The Price of a Smile

There is a lack of smiley faces here in Johannesburg. And I need them, thrive on them. Just a little something to bid me Welcome!  The slightest hint, I'll take that.  A change in expression, enough to fool me into thinking that you embrace my presence.  Because I want to identify with you.  Whether symbolic, or fake, like the nanosecond ones dished in pulsing metropolises like New York. Transform your face, let your smile hold sway over your mind.  Summon the god of laughter, of joy, even if temporarily for the World Cup, because the world has converged on this great country for a month.

I've recovered from my initial hurt on day two, when I discovered that you did that to everyone: talk to them in your own language - Zulu, mostly.  I believed you thought I was one of you, felt momentary compatibility, somehow.

All these tourists here, staying in apartments, hotels  needing to shop for groceries in supermarkets, for AC/DC converters in hardware stores, asking for directions. You don't see the big HUH? when you repeat the directions three times in Zulu on my face? Read it. Try to communicate with me, or don't you care?

Why not?  Is it linked to the memory of apartheid, like the taxi driver told me?  I shared with him my observation: so many non-English speakers in customer service type positions.  Some of them are not educated, he explained in impeccable English.  He was raised in Soweto, he studied hard, learned English, worked as an accountant in the chemical industry before retiring.  He said that during apartheid, young Africans were forced to study in Afrikaans, subjects like Chemistry and Biology (sounded awful, jaw breaking in Afrikaans), imagine!  he said, trying to study hard subjects like that?

So is the memory of apartheid intricately connected to language resistance?  Afrikaans, and English, the languages of oppression?  Does your mother tongue help numb the memory?  Strip it and its cruel legacy naked for all to see it for what it is?  I must admit, I'm a bit turned off by the guttural South African English accent, for now.

For how long are you going to tranquilize the pain of the past? South Africa is only 16 years old, I know, it is still fresh.  We need to be reminded, no doubt, like the Jewish community does well to remind us about the Holocaust; while they continue to ameliorate their economic and political power, from Wall Street to Hollywood. South Africa (40 million strong) should do the same and it all starts with education. Learn the oppressors language because then, the enemy cannot surprise you.

I know the gods of football are in town right now, our cultural heroes.  And yes, I've seen a whole lot of smiles in the stadiums, at the fan parks.  It is because we are supporters of the players, the teams, the nations.  We feel something larger, we feel temporary shelter from overly committed lives, our daily struggles.  But when we leave the stadia, when it is all said and done how do you leverage the experience?


Mama Shujaa.


  1. We have resistance to English in Puerto Rico, too. Some see it as the language of the oppressor, while others see it as the language of opportunity. My own choice is to be bilingual here so my children and husband speak both languages with fluency, and I speak/read with moderate proficency. I do understand what it feels like to be rejected because my native language is English. What can I do? I just do my best to communicate in Spanish.

    Right now we have a strike at the university because of budget cuts. However, the undercurrent issue is Puerto Rican nationality. It's complicated politically and socially; this complication shows up in the language preference issue- that's how I understand what you are writing about- but maybe I'm wrong?

    You must be traveling now? I imagine you have to know many languages in all parts of the African continent- do you think English works well as an all around communication language?

    Students in PR may study math and science in English...or some combination such as books in English/class in Spanish. I've studied French in Spanish and French with additional translations in English. It was confusing at first but I got accustomed to the tri-language environment. (2 nights a week for 1 year)

    Take care, Mama Shujaa!
    Your blog-buddy, Cynthia

  2. Hey Mama S! Ah, they do that to everyone here...I am lucky that Ndebele, my mother tongue, is a cousin of Zulu, hence I am able to understand it...there are times when I have found myself smiling along to something I do not understand when somebody in a taxi begins to speak to me in rapid Sesotho...It is an interesting phenomena, on the one side I am awed by the fierce pride in local languages, on the other, taken aback, since there are obviously so many foreigners living in SA... could it also be a hostile resistance to the foreign presence? One can never be too sure!

  3. When in New York everyone speaks to me in Yankee. I am not Yankee and do not look like one. Good thing I understand English. Likewise in France, Germany and Spain etc.It is proper to talk in your native language b4 any other. The point being that it is human nature.
    I did get a little chuckle reading your post. I can imagine the look on your face. Enjoy the matches, you are so lucky.

  4. Cynthia: Interesting thoughts. Yes, I think English, French, Spanish and Arabic are four languages that represent the majority of world's population and when it comes to conducting business, English is the most practically used. Finding the balance is challenging and is key - maintaining cultural heritage thru language expression and staying globally competitive. One day, I will come and stay here (Johannesburg) for long enough to learn more than the urban lingo, I want to...My lazy Kenyan brain has been indulged for too long in America. That I can come back to the continent (with Kiswahili, some Kikuyu, some Kichagga under my belt) and feel like a foreigner is a real eyeopener!!!

    It is just wonderful that you can juggle those three languages on a daily basis.

  5. Novuyo: Yes, I too celebrate the pride in local languages. In a way, it challenges the outsider to fully engage in the daunting past present and future of the local community. I mean, why should I be impressed upon in precise elegant English, when I could be tossed head first into the spellbinding tongue twisters that characterize local daily life.

    Just yesterday, I was standing by a curb, waiting for my taxi guy to come, when another driver, parked in a taxi nearby caught my attention. He was jerking his head up and down, repeating a phrase, whose rhythm I could recognize after the third repetition. So, I just shook my head, mouthing "No thank you."

    "Who are you waiting for?" he then translated for me.
    "Phillip." I responded.
    "Do you want me to call him for you?"
    "No thanks, I already have."
    "THAT IS WHAT I WAS ASKING YOU. THAT IS WHAT I WAS ASKING YOU." I felt chastised, the way he said it with annoyance, like it was my fault for not understanding the Zulu(?) to begin with.


  6. Anonymous: Thanks for the comment. Yes, a little hospitality would be nice, but I'll live. I have heard it said that smiling faces, they lie, they don't tell the truth. And folks in NYC give it to you straight, take it or leave it. I guess, Jo'burg is doing just that.

  7. I can so relate to your experience, Mama Shujaa! I had to learn how to say I don't speak Zulu "Angikhulumi isi-Zulu..."

  8. I can so relate your experience, Mama Shujaa! I had to learn how to say I don't speak Zulu - Angikhulumi isi-Zulu.." :-)


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