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Who We Are

Cape Town, South Africa - February 26, 2008

sunny 83 °F
View The Scholar Ship on mpho3's travel map.

Now I am truly behind in my account of things that have transpired, but I will do my best to pick up the thread. Shortly after passing through the Aguahas Strait, we made it to Cape Town’s beautiful Victoria Harbor. That was February 26. Victoria Harbor, from a bird’s eye view, is part upscale Fisherman’s Wharf, part European village or New England fishing village. Up close it’s a melting pot of tourists and locals of all races, ethnicities, colors and creeds – and we were the belle of the ball.

The first thing I did off the ship was have “brunch” with A. at a sushi place. While it wasn’t the best sushi I’ve ever had, it was a sheer delight after the many days of eating on the ship. Afterwards, I purchased a telephone card from the Post Office and called the hotel where my dad would be staying. It turned out he had also just arrived, following a 22-hr. overnight train trip. He showered and then took the hotel shuttle to Jetty 2 on the waterfront for our reunion.

During the interim, I got to talking with the port authorities, including fielding one marriage proposal that I turned down. The authorities were typical of almost everyone I met in terms of being extremely curious about who I was and very very open. I would expect that this was a universal experience for those of us on the ship as it seemed to draw an extraordinary amount of attention compared to our previous ports. This was no doubt helped by the location as well as a press conference that was held aboard the ship on the first day of our arrival.

Meanwhile, my dad looked great. I brought him onboard for a tour of our “floating bathtub,” as he had jokingly referred to it, and he was truly impressed. Meeting with some of the folks on the ship got him really excited about the work being done here, and I hope that he will consider contributing or participating in some way down the road. EVERYBODY raved about him – staff and students – and I think he enjoyed his encounters with people as the days progressed.

For the most part, we stayed at the hotel though it seemed like I needed to return to the ship for one thing or another on a daily basis. That said, the first day I introduced my dad to some of the faculty and then R., F., myself and my dad went to a Mexican restaurant on the waterfront, where we could eat outside and enjoy some beers. R. and my dad had a lot in common, and it was fun to listen to them talk about African politics, history and diplomacy. As R. put it, there is nothing in his background (a White guy from Idaho) that should have suggested he’d become an “Africanist” and nothing in my dad’s background that should have suggested he’d wind up in the U.S. for so many years. Several students and staff came and went during our many hours of holding court. Eventually – we’re talking about 6 or 7 beers later - I left R. and my dad in the hands of the ship’s First Purser so I could accompany K. on an outing as I had promised.

The excursion was to a local bar, to catch some flavor away from the port. I got into an interesting conversation with a white woman from Johannesburg. She seemed about my age, though I didn’t ask. Early in the conversation she asked me about my background, and I gave her the whole spiel. She concluded that I am African.

The interesting thing about this is that earlier in the day, when I was carrying on with the Port Authorities, all of whom were Black, I’d had the same conversation with unexpected results. The man who I took as their supervisor because he was a bit older, asked me “what are your origins?” I told him I’m American, and I said that specifically out of laziness and the boredom of having to hear myself repeat my lineage as I’d already done umpteen times that day. But when I’m in Africa, I look African but my speech and the way I carry myself suggest that I am other, which in truth is what it all boils down to. Throughout my stay, I found that if I said I was American, most people would remain confused but would leave it at that despite continuing to glance at me sideways. Some, however, like this supervisor fellow, would push onward. In his case, this meant following up with, “where is your father from?” Note the emphasis on the patriarchal side of things. I admitted that my dad is from S. Africa, and he asked again, “where?” I told him “Witbank, northwest of Jo’burg,” adding that my mother was from Tanzania. Immediately he announced to the others, “You see, she is AFRICAN.” Then he turned to me and asked why I had lied! Laughing, I tried to extricate myself by telling him that I didn’t lie. I was born in the United States, so I am American. The younger guy, who eventually asked for my hand, tried to mollify his boss by explaining on my behalf, “She is African American.” Because this is a trigger for me, I felt my head swivel decisively in his direction, but I caught myself because I’d brought this all on myself. Yet it wasn’t that I was denying an African heritage because all my old friends know that first and foremost, I identify myself as African – not African American. African American connotes Black American, which is a culture that I cannot and do not claim because simply put, it is not mine. I didn’t need to address all that because the boss picked it up. Emphatically, he lectured all in earshot, though I think his lesson was directly intended for me. “She is not American. She is African. She is African because her father is African.” I piped in, “so was my mother,” but he shook his head, saying that for him it doesn’t matter. It’s the father’s blood that matters. Personally, I take exception to that, but it is what it is and in the long run, he was right. I am African and that was the take away of the conversation.

Which leads me back to the encounter with the White woman at the bar who, after hearing my story, pronounced me easily as African, with none of the grilling that had happened on the wharf. I was grateful that we quickly dispensed with the issue of identification, but keep in mind that I’d already had several beers with Dad to which I’d added another at this new bar before the woman in question offered to buy me a scotch and water – which was what she was drinking. She was in the midst of the transaction when all the friendliness slipped away from between us. All I remember is we were talking about global issues, particularly, the troubles of the African continent, and then I said something like, “… but still, I don’t understand what makes one person pick up a machete and start hacking another to death.” The next words out of her mouth rankled me, but I will never know how or why. When I said I will never understand people hacking each other with machetes, she replied, “You’re not African. There’s nothing African about you.” Now, I don’t know why it struck me the way it did. Maybe because, as I’ve already said, it’s my strongest and first identity? Maybe her tone of voice? Maybe because she’s White and what does she know? Maybe because there is a sense in which it’s true? Maybe because my blood alcohol level had reached the point where I was itching for a fight? Perhaps all or none of the above – regardless, I got boiling mad. I grabbed my freshly poured scotch, downing it in one fell swoop. Then I pulled out my business card and told her to read my name back to me – first, middle, and last. When she was finished I said, “Don’t tell me who’s African enough,” and I walked out to grab a cab.

It wasn’t until the next day, when I reviewed the situation, that I realized that my reaction was … well … reactionary. It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, I’m sure, but in this case I really wondered – and still do – what set me off. Because the words themselves are harmless. In fact, she may even have meant it as a compliment – i.e. because I can’t see myself hacking up my neighbors over tribe, that I’m not really African, the same way, by my own token (pun intended) that I’m not really African American. I really don’t know, but I felt a little bad that I didn’t stick around to let that play out further, although the mood I was in might not have been conducive to a fruitful dialogue. Nonetheless, this “incident” became the iconic framework around this trip to South Africa.

Posted by mpho3 11:30 Archived in South Africa

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