One of the greatest fears I had before arriving to South Africa was how I was going to fit in. This wasn’t in the literal sense in my ability to get along with my peers or make new friends, but rather how my identity would be perceived and acknowledged within the context of South African society.
Just to give some background: I am an African American female, Nigerian born and Southern California raised (so like I tend to like talk like a Valley Girl sometimes). Furthermore, I happened to be the only one of my kind in our Northwestern group. This resulted in me have a varied experience compared to my friends who were able to assimilate to the dominant Afrikaner population in Stellenbosch. What resulted was one of two main scenarios that I would often face while navigating my way through South African life and culture.
The first scenario I faced focused on my identity as a Black American. Whenever I would open my mouth, locals could always tell there was a foreigner in the midst. This resulted in me feeling as though I needed to defend myself from the stereotypes often associated with being both “American” and an “American Black Female”. I was challenged by people who thought I was “ignorant”, “uneducated”, “ghetto”, “lazy”, and “scary”, just to name a few qualifiers directed towards me. Beyond that I sometimes felt like I had to actively overcome these stereotypes in order for people to see who I truly was. The most difficult (read: trivial) problem I had relating to this was dealing with the merchants at the public market who tried to play me and absurdly mark up prices because they thought they could fool an American tourist; lucky for me bargaining is in my DNA (thanks MOM!).
The second and more interesting scenario I encountered more often was when people thought I was African (SOUTH AFRICAN EVEN!) just like them. The feeling of being strangely accepted as such, in a foreign place, was an odd thing to adjust to to say the least. People would come up to me speaking isiXhosa, Zulu, and sometimes tshiVenda and I would be left dumbfounded, responding
with a meek apology for only understanding English. (They would truly be surprised when I told them I wasn’t South African) Additionally, on a daily basis I was often referred to as sissy/sister by Black African men and women alike. Sissy/sister are terms of endearment used to signify camaraderie among the Black and Coloured (sometimes) communities towards women. When I was called sissy/sister, especially in public spaces it gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside; a feeling as though I belong in this space and could potentially establish a stronger presence. The one challenge that was faced with this identity was the need to adhere to a different set of cultural standards and expectations as a Black African. As a result of growing up in a relatively strict Nigerian home, I was no stranger to these expectations, but I didn’t expect it to be enforced by strangers in completely different country.
The unique experience of my time definitely was an example of intersectionality and the way in which our multiple identities can be deployed in different situations to produce varying outcomes. It was a challenge. It did become frustrating at times. However, in the end, it did prove to make me stronger, more tolerant, and more aware of the viewpoints others have of ~me~, and more importantly how I viewed myself.