fluffy emotional things?”

Well… let’s say that this limbo is a defining feature of the identity of anyone who lives far from things and people they love. Many people think of their childhood and youth with nostalgia, wishing they could return to this time in their lives. Yet for migrants, time and space intersect – while the impossibility of a return to one’s childhood is immediately obvious to anyone (although, truly speaking, human beings will surprise you…), the return to the homeland is in theory possible. Our childhood is gone, yet our homeland continues to exist. This makes the thought experiment appealing and reassuring, and many migrants build a mental sanctuary around this idea. Asking the “question” is a way of stumbling into that sanctuary and ignoring that its entrance is riddled with signs saying “Keep out!”, “Beware of dog”, “Authorized personnel only” and “Do not enter!”.

So how can you know whether or not someone has fully made peace with the idea of not returning home? Some questions that are left in limbo in life can only be resolved in death. The return to the homeland is one of these. Indeed, there is one set of questions that makes migrants much more uncomfortable than the one alluded to above because it breaks the state of limbo, violates the mental sanctuary and touches something foundational. Variations of the question include “Are you planning to die here?” or “So, where do you want to be buried?”. Speak of a dampener during a casual dinner conversation. And yet, with close family this question sometimes comes up, and the response can tear generations and couples apart.

For many migrants, living abroad is perfectly acceptable, yet dying abroad remains taboo. This red line seems to exist for migrants of all ages, whether religious, agnostic or atheist. For some it is just a matter of being buried ‘at home’, others even wish to die in their homeland. For bi-national couples, or the children of immigrants the question of death – arguably an uncomfortable question for anyone – carries the additional weight of separation. “Till death do us part” takes on a stark meaning when you realize that, in death, your closest family (father, mother, spouse, siblings and children) might be scattered over three continents.

This is where the islamic funeral service in Paris comes in. While a lot of their work seems to consist of repatriating bodies to their respective countries of origin, they also organize funerals in France. This is significant because Islam is still so closely associated with migration, and many Muslims in France have expressed a feeling of alienation and not-belonging despite being French citizens. Indeed, getting a passport might make you a citizen, but you only ever stop being a migrant when you are buried in a country. And a country only ever really welcomes you once it offers you the possibility to be buried there according to your customs.

#MemorableMultilinguals: Tom

I am starting a new mini-series on my blog, focusing on brief portraits of multilinguals that, at least to me, are exceptional in their language practices. The posts belonging to this series will carry the #MemorableMultilinguals.

Tom’s case could be the starting point of many contemporary articles on linguistic ‘superdiversity’, ‘new’ migration flows, or modern forms of language commodification. He is the kind of actor that intrigues Western academics, because he defies our expectations. Tom, however, does not care about us, or about the West, or what is currently trendy and fashionable in academia.

Tom sells Chinese electronics in Thailand, he has a small stall in the top floor of one of Bangkok’s biggest malls, and he had a very practical problem to solve: How do I stand out from the crowd? How do I differentiate myself when I am selling roughly the same product, in the same place, at the same price as dozens of competitors?

The answer Tom found was in my view ingenious, as it involved his own brand of demographic market segmentation…

“Look, an Ethiopian flag!”

My husband said, visibly intrigued. And so of all the stalls available to us in the top floor of one of Bangkok’s largest malls, we went to this one, only to be greeted in Amharic by a chatty salesman, who introduced himself as Tom.

amharicbangkok.jpg

He had branded his shop specifically for one target population. Each element carefully crafted to attract an Ethiopian clientele. First, a paper with Birr notes, probably given to the salesman as a souvenir by one of his customers. At first sight, a nicely recognizable trace of the homeland for any Ethiopian struggling to decide what stall to turn to for his electronics purchases. Yet pictures of foreign currency are usually also an indication that the currency is accepted in a location. So, on a subliminal level, the Birr notes can be read like an invitation to pay in this currency, raising false hopes in travelers necessarily pressed for Dollars by Ethiopia’s drastic monetary policy and foreign currency shortages. Once these customers had, like us, stepped close enough to the store to make out details, they would be greeted by a wall of text in Amharic.

Plastered all over the stalls tiny surface were the real-world equivalents of a yelp review, diligently submitted to Tom by his customers, scribbled in Amharic on whatever piece of paper was at hand: “Tom is a good trader. Me and Habtamu had a phone fixed. He speaks a little Amharic.”

