A ridiculous problem.

March 1, 2014

In response to the article: 10 Ridiculous questions asked about South Africa. In my experience questions about Africa fall into two categories: those asked by idiots – who ask ridiculous questions about everything and those which people who live in Africa think are ridiculous but which aren’t nearly as ridiculous as they might initially seem. Now I understand the article was meant as a bit of fun and tongue-in-cheek but the real issue is that the vast majority of South Africans (myself once, before I lived abroad) don’t realise the problem with laughing at foreigners with a genuine interest in South Africa.

So, let’s start with the first question: where is South Africa? Ok, fair enough – it’s the southern part of Africa. Yes, it is a pretty dumb question. This would fall into the category of idiot questions unless the person is not familiar with the definition of South or Africa.

The second question: Are there white people in South Africa? isn’t how I’ve been asked it. Most people have said – if you’re African, why are you white? Fair question. Darwin’s theory of evolution means that if my lineage had been in Africa long enough I’d be black so it’s fair to say there’s been some migration going on. I’m perfectly happy to answer questions about this. I certainly don’t have perfect knowledge of global migration and often migration stories are fascinating – I often ask similar questions when I meet migrants. Sadly most South Africans/Brits get offended by the question but in my experience Asians, South Americans and most Europeans are more than happy to talk about their family history. People who get offended often make me wonder: Why? They haven’t said there shouldn’t be white people in South Africa, just why are there. In no way is this question ridiculous to me. (I don’t think the author of the article was offended by this, but many people are.)

On to question number 3: Do you speak African? No, but I do speak Afrikaans. Which sounds an awful lot like African. Hmmm, perhaps a pronunciation issue? Even so, before I moved to Italy I only knew of Italian, not Bresciano or Sicilliano or, or, or… Similarly many people I know (particularly South Africans) are not aware of Catalan, Basque, Valenciano, Galician etc all of which are spoken in Spain. It just seems arrogant to presume all people have perfect knowledge of our 11 official languages. For me, this question (like question 2) has resulted in a conversation about the history and culture of South Africa, which most people I’ve met are really interested in.

Question number 4: Are there wild animals running around the streets? Again, this question isn’t really ridiculous if you’ve never been to Africa. Furthermore let’s put this in context. Recently a cobra was found in my cousins garden. For most people where I live that is insanely wild. And that’s in the city. If we remember that 38% of South Africans live in a rural setting then the answer to the question, for them at least, is YES. Having lived on a game farm I know that our farming neighbours did indeed have caracal, leopard, jackal and warthog regularly in their backyard. More ridiculous than the question is the belief that South Africans don’t have wild animals in their backyard. Over 1 in 3 do.

Now for question 5: Do you have a pet lion? Like it or loath it, in America, Romania, Brazil, Mexico and many other countries this is legal so probably they think you have one in a cage. Horrible thought. This question provides a wonderful opportunity to debate the morality of keeping wild animals in urban settings.

Question 6: Do you know my friend in Kenya? See question 1.

Question 7: Do you hunt for food? Again, for an urbanised South African this is a ridiculous question but in my research (admittedly a very small sample of 35) 90% of rural males aged 18 – 21 are hunting for food. Amongst females, who don’t hunt for food, a similar proportion of them had a family member who hunted for food. That’s 90% of 38%. So just under 1 in 3 families in South Africa do hunt for food. It’s a fair question and calling it ridiculous reveals more about the ignorance of urban South Africans than foreigners.

Question 8: Do you celebrate Christmas? There are 101 ways to destroy the notion of this being a ridiculous question. But lets stick to the most obvious of all: many people in the world do not. In fact MOST of the world does not.

Question 9:  Do you have electricity? I did, but again when I was living on my game farm I had many neighbours who did not. Likewise with question 10: Do you live in a hut? No, I didn’t, but many people I know do.

I certainly don’t want to tell the author she’s an idiot – she writes some great articles but this is simply a matter of highlighting the fact that perspective and context are extremely important.


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