#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.

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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

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Figure 2: Jebena used in Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea

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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.

The Bloem Diaries – Part 1: Race and the city

In August 2017, I started my post-doctoral fellowship in the city of Bloemfontein, South Africa. A year prior, I visited the city and the campus because I did not want to go to a place not knowing what to expect. Once I found out what to expect, I decided to go anyway.

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In a place characterized by division, stark racism, violence and conservatism, I found amazing stories of progressive thought, friendship and courage. Stories of ‘locals’, stories of migrants, stories of people crossing boundaries that are much less rigid than one might assume at first sight. I found these stories because, even though I was told not to leave campus, for it would not be safe, I decided to go out every once in a while.

To protect the anonymity of protagonists, many of these stories have a fictional component, but they are rooted in the reality of a city that, as soon as you leave it, seems like a surreal mirage that only exists in your imagination.

Little Ethiopia

The city centre becomes busy on Saturday. All of a sudden, Bloemfontein looks like any other African city, the hustling and bustling of shops, people crossing the street where ever they please, people shopping and chatting on the street. Most shops in town are run by the Ethiopian or “Habesha” community. The language mix in the shops is fascinating. Shop keepers employ a mix of Habeshas and South Africans and mutual learning takes place constantly. The shop keepers speak Amharic, English and have a basic command of Sesotho, while their staff, largely fluent in Sesotho and English, will speak Amharic with the customers they identify as Ethiopian. There is no fear of making mistakes, South African staff will happily throw in the odd Amharic word (qonjo, salamnew, tinish, kamis, chama…).

Most foreigners or even white South Africans (if they ever set foot in these stores, which, based on how staff reacted to my presence, seems improbable) are likely oblivious to this complex mix of languages and cultures, as they will perceive all people in the shop as belonging to the same group: black people. There was no hostility towards me in the city centre. Indeed, my very presence there seemed to indicate that I was somehow weird, not South African, a different kind of “other” than the one people react to negatively in this context.

Alamnesh wants to buy a dress for church. She tries on several, all pink. She does not like anything with too many complications, she prefers simple designs without lace or buttons. The dress has to be long. “I short” she complains every time she tries on a dress that inevitably ends up being way too long for her. She also needs shoes. And eyeliner. And lip balm. But the transparent one, not the one with colour. I suspect that all this is for church. There is considerable excitement about going to church tomorrow. I agreed to drive them to mass, they normally cannot go there as it is out of town and starts at 6am. We leave without buying a dress but she has another one at home. Later on, they will tell me again that I don’t have to take them to church, that it is fine, no big deal, I can just sleep in the morning. But I know that all the preparations being made are based on the assumption that I will be there tomorrow morning.

Yonatan owns the clothes store. He speaks Amharic, English and Sesotho (main use case: yelling at his staff). One of his employees in particular is eager to speak in Amharic, although she knows barely more than a few words. To work at one of the shops in town, Alamnesh needs to learn English. Maybe in a few months she will also know some Sesotho. It is not language mastery in the sense we understand it in interpreting, rather, what is happening is rapport-building through language, similar to what we find in anthropology. The language is mastered enough to make the interlocutor trust you, to show them “I am similar to you, I respect you, I am interested in your way of being, in who you are, you can trust me.”

Learning a language is a way of acknowledging each others’ humanity. Nothing more but nothing less.

The two girls in the shoe shop laugh when they see me. Then exchange a few words in a language I cannot understand before looking at me again. “Whitey” one of them says in my direction, laughing. Whitey. Blunt like that. They do not even try to sugar coat the fact that I am wearing the wrong skin colour for the occasion. But she does not say it in a demeaning way, rather, she says it in an encouraging way, in a ‘we are surprised but happy to see you here’ kind of way. I laugh with them and reply “Yes, apparently. Nothing I can do to change that, can I?” They laugh. “No, true, you can’t. But it is good. Welcome.”

