Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Where do we belong?

Chimamanda Adichie often speaks of how she became aware of her blackness, when she left Nigeria to live in the US. It had never occurred to her that her skin colour had any significance, other than being one of the skin colours that exist.

After living in two countries that are not my country of birth, like Chimamanda, I realise that living abroad can make one conscious of things that one would ordinarily be oblivious of. Many times I don’t realize some of the things that I am now conscious of, until something happens.

My most recent is the consciousness that language is not just about words and speech, but also about belonging, inclusion and exclusion; a realisation that was prompted by a call that I made to KPLC to report power outage in my area.

belonging-quotes-2

Late last week, I got home from work, and there was no power. After being notified that there had been a power outage all day, I called KPLC…

The call goes directly to an automated voice machine, which asks me to press a certain number to speak to an attendant. The lines are obviously busy, so I am put on hold, and every 60 seconds or so the automated voice message notifies me that all the lines are busy, and thanks me for my patience.

I then realise that the automated recording speaks in a British accent. It also occurs to me that there isn’t a Swahili recording, and therefore someone who doesn’t speak English, would have a difficult time understanding, and consequently getting assistance.

I wonder aloud why a Kenyan public company is addressing me in a foreign accent, and more concerned that a recording is not done in the national language.

I realise that I am conscious of this, because while living in the Netherlands, I often had the challenge of understanding automated voice messages recorded in Dutch. I remember how often I had to call all the numbers provided on a website, trying to get to a number that would be picked by a person, and not a machine, since I could explain that I didn’t speak Dutch.

After several such frustrating incidents, I realise that the Dutch expect me to live by their rules while I am in their country, and they will not adjust their systems to suit those who decide not to learn the language. It reminds me, in no subtle ways, that I don’t belong.

I then remember an incident in the UK, when I called a British Company and my call was answered by a call attendant with an Indian accent struggling to speak in a British accent. After he had finished assisting me, I asked what his name was, and while I was expecting a Sumra, Vijay, Shah or Sumit, he gives me a typical English name, something like John Smith.

This call reminds me of the movie, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which Evelyn, a retired British woman moves to India and takes up a job in a British outsourcing call center. In her job, she teaches Indian call center workers to speak in British accents, and even how to make small talk, the British way.

I think to myself, I guess if you are going to work for a British Company, you have to speak like the British, understand what makes them tick, even if you are in a call center located in Mumbai, Abuja, or Nairobi, receiving calls from London and other English cities. I realise that to belong in this place, I may be forced to begin killing hints of my roots, and adopt the British way of life. I begin to understand why I meet so many Africans in the UK, with weird sounding accents. I become more conscious of their struggle to belong.

Going back to my KPLC call, as I am put on hold, all these incidents play in my head, and I ask myself why KPLC has opted for an automated message speaking in a British accent. I get irritated, because it not only reminds me of my experience of not belonging in foreign lands, but it also gives me a sense of not belonging in my own country.

I get even more annoyed, because I realise how language can be used to exclude people in the very place where they should belong. It reminds me of a few video and audio recordings I made immediately after finishing university, trying to get into the Kenyan media, as a newscaster.

I remember the disappointment I felt, when it dawned on me that I would never get into any of the stations that I was applying to, because my accent did not sound like I had attended an upmarket British or American school. Neither did it indicate that I may have lived in the UK or the US for some time in my life. I realise that while I have been awarded a degree, and conferred with power to do all that appertains to it, that I sound too Kenyan in my speech to be accepted in certain careers. In this case, I can only belong if I have a tinge of the foreign.

Once KPLC sorts out the power issue, and I now have access to the internet, I get on social media to see what has been happening while I was in darkness. The hashtag #Mollis is trending on Twitter, and I wonder, what is this Mollis? Maybe a new discovery? A new type of car? A new restaurant or club?

I realise that Mollis is the name that has been given to a rapist, and it is actually a mockery of the fact that the woman being raped cannot pronounce the name Morris correctly, because her English is influenced by her mother tongue. Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) also create memes and jokes using the word Sallenda, which I realise, is how she pronounces surrender. This is also her way of pleading with Morris, and indicating that that she cannot endure the violent sex anymore, as Morris insults and continues to forcefully thrust himself on her.

shape-sorter-bullies

As I read tweet after tweet, I realise that the fact that she sounds too Kenyan, and more rural than urban, has contributed significantly to people’s inability to empathise with her pain. I find myself thinking about Ngugi wa Thiong’o and wonder if this is what he means when he encourages Africans to write in their languages, arguing that the language of the colonizer is a tool for oppression.

I wonder what the hashtag would have been, if the woman being raped spoke in an American or British accent. Perhaps the hashtag that would be trending would be #FindMorris. Perhaps our colonised minds would believe that this woman is indeed being raped, and we would be looking for her, to help her report the incident, so that Morris can be arrested. Morris would be a beast, a wanted criminal, and the object of our venom, as opposed to the hero he has become, and the accolades he has received.

I find myself thinking of how language has been used to remind me that I don’t belong, while in foreign land, and how it continues to determine who belongs and who doesn’t belong, who gets heard and who is ignored, who is respected, and who is not, even in my home country.

Where do I belong? I wonder. Not abroad, not home. Where do I belong? Where does the woman being raped by Morris belong? Where do we belong?

belonging

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Comments on: "Where do we belong?" (17)

  1. I sound like a white person when I speak Kiswahili or Kikuyu. It is something I’m not proud of because once I open my mouth and people hear this funny intonation that I have, they begin to cringe or even laugh at me.