Tom himself, while able to sustain a brief sales conversation in Amharic, was not able to read these reviews. But he surrounded himself by these tokens of trust, knowing that any Ethiopian customer would be more inclined to listen to one of his countrymen than to a random salesman from Nepal in Thailand. He had never been to Ethiopia, and there really was no foreseeable pathway for him to ever travel there. Yet Tom pragmatically chose to learn the language of a group of foreigners, in order to win their trust.

For me, Tom is a reminder that as researchers we owe it to ourselves to at least acquire basic knowledge of the language of our study populations.

In order to win their trust.

The Bloem Diaries – Part 5: Of airports, pub quizzes and choosing beggars

I decide to work in one of the restaurants on Campus, hoping coffee would ease my writer’s block. Instead, I find myself watching the spectacle at the table next to me, and making angry mental comments.

No, they cannot bring a bowl to your table so that you can wash your hands. Yes, you actually do have to get up, walk (the horror!) and wash your hands in the public bathroom. With the commoners. Hardships. I am sure that yelling at the waitress just now will make the long trip easier to tolerate for you. Then you might get offended at the sign for the integrated bathroom. Yeah, they have those. For the LGBTIQ(add more letters here) community and just for everyone, really.

Apparently the toilet was quite far away (spoiler alert: it really is not, 50m at most but yes, you actually have to walk there with your own two feet). “Man, these guys are unbelievable, oh. I had to walk far, it’s like these guys are not a restaurant. Oh! Two missed calls.” (Please *do* read this part with a very exaggerated Nigerian accent).

The guy then proceeds to touching his phone before eating his chicken wings with the same hand (our cell phones generally have more bacteria than a toilet seat…). People and logic.

Before paying his bill in a hurry he explains to the waitress that he hates travelling because “you always spend so much money when you travel, oh. Then the airports and all that it is such a hassle” I am sure the waitress understands, as she herself is probably flying business class to Joburg this week-end and getting the flight for free because of all the miles she has accumulated on her Bloemfontein waitress salary… As my new Nigerian friends leave the restaurant, she lets out a sigh of relief.

Because relationships between people in Bloemfontein are so strongly influenced by race, you have to look closely in order to pick up on other variables that structure social interactions, such as social class or gender. Unfortunately, sexism seems to be one of the few things that many men here seem to agree on, regardless of race. Sexism, religion and braaing, the holy trinity of this nation.

The UFS campus is like a microcosm of the country. Yes, the students hail mainly from the middle and upper middle class, but what does that mean? Some of them come to campus in their own cars. However, many students cannot afford food and regularly go hungry. I overheard a girl talking to her friend the other day: “My mum told me I have to call my dad. He has to send me money. She doesn’t have. He is not picking up the phone. If I don’t get anything from him by tomorrow, I won’t be able to buy food until I get my allowance at the end of the month.“ The date was August 14th.

A buffet lunch with fresh vegetables in the staff restaurant costs about 100 Rand, while a portion of French fries sold in the students’ food court costs about 10-20 Rand. Some students cannot afford to eat anything else than bread and milk. Sometimes junk food. Obesity is rampant on campus and in town. Middle class is a very elastic term. Indeed, it seems that, as far as Africa is concerned, the World Bank prefers the term “floating class”. This is used to describe individuals who are just barely part of the middle class and who might be thrown back into poverty by a single unfortunate event (an illness, a death in the family, a car accident, unemployment, …).

Having studied in Switzerland, I am not used to the idea of a campus as a self-contained space for both learning and living. In Bloemfontein, many students and many foreign post-doctoral researchers live on campus. Apparently, life events also happen on campus. I have to drive around the roundabout close to my office in the wrong direction today because wedding photos are being taken. A group of girls is posing with the bride, while the groom and his pals sit behind the photographer and watch. It would never have occurred to me that someone would want to take wedding photos in front of a student dorm.

Two explanations come to my mind: Either these students have an exceptional level of attachment to their alma mater; or the fraternity and sorority culture found in many of the older dorms does indeed bear resemblance to a religious cult. Maybe a bit of both.

As I watch the bride and groom with their entourage, it occurs to me that weddings, baptisms and funerals are probably some of the most segregated events in Bloemfontein. Sitting together in a restaurant (at different tables, obviously!) is one thing, sharing the most important events in one’s life with one another is a different matter altogether. Only 4% of marriages in South Africa are between members of different races, Wikipedia tells me. Most of those probably occur in major urban centres, such as Johannesburg or Cape Town, rather than in Bloemfontein.

