“What do you mean that I cannot speak my language? If I want to speak my language, I will speak it!”
Our flight had taken a scheduled detour to Ghana’s capital – Accra – where the cabin was being cleaned by the local ground crew and a new set of meals, blankets and headsets brought on board to accommodate new passengers. I stood in the aisle, gazing out of the windows at Kotoka International’s arrival terminal and the numerous mansions that had sprung up all around it. They looked out of place, cuddling the tarmac so tightly. They bothered me, but something else had me ill at ease.
In the early moments after landing I was dumbstruck by a sensation I was experiencing. Or a lack of a sensation, I should say. I was shocked by the absence of a need to bound down the rolling stairs and run pell-mell towards to arrival hall in a desperate bid to get “home”. My pulse was surprisingly steady. My breathing easy. I demonstrated none of the physical reactions of a person who missed home, was close to home and yet so far away. I exhibited none of the frustration and sadness of being kept at bay from a desired target. What was going on here? When did the sight of Accra inspire such little arousal in me?
I didn’t have time to examine my (lack of) perplexion further. A woman’s shouting had drawn me from my thoughts.
“Even if I want to talk about you in my language, I will still speak my language! You see? This is what I don’t like about West Africans.”
The rest of her discourse was carried out in her native tongue, so it is rather unfortunate that I cannot recount in what way(s) we West Africans have grieved Sister Mfofo, whom I believe was speaking Zulu. Meanwhile, a small army of flight attendants from the forward cabins came walking purposefully to find out what had set Sister Mfofo off. She sucked her teeth and pointed to her right, presumably at the object of her verbal assault. Judging from the slumped shoulders of a young woman of about 20, the tightness around said woman’s lips and the even tighter grip she had around the handle of a mop, I’d say I was right on the mark with my assessment. The young(er) Ghanaian woman was dressed in jeans, a white t-shirt protected by a smock, hair braided into cascading extensions woven with gold Yaki number 144 and plastic gloves on each hand. In terms of airport crew hierarchy, I’d guess she was at the bottom of the totem pole. You know: Pilot à everyone else à bathroom cleaner.
Being in numerous acrimonious Ghanaian settings, I’ve seen these sorts of “African” exchanges before. There is a rhythm to them. Sister Mfofo, who was seasoned and magnificent with her cornrows braided into an up-do and a blue uniform that hugged in both the right and wrong places without discrimination was relentless in her verbal assault. The rest of the South African cabin crew looked at Sister Milicent (that’s the name we’ll call the cleaner) who had backed herself into a corner, imprisoned by the stares of these foreigners. This had gone on for about 75 seconds, which is generally when an observing Ghanaian would jump in and beg Mfofo to cut Milicent some slack had they both been Ghanaians. You know…”for the sake of peace”.
But the South Africans did not.
Chei! They let Mfofo deride Milicent, hanging on to every scathing word. How could I be sure her words were scathing? I believe the sneer of Mfofo’s lip and the cutting of her side eye were a dead giveaway. To my utter shock (and I don’t know why I was shocked, because Ghanaians are notorious cowards), not a single male airport worker came to Milicent’s aid.
Not to guide her away from the corner.
Not to inform Mfofo that Milicent had a job to do and was on a tight schedule.
Not a word in support.
IN FACT, when Mfofo proclaimed that she did not like West Africans, one Ghanaman grinned sheepishly, flashing all 64 of his brilliant white teeth. I hated him for it. I hate the way Ghanaians turn into spineless, Black versions of Judas Iscariot whenever their integrity comes under assault; particularly if a foreigner is responsible for launching said assault. It’s the most cooning coontastic display of self-hatred you’ll ever see, and it’s precisely why the Chinese and the Nigerians are colonizing the country today.
Anyway, Sister Milicent finally did manage to make her escape, cleaned the second bathroom in ‘economic class’ with waste and exited the plane. Mfofo glared at her back the entire time.
I wondered how Mfofo felt having to serve all these West Africans she loathed so much. But who can tell the private thoughts of flight attendants (unless they work for Delta, where they express their disdain for their passengers sans reserve) while they are on duty? When I tell you Mfofo gave us some of the greatest personal service, I say that with no exaggeration. She joked with Liya, called her “my angel”. She served every Ghanaian with the gentleness of a Ga grandmother: assertive, but caring. She made eye contact with us as if we were actual human beings and not subpar versions of humanity that had to be tolerated.
She was a Franken-Air Hostess.
On my previous trips to South Africa, I had heard tell South Africans distinguish themselves from “the rest of Africa” with vehemence. There’s up in Africa and then there’s South Africa, you understand. South Africa is modern, sleek, developed and civilized. Up in Africa, there is famine and ignorance; it’s primitive…All of the negative things the Western world associates with the idea of “Africa”. And then of course, there are the Nigerians who have single handedly ruined an entire district in Jo’burg, at least according to two of the natives I had the opportunity to chat with while en route to our hotel for the evening.
Mfofo’s outburst made me question whether the idea of African unity will ever become a reality. There’s a lot of work to be done if we are ever to collaborate and cooperate as a people on the Continent first, and as our assigned nationalities second.
First we have to agree that unity is something we actually want to strive for. Immediately after that, we have to answer the very serious question of what it means to be “African”. Because honestly. We can’t have Milicents running around telling other Africans that they can’t speak their language in mixed ethnic company. That’s just stupid.
I’m curious as to whether Mfofo is in the minority with her feelings, and I’m looking forward to interrogating the notion further. Has there been any healing since the recent xenophobic attacks against other Africans? It’s doubtful. I believe there has been more of a sweeping under the rug than an addressing of the wounds. In order for there to be healing, we have to first see each other. I’ll tell you what I learned about interpersonal connections and sight tomorrow!