I am a six year old playing Gobodo down the street. My friends and I are covered in red dust. It is as if we have become a part of the soil where we have been playing since school ended and Xongi ran over to my house and asked if I would be in the same team with her. And here, in the soil that stained our clothes and dyed our hair, we’d create a world in which the biggest problem was who could duck the ball faster, throw better, kick over the tins quicker. Here we’d be lost for hours…
…until my mother’s voice would break into our near-utopia demanding I come back inside. “Nilekuteni!” I would shout back, I’m coming. Almost immediately I would forget and keep playing. Eventually my mother would emerge and the look on her face demolished all that we had built here. It was a look that conveyed that there were now more serious things than winning the next round of Gobodo. Things like eating and bathing, sleeping.
"Kasi ku huwa ka kona mohakeriwa?” one of my earliest encounters with rhetorical questions. Are you being paid to play? There didn’t need to be a response, I just needed to get back inside. And I did. But on the way there my mother would remark on my stubborn behavior. "Eish ina Nkanu na wena, honge imVenda." You’re so stubborn you could be Venda.
My mother is Shangaan. I am Shangaan. I was born in a village in the North of South Africa where for the most part of my childhood I was surrounded by Shangaan speakers. These were the people I loved and who loved me. And though I spoke TshiVenda fluently, I was Shangaan. Am Shangaan. And Venda was the “other”. What we were not. What we were not supposed to be, it seems.
Two days ago, I’m 18 years old. I am eating pizza at a bus stop in Massachusetts. I’m accompanying my new friend Musa to the mall where she needs to buy some things for her room. She’s new at my college (I use the term my loosely). Before she got here, I was one of two South Africans at the school. And when she arrived I had been informed that there was a new South African and I saw her sitting at a table during lunch and immediately knew she was the South African. I don’t know how, but I could tell. There was “something South African” about her.
Musa is Venda, from Thohoyandou. As we sat on the bench in the cold, we spoke of back home reminiscing (as all South Africans do when they meet abroad) of all the funny things we had in common. In this place so far from home I cling desperately onto any traces of familiarity. And generally we find that we have far more in common than not. From the games we played to the way we sulked when we didn’t get our way…
…to how we were scolded. This shocked me. When she was younger, and being particularly misbehaved, her father would scold her by telling her to stop playing like she’s Shangaan. It firstly blew my mind to think that there were people who thought that my beloved Shangaan people were unruly, mean and stubborn. It blew what was left of my mind to think that people I had associated these negative traits with had associated the same negative ideas with my culture, my people. Me.
I thought about some of the most loving people I have ever known, my beloved kokwaniChristinah, Kokwani Jaji, KokwaniJimisi (our adaptation of the name James) mhantsongo Connie and mhulu Linah. I love them. And Musa loves her family. How could anyone think badly of the people I know and love and especially miss? I now know that Musa has a best friend back in South Africa whom she loves, and that she misses her dad so much that she cries about it sometimes.
I certainly don’t find Musa particularly stubborn or mean. And I feel very much the same way that she does about being so far away from home. But is that what it takes to notice our bias, to be in a foreign land? Must we first be confronted by a greater contrast in order to realize how small our differences really are?
It’s easy to hate those we don’t know. We can sum them up with a quick “them” and pretend they don’t exist. This is certainly quicker than getting to know every single person alive. But it’s also under the name of grouping people as other than ourselves that some of the most horrible crimes have been allowed to take place. I think of the xenophobic violence against other African nationals in South Africa in 2008, and of genocide, and of war…
It reminds me of how my brother would tease me constantly but would stand up for me when anyone else tried to call me names. Because in the room we shared he was the “other.” Now place the children from next door in the picture and, well, he and I live in the same house. The neighbors become the “other” and my brother and I put our differences aside. Surely if South Africa was attacked by another country Musa and I would just be South Africans, not Shangaan nor Venda. And imagine if the world was attacked by some outside invaders, we would all be humans, fellow earthlings. Not Black or white or Asian or African and certainly not Shangaan.
It has to do with how broad our horizons are. How broad do we allow them to be? The Apartheid government made no mistake by separating each ethnic group into individual Homelands and restricting interaction between the different groups so that we knew less about each other and our similarities. I know now that knowledge is the surest way to broaden my horizons. It is in getting to know Musa that I realize and condemn my own prejudice.