– Roberta Jabulile Gumede*
It was not like being anywhere else. I walked through the now very ordinary “human traffic” that blocked my way into the city’s commercial centre and could not help but notice how the Chinese people around me, young and old, looked at me. It was as if I was a byproduct of another galaxy’s particle collision. Toddlers called out “Haise” (black), some stole a picture and, without the blink of an eye, others just stared blankly – observing my every crack and lump. They were in awe.
I had travelled to other countries before, interacted with a vast array of people who all had a variation of views on South Africa or Africa in general. During my undergraduate years in Mississippi, America, I had gone through the typical African encounters where my apparent “3rd world” country’s reality was questioned. More often than not I chose to educate in my response.
China is different. The range of questions I am often faced with are of a completely different nature. I am rarely asked questions such as “how did you get here?”, instead, I am asked questions on current topics, controversial customs, cultures and languages within the African continent. Very quickly, with no approval or warning I have suddenly become an African ambassador. Casual round-table discussions relating to Africa are no longer an opportunity for me to hear other perspectives, instead, I am now the expert as Caucasian and Orient eyes all sweep my direction the moment “dictatorship, poverty, and corruption” related topics came up.
As the questions continue to grow, my answers have become more and more scarce. The truth is I don’t know the African story. Having lived in the South African bubble my whole life, I had gained very vague know-how on the countries that formed part of my African identity. This perhaps is due to the notion that during my secondary school years, South Africa did not see itself as part of Africa. That due to our rapid economic growth, we had associated ourselves with other nations instead of our neighbours. I-for-one had not learnt about the civil wars, rise to democracy or cultures and customs of my continent; instead, I trained to skillfully write sound essays on European wars, French revolutionaries, etc. The only introduction I had to the African story was through slavery and a touch through South African exile stories.
It is important to me that, if I am to be an African ambassador, I must know the African story and experiences of the man in the street. So often, generalisations are made on the realities that face each African country. The media blankets us as people who face the same challenges, forgetting that each country has its own pulse. Ultimately, if I am going to speak on behalf of Africans, I must speak with authenticity. Therefore, in February 2016, after having been in China for 5 months, I decided to start reading the African narrative.
Hlomu the Wife, a debut novel by South African author Dudu Busani-Dube, was my introduction. Centred around a love story, the novel chronicles the life of a young Kwa-Zulu Natal (South African Province) born journalist, Hlumo and her twisted, deep and sometimes unethical romantic relationship with Mqhele, a taxi driver. What springs from this novel are important issues related to abuse, the role of the woman within a family, crime, power, as well as love.
Post my 3-day reading marathon and countless conversations around the emotions and thoughts on Hlumo, and in addition to the reality of some woman in South Africa, I felt a strong urge to know the truth of an African woman.
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (C.N. Adichie) was my first selected novel in exploring this topic. The globally acclaimed novel explores the life of Kambili, a young Nigerian girl who’s fathered by an authoritative, rigid Christian and an abused submissive mother. Her defiant older brother, Jaja, grows treading the line between child and young adult as he forms his own ideas and beliefs. Set in a politically violent Nigeria, issues relating to submission – a woman’s role within the community, the Christian faith, as well as marriage; hypocrisy – the father’s behavior within the family in contrast to the community; as well as identity – Kambili’s high walls, religion and strict schedules in contrast to their liberal aunt’s views and tradition, are explored deeply.
Purple Hibiscus allowed me the opportunity to explore a very real part of the African story. The very thin and blurry boundaries between respect/innocence and rebellion often danced around my mind as I read of Jaja’s actions, their mother’s silent cry for help as well as the father’s ideas on parenthood. I believe, like most Africans, I could identify with each character. If I had not personally experienced it, I at least knew someone close to me who had.
For the rest of the year, I have dedicated my reading choices to African voices. Inspired by C.N.Adichie’s Ted Talk on “Africa’s Single Story”, I have challenged myself and those around me to rewrite our narrative. If I am going to “live in the world” and be seen as an African ambassador, it is my duty to ensure I tell the real story. I am the first to admit that I do not know the reality of many people within Africa, let alone those in my own country, but through literature, I have an opportunity to learn, to sink my feet in their soil and breath their air.
Maya Angelo wrote, “I come as one, but stand as 10 000″ .This is the truth for most African people in Asia, or anywhere outside Africa really. Like it or not, we enact continent representatives. But, be warned, to appropriately represent Africa, we need to know the truth in order to tell it. It would be an injustice to repeat the “Black story” from a western perspective.
Educate when you know, learn when you don’t but never deviate from our Truth.
Come as you are, as 1 with 10 000 behind you.
Come as an African.
Love and light.
- N.B: Be encouraged to join in on the conversation. My next novel will be: Beneath the Lions Gaze by Maaza Mengiste.
*Roberta Jabulile Gumede (contributing writer)
is a South African from Johannesburg. She graduated from Jackson State University (USA) with a Bachelor of Business Degree in Marketing (MCL). She is currently studying Chinese at Beijing Yuyan Daxue with hopes of bridging the challenges within Sino-Africa further though her language skills. Roberta aspires to being a change agent for Africa. She strives to be an outlier of the African Single Story in hope of inspiring Africa’s growth, ultimately changing the African Narrative as we know it.