Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Language of Displacement

The Language of Displacement

They're not refugees, they're displaced people, apparently. They don't fit the international protocol – most people are here for economic reasons, which makes them economic refugees. The fact that they are now running for their lives and have nothing left to call their own doesn't factor into the definition, apparently.
I don't want to call them “foreigners”. They're not, they're neighbours.
What shall we call them then? Previously housed people? Temporarily unaccomodated people?
“Victims of Xenophobic attacks”. Urgh. That's so dehumanising. But come on, we have to have a label. We can't do without labels in this society.

Make no mistake, language is playing a huge role in this issue, as government spokespeople gingerly pick their way over the debris caused by displacement, violence and hate crimes.

“Our President Thabo Mbeki,” in his nation address kept referring to the “few South Africans” who caused this. But if you trawled the streets for a vox pops there would be more than a few supporters of the sentiment, if not the actual deed of throwing out these unwelcome guests. But according to the Prez, its just a few “criminal elements” that have destabilised our nation. Funny no-one wants to go back, though eh?

Why is it so personal, for me? Perhaps because I have been so unquestioningly and enthusiastically welcomed in all the homes and villages I have set foot in, in Malawi and other parts of sub-saharan Africa. I have always felt an enormous sense of pride and privilege to live in a place where people are so hospitable when they have so little. I'm not saying there isn't fierce competition for resources in squatter camps in this country. And its sad that it has to come to this for people to mobilise food and resources. Images of poverty become banal and numbing and people turn away. Until it quite literally ignites. Well, fire does speak loudly and eloquently.

Perhaps its also because I've always only been half a South African, and half a Zambian, and feelings of belonging are precious when they arise, often just spontaneously and because of the warmth and feeling of a few friends. Travelling in Zambia over the 16 months it took to document traditional ceremonies in rural parts of the country, I was awed by how seriously the code of hospitality is upheld. Who could forget being welcomed in Mwinilunga by the minstrel Lunda chief who gave us pineapples, baskets, feasted us and shared stories of his people's heritage? Or the hundred of people who took time to feed us and talk to us, making sure we had all the facts we needed to write about their ceremonies. And no, I'm not comparing rural Zambia to Alex or Reiger park. Obviously its easier to be welcoming when you have a bit of land and can grow your own food.

What I'm talking about is something else, its an arrogance born of ignorance that so called foreigners find actually confusing. Its another sad legacy from the PR (previous regime) and the BES (Bantu Education System). Along with lack of self love, I guess. When two Zambian friends of mine recently paid a visit to Joburg (it was the first time for one of them) they were bewildered by the hostility of ordinary strangers who heard their foreign accents and treated them with disdain.
“No one speak English here!” said M, describing how hard it was to get help when she was lost.
But they do! They were probably pretending.

And that article that described how foreigners are stopped and asked the Zulu word for elbow or various other body parts, and if you don't know an archaic term no longer in usage then you prove your foreignness. As B, in his inimitable quippish way said, “You better know your Zulu arse from your Zulu elbow”.

Yesterday I foolishly thought I might be able to cheer someone up at the refugee squat by feebly speaking a few Chewa truisms. But people aren't really chatty when they've lost everything and are wondering how the hell to get through this night with those rainclouds coming.

Oh dear. More on this later, I'm going to move to other topics for a while. Thanks for bearing with me. You've been so kind to read the opinionated ramblings of a white child “born in south africa raised in zambia schooled in malawi living in south africa part german part irish part british whose mother was born in malawi and grandfather born in chinde mocambique who might have some jewish blood in back there somewhere.” which is how I try to defend my own heritage when people ask me “where are you actually from, actually, originally?”

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