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September 28, 2016

The real Africa, the real America

The word “xenophobia” gets thrown around a lot. It drips out of history books and politically correct conversations about foreign countries. It tries to label the act of “othering” – this process of hating what you don’t know and slamming a red stamp of disapproval on anything different.

I was in the back of a friend’s car with my friend Nadia from Zimbabwe when I felt the weight of this stamp for the first time. Stuck in traffic, we were waiting for movement and doing some mindless people watching. Nadia started laughing. “You know how I can pick out an American in Africa? They’re covered in more relics than we are,” she said, pointing out a girl on the sidewalk.

I looked at myself in the rear view mirror. I wondered if I was obviously American. I looked for features that would give me away. Even if I wasn’t clad in Nyaminyami talismans or a dress made by my housecleaner like all the other international students, could I still be picked out of the crowd as an American?

I thought I would ask the most honest people I’ve met thus far – my students at Sophumelela Secondary School. Nestled into Philippi, one of the larger townships in the Cape Flats, students from Sophumelela know the taste of poverty just as well as they know how sweet wealth can be.

I asked Siyavuya Gqumehlo, a 17-year-old third-year student, what she thought about America and at first, she just smiled. “Do you really want me to answer that?” she said. “I think Americans are ignorant. They think that Africa is just wild animals, cages and buildings. They think we live in the bush. They forget we’re a developing country. They have so much. The money makes me angry. It’s wasted – through soccer players’ bribes to play on certain teams for fortunes, and through these useless extra cars, mansions and clothes. Some have so little and Americans don’t even touch all they have.”

I was shocked to find out that this evil place of gluttony that she had just described was somewhere she wanted to live. She wanted to go to Los Angeles. She wanted to see how they live. She wanted to see the root of obsessions – especially over body image. She wanted to see this world Oprah Winfrey was trying to fix.

I asked her what three words describe America. She told me “Botox, Desperate Housewives and Obama.” Obama was the only positive one. She attached his name to “change” and to Nelson Mandela. “He stands for youth. We need that. We can never take that for granted. Here, gangsters run our lives. We have more killing here than you’ll ever know – and it’s in front of everyone. They make our hell and we just want to be safe. Maybe Obama can reach them.”

Athenkosi Malilwana, a 16-year-old second-year, interjected with the word “hope.” He said, “Now, America is a great country. Now that it has hope. The world is going to be all right.”

Ironically, Malilwana doesn’t want to live in this country that’s up on a pedestal. “I’d like to see it, but I know I’ll never get there from here. I’d like to study there, but I’m afraid of the crime. I’ve heard its bad there.”

Crime? In America? Of course, I thought. But too much to visit? No way. Just to get into my house here in Cape Town, I have three keys to get into my front door. There’s barbed wire around the tall cement walls that surround my house and backyard. At home, I have one key and no barbed wire. I’m still here.

Then, Malilwana said something that really threw me off. “To be American is to be loved.”

Gcobisa Sizani, an 18-year-old fourth-year student, thought that was just as wrong as I did. She gave him a glare that needed an exit wound.

She told me about how she thought Americans were ignorant. “The people are interesting, but they’re not nice. They’re arrogant, self-centered and have too much pride. They think they have it and all and that they don’t have to worry. They’re condescending and they think they’re better than everyone else.”

She told me when she thinks of America, she thinks of what she sees in movies and on Oprah or Tyra Banks’ show. She thinks America is spoiled and wouldn’t even consider visiting. She wouldn’t want to look at wasted privilege that she would never see.

“I want to deserve what I work for – and to have earned it. That’s real pride,” Gcobisa said. I think she was right. That’s the image that comes off. Even though I know many people who work for what they have – and deserve it, I know many people who don’t.

Gqumehlo said she did, too. She pointed out that the important xenophobia that South Africa deals with has nothing to do with Americans, but rather with the Zimbabweans. Most of their negative attitude towards America stems from the fact that South Africans feel misrepresented in America. It seems that from Hollywood’s poisonous images of low self-esteem and compensation – America is misrepresented, as well.

Leigh Greaney is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at lgreaney@student.umass.edu.

Comments
2 Responses to “The real Africa, the real America”
  1. Ben Rudnick says:

    Leigh,

    While I think your piece covers a very important topic, I am a bit troubled by your use of the word “xenophobia” in your article. The interactions you describe are clearly fed by the images that America projects through our “popular” culture, but I do not think that xenophobia comes into play at all. While I suppose you could say that the misconceptions the South Africans have about the U.S. fit the definition of “an irrational fear of strangers” because they do not know much about America, I tend to think that it is their lack of knowledge that feeds their generall ypoor view of our country. In fact, that they were willing to open up to you tends to confirm that they have no irrational fear of us, but rather have been shown a distorted picture of Americans and formed their views accordingly.

    Don’t you think that they would feel differently, especially Gcobisa Sizani, if they got to know more about America?

    Anyway, I am glad you wrote this piece, and that you mentioned what Gqumehlo said about the South Africans’ xenophobia towards Zimbabweans, I just wanted to comment that xenophobia does not appear to be the driving force behind their view of America.

    Ben Rudnick
    Collegian Columnist

  2. Daniel Schwartz says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only American in South Africa on a mission to correct people misconceptions and negative views. I could give you numerous similar accounts of South Africans going on an all out verbal assault when they realize I’m an American. Most forget that America is more than NYC and Los Angeles to begin with. Nice article.

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