The first interaction I had with someone coming to the United States went as follows:
Person X: Hi, I’m Person X.
Me: Hi. I’m Fikiswa.
Person X: I like your accent. Where are you from?
Me: Thanks. Swaziland.
Person X: Switzerland? Cool! I’m Vietnamese. That’s how you pronounce it in your country? Do you speak French?
Me: No. Swaziland. In Southern Africa and no, je ne parle pas le francais.
Person X: Oh but you just – okay. How come you speak such good English if you’re from Africa?
Okay – hold on. So here I was, speaking to a non-American asking me how I speak English, in English, when they are not English themselves. I was tempted to reply, “Same way as you I guess – colonialism.” Instead I resorted to, “International School.” Person X was the first person to be surprised by my ability to form coherent sentences in the English language, but definitely not the last as the next couple of weeks were packed with, “You’re from Africa? Wow – your English is so good.” Well, thanks I guess. That line to me is not a compliment and I will tell you why.
I will spare you the long history of how the colonizer came into our land. You (should) already know how they changed everything about us: our names were too hard for their foreign mouths to chew, and who and how we loved was too “unnatural” for them to fathom, and who/what we believed in was too “wrong” for them to ignore. So it had to be “fixed” to fit their eurocentric standards.
When I was in primary school (equivalent of grade school), I went to a school that would punish students for speaking their mother-tongue. It went to the extent of having “monitors”: students assigned by teachers to monitor other students to make sure that everybody spoke nothing but English. Now as a child I saw nothing wrong with that – they were simply teaching us to be good students and overall good citizens of the world. I mean English was the language that got you the jobs after all. Needless to say, as I grew up I realized the absurdity of this. These teachers were not just preventing us from learning and perfecting our own language, they were robbing us of a sense of self, while also reinforcing the power of the dominant. Language connects to a person’s sense of self in that it goes hand-in-hand with culture, and culture with identity. Denying a child the opportunity to explore their idea of self has detrimental consequences in the future. I have witnessed how a child who has gone to a English-medium private school has struggled with defining themselves, or even finding a group in which they belong thereafter. This is simply because they tend to acknowledge the fact that they are not native English speakers; however, they have not spent enough time mastering the art of their mother-tongue. Therefore, when they interact with people who have, the difference between the flow of conversation and lingo used is apparent, forcing them to become the “other” in their own social environments.
Now, you cannot blame these children because growing up, they have been taught that English is the superior language. We can blame parents and their teachers all we want for enforcing that idea, but we all know that that was also internalized from elsewhere. Naturally, it then becomes challenging to erase – or change – that mindset. It is the very mindset that is passed from generation to generation, ultimately allowing ourselves to still be colonized by the west. You may think I am pushing it by throwing in “colonization” there, but hear me out: the West is not physically in control of our territory; however, there is cultural dominance in the sense that there is belief that the language of the former colonizer is more valuable than that of a former dependent state. This language was forced into our mouths. We had to consume it for survival. It didn’t nourish us, but rather took away some part of us; but it was either that or starving to death.
What gets to me the most is how to this day, some people don’t even try to learn our language, starting with our names. I, for one, do not have a hard name. AT ALL. But God forbid if an American actually tried to sound my name. It’s amusing how you’ll find saying “Fikiswa” impossible, yet can not only sound, but spell “Sweighzenger” in your sleep. Firstly, my name is only three syllables: Fi – ki – swa. Yes, I will introduce myself as “Fiki” from time to time, but that’s only because my friends have come to identify me with that name. Did you get that? My friends. So no, you cannot call me “Fi” or “Fiji” or “Fifi” or whatever feels “natural” to you. I’m sorry if my name doesn’t roll off the tip of your tongue as easily as it was for you to roll off with every beautiful thing you found on my grandmother’s land. In fact, I am not sorry. I am not sorry because it is about time you learned my name. You must learn me. Learn me like you did the secrets of my land. It is about time you learned me like I was forced to learn you and your people. You need to learn my name.
I will not let you strip me of my identity like you did my mother. I will not let you reduce me to a single syllable. I will not let you reduce me to a letter.
So when someone tells me, “Your English is so good.” I fight back the urge to blantly state, “I have colonialism to thank for that.” Because, really, this language is not mine and (still) does not belong to my people.
By. Fikiswa Tsabedze