Although 85 % of the population in Bloemfontein is black, space is still predominantly occupied by the white minority. The train tracks, the traditional dividing line between black and white in Apartheid-era cities, still cuts the city in half. While no strict segregation is currently being enforced, the overwhelming majority of people on the ‘white’ side are white, and apparently no white people live on the black side at all (I suppose their must be a crazy missionary and some anthropologist hiding from deadlines, every city seems to have them). The white or rich side of town takes up approximately two thirds of the urban space in Bloemfontein. All the malls are here, so is the campus, and individual houses have large compounds. The black, i. e. poor, side of town takes up the remaining third of the city. More than 80% of the population lives here. Many students commute every day from the other side of town or even from Botshabelo, a former “Homeland”, 57km from Bloemfontein. If four times more people live on an area half as big than the remaining 20% that means that every person living on the white side of town has eight times more space available for themselves than those on the other side.

Let that sink in for a minute.

I tried hard and my brain cannot quite compute this reality.

No wonder that the malls and restaurants often seem to be half-empty. They are build for a city of 300’000, but only maybe 10% of the population can afford to use them. If one considers that white people make up only about 15% of the population, the number of restaurants and bars that seem to attract only white patrons is quite surprising. Staff are black though (no, not management, I mean waiters…). Despite her very limited English skills, Alamnesh summarises it for me nicely “Supervisors white. Speak English very fast. Not understand. Cleaners black. English slow. Understand.” I think she is ready to face the work place.

The pub quiz that takes place once a month on Tuesdays in an Irish pub situated in an upper class residential area that is impossible to reach without a car is an almost all white event. As I walk in, I can see one black girl sitting at a table with three white people. She looks uncomfortable, as if brought along more as a project than a friend. About an hour later, a black guy walks in and sits down with his group of friends at a table close to ours. He looks unfazed by the presence of roughly 200 semi-drunk white people. A sign of my growing cynicism is that my first thought is “He must not be from here.”

But that thought is not entirely unwarranted. Indeed, I seem to have developed a certain degree of intuition in this regard. One day, while ordering food in one of the fast food joints in the student food court, I end up dropping some papers. A tall guy immediately gets up from his chair to pick them up, handing them to me with a nod. He looks me straight in the eyes and smiles when I thank him. I cannot explain why, but I know there is something odd going on. The way he looked at me, his body language as I sit down on the bar stool next to his, the way in which he just acknowledges me as nothing more and nothing less than another human being. The way he does not feel the need to establish any kind of ranking between us. The way he just behaves perfectly normally around me. The realisation comes to me in a flash “You are not South African”.

It is not a question, it is a statement. He grins. “No, I am not. I am from Congo. Do you know Congo?” We end up chatting for quite some time. He is on campus for a conference, he studied medicine here many years ago, now lives in Kimberly with his wife. Their children are growing up in South Africa. He likes it here although he was afraid several years ago that he might be targeted by the wave of violence that had broken out against Zimbabweans, Congolese and other African migrants in many South African towns. But he is a doctor, his patients are South Africans and he enjoys good relationships with them. Once again, things are just easier when you are educated and able to earn a comfortable living.

The second such incident involves an exceptionally chatty and friendly waiter. This time, I do not have to ask, since the South African colleagues I am with notice by his accent that he is not a local and ask where he is from. I cannot yet tell the difference between South African and Zimbabwean accents. What made me realize that the guy was a foreigner was the fact that he was smiling all the time, and that he did so with a hint of irony, as if to detach himself from the whole situation.

What surprises me about the pub quiz is that I am so good at it. It takes me a few questions to come to the realization that that is mostly because every single question is about European culture. Name the statue on Trafalgar Square. What British actor was the voice of Marvin in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Even the musical questions, where they play the beginning of a song and you have to guess the name of the band, are about “white” music (Smash Mouth, I mean, seriously?).

To be fair, there are even a few questions about Latin America. We have to identify the capital of Chile and the name of the lawyer who started the Cuban revolution. We also have to identify a mountain in Asia.