Hair is cut, shaved and braided on the sidewalk, in broad daylight, next to small stalls where women sell goat (or sheep?) heads and feet in transparent plastic bags. I have never seen this kind of open air hair dressing in a large town, it somehow makes the city centre look poorer and more miserable. The strands of hair and extensions on the sidewalk give the street a somewhat sinister look. My brain creates associations with piles of human hair seen on photos taken in a different context decades ago – a context I have spent more time than usual thinking about since I arrived in Bloemfontein.

One of the shops has hired a DJ. He stands at the entrance with his mixing table, over-saturated loudspeakers blasting Hip Hop beats onto the sidewalk. A man who looks both drunk and homeless dances to the music as if his life depended on it. Like the loudspeakers, he is having a blast. Some passers-by laugh and enjoy the spectacle, others ignore the guy as if he was the most normal thing in their world. The DJ looks at me, pleadingly, as if wanting to apologize that I have to witness this. And yet,this is what I came to see. Just life on a Saturday morning.

“Do you like this city?” Alamnesh asks me. I want to say no. I think of the strands of hair on the sidewalk, the goat (sheep?) heads being sold in transparent plastic bags, without skin but with teeth, the three keys, two remote controls and one access card that separates my room from my office, the constant reminders that people are out to rob and rape you, that it is not safe. But I do not want to discourage her, after all, she has to live here and is likely to give birth to a child in this town. “It’s okay, I think I will get used to it.” My reply is half affirmation, half resolution. “Me no like it” she says, looking determined.

Yet, for about two hours this Saturday, Bloemfontein became just a normal African city.

I was able to forget about the guy writing his PhD about the positive aspects of fascism in Europe.

I was able to forget about the girl who explained to me that it is not possible for students of different races to share the same apartment because the black men do not respect “their” women, so they will just walk in and out of a black girl’s room whenever they please and white parents do not want their daughters to be ‘exposed’ to that (i. e. raped).

I was able to forget that a professor had told me that last year during the racial violence at the University of the Free State (#ShimlaPark), white parents came to campus with their pick-up trucks, armed with baseball bats, ready to beat up black students. That residence managers had to hide terrified undergrads in different campus buildings.

I was able to forget about the three white post-graduate students who gave a theatrical presentation on how black students perceived these incidents on campus last year, well-meaning and yet totally oblivious of their own positionality in all of this. Whitesplaining should be a word in this country.

And yet, research on identity among local students also reveals a darker, self-deprecating side. When no one else listens, students will say things like “I am ashamed of my skin colour. I am ashamed of being white.” I wonder how much of the white anger is due to this deep feeling of inadequacy, this not knowing how to “be” in this “New South Africa” and where else to be if not here. If 1970 was a place, I suspect quite a few white South Africans would want to emigrate there.

It all comes back when we reach the mall. All of a sudden 15 muscular young white men in shorts walk into the mall and start singing. I am legitimately scared for a second (anything sung by 15 males in shorts sounds like a war song), before realizing that it is probably just a bachelor party. The tension messes with your brain here. Everything looks threatening when you are constantly told to be scared.

As we walk down the aisles and look at shop windows, I decide to follow up on our earlier conversation. “So, Alamnesh, you do not like this city?” She smiles “I do like it.”

The mall is a safe place.

Men on a Plane – Development Sector Edition

I recently watched Paula Stone William’s Ted talk, which I can warmly recommend:

In it, Paula describes how her life has changed since she transitioned from male to female. She starts with an anecdote about a man refusing to let her sit in her assigned seat on a plane.

This anecdote struck a nerve with me, and probably with any other woman who frequently travels for work. Day after day we experience countless small humiliations. We intuitively know that a man would not have these experiences, but we don’t fully understand why.

I recently returned from a short work trip to a country where frankly not many people would go for tourism. Most international travelers go there on mission for their national government, a UN agency, development NGOs or humanitarian organizations. I was travelling as a consultant for one of these organizations.

