#MemorableMultilinguals: Africans*

I cannot count or recount the number of times that a European who is more or less closely involved with languages (translators, interpreters, sociolinguists, school teachers, …) and who has had an opportunity to visit “Africa” or interact with “Africans” (more on the scare quotes later), has told me in amazement that “Africans are naturally multilingual”.

I am deeply skeptical about any utterances that contain the word “naturally”, or “Africa/n” or “multilingual”, so imagine what a bummer it is for me to be confronted with these three words in one sentence, along with zero other redeeming content.

I suggest that we take it step by step and analyse this statement for what it is: a cliché which, like all clichés, also contains a kernel of truth. But that kernel is not necessarily where you think it is.

While the term “African” is sometimes used in a relevant way, it is most often a catch-all for a whole continent that is more diverse than this simplification suggests. So the first obvious problem with the above-mentioned statement is that it is unclear who these “Africans” are. Based on experience and precedent, I think it is quite safe to say that the people who start their sentence this way are not reminiscing about their last long week-end in Casablanca or their visit to the Pyramids in Gizeh. They are talking about “Sub-Saharan Africa”, i.e. “where black people come from”. This use of the term is of course widespread, including in African Studies, where people general focus on only that part of the continent (because hey, we are not doing Islamic or Middle Eastern Studies, which is where North Africa fits in…). International organizations speak of “Africa” and the “MENA” (Middle East and North Africa) region as two different entities as well, so including only sub-saharan Africa is not a problem per se. However, conflating “Africans” with “black people” is much more problematic: not all Africans are black and not all black people are African. The myth of multilingualism is, however, often applied to black people and their descendants, and often used as a gate-keeping mechanism

We all like to think of ourselves as “naturals” in one field or another. That is because we like to flatter ourselves and also (mainly!) because we lie to ourselves a lot. Most things that come “naturally” to us are the products of our socialization in a specific context, the result of a kind of learning that happens simply by virtue of existing in a given environment and often goes unnoticed by the learner herself. We internalize ideas about the world and our place in it and come to think of these as immovable features of the universe.

One of these ideas that each and every European in my generation (yes, myself included, absolutely!) has been exposed to simply by growing up in Europe and has internalized whether or not they are able to be honest about to to themselves is the inherent superiority of Europe, European culture and European civilization over all things “African”. And when a speaker who comes from that socialization tells me that Africans are “naturally” this, that or the other, then that word has a specific connotation that is problematic. Because on the one hand, “natural” means through no effort or higher processes of learning, through no structured quest or ambition, through nothing else than undeserved endowment from God or whatever else one worships. And on the other hand, “natural” also means that this is the way things are and that there is little one can do to change them, even if one wished to do so.

All in all, this is a lose lose situation for the “naturally multilingual African” – not only is her multilingualism not recognized as the intellectual accomplishment that it is, it is also something that is taken as a default feature of Africanness to the point that the absence of this feature is akin to a birth defect. Europeans, on the other hand, are expected to be monolingual by default (a lie, as we will see below) and any sign of multilingualism is thus “naturally” (see what I did there?) worthy of praise and recognition.

But what exactly does “multilingualism” mean in this context? What Europeans mean to say when they speak of “Africans” as “naturally multilingual” is that they understand that the language they used in order to communicate with the Africans they met is unlikely to be these individuals’ mother tongue. Thus, these people must speak another language. And because it is Africa we are talking about, that other language must be very, very, very different and very, very, very exotic, and very, very, very hard to learn. It can therefore only be spoken by those for whom it is “natural”.

This thinking frees the European from any pressure to engage with the local language and dispenses her from making even the slightest effort to learn it – and we know that there is hardly a European who comes back from a longer stay in Latin America without proudly showing off their Spanish, however rudimentary it might be. Another thing that is implicit here is that there is a hierarchy between languages. I do not think that there is an inherent qualitative difference between languages or that there are languages that are inherently more or less suitable to encapsulate the modern human experience. However, it is a fact that the opportunities that come with a language differ hugely from one language to another. English opens doors that simply cannot be opened with Gikuyu, Zulu or even Finnish, no matter how much one would like the opposite to be true. That is the reality of things.

