It’s always fascinating to hear familiar names in unfamiliar places. The first few years of being on an American college campus was filled with looking at people’s faces that resembled those I had seen back in Botswana, the country I grew up in. I could look at Lerato but see that it wasn’t one of my grade school playmates all grown up, and that she was a girl in my Sociology course called Tameka. It was a bit confusing. As a Malawian, names like Tameka (meaning ‘we are done’) Tamara (meaning ‘we have finished’, usually a last-born girl’s name) and Tawanda (meaning ‘we have plenty’) are commonplace in my country. So to hear them trip from the lips of Americans was a special kind of reward.
But sharing cultural markers didn’t mean we understood one another as people. Sometimes a Tameka or Kenya would look at me as if I was some kind of freak. It took some time to realize that the ignorance prevalent amongst Black people about Africa, wasn’t just within that group, but was prevalent amongst Americans, period.
As Timothy Maurice Webster says, “The most important thing an American must know is there’s a term globally called ‘The Ugly American’ which is the ignorant American who knows little about other countries, and who has a tendency to belittle other values outside of America… this brand of American is hated by just about everyone including me! So, if you mirror this person, you won’t get very far. Conversely, if you are intrigued and genuinely curious about other cultural values, you’ll be rewarded.” Timothy is an American living in Johannesburg, South Africa, and my meeting with him was precipitated by a breakfast at a plush hotel in Cape Town, South Africa to honour one of Africa’s most famous daughters, the supermodel Iman. He was the emcee at that event, and I wondered what his story was. I realized I wanted to find out more about the American experience here.
Timothy is the quintessential successful young African-American. So why would he choose to come to Africa, of all places? I ask that with no irony at all, especially given the questions I used to get in the 90s, when I went to an American university. My international friends and I always swore we could fill a book with some of the strange things people would ask us.
The ubiquitous “Do you live in trees? Do you have roads? Do you have lions in your backyard/as pets/chasing you?” would usually be met with surprised, not stony, silence. It could be tiring, having to explain that something wasn’t true, especially when the media had already done the damage and presented Africa as a hopeless basket-case. Our thinking was that the people who we studied with were in a place of higher learning, so why did they not seek greater truths or knowledge about one of the most historically and culturally significant places on earth? And ask “What is your home like?”
Coming to America to study was not a step we Africans took lightly, yet we could never see ourselves, or at least portrayals of us that were even half-way accurate. I used to wonder what the point was of those huge libraries if they didn’t even contain an ounce of sense about a place we loved and had lived in, and was nothing like what we saw on American TV, or in dusty copies of National Geographic that we bought for something like 25 cents, at the library basement. I figured the best way to teach someone about a place is for them to travel there, and if they can’t do that, let their minds fill in the gaps when you’ve presented as accurate a depiction as possible. The best gap-fillers, or emissaries for these learning excursions, are usually homegrown folk.
Take Lynsee Melchi, a young American living in Pretoria, South Africa.
“The draw of SA has taken many faces in the four times I have come here: study, love, holiday, World Cup. Initially I came to SA because I hadn’t been to any non-western countries yet. I had a lot of friends who were world travelers and I envied that about them very much. I wanted to try it for myself, and I think I have had a latent curiosity and desire to learn more about African things since I was a kid. The idea of “Africa” is very scary for Americans. It’s this big scary, homogeneous “here be lions” kind of place. I had that mindset a bit when I first came here in 2002 coz I knew nothing else. I wanted to challenge myself.”
More than many other foreigners I’ve come across, Lynsee does ‘local’ the way locals do it. Perhaps this is part of the reason why she enjoys South Africa.
“When I first arrived I think I felt that SA was a very different place from my home and that took getting used to. Now I just see it as a place, a place that I am familiar with although it is not my home…I am prepared for just about anything to go down in SA. I expect the insanity. I can even say that I embrace it. I think this uncertainty is one of the most wonderful, and challenging, things about SA. It’s something that can make me feel very natural and free here. I think in the USA we pursue a lifestyle that is not natural and is out of touch with the harmony of life. We expect to live forever in the USA, but here life is tenuous. That can be scary, but it also seems so much more natural to me. I think it forces me to live more.”
A lot of people can attest to that feeling of everything being so real, including the taste of food here, which comedian Chris Rock noted when he performed in Cape Town in 2008. Besides foods like apples and oranges having intensely apple and orange flavours, there are many other things Africans admit seem to be unique to them.
“African time definitely took some getting used to,” says Lynsee, “Things move much more slowly here when dealing with people, bureaucracy, everything. One has to learn to operate on a different level.”
Timothy concurs, “Getting work permits, bank accounts etc… can wear you down. Make sure you make provision for these small things. Without the comfort of a corporation transferring you, where they handle the majority of logistics, it can be a huge frustration…”
So are efficiency and time-keeping the only things that Americans miss? It seems family and friends count as the biggest missing component, as with anyone living abroad.
“No 24-hour drive thru fast food. Things actually close on public holidays. In the USA we have everything we want or need almost instantly. That is not normal, but we think it is coz we know nothing else. It has been good to learn that this is not the modus operandi around the world,” says Lynsee. But surely there are things that are common to both countries?
“When I first came to Pretoria I remember thinking “Wow I just left the land of the malls to come to the land of the malls!” SA is very westernized and in many ways it is very similar to being in the USA. I often advise people at home who are interested in travelling to “Africa” to start in SA so that they don’t feel too overwhelmed.”
The Americans who live here seem to be grateful for the experience.
“I feel a deep sense of purpose and solidarity with Africa and have remained on the continent because of the energy, dynamism, opportunities and sense of contentment I have living here,” says Brionne Dawson, who came to Johannesburg, South Africa, for work. Previous to this, she lived in Dakar, Senegal, for a UNDP fellowship program. “I loved the people, culture, food and dancing in Senegal and knew I would return to the continent in a professional capacity.”
