Saturday, June 13, 2009

Desert Notes: Being South African

I’ve always considered myself to be “Proudly South African,” but even more so since moving to the UAE.

The standard introductory chatter when meeting new people in Abu Dhabi contains two primary questions. You’ll get asked “So, how long have you been here?” quickly followed by “And where are you from originally?”

And it is really cool to be able to say “South Africa.” Because just 10 short years ago, the reaction to my answer wouldn’t have been very positive at all. But now it is. And I find myself standing up straighter, smiling brightly when I say it. Because the country has done so much, come so far, and in general most South Africans I know (those still at home, and those overseas) have a positive outlook about its future.

One South African lady I met recently agrees. It’s about claiming your identity and believing in the country’s future. She said that she has proudly stuck an SA flag on the bumper of her car. Something she would have cringed at back in SA, but over here, it’s a mark of belonging.

Nobody ever asks “Why did you come here?” because no matter where you are from in the world, people come to the UAE to make money. Though many, in a deeper conversation, will ask about the crime and those with kids will ask about the standards of education.

There is a large community of South Africans in the UAE. There is talk the number, around 20 000 people, now exceeds the number of British expatriates. And considering that before it became the United Arab Emirates in the 1970’s, the area, which was then known as the Trucal States, was a British protectorate.

There are a number of South African clubs, one of which hosted a get-together in Abu Dhabi recently. There were over 140 attendees. And it was advertised purely by word of mouth! There are plenty of websites offering information and support for SA expats too. And I simply just love the name of the Abu Dhabi South African Ladies Group – they call themselves the Koeksuster Club!

And while, for the most part, people are positive in hearing your origins, you also get some odd comments too. Our accent is occasionally confused with that of the Australians or the British. And once, very surprisingly, my husband was asked if he was from Italy.

I have had a few odd reactions from some people though. Particularly from non-Western (i.e. Europe and North America) countries. One Philipino lady had never heard of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, Cape Town or Johannesburg, and kept on shaking her head every time I tried to describe where it was. Where AFRICA was. Oh to realise that your country is not the centre of the world!

But far more common is the “black” reaction. On hearing my country of origin, the listener gets this shocked look. And then the comment: “But you’re not black! I thought only black people came from Africa.”

One chap got quite adamant about it with my husband. When my husband explained that his ancestors originally came from Britain, the man made his point. “You’re British then!” he said. And no matter how hard we tried to explain that we are South Africans with a British heritage, he simply didn’t get it. Because we are white. Therefore we can’t be African.

But I am. I cannot wait to get home. And although I am happy here, my heart lies in Africa. In South Africa. It always will be. Because I am “Proudly South African.”

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