The myth of African multilingualism, however, obscures the fact that there are still millions of Africans who are, in fact not multilingual in the common sens of the term: they speak only their mother tongue and barely a few words of the official language in their country. The politics, the education system and in many cases even courts and hospitals of their country remain out of reach for these individuals. The fact that the Africans Europeans interact with are often multilingual (because they have to speak the European language, duh) does not make this a universal “truth” about Africa.

Unless it does. I mentioned above that the term “multilingual” makes me queasy and that is because it implies that there is such a thing as a “monolingual” individual. I have never met one. Yes, there are people who master the elements of only one of the systems that we call “language” but even those individuals will speak very differently in different contexts, and leverage communicative resources that bear surprisingly little resemblance with each other. Is that not a form of multilingualism? Indeed, the statement about the multilingualism of Africans reveals the very problematic way in which many Europeans still look at language: as something with patterns and rules that must be learned, as different systems that co-exist with each other in a hierarchy and that are best kept apart and pure. And yet, the fact that we notice the most recent “anglicisms” when they crop up in German or French but consider yesterday’s Gallicisms in English as a normal part of the English language shows that purity is simply a matter of time. The time when languages used to be pure is roughly around the same time when America used to be great – and that time is not anywhere BC or AD but measured on a different scale: BS. So we can say that all Africans are multlingual, but only if we recognize that all human beings are actually multilingual and stop exoticizing and othering anything “African”.

And yet, the true reason Europeans cannot but notice the multilingualism of many sub-saharan African cities and towns is that people constantly switch and even mix (gasp!) languages and that this mixing is not generally frowned upon. So people are multilingual in one and the same sentence – and once again, like all things “African” – that surely cannot be the right way to be multilingual. But probably it is the natural way (this is true) but then again culture is specifically there to preserve us from nature.

It probably does not help that a surprising number of Europeans who travel to Africa are primary and secondary school teachers using their vacation time, which is much longer than for any other profession and thus allows for more extensive traveling, to do some volunteer teaching down South. After weeks of leading an uphill battle against groups of rowdy school children who are unwilling to do anything other than repeat full sentences uttered by the teacher in English or French, and who invariably switch back to another language during breaks, the only thoroughly positive and uplifting thing these teachers find to say when they come back is: “Africans are naturally multilingual.”

Bless their hearts, they mean well, I know they do.

*The attentive reader may now complain and say that the title of this post is deeply misleading. I have not told you much about the multilingual Africans I was advertising, just about the monolingual Europeans that describe them. Point taken. But would you have read a post about European multilinguals? Were you not “naturally” curious to learn more about the exotic African multilingualism?

#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.


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 4 : Of coffee and men

Ethiopians, are proud ambassadors of their country and culture. Food in particular is explained and advertised to foreigners with a great passion. And coffee.

“This is how we make coffee in Ethiopia. This is a Jebena.”

The procedure is somewhat similar to Turkish coffee. Coffee is boiled in the Jebena. Most Ethiopians enjoy drinking both traditional and Italian coffee. Espresso, generally black, but with tons of sugar. Turkish or Arabic coffee is also fine.

Drinking coffee without sugar is considered a nearly supernatural feat and met with the highest degree of skepticism. It is not uncommon for people to watch me closely as I take my first sip because they expect to see agony on my face.

Today, I decide to attempt an experiment, as Ainalem and Tewodros are busy explaining the Jebena to a Turkish colleague not familiar with Ethiopian coffee. Let’s call it “The Jebena Experiment”.

In French we say “jeter un pavé dans la mare”… so here comes the proverbial brick, ostensibly thrown towards my colleague but intended at the little two-person lobby for the promotion of Habesha (hint: Amhara) culture: “Actually, this is not the only Jebena that exists in Ethiopia, in the North it is different.”

I google and produce an image of the Jebena used in Tigray. It has no spout. Coffee is poured from the top, the same hole used to insert the coffee powder and water into the Jebena before boiling it. The top is covered while boiling the coffee, unlike the Jebena used by Amharas, this means no air can enter during boiling.

