Currently there are xenophobic riots occurring throughout the country. I am safe in my bucolic environment but saddened over the acts of violence. When people ask me why I love South Africa, I instantly respond with diversity: diversity in language, thought, culture, identity, and also nationalities. I do not understand how a culturally rich nation like South Africa struggles with xenophobia, but I probably have much to learn. In light of recent events, I thought I would share a few stories.
A couple weeks ago I was in the shopping town to obtain a new phone. My roommate, a Response Volunteer who served in Rwanda, likes to relive her PCV days and bargain with fruit vendors (there is not a strong bartering market culture in South Africa). Through her frugality and Christian faith she has established friendships with some of the vendors. We were walking back to the taxi rank in the late afternoon when my roommate asks me if I like Ethiopian Food. I had not tried it I am always game for cultural enrichment involving food! We approached “The Factory of God” shop and met a tall Ethiopian man.
My roommate and the man exchanged greetings, as delighted friends do, and she asked if we can get Ethiopian food to take away. The man leads us up a flight of stairs to a quaint restaurant on the second story. A modest kitchen took our order and in the siting area, a group of men are playing pool and occasionally glanced at a cracking television screen that provided an opaque view of a cricket match. The men greeted us with wide similes and instantly made us feel welcome. The only decoration visible was colorful Pan-African stripes of the Ethiopian flag painted on the wall.
The kitchen agreed to accommodate my sensitive palate and make a mild dish. The man insisted that he would pay for the meal. After trying to pay we gave up and took his generous gesture of ubuntu. Yes even though he was from Ethiopia, his actions were in tune with South African culture.
During our wait, he and my roommate discussed their Christian faith and the man’s journey to South Africa. It is not my place to share his story, but I will say that there are reasons why he left Ethiopia and he misses his family. However he is living in South Africa. He has found community in a local church and enjoys watching his two children grow in the Rainbow Nation. I could have listened to his story for hours but our order came too soon! Before we left, my roommate gave him money for the meal and asked him to treat his children. I cannot help but wonder what he thinks when he hears about the violence toward immigrants. Simultaneously I reflect on prejudice in the United States.
I proudly hail from the Southwest and have made several incredible friends who identify as Hispanic and/or Mexican. Sadly in the two border states I have lived in, there is still hurtful rhetoric directed towards Mexicans. Personally I find it bizarre for someone to demand “English only or leave” in New Mexico, where most geographic features in my city have Spanish names, but for my Mexican friends they are emotionally hurt by these unnecessary comments.
I remember one of my friends in college vent at a group dinner about how she has to verify her identity. She is probably one of the most patriotic Americans that I know, but when she states her identity as an American people will look at her beautiful tan skin and ask, “No really, where are you from?”. She came to the United States in elementary school and the only words in English she knew was “I don’t speak English”. Over a decade later, she graduated Summa Cum Laude in Political Science and is currently giving two years of her life to a volunteer program Stateside. She is on deferred action for child arrivals (DACA) and I cannot picture America without people like her. As a great granddaughter of Italian immigrants, I do not want to picture an America or a South Africa without different nationalities. She makes me proud to serve my country, and if she ever reads this I hope she knows she is always an American in my eyes.
To summarize: Less than a full month at site and I learned that America and South Africa are more similar than they are different, in both positive and detrimental ways. I also learned that I really like Ethiopian food!