I stand out. I’m over six feet tall, white, and I drive a bright red car. And 90% of my interactions during the average day here in Joburg are in isiZulu, not English. I gave up blending in long ago.
Not blending in means that I’m asked a lot of questions.
Some days the question I’m asked most is “wasifundephi isiZulu?” My standard reply is that “ngakhulela eShowe”, but sometimes people here don’t know where that is and I have to enlarge on that by saying “ekhaya sinezilimi ezimbili – isiZulu nesiNgisi”.
Other days the response to me being me is simply “hhawu! IsiZulu sakho sihle!” I smile and say “ngiyakubongela ukuncoma kwakho – you speak English beautifully”. If you’re an English speaker in SA, try thinking of the effort it takes to speak your language when there are already between 3 and 10 other languages going on in your head.
But the most intriguing interactions are quite often those of eavesdroppers – the people standing behind me in queues at petrol station shops, or in the checkout at a supermarket, or sitting near me in a plane.
“What language is that?”
“Can you teach me?”
“How did you become so fluent?”
I take every opportunity to teach and explain and expand people’s limits. If I’m sitting next to you on a plane, and it’s only a short flight, you’ll be able to greet ngesiZulu by the end of it. I’m one of those annoying people who talks to fellow passengers, and it’s not always a one-way street – I once learnt some basic Urdu on a flight from Cape Town to Durban. I’m also more than happy to explain Latin, or Ancient Greek, or Chichewa.
So if you see a tall white guy with red-rimmed glasses standing in front of you in a queue somewhere in Joburg, assume nothing. Try saying “Sawubona”.
You might be surprised.
It might just be me.