Figure 1: Jebena used by Amhara people


Figure 2: Jebena used in Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea


Their reaction is immediate. Shock, first. “What? How is this possible? This is what they use?” Then, disgust. “This is not good. Not right. This is wrong.” I mean, literally, disgust. Tewodros pulls a face as if I had shown him a puppy with seven legs.

Then, ex post facto justifications, that are apparently very common when people make moral or value-based judgements. “The coffee will all come out when you pour it, how will you prevent the powder from entering the cup? I think this cannot work… Eish…” Heads are shaken, probably in order to unsee the abomination that is the Tigrayan Jebena.

It works just fine, actually. I have tasted coffee from both types of Jebena, and it tastes the same. If anything, boiling the coffee without air entering the Jebena, as is the case in the Tigrayan version, probably makes it better. Also, how qualified are you really to argue about the taste of coffee when you put three spoons of sugar in the equivalent of a single Espresso?

Anyway, my work here is done, I am not going to open any kind of debate. All of a sudden, Tewodros throws it in like an afterthought: “Probably we find it strange because we are not used to it, maybe that is why.”  Who says you cannot contribute to changing people’s minds…

For me, the experiment illustrates two things. First, that small differences in cultural practices cause an extraordinary amount of distress. We are fine with what is far removed (Italian coffee for Ethiopians for instance) but disturbed by what is close but somehow not done ‘properly’ (I personally find it very amusing to watch Italian chefs reacting to foreigners cooking Carbonara…).

Secondly, the racist comments and political conspiracy theories I have heard from the couple about Tigrayans in the past weeks are not based on direct experience. Had they sat down for coffee with a Tigrayan family or stepped into a Tigrayan household even once in their life, they would have seen this kind of Jebena. Instead, the wildest conspiracy theories are entertained based on an imaginary understanding of the ‘other’, defined primarily by their otherness. There is no room for the realization that ‘those people’ might have similar dreams and aspirations. And that their coffee might taste just the same.

Speaking of coffee, what was sold to me as “Blue Mountain Coffee” from Jamaica tastes more like “Mountain Goat Droppings” from a more local source. But, alas, one can only get a limited kick out of Rooibos (although it seems to be an absolutely miraculous herb that cures cancer and prevents aging…).

Also, yes, my experiment lacks a control group. That is not the point. You see where I am going with this. Everywhere in South Africa, blatant racism is excused with the idea that different groups of black people also don’t get along with each other. “Zulus and Xhosas hate each other.” Is repeated like a mantra. An explanation for the ubiquitous mistrust and spatial segregation. Their languages have been presented to me as very different, while other accounts state they are actually mutually intelligible. My bets are on the latter, simply because of the hostility is claimed to exist between the two communities. Two communities that can become allies when a bigger threat looms on the horizon: Apartheid or, much more recently, poor immigrants from other African countries.

So, what do we really know about the people we hate? And how similar do we know, deep down, that our values, practices and convictions really are?

Know thy enemy is a strange piece of advice. It is very difficult to know someone and still remain their enemy.

The Bloem Diaries – Part 3: On EFF, diversity and ‘black’ languages

The ‘Social Integration Event’ on campus has attracted hundreds of students this Saturday evening. Dance, music, beers and shishas everywhere. South Africa is a superpower as far as dancing and music is concerned (beer, not so much, the “Flying Fish” apple beer tastes like a mixture of cheap cider and ethanol…). A strong smell of weed. This is the paradoxical thing about South Africa. Cannabis is legal for personal use, the amount of gay, lesbian and trans-gender students on campus is probably higher than anywhere in Europe, same sex marriage and adoption are legal, Bitcoin is in the process of being recognized as a foreign currency.

On so many issues the country is extremely progressive. It is as if all the society’s reserves of hatred and conservatism were depleted by the tedious and thankless task of arbitrarily dividing people into categories according to their phenotype, and then trying to create ex post facto justifications for why these categories are all but arbitrary. The craftsmen then probably had no energy left to also condemn gay people because recognizing their existence would have created an existential problem: one would have had to decide which attribute must supersede the other (whether someone is a black gay man or a gay black man would suddenly have mattered).

