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.


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.

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…