    And English? That too comes with an accent that many who went to an up market school have. It doesn’t sound British or American, it just sounds up market Kenyan.

    This makes me feel so displaced because where do I fit in a normal setting? I fit only with myself.

    I have constantly ignored my feelings on this. Always keeping my thoughts at the back of my head.

    Now I have to bring it out in the open and deal with it .

    Like

    • Thanks for reading, and for your comment. I think there are quite a number of us who don’t belong anywhere, and for different reasons.

      I like your comment “I fit only with myself”. I feel that way too, and my writing is also my other space / world, where I fit in.

      I wish you good luck finding the place where you fit in.

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  2. Nina Sairo said:

    I couldn’t have said it any better. ..language is truly a weapon of oppression

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    • Thanks for your comment Nina. If we are to truly emancipate ourselves, we must be conscious of all the ways in which we are still colonised, and begin freeing ourselves.

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  3. First, I love your style of writing. Absolutely so! I love how you touch the inner self and fuse different events and settings to drive one point.
    I also agree with your issue of language and belonging (or the lack of it) esp in our Kenyan setting. That said, I think the expectation by some that we learn their ways is discrimination, and you are suggesting we discriminate back.Rumor has it that the late John Michuki addressed all employees in his personal businesses in Kikuyu and no other tongue, and, of course, expected response. Pray, tell me what that is.
    Again, I think you are keen on ratifying assumptions. You assert rape, and what the reaction would be if the accent was different. Are you very sure about any of the two? Then why not clearly state it as opinion. In the interest of absolute fairness.

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    • Thank you Mboya for reading, for the comment and compliments.

      I am not in any way suggesting that we discriminate. I guess you pick this up from the point where I discuss Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s ideology that Africans should write in their languages. I think writers that can write well in their mother toungues, and wish to do so, should. I see no problem with that.

      What I pick from Ngugi though, is that we need to be conscious of the yoke of colonialism on us, and how it manifests itself, because we cannot break off what we don’t even see, let alone understand. What I bring out in my article is how we continue to oppress our own, just as we were oppressed by the colonizers. Frantz Fanon discusses this very well.

      For many of us though, that is impossible to write in our mother tongues, because many of us lack the fluency. I for instance, express myself best in English, and it is therefore not practical for me to write even in Swahili, let alone my mother tongue.

      That said, I am not sure which writer it is, in response to Ngugi’s ideology, who says, that we can use the language of the colonizer to tell our stories. We can use the language to shape our narratives, differently from the way they have been previously written about us.

      In my opinion, all non-consensual sex is rape, and I will not argue about that. My argument on how society would respond if she spoke with an American or British (influenced) accent, is a hypothesis, based on the respect that is accorded to Africans that speak less in African influenced accents, compared to those that speak in foreign accents that are considered more superior.

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  4. A great read! Issues surrounding language are so loaded. I have been living in a town where English is the 2nd language. I get different responses depending on how I speak. If I am articulate and go into conversations in English without apologising for not speaking the local language, then the power balance tips to my side. If I do what is correct-notify the person I am talking to that I am most comfortable speaking English, sometimes I see the irritation on people’s faces.A friend who is from U.K and is of Middle Eastern background tells me that he would never speak in Swedish-the first language, as he’s often taken for a refugee.

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    • Thank you Gik, for reading and commenting. It’s interesting how language and power are intertwined, and how often we are unconscious of the complexities of language.

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  5. Cherotich M said:

    Couldn’t have been put better…

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  6. This is so insightful. And yes, I firmly believe that if she sounded British, American or upmarket Nairobi, there would have been more sympathy for her. A lot more. Incidences like these and the reactions that follow fill me with dread and confusion. Still can’t get over how people think sometimes.

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    • Thank you for reading and commenting Lydiah. I feel the same way too, but we must not despair. No matter how small our efforts, they add up to something. I am encouraged by the fact that my life as a woman is so different from that of my grandmother who is 50 years older than me, or my mother who is 25 years older than me. It’s the small efforts that have made life so significantly different for my generation, and it is our small efforts that will make life completely different for generations to come. Don’t despair yet!

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  7. Everyone speaks with an accent, even within England accents vary. Knowing this, I speak in a way that is real to me. Faking an accent to appeal to another has always felt unnatural and contrived, so I never do it. I’d rather speak slowly or repeat myself to get a point across, than ape an accent. http://msshayera.blogspot.com/2012/01/whats-with-fake-accents.html

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  8. Thanks for stopping by Shayera and for sharing your blog post :). True, everyone has an accent, the problem is when you feel that you are not adequate or are made to feel that way because of the way you speak.

    I think the problem starts when good enough of anything is measured using a eurocetric lens. You can only find god, if you practice a western religion. You are developed, if you turn your cities into concrete jungles resembling the west. You are educated, if you go to a school with European fashioned curriculum. You are civilised if you speak a European language, and the better you speak it, the more respect you earn.

    It’s even more tragic when the global south adopts this thinking, and uses it to colonize its own people.

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  9. ppdisland said:

    WOW. you put it well, you give us a point to reflect from about belonging. about language, and how it can open or slam doors in your face.
    Maybe we are more colonized than we think.

    Like

    • Thank you for reading and commenting. After I posted this and reflected on it, I said the same thing you say, we don’t even realise how colonized we are. And what a tragedy to think you are free, when you are not.

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  10. I like this. I hadn’t thought about the Morris thing but for sure people took her accent and ran with it missing the issue at hand.

    The radio issue highlights our infatuation with eurocentrism.

    It’s interesting the things having an accent can obstruct you from – including who you date.

    Like

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