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white (wo)man in africa

published: 2014-04-29

She doesn’t belong, not in this language.
It’s a word that doesn’t translate into Dutch. Perhaps only cultures who have had to fight to gain territory in this world know what it means to belong. The Dutch sometimes took, but basically simply are. They be. Be-long. To long for.
I am at the gates, waiting to board my flight to Accra. A woman sits in the row of seats across from me. She watches me rid myself of heavy bags and a floppy sunhat. I am wearing sneakers.
The woman across from me is wearing ballerina shoes, and a neat dress. Glasses; not the dark-rimmed kind, but the accountant-type. Lots and lots of golden bracelets. And her hair is well-kept. It is straightened but curled, and bobbed like mine.
She laughs and says, “it’s hard work isn’t it, travel?” Her voice has that pleasant lighthearted pitch people twist their voice into when they want to be both professional and friendly at the same time. ‘People,’ I say. While I mean the Brits. It’s an instant knowing: this woman is from England.
So I ask, “did you just fly in from London?”
She nods and I offer, “I came from Amsterdam.”
We fall still for a while and I say, “both tiring and a little scary.”
Her whole body moves in delight as she explains, so-called jokingly, how she’s so bloody scared of insects – not of the people or culture, no not that – but the insects and that she’s been spraying herself with Deet ever since she heard she was going. Her husband stuffed her carry-on luggage with dried fruits.
I too, have dried fruits in my bag.
“At least we won’t get constipated,” I add.
I can actually explain a few things to her about Accra. I lived there, not that my history with the country particularly seems to interest her. She only reacts to how big the city is, and full of traffic, the worst I’ve ever seen. Apparently, this is news to her.
I’d rather speak of different things. I’m dying to know whether what I’m thinking is right: she is a Ghanaian, educated in London and returning to visit family. But I do not want to share my prejudice. Not because I don’t think it’s true, but because it’s a prejudice. I am supposed to be a civilized, well-educated, human being, aren’t I? So I pretend I do not see her colour of skin by asking what brings her to Accra.
“Work,” she says, “I’m doing an audit of our Accra based company. I’ll only be there for five days. Hopefully I get a chance to see a bit of Accra.”
This is her first time in Ghana, in fact even in Africa. And she has wanted me to know this by exclaiming how scary it all is, isn’t it. She and I, more alike than we are different.
Then why do I feel so awkward?
Perhaps because of this: I do know Africa. While she doesn’t.
When I tell her about my own work as a writer and about the purpose of my return – to do further research on our slave history – her expression remains unchanged. It would seem she is either bored or simply disinterested. In reality, her own prejudice is now being confirmed: white woman is going to tell us all about Africa.
I quickly add that I was born in the Caribbean and am therefore naturally interested in the influence the Dutch, my people, have had on the shaping of today’s world. I frown- as any civilized person should-my my haven’t we done some godawful things? She does not mirror my disapproval.
Instead, she asks, “where in the Caribbean?”
“I’ve never heard of that, strange. I’m from the West Indies myself, you see. Jamaica. However,” – she uses ‘however’ and ‘that having been said’ a lot. She is a nuanced person, is what she’s really saying. It’s never black or white, so to speak. Jamaican, but that having been said, she was born and raised in London.
We chat on about that, until she finally comes full circle. I was right after all: “in fact, my parents are of Ghanaian heritage.”
“But you’ve never been to Ghana.”
“I’ve never been.”
“How exciting,” I say, “what a special trip.”
Once again she shows no reaction. SSo I ask what she considers herself as being, where does she feel at home? Not Jamaica, definitely not, she’d only been there three times. And Jamaicans see her as British. Although she does feel Jamaican in a way. But mainly British. Not at all Ghanaian.
Would she want to trace her heritage? She says she thinks she might one day, that having been said, nobody really does, “except African Americans, however, they have more reason to.”
Now comes that bridge to slave history. I ask her whether schools in England give it any attention or time.
She says, “hardly.”
I say, “same in Holland. That has to change.”
She is quiet for a moment and contemplative. Suspicious it would even seem.
“I hope not,” she says.
This goes entirely against everything I’ve been believing these past few years: that our slave history deserved much more attention than it has been getting. “It’s all so negative,” she says. “A few years ago, there was a sudden focus on the slave trade in schools. It made us feel worse than ever. Useless and invaluable, because it was all about how “we” were sold for hundreds of years on end and “we” were treated badly. The history is manipulated en derogatory. Why focus on the bad? Why not teach true black history, tell us about the kings and culture and the stories and tribes?”
This time I am quiet. I want to explain that in my opinion, there’s a lack of awareness in Holland. We’re only entering that stage now, quite slowly. And in order to raise awareness, one must first over-stress a point.
I don’t tell her this. She asks, “but I suppose it depends on your motivation.” And then she goes on to say, “all we get in schools is American black history. We hear about Martin Luther King, while Malcolm X is ignored.”
I find myself having to admit that I haven’t placed slave history in the context of the much broader and richer black history before. I have been treating it like a piece of a pie in “our” history, which I am about to eat. And that as a white person I am on the wrong side of this tale, despite my politically correct and therefore feeble attempts at nuance or pointing fingers in obvious directions.
I should be looking for kings, not for ruins.
This is when we start discussing the word ‘belonging’. Where does the desire for it come from? She has no desire for it, she says. She engages with friends and people who – like her – do not belong to one singled out culture. They belong to their disbelonging. She feels special wherever she goes.
I consider how I’ve been trying to find a sense of belonging my entire adult-life. While in fact, it turns out I actually do belong. To the white, Dutch culture. I simply never wanted to.

One Response to “white (wo)man in africa”

  1. Boris says:

    Skillfully painted, A.
    I just finished Marcel van Engelen’s Kasteel van Elmina, and though he does treat the black perspective on slavery, he doesn’t mention the possibility that many of them would precisely NOT want slavery discussed at length in the schools. Hmm… the complexity.

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