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“You’re From Africa? How Come You Speak Such Good English?”

Photo courtesy of dxcoffee.com
Written by Fikiswa Tsabedze
Photo courtesy of dxcoffee.com
“…so where’re you from, Figi (Fiki)?”
“Swaziland.”
“That’s so cool! Is that how you say “Switzerland” in your country? Please say something to me in French”
No, that is not how I say “Switzerland” in my country – we say it like you do and je ne parle pas le francais – je le comprend en peu (No, I didn’t Google Translate that).
I am a Swazi who has been in the United States for two months now, and that’s the conversation I’ve had with numerous people before trying to explain exactly where Swaziland is located. And that’s when the, “You’re from Africa? How come you speak English so well?” comes in. Firstly, thank you, so do you. Secondly, I have over 60 years of colonialism to thank for that – oh, excuse me, I meant “protectionism.” Then there’s the “How did you get here?”, “Do you have airports in Africa?” One response to this question that I liked is from Nigerian author, Okey Ndibe, who responded that he sailed through the ocean on a crocodile – and to his amusement, his audience believed him.
I think most Americans – like a huge part of the world – have received a single story of Africa: a story of pain and suffering where the population is dying of starvation and AIDS. To be honest, were I not African, I would probably also believe that Africa was full of half-clothed illiterates waiting upon the merciful hand of the West. I, too, would fail to see Africans as intellectual equals. I would not be able to fathom their ability to construct coherent sentences – let alone in English! I would be surprised if when asked to produce their playlist, an African showed me Drake, Maroon 5, and Coldplay. I would expect them to show me their native music filled with drumming, wailing, and ululations. I would also turn to them when the topic of the slave trade comes up in class. When the professor asks about something that happened in Somalia, I would turn to the South African, ignoring the fact that they live thousands of miles away and possess different cultures, language, and beliefs.
Before you infer that I find the ignorance of the Western world excusable, let me just mention that they are not entirely to blame for the image they have. As previously stated, throughout their lives, unless they physically step onto African soil, most Westerners will have a single narrative about Africa. We may lay the blame on the media who are responsible for telling the African story, and sure enough, if you tell a story about a certain people over and over again, that’s who they become.
I enjoy seeing the portrayal of Africa through the eyes of the West, not only because of its ridiculous lack of accuracy, but because it’s also very amusing. Every Western writer has a template for writing about Africa: first and foremost, Africa is portrayed as just one country, when in fact it has over 50 countries – 50 different cultures. This is why it is not surprising, when I tell someone I’m from Swaziland and they go, “Oh, so you’re from Africa? Do you know my friend in Nigeria?” Yeah, John, I definitely know your Nigerian friend. We ride monkeys together after walking our pet cows. Then the writer has to have words such as “Darkness” and “Safari” in their title. Let’s not forget the “Lion King” tree. You know, the one tree in the Sahara enveloped by the breathtaking African sunset with its red and yellow and orange paintings. Africa is hot and dusty, with rolling grasslands and bare-breasted women clasping onto the hand of a thin, malnourished boy with a fly dancing over his head. Moreover, don’t forget the reference to the rhythm Africans have that lie deep within their soul – the one that keeps them going. There aren’t any intellectuals in Africa. No entrepreneurs. No doctors. No managers.  Just suffering, disease stricken people. People without a past. People without a future. That’s important. It portrays the “real Africa.” Animals are important, too. They have character, strength, and ambition. They are not spoken ill of. Animals are a part of Africa. Animals and wide, empty spaces. Spaces created by the depopulation of “The People” by AIDS, Ebola and Genocide (otherwise it’s generally overpopulated – which is its problem in the first place). If Africa is lucky, she will fall into the hands of a generous Westerner who cares about the continent; someone who fell in love with her beautiful forests and red sunsets.
So the “your English is so good!” that I get doesn’t come as a shock to me anymore. Instead, I have developed a certain level of humour towards it. I simply express my gratitude while complimenting them on their English as well. Honestly, it is not my place to educate people. If they want to learn, they will abandon their stereotypical views and actually open themselves up to acquiring knowledge that stretches far beyond the classroom. They will aspire to learn other stories about Africa, not the single story they receive from the media.
People who work in media have a certain agenda and know exactly what to do to ensure continued consumption of their product. They are usually driven by propagandistic motives. Africa is far greater than what the media portrays. This is why I, as well as other people from different African states, will get a surprised stare when we say something in English (without an “African” accent – which I apparently lack, might I add) or lack knowledge about the culture of another African state. However, Africa is not one country. Africa, although it has poverty issues, is not doomed. Africa has hundreds of languages and cultures. Africa has airports, highways, schools, universities, hospitals, intellectuals, lawyers – the list is endless! So yes, I am an African and speak good English – what’s your point? 

About the author

Fikiswa Tsabedze