Home thruths and other insights

2009-07-06 00:00

BEING in university was like being in exile for me, as I lost touch with the outside world for a while. In the meantime my friends in Imbali had died or left town, so holidays were also lonely. I read a lot in-between studying, but my time was also spent having some of the most enlightening and unique conversations with people from around the world.

There were many conversation circles with countless characters whose impact on my life made me feel well-travelled at times. For some of us, that is what getting an education in international institutions really means. Staying on the campus put me at an advantage, because the conversations could last the whole night. Many fellow students had perverse ideas when these conversations were held with people of the opposite ­gender. Ever heard of mind sex?

I was withdrawn and had no interest in meeting anyone new and this somehow made me attractive. The international students, especially from the developed West, justifiably felt like prey. They are so glorified and even deified by the media that everybody wants a piece of them and at times it gets a bit much. This hurts them because it hinders their ability to form real bonds during their months in South Africa. But they are special, I would add. American black girls are very confident and self-assured, kind of like white South Africans. One girl I got close to was 20 but understood tax returns, had had two jobs and her own apartment ­before coming here. It was awe-inspiring.

They enjoyed hearing my humble opinions as to why we South Africans think the way we do. They were not the biggest fans of white South Africans, ­regardless of their own race. This was not merely influenced by their limited knowledge of South Africa’s past but also the very clear racial divisions. One black American woman spoke of how she had “had enough of being looked at like worms are coming out of my nose until I speak and my accent gives me away!” I told them we were used to it, but they refused to let anything slide. It was disturbing when some chose to be racist on our behalf and hated whites without provocation, but it was what it was. We all have wounds.

The consensus was that South Africa is the most prejudiced, sexist and intolerant society they had ever been a part of, even among blacks themselves. The difference between “coloureds” and blacks perplexed them, ­especially when some blacks have lighter complexions than some “coloureds:. “In the United States, one drop of black means you are no longer white. Here it is the other way round!” Was it about language then?

One of the angriest people was a white man from Sweden who learnt how to converse in, and read, Zulu in a matter of months while he was here. He found it appalling that many non-blacks spent their entire lives in KwaZulu-Natal and could not put a Zulu sentence together. My ­explanation of the extent of the segregation, especially residential and social, did not appease him. A young, white American man who picked up Zulu within two months is one of the most intelligent people I have encountered. Soon after George W. Bush won the disputed American elections, he showed me a website that ­exposed Bush’s links to the weapons industry in Dallas and predicted that there would be a war very soon. This was months before September 11, 2001.

The latter part of my studies had me living with senior ­students from various parts of Africa. The discussions on ­Zimbabwe with a Malawi man were an eye-opener. He defended ­Mugabe vehemently and spoke of how the West would make Zimbabwe starve until ­Mugabe gave in, but at least black Zimbabweans would be starving on their own land. It has been really sad following those developments, since his statements.

I came home a very different person, who is sometimes the only one who understands certain things. The conversation and lingo were different, and I really could not always grasp what was being said. I guess it is true when they say, “You win some, you lose some.”

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