He got up to order a pizza, then paused. With a worried expression he asked if I was a vegetarian, said he couldn’t continue our evening if I was. I laughed at his relief when I said I wasn’t and jokingly exclaimed: “you Africans and your meat!”.
He looked at me in disbelief and started laughing as if I had just said the rudest thing. It was a response I did not quite understand. Based on my time in Malawi and South Africa I had come to the conclusion that people in these countries have a thing about meat. In Malawi you have to serve meat to impress your guests. In South Africa meat roasting (braaiing) seems to be the nation’s favourite pastime, with daily servings reaching kilograms. So why did this guy act as if I had just made the most humorous, politically incorrect comment?
Because by using the word ‘Africans’ I had not said “persons, regardless of colour, born in an African country” like I thought I was. He told me that I had said ‘black people’. I, a white girl, had said that black people are hung up on meat, to a black guy I had met an hour before. He explained to me that ‘African’ is a box you tick on a form if you are black, separating you from white, coloured, and –during apartheid– Indian or Asian. The oppressive implications of this classification introduced by the 1950’s Population Registration Act are no more, but the classification upholds for a reversed policy of affirmative action. I have been wondering about this “African box”. Its content seems political, emotional, restrictive and liberating at the same time. I sense a pride in young black Africans to be African, as well as a troubled relationship with this label. I wonder who draw up the lines of the box, and who have done so in the past?
I know we foreigners throw the term African around like we understand what it means. We seem to be oblivious to the fact that this second-largest continent exists of 50+ countries with an immense diversity of people – and tribes. I myself had talked of “Africans and their meat” based on impressions collected in a mere two African countries. What do we mean when we wear a t-shirt with I (L) Africa or a necklace from which dangles an African continent? Are there t-shirts or necklaces with the continent of Asia as symbol? Can someone say that they love Asia after having visited Irak and Israel, countries we don’t necessarily consider Asian but officially belong to it?
I get more and more confused about what ‘African’ means. When I made my comment about Africans and meat, the generalisation was largely based on my interactions with white South Africans. Was I naïve to think a white person born in a country in Africa, with parents and grandparents born in Africa, is an African? Three white Africans told me they feel African when in Europe; but are treated as Europeans in Africa. How does a black African regard a white fellow country man? Why do I feel so uncomfortable about differentiating between black and white Africans? Is it because skin colour doesn’t exist like my dark skinned friend told me the other night? Touching my skin and then his own, he said that mine is not white, his is not black. It is the same friend who many weeks ago said that if I disregard skin colour I disregard part of who a person is, because they have been shaped by society’s response and construct around the colour of their skin. Both observations seem to be true, but are confusing nonetheless.
I try to untangle my thoughts and realisations on the topic of colour and race-relations, but lose the thread as I do so. Many questions have occupied my mind these passed months in Malawi and South Africa. Eight months on the African continent. Have I become (more) European by being here? Has European colonialization created the ‘African’ box, or is ‘African’ much more than that? Does African actually originate from the earth, roots, water, air and people that make up this continent? Why does it matter? Are Africans and Europeans undeniably connected by history? What am I saying when I speak of Europeans and Africans?
Loosing the thread..