The flight back, one of the rare connections with the possibility of an onwards flight to Geneva, turned out to be a genuine ‘Who is Who’ of the Swiss development sector: SECO, the SDC, and many major Swiss development NGOs were represented on the medium sized plane. You might wonder how I know this…

There is a reason I choose the aisle seat when I travel for work. I like to get up regularly without bothering anyone. This was a very early morning flight so my hope was that I would spend most of it asleep. Apparently my fellow travellers had other plans. The gentleman sitting next to me, a Swiss national in his 40s (let’s call him ‘Jacques’), had a friend or colleague on the same flight, whose seat was a few rows behind. Given that he was “stuck” in the middle seat, his friend, also a Swiss national but probably in his late 30s (let’s call him ‘Bernard’), eventually decided to stand in the aisle, just next to my seat, for a lengthy chat.

Bernard also seized this opportunity to introduce Jacques to another guy (let’s call him ‘Thomas’), who was sitting directly in front of me and promptly stood up as well, turning around. Thomas was German, in his late 40s. The three men formed a rather close triangle around me and started talking about work. It turns out Jacques was from SECO, Bernard from the SDC and Thomas was country director for a major Swiss NGO.

Bernard, Jacques and Thomas had me surrounded. They talked loudly, directly over my head. It was blatantly obvious that I was trying to sleep – while I was initially listening to their conversation with my eyes closed, I eventually opened my eyes, making it o-b-v-i-o-u-s that they had just woken me up. They never even flinched. They exchanged contacts, tips about where best to go hiking in some of the countries they had been, discussed people they might know in common. They even tried to draw another guy into the conversation “So, do you also work in the development sector?”

As Bernard was travelling back home with his family, his kid eventually joined the conversation, contributing to it mainly by repeatedly pushing my chair and bumping into my leg.

At no point in their conversation did it occur to these gentlemen that I was trying to sleep, that they were invading my space and being extremely inconsiderate to another human being. What was even more obvious: at no point did it occur to them that they could have tried their networking catchphrase (“So, do you also work in the development sector?”) on me and that, unlike the guy sitting next to them, I would actually have been able to answer it.

For twenty minutes, these three men were talking over my head, completely oblivious to my existence. They had created a circle of equals that was literally and figuratively placed above the head of a young woman. Men networking with men. Guys exchanging notes on guy stuff to do in remote regions of the planet (outdoors activities and extreme sports, obviously, it is always about sports). Since they never bothered to question their assumption that I was probably just a student or some kind of volunteer travelling back home, they remained unaware of the fact that I am currently studying the communication practices of the Swiss development sector and that I was furiously taking mental notes. Anthropologists call it direct observation – it is what you do when you are not a participant-observer. That is usually difficult because most human beings acknowledge the existence of another person that is situated in their immediate physical environment… I realized I had inadvertently made a methodological breakthrough: Being a young woman  provides you with an invisibility cloak – who would have known?

Initially, I was angry at myself for remaining silent. Yet, in the face of such an obvious lack of consideration from people whose path I might cross in a professional context one day, I simply did not know what to say. “I am trying to sleep” seemed such a stupidly obvious thing to say to people who supposedly earn their income by being attentive to the needs of others.

After having to ask for permission to cross the aisle four or five times, the flight attendant finally lost it and asked the two gentlemen blocking her path to kindly sit down. They were visibly unhappy, promptly made faces at each other and joked about her being bossy. This was a young woman whose job actually involves telling passengers what to do on a plane.

Had she been a male flight attendant, these men would have complied without so much as a frown. Had I been a male passenger, they would have never dared talk directly over my head and invade my personal space as much as they did.

How do I know this? It is one of the things you learn when you grow up as a woman. By the time you are an adult you have internalized it, by the time you are a few years into your professional life, you have normalized it.

On ne naît pas femme, on le devient.

When road rage meets street art

Every time I am stuck in traffic in Nairobi I make a mental note to finally write this blog post. Some might consider traffic jams a waste of time, but in Kenya it is always an interesting opportunity to observe a bit of multimodality and intersemiotic translation in action. The road speaks to those able to listen….

