Whenever I go back home, to my lovely small hometown Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, people always ask me the same question –“Why are you studying at Stellenbosch?? What is it like, you know with all those white people??”
And to be quite honest I never really know how to respond.
Oh, how rude of me, I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Lovelyn Chidinma Nnenne Nwadeyi. I am a Nigerian, born to an Igbo couple in Surulere, Lagos. We moved to South Africa several years ago, settled in Queenstown where I received all my primary and high school education. Being black (or I think that’s what the South African government and society classifies me as), not able to speak a single Xhosa word and having a heavy Nigerian accent didn’t help me much initially so I learnt to speak Afrikaans, Xhosa and South African English out of necessity – as a matter of survival.
Within my first two years in South Africa I could speak Xhosa which (thank the Pope) meant I had friends to play with at break time, I could speak English like (what again I think is classified as) a white English child which meant I got to have something fancy at break time besides my boring Skippy peanut butter and Koo Strawberry Jam Sandwich – you know like an extra Melrose Cheese Block or biltong or something.
Anyway, by the time I finished high school, I had a REALLY REALLY diverse group of friends. Loads of “white” friends, way more of “black” guy friends/acquaintances (Yes, south African men can’t get enough of us Nigerian Princesses) and a somewhat equal balance of coloured and Indian guys and girls in my life. Essentially by this time, I had properly lost track of where I had started in terms of my social relationships and I often was unaware that I was black and that the rest of my friends were white, coloured, Indian etc. In fact, my friends and I made so many racial jokes about whiteness, blackness, colouredness etc that we often forgot that we fall into those categories ourselves (well at least by law).
Fast forward to the 13th of January 2010, the first day I set foot in Stellenbosch. My parents and I arrived with all my stuff, ready to move into res, ready to go take a photo for my student card at Admin A and for the first time in my life, I realised that I was not colourless. For the first time in my ENTIRE life I realised that I was actually a few shades darker than everyone else in my life that was not a family. I mean duh, of course my whole life I’ve been aware that Sarah is classified as white and I am classified as black (the education system in South Africa makes that very clear from early days), but it never hit me as hard as it did on that day.
I had never seen so many white people all in one place at the same time. This was not due to a shortage of white people in Queenstown, but my GOODNESS they’re never always ALL just chilling alone in the same spot in their thousands!!
I was actually a BLACK person. This may sound lame to someone who hasn’t had a life as awkward as mine just because I have had to and still can see myself as an Afrikaner and as a Xhosa girl and as an Igbo Nigerian women and as an English “soutie” all at the same time. I can pull it off… But for me none of this ever fell into colour coded classifications. They were always subconscious recognitions of the ways of life and societal groups I could see myself fitting into at any given time.
Not so on the 13th of January 2010.
I was so confused, and for the first time in my life, I had to deal with this internal conundrum as to what I see myself as and how I was going to communicate that to people. You see, in Stellenbosch, it’s quite hard to exist as an “in-between”. There is no way (at least for me) that I have felt I can be the Lovelyn I was in Queenstown here because there is just not enough space to be the [Igbo] Nigerian, Xhosa, Afrikaans, English “soutie” person that I am. Everything seems like it has to be so clear cut here. You’re either Black, or White, or Coloured or Indian or a random mixture (which is probably even worse). And yet every night during Jool when we went back to our rooms, I was okay again to communicate with myself as that intensely complicated Lovelyn and be that Lovelyn with Alex or any other of my Queenstown people I was privileged to bump into during the day.
I know I’m taking forever to get to my point here, but just bear with me.
A number of questions were raised in my head.
What the hell was going on? Why am I now all of a sudden Black and why did that make me feel bad?
Why the hell are people staring at me when me and a white friend run across the street, screaming some random Xhosa and English words to embrace and kiss each other?
Why the hell are people freaked out that I can speak such good Afrikaans and (most importantly)
Why the hell am I the only black person in Java with a pot of Earl Grey at any given time of the week!!??
My first year life-crisis got worse though when we went to blikskit in Camps Bay during Jool and sell akkerjolle. IYHO!! That day, I couldn’t handle…
For the First Time in the history of Lovelyn Chidinma Nnenne Nwadeyi’s life, I was called a “kaffir” to my face. And that night at res at a skakeling, two Afrikaans boys that one of my friends introduced me to refused to shake my hands during the introduction. (Like I get that Stellies has an intense Afrikaans history with some slavery and apartheid vibes creeping in there somewhere, but really now?? Have we not outgrown such things??)
I died. I died 1000 times.
I couldn’t handle and it made me realise that either something in the atmosphere in the Western Cape is making people funky in their heads or everyone around me back at home was lying to me my whole life about every single life experience I have had where there were a number of races and we didn’t realise it. I chose to believe the former.
So let me tell you my diagnoses. The only reason I now realise that I am black is because everyone else around me was and still is so white or coloured or Indian or whatever. I am not saying this is a problem, but I’m just putting it out there. You can judge me for this article though and say that I was living in an idealistic perfect world and that it is important that my race forms a big part of my person and whatever else you think. But honestly, I don’t care that I am supposedly black anymore because it means so little and hasn’t really contributed much to the person that I am.
I am not saying this now so that all white people on campus can draw near to me and see me as an ally. No, I’m saying this because it’s true. Don’t get me wrong, there is a whole lot of ish on this campus that happens and stems from the root of racism and cultural prejudices, but I’m just saying, that back in Queenstown Girls’ High and Queens College Boys’ High, we all got along quite fine because your face didn’t matter, your person did. And it’s not to say that Queenstown was perfect and that there are not racists there, there’s quite a few actually and I know them.
But I’m just saying, that we need to stop looking through the colour code when we try to confront certain challenges on campus. Sometimes it is indeed, about race but I can bet you most of the time it is simply about being human. It’s about not wanting to learn about other people’s thoughts and ideas, it’s about not wanting to be flexible and accept changes, it’s often just about being fartheaded and thinking that we are academics, we are educated and we know how to solve world hunger and all other problems facing mankind. We all really just need to invite me over for coffee and I’ll tell you that sometimes, it actually has nothing to do with your colour, it just has a lot to do with how you see yourself and then put that description of yourself in a colour box.
This article is not fancy and full of big words, it’s not a beautiful social analysis that will get published in some sociology journal and get the university a R110 000 (of which I may only get a R10 000 cut #Fraud!!), it’s probably not even as cool as you thought it would be, but this is my contribution to Stellenbosch society. Sometimes, we just need to be real with ourselves and be like my word, race is overrated!
To conclude I must just tell you that:
Firstly, I still love Stellenbosch, I’m not leaving anytime soon. I hope to own Java and Celebrate on day :-P
Secondly, I have fallen in love with Sokkie-ing especially with a controlling Afrikaans young man (it just works better that way).
Thirdly, I love having my Earl Grey at Java or Celebrate whether I’m the only black person there or not.
Fourthly, I love screaming and making a noise on campus and making a point about the fact that I am Nigerian and I can speak 3 SA languages (more than what most South Africans themselves can speak).
Fifthly, I love to dance to House music, (I miss the tswalatsa and dombolo of the old days) and I go to the Neelsie gat parties once a term where the “Black” DJ’s come to give all blacks and coloureds in Stellies our quarterly fix till they come around again with supplies.
Oh by the way, I can’t swim – typical black person right??
Wrong – I almost drowned in Grade 7 when I could sort of swim, so my fear has put me off swimming forever.
With all this knowledge about me then, I dare you to classify me as Black.