Thanks to myself and three other foreign post-docs, the ‘Social Integration Event’ on campus is indeed ‘integrated’. Mtunzi already knows the other post-docs and comes to introduce himself. He is “into politics” on campus. He dances with us, encourages other students to approach us, wants us to feel at home. Yet I also notice that if one of the other students is too drunk or too eager to get close, Mtunzi immediately utters a few words in Zulu or Sesotho and the “trouble maker” invariably disappears. We are welcome but he is anxious to control the image we are supposed to walk away with from this event. He does not want it to be a bad experience for us. He takes my arm. “Come, let me show you around so that you can see how it is.”

I follow him through the crowd. His role in campus politics turns out to be more important than I suspected. Almost every student knows him, walks up to him for a high five or a few dance moves. He is indeed “showing me around”, I am both visitor and exhibit.

I start connecting the dots in my mind little by little. “So, politics, huh.” “Yes, politics.” “EFF?” He laughs out loud. “How do you know?” It was just a guess. The jovial and good-natured attitude, his popularity with the students, their reaction when they see me. There is an agenda to all of this and I remember the red EFF flags on campus, the students walking around in berets and EFF T-Shirts distributing flyers (EFF Website).

“So, you are Sankara’s grand children then…” He laughs even harder. Eager to condemn Sankara before he understands that I am actually quite fond of the guy. Not his authoritarian traits, but that is not a topic for discussion at a party on a Saturday night. EFF, Economic Freedom Fighters, the ANC break-away party founded by Julius Malema who said he wants to kick all white people out of the country. An international post-doc student being shown around by the local EFF representative. Much like his idol, Mtunzi will go far in politics.

The students at the Social Integration Event are a welcoming, fun and joyful crowd. South African music is something I can definitely get used to. After an hour or so of dancing the tension starts to wear off. The fear dissipates. When I look around, I see surprise and I see smiles. There is no hostility.

Later in the evening, one of the other international students tells me how someone almost stole his phone. But it is just a story of someone trying to steal someone else’s phone. It is not a story of ‘black people’ stealing a white person’s phone. Three hours ago it was a tour de force to resist the dominant narrative, but now my head is full of images of kids dancing and laughing. These kids were real, I saw them, heard them, danced with them, talked to them. The robbers and thieves in this weeks’ conversations are just shadows, snippets of other peoples’ lives, avatars created by fear rather than experience. I no longer feel the obligation to adhere to the narrative of anxiety I was presented with. Little by little, I am finding the protagonists of my own story.

Marie and Lizl are using their Sunday morning to prune and water the fruit trees on their compound. It is illegal to water the trees during the current drought but two of the peach trees might just be able to make it through the winter with a little water once a week. Their care for the trees is endearing. They will take me to their favorite place in Bloemfontein later: the Art museum. In addition to South African art it has a nice park with small hiking routes. Not surprisingly, the museum as such is underwhelming, but the building and surrounding park are indeed a lovely little oasis in the middle of a largely miserable town. The title of the temporary exhibit makes me a bit anxious. Terugblik. I am not sure I want to ‘look back’ here in Bloemfontein. The drawings are mostly of white people and rhinos. I decide that I do not need to understand the deeper meaning of this exhibition.

All of a sudden, on the terrace in the park, a little girl takes her first steps. When her parents clap she gets distracted and falls flat on her nose. Crying ensues. For a few seconds, we are all united in the understanding that we just witnessed a milestone in a little human being’s life. These moments where you can just be a human being without needing to take any kind of side are precious here, because they are so rare.

We have lunch in an upscale restaurant that offers all kinds of fish and seafood. The food looks excellent and after surviving largely on bread and peanut butter for a week (and a very nice Ethiopian meal the day before) I want to try everything on the menu. My eyes have become used to the ubiquitous colour coding. “Unity in diversity” is the Afrikaans motto that is reminiscent of Apartheid and can still be found on websites and buildings. In today’s Bloemfontein this loosely translates into ‘black people sitting with black people, Indians with Indians and whites with whites, but all in the same restaurant’. This is as far as this city has come since the official end of forced segregation. When you see a table that is ‘mixed’ you immediately seek an explanation: Is the white or black person a foreigner? Is it work mates eating out during their lunch break? In this city, any form of integration or mixing is a deviating from the norm that has to be duly accounted for.