In 2010 my car was nearly forced off the road on the highway from Nairobi to Nakuru. In order to avoid pot holes, a huge heavy duty truck heading towards us from the opposite direction was using the middle of the highway rather than sticking to its lane. On the wind deflector, just above the windshield, the truck’s name was written in bold, colorful capital letters:

MORENO OCAMPO

Moreno Ocampo was at the time the Chief Prosecutor at the ICC, where quite a number of Kenyan politicians were being tried for their involvement in the 2007/2008 post-electoral violence. Ethnic clashes following a controversial electoral result killed over 1000 people and left up to 600’000 internally displaced. Politicians on all sides were seen as actively inciting hatred and violence. While Moreno Ocampo, the man, was thus doing his best to instill fear among the Kenyan political elite, Moreno Ocampo, the truck, was busy scaring the hell out of the common folk on the highway. The mental image  Kenyans associated with a person was thereby successfully conveyed through a different medium altogether. I would argue that this qualifies as an example of intersemiotic translation. The massive size of the truck is an integral part of the message. Multimodality, ladies and gentlemen!

From late 2008 one would also see more and more Matatus (mini buses) and buses proudly carrying the name or even the picture of newly elected president Barack Obama. I am happy to note that he is still a go-to source for vehicle embellishment, the Donald does not seem to have quite the same appeal for Nairobians.

Obviously, Barack Obama’s ancestry makes him a favourite (pronounce: ‘favo-right’) choice for Kenya’s drivers. Yet, ironically, Obama’s father was a Luo, while the transport industry in Nairobi is firmly in the hands of Kikuyus, their arch-rivals in the national political arena. In order to become a national symbol, it seems that one must thus succeed abroad. The image of Obama’s success, or so Matatu drivers seem to hope, will translate (aha!) into prosperity for them and their business.

Popular topics for vehicle decoration include sports teams (mostly English Premier Leage and NBA), as well as fashion labels (who doesn’t want to ride in a Versace, Gucci, Armani bus?), superheroes and famous musicians or actors. Even the inside of a bus might be decorated with at least some attempt at communicating something resembling an original idea:

Matatu3
Image source: https://code.kaytouch.biz/wifi-kwa-mathree/

Unless Jesus is involved, the message conveyed is never that serious (“Real men love Jesus”, remember!). It is meant to inspire both respect and laughter. On the surface it seems like nothing is taboo, at least not sex or drugs. A particularly congenial instance of visual communication can be seen currently on quite a number of Buses and Matatus in Nairobi. Their elaborate decoration includes images of Bob Marley with a blunt, and portions of his lyrics that explicitly reference weed consumption. These references are duly interspersed with the following logo:

noweed

Translated simply: “Sisi? Weed? Hapana. LOOOOL”

Speaking of mixed messages and lack of seriousness, Nairobi’s streets also offer plenty of opportunities to get “offended” to anyone attempting to take these things at face value. Let’s be clear, things that would be truly offensive to Nairobians, such as references to atheism or comments about acting Kenyan politicians are off-limits. Now, whether the Mainas, Mwangis and Kamaus driving the Matatus would show the same restraint if, say, a Luo president was elected remains to be seen… I am not even going to go into that because I love life.

One of the crasser images I spotted on a vehicle this week was a juxtaposition of a photo of a starving black child (you know exactly what kind of image I mean…) and a photo of a chubby African guy eating from a plate filled with a huge portion of meat. The title of the composition was “Africa”. Speak of a successful translation of words into images…

You cannot help but agree that the message being transferred using just two images is an accurate description of the reality we live in. Many academics would complain if they were given less than 6000 words for a paper aiming to convey exactly the same.

Oh yeah, let’s also not forget that in the Man Eat Man Society we live in, Ben Laden and Bill Gates are friends…

Matatu1
Image source: http://www.afroautos.com/customized-improvised/can-the-kenyan-matatu-industry-be-a-tourist-attraction/

 

*For those of you who wish to read more about this and see some photos that I never quite find an opportunity to take myself: