My work as a writer entails usage of words. It’s no surprise then that language has always fascinated me. How it’s used, who uses it, when, where and why. A few years ago while visiting England, I took time to go and visit a South African friend’s English wife and their daughter.
My friend stayed and worked in a different town, so he was what the newly installed Vice-Chancellor of Egerton University, Prof Rose Mwonya, would call a ‘weekend husband’. When Vuyo and Laura got married, she had a beautiful two-year-old Tara, and Vuyo adopted her. At some point in time with Laura and young Tara having moved towns, Tara became friends with a young British-born South African girl at school. The two got so close that the week I was visiting, which happened to be on one of the two weeks England has sunshine, the South African family invited Laura and her child to a braai at their house that weekend.
“I have a friend from South Africa also visiting,” she asked on the phone, “would you mind awfully if she came along?”
They had no problem with my joining the party.
It had already been agreed that Vuyo would drive up from Southampton directly to the home of the braai, where we all were.
And so off we went to a braai hosted by South Africans in Northampton. There were Castle Lagers in the fridge, there was biltong for snacks, in many ways, it felt like being home away from home. The conversation started off being a bit stilted as I think my being, although expected, was a bit of a surprise.
I would know just how much of a surprise it would be when Vuyo arrived. Little Tara, who had been waiting for him went running, “daddy daddy”. Her young friend looked at her askance and loudly proclaimed, “Tara. You didn’t tell me your daddy was kaf***.” The k-word is, of course, the South African equivalent to the American N-word.
And we could be sure, given that this young child was born and brought up in England, that she had not heard the k-word in school. It, therefore, had to be the parents. The parents who had invited the white British Laura and her white daughter Tara possibly assuming that her South African husband, whom they had never seen, was also white.
I bring this up because, for those not on social media, the race issue has reared its head in South African discourse with the start of the New Year. A white woman who referred to black South Africans as monkeys for trashing the beaches brought the ire of the country on her and led to her expulsion as a member of the leading opposition party. Then there was a young white woman who lost her job after two days because she referred to black clientele as ‘kaf***s.’ Almost 22 years after the advent of the Tutu-nicknamed Rainbow Nation, where are these racial animosities coming from?
The truth is, race never did go anywhere in South Africa. And neither did the negative language that goes with it. The young woman who got fired, much like Tara’s young friend in England, has been exposed to language that tells her that certain words are okay. Thus race is always simmering somewhere under the surface. Race, to South Africa, is what ethnicity is to Kenya. In the same way that I heard the stereotypes of ethnic groups from some Kenyans I went to university with in Hawaii, a Kenyan is likely to hear about racial stereotypes when they become friends with South Africans, black or white.
And the language of the playground sometimes, too, gets children to talk about race or ethnicities. Not too long ago, our son came into the house and asked, “papa, what tribe are you?” The older male responded that he was Kenyan. If he had allegiance to an ethnic grouping, he probably would have told him what ‘tribe’ he was.
I am keen to know from readers of this column how they deal with language with children. If you are a family that acknowledges ethnicity or race, what are you doing to ensure that your acknowledgement of your ethnicity or/and race does not impact negatively on the way your children look at other races or ethnic groups? As parents or elder siblings, how do you combat negative language?