I have not seen a single biracial couple in Bloemfontein, although I have seen small ‘mixed’ groups of students sitting together on campus. What should be normal is still rare enough to be noteworthy. Men can wear lipstick though.

Marie and Lizl are keen to talk to me about their South Africa, Afrikaans South Africa. Initially hesitatingly, fearing I might judge them. But once the ice is broken, they open up about how South Africa is both conservative and liberal, how certain things are worse now than they used to be – the quality of education at the university among other things (the University of the Free State started to admit non-white students in the 1990s and is currently phasing in English, and phasing out Afrikaans, as a main medium of instruction in most faculties – against strong resistance from Afrikaans right-wing identitarian movements such as the ‘Afriforum’). How they live in this country as a lesbian couple.

We talk about languages in South Africa because Lizl sometimes uses Afrikaans words when she does not know how to say something in English, and I often understand them because I speak German. “South Africa is such a diverse country. It is the most diverse country in the world.”

I have heard this statement repeatedly over the past few days and it never ceases to amaze me how it seems to be universally accepted as truth by ‘all sides’ in this country. Usually it is accompanied by an explanation about how different some ‘other’ is from one’s own group. And yet, this ‘truth’ flies in the face of empirical evidence in so many ways. To start with ‘difference’ is not the same as ‘diversity’: an emphasis on difference stems from a world view based on an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ dichotomy, while diversity is about a recognition of what makes each of us unique, an emphasis on identities as a cumulative and complex interplay of similarity and difference (see also Inghilleri 2017 on Translation and Migration).

South Africa is indeed diverse, mostly because there are white, black, coloured and Asian people, who until recently, for better or for worse, were forced to adhere largely to their own culture and language. Nevertheless, this diversity in skin colour, albeit visually striking, is not accompanied by a commensurate diversity in language, culture and genetics. Zulu, Sotho and Xhosa are to a large extent mutually intelligible languages. English and Afrikaans belong to the same indo-european language family and are even closely related within that family.

I wonder how Marie and Lizl would react if I told them that Nigeria, Ethiopia or even Kenya are actually much more diverse than South Africa – culturally, linguistically, genetically – even though most people there are just different shades of ‘dark’. Skin colour is not representative of genetic diversity… who would have thought?

I have no intention of trying to find out. “Most white people in South Africa speak English and Afrikaans and will know a little of the local language spoken in their town. And the black South Africans speak English, Afrikaans and often three black languages. It is very impressive, really.”

The admiration for ‘black’ South African multilingualism is sincere and meant as a compliment. But why do ‘white’ people speak English and Afrikaans and ‘black’ people speak ‘black languages’…

I tell them about the shops in town as another example of multilingualism. As I suspected, they had no idea that most of the shop keepers are not local black people but come from a country thousands of kilometers away. Their astonishment is genuine.

Coming home in the evening, my mind begins to wander. Is Amharic a black language then? The absurdity of this statement becomes obvious when considering that Amharic is a semitic language, therefore related more closely to Arabic and Hebrew than to the Bantu languages spoken in large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. If one accepts that there is no such thing as ‘black languages’ one might get one step closer to accepting that there is no such thing as ‘black’ (or ‘white’) people.

I remember driving to the Ethiopian church that same morning. How far from the city centre it was, how many cars there were on the parking even though it was 6h30 in the morning. Marie and Lizl probably do not know that there is an Ethiopian church in their town, close to the airport, at the end of a gravel road in the middle of warehouses and factories. Or that there increasingly are people from many other African countries living in Bloemfontein, who are ready to disrupt and upset the carefully crafted local equilibrium of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’, simply by disregarding these categories as irrelevant for their own world view.

Or, as in the case of some of the Habesha students, by deciding to self-identify as white because, how could an Amhara *not* be part of whatever is the most powerful and dominant group in a location??? That would surely go against the natural and entirely unarbitrary order of things… But I digress…

The Bloem Diaries – Part 2: Kitchen politics

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.