I consider it an ordeal to travel in Africa. My parents travelled a lot when I was younger and I have always wanted to travel too. The way they talked about living in Northern Nigeria, it feels like a different world from now. They never felt like strangers whenever they left home, but Africa is changing.
It’s meant to be the height of experiences; for young people to pack a bag and travel to see the continent, but present day Africa can be as hostile as it is beautiful. Being a stranger is not just about changing GPS location, it’s about being where you are not expected to be.
I am Nigerian and I am skinny. One would think identity and body size are just what they are but along with identity comes the burden of stereotypes.
A few months after arriving in South Africa from Nigeria, I visited an Indian doctor in Hatfield, Pretoria. The first thing he said was “You are Nigerian, so you gonna pay me with drugs? Ahh! I am joking!” Very inconvenient joke I must say, but that was my reward for being Nigerian in South Africa. In moments like these, you are made to feel unwelcome, assured that you are a stranger.
South Africa is a good place but when it comes to making jokes, it sucks sometimes. Some locals tell you what they actually think about you – probably something bad – and then they add that it’s just a joke. What better way to peddle stereotypes than to make jokes about them?
Now every Nigerian who leaves home is a drug peddler? The moment we step out of our borders we are labelled.
I have also heard that Indians are rapists and drug abusers too. Should I have said so to that doctor and probably added “I am joking?”
The student medical aid is compulsory for all foreign students including Nigerians who are just a little different from South Africans. The medical aid is crap from what I hear. They also know I am Nigerian and think “probably he is a drug peddler”. What happens when I need to use this aid? What if someone does not attend to me just because they think I am a criminal?
The day I visited the GP at Hatfield, I had to pay the Indian doctor with cash that I don’t have and he told me it might take another century to get my claim back. It actually took a century to get the claims department and they never paid.
That day after telling me what was wrong with me; the Doctor gave me some drugs and warned that I must eat before taking the drugs. He said “You look skinny, either because you don’t have food or you are just skinny.”
After worrying about my citizenship, now I had to worry about my body size. There are fat humans, average sized humans, skinny humans and so on and so forth. How long would it take for us to accept these differences? The whole idea of racism and apartheid thrived on the idea that skin colour is a definitive element of your humanity.
Skin colour, body type, hair or any other body feature are things no one chooses. Yet a lot of us are made to feel like we don’t fit in simply because of these things. People avoid you for insignificant factors such as the way you look, walk or talk.
Truth is, I am skinny through no fault of my own. I limp slightly, and it’s not from an accident. I was born with a birthmark on my forehead. For years, I felt different.
There are so many funny things that are not “right” about my looks but everyone has their own weird features. If you looked around you, there are at least a hundred people who don’t look exactly like you just because they eat differently or live in a different environment.
But these people are just as human as you are. Holding a Nigerian passport or walking with a limp doesn’t make one human better than another. The value of life is one and the same all over the world. Being a stranger in Africa stems from the dying culture of inclusiveness, community and hospitality that Africans used to be known for.
There is a culture of suspicion and hate eating deep into the fabric of our lives, we have been hunted, haunted and broken by strangers. Understandably, suspicion and fear becomes a defence but must we lose the beauty of Africa to fear and hate? We need to embrace universal citizenship, to travel, to love, to eat with and walk with people who seem different from us. There’s no need for us to be strangers in our own world.
*Feature image courtesy AFP.
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