It seems those who come to live and work in South Africa, having had a taste of Africa in some sense beforehand, have an appreciation for South Africa as a totally new and different country, rather than a representation of “Africa”, an entire continent with 53 countries.
There are many foreigners who come to South Africa/Africa for the opportunity to make a difference. In fact, sometimes hearing an American accent in the street is no longer an oddity.
Phil Rotz, who now lives in Johannesburg, says “I moved to Botswana (South Africa’s Northern neighbour) in 2002 because of work. That year Botswana was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to provide citizens with free antiretroviral drugs through public hospitals. The successful establishment of ART in Africa was, to me, a fundamental justice issue and I jumped at the opportunity to be directly involved. It was an enormous privilege to play a small part in supporting the government’s effort that has restored and extended the lives of so many people.”
In many ways, just as we, as Africans, have to be representatives of Africa when in the US, or elsewhere in the world, these Americans also report that this becomes part of their identity as well.
“Don’t assume that Africa is a crime and disease-ridden, poor and destitute place with failed institutions and corrupt politicians,” says Brionne, “to paint the continent with this brushstroke is reductive—and fails to acknowledge the diversity of the continent, the richness of its history, its resilience and the congruence between African and American culture. I think it’s natural to have preconceived notions about Africa, particularly given the negative portrayals of the continent in the media, but come to Africa with an open mind, and ask lots of questions. Part of the responsibility of having lived here is that I get the opportunity to be an ambassador to Americans, educating people on the continent and its people. I’m learning and seeing things in a new way everyday.”
The reasons why Americans come here and stay are varied.
“I met a beautiful woman studying in America and she used to talk about graduating and going back to her South African dream. I came to visit, fell in love with her and the rest is history. Had she been from China, I would probably be living in China,” says Timothy Maurice Webster. When asked about what makes South Africa a sometimes strange place for Americans to experience, the answers are also varied:
“I find it strange how the municipalities aren’t deliberate about excellence and how relaxed the society is (all the holidays and early days off- like Europe) when there’s so much poverty. The number of people who are Spiritual is very similar. The fantastic part about living here is the overwhelming generosity combined with the quality of life you can live.” TMW
“The hyper-racialized and compartmentalized society that exists in SA was hard to deal with, is still hard to deal with.” LM
“[The] heavy presence of US pop culture.” PR
“The nature of crime in South Africa has made me take some precautions that I did not while living in the United States. My house has electric fencing and I seldom walk anywhere after dark. My initial aversions are easing with greater familiarity. Despite some of the safety risks, on balance, my life is fabulous and I enjoy the benefits that come with living here.” What makes it a unique, endlessly fascinating place?
“The diversity of Africa, across countries and within countries: ethnic, linguistic, national, class, age. You have to coat-check what you think you already know and build anew.” PR
“Old Black women. Omama nogogo! They are, hands down, my favorite people in South Africa…even when they only speak to me in Afrikaans. So friendly and always tell me that I am beautiful. And nobody in their right mind disrespects an old black lady here; when someone addresses me as “my sister;” I also love taxis and use them frequently, they are cheap and go almost anywhere; the landscapes and natural environment here are stunning. ” LM
When you want a glimpse of what life is like in South Africa, perhaps Brionne Dawson paints the picture the best way:
“My typical day is similar to what it was like when living in the United States. I wake up in the morning to talk radio, which allows me to take the pulse of the country, eat breakfast, get dressed and work at least a 12 hour day. I work out routinely, either running outdoors at a local park or on a treadmill at a modern gym that would rival any Gold’s or Washington Sports Club. I host dinners at home, go to the movies, meet with friends at restaurants, bars and clubs that could easily pass for venues in New York. I visit home two to three times a year, relying on email, facebook, skype and occasional phone calls to remain in touch with family, friends and colleagues overseas.”
Lynsee Melchi also paints it well:
“South Africa, and every other place in the world, exists in the 21st century. There is a gogo (vernacular for ‘granny’) in a village in Zululand waiting for a text message from her son. Little kids are jamming out to Lil Wayne. People here wear shoes and not everyone lives in a hut. There are more BMWs on the road here than in all of the Chicagoland area (and we have a lot of them).Yes, someone in South Africa might still be fetching water from a tap to cook dinner but they still live in 2010.”
For these American cultural ambassadors for Africa their new home has a special place in their hearts, and they are as defensive about it as we Africans! But how about some of the things that have them shaking their heads and saying “I wish Africans would quit that!?”
Lynsee: “People focus too much on their differences instead of their sameness. There is a multicultural synergy that could exist here but is not being capitalized on to its fullest…yet. There is also this weird “old boys” mentality here that everyone just accepts here. Mostly coming from whites…Some things I hear come out of people’s mouths here make me turn my head.”
Brionne: “Race tends to be characterized along the lines of black, whites, coloureds and Indians. In the US, African Americans tend to be seen as a homogenous grouping, regardless of whether one is partially black or not. The circumstances of how racism manifests may differ in the US and South Africa, but at the core it is the same.”
There are still a number of problems in South Africa like racism and poverty, but the Americans are well aware of what the issues are and don’t want to only paint a rosy picture of this multi-faceted African country. They seem to be part of the solution, and hope that by talking about their African experience, some of the misconceptions about Africa, or at least this one country on this vast continent, will begin to dissipate. Inasmuch as they are giving something to Africa, it often happens that Africa gives something back to them.
As Lynsee puts it:
“I just love people and see them as all one thing with some small differences. Travel has given this to me and I am grateful [for that]. It is a lesson everyone must learn by doing.”