It is surreal. For about three hours I feel like I am in Britain. Not a single question about South Africa (not even sports) or even any other African country. As if one of the objectives of the quiz was to allow people to forget where we are for a few hours. As if any question one could ask about this country could spark controversy.

A big part of this is the political situation, the lack of real change, the corruption, and what is perceived as incompetence and mismanagement at the highest levels. “The ANC is destroying the country. Politics is the reason people fight. Actually, everyone in this country agrees that we have great potential and everyone wants to live together in peace. If only we didn’t have politics, everyone in South Africa would get along.” You hear this a lot from white South Africans. Just what the alternative would be is not clear.

It is undeniable that the hatred between racial groups is exploited by many politicians, namely within the ANC and the EFF. It is equally undeniable that corruption is rampant in South Africa. But so is inequality and poverty. And no one has yet presented me with a convincing recipe for handing over power to a formerly oppressed category of society without creating any sort of backlash. Especially in a country where the differences between rich and poor are huge, where millions of people are infected with HIV/Aids, where the general level of education is low, where a dozen languages co-exist, and where the population was taught to hate each other for several decades. The argument that racism is something that is propped up by politicians is generally accompanied by stories about people mislabeling themselves as victims. And yes, these examples exist: You don’t want to queue in the post office? Claim you are not being helped immediately because people are racist. You don’t want to go through the trouble of writing high-level academic publications? Claim you are not being promoted because of your skin colour.

While these stories do exist, they are wrongly used to justify the idea that racism is just a trope people use to get away with stuff, not a real problem. I volunteer a story of my own: “I have heard of cases where female PhD students falsely claimed to be sexually harassed by their supervisors because they were not able to finish their work on time. That is terrible for the supervisors. But the truth is that harassment actually happens a lot, so if you want to treat claims about it seriously, you run the risk that some people might abuse the system.”

Silence. It is much more complicated than any individual story would suggest. Here, it always is.

Earlier that morning, I downloaded a podcast about South African writers and was excited to listen to the episode about Bram Fischer. A white South African lawyer who fought against Apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela. The airport in Bloemfontein is named after him and he lived and worked here. Finally a person from this city that I could really get interested in. The podcast begins with some house-keeping, before the journalist moves on to to the main topic. “This episode is about Bram Fischer. The president South Africa should have had.”

I switch it off. Not today. Maybe another time, but just not today.

Yes, everyone wants to get along. Unfortunately, everyone also wants to have a car, eat food, own land and fulfill their professional ambitions. When all those things are scarce, it is no longer that easy to just get along. Especially when the top 10% hoards the vast majority of these resources and leaves nothing to the rest, especially when people of one race are particularly over-represented in that top layer of society.

By the way, that also leads to an over-representation of their language. You might wonder why I keep mentioning Afrikaans and remain silent about Sesotho, the language spoken by the actual majority of people in this town. I have pondered this question and found essentially four interlinked answers:

  1. I pick up Afrikaans words easily because it is close to English and German.
  2. People tend to speak to me in Afrikaans everywhere, simply because I am white.
  3. Afrikaans is visible everywhere in the city, product labels are usually in English and Afrikaans, while Sesotho is completely invisible.
  4. Afrikaans can be heard in the corridors of the department where I work. It is a small department, with 8 academic staff. Three are foreigners and speak neither Afrikaans not Sesotho. Of the remaining five, only one is black and a Sesotho speaker. The other four are white and their mother tongue is Afrikaans. The Sesotho speaker is not a crazy person. Consequently, he does not walk around the corridors loudly conversing in his language with himself just so that I can hear it a little.

Once again, this invert proportion runs through the upper echelons of society: what was 80-20 at the beginning becomes 20-80 once you reach the top. A lot of people disappear on the way up. More than 90% of professors at UFS are white.

All my colleagues in the department are extremely generous, open-minded, progressive and tolerant human beings. They are what this environment tried hard to prevent from existing, yet somehow produced despite itself. The lack of representation in the department is not their fault. This situation is the product of a system that is bigger and older than them, bigger and older than all of us.

I wish I could be certain of who I would be, had I grown up in this environment. It is a scary thought, that makes me respect them even more.

And, no, not all white people in Bloemfontein are rich. In fact, whenever I drive to town, I see quite a lot of white people begging at one specific red light. Obviously, also black people, and they are by far more numerous. But they have their own intersections.

In Bloemfontein, it seems, even beggars are choosers.