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.
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.
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?