From whence my fire burns

I have a little something that I will share with you all on xenophobia..

“I’m from Zimbabwe *jeers in the peanut gallery* and I’m very proud of the fact *more jeers*Being Zimbabwean doesn’t make me a stereotype of the Southern African country from which I hail. My nationality is but a tip of the vast Ottilia iceberg.

I have grown up aware of my “Zimness”, but it was never something that brought (brings?) me shame.Growing up a 3rd culture child, no one defined me as “The Zimbabwean Girl”, I was Ottilia. I was the class clown, the wise-cracker, the grunge-addicted child with mild OCD, the sketch artist, the one who always smiled and often burst into tears for no apparent reason… THAT was Ottilia!

Xenophobia was something I didn’t even know existed… It wasn’t possible to be xenophobic in the environment in which I grew up.. It just wasn’t possible when you were surrounded by “foreigners”; when your closest “relative” was your father’s Italian peer. Being xenophobic would have meant hating myself… Paradoxically – or not so – to me xenophobia is nothing but an external projection of your own internal nonacceptance of yourself. The xenophobic dogmatically justify their “beliefs” by arguing or supposing that by being “different” linguistically, ethnically or nationally then surely the “other” is not worthy of similar regard to those of your own kind… never mind the artificiality of the borders that separate us…

You’re Zimbabwean, you look different, you even smell different (!), you’re not one of “us” and so I hate you. You hate me for being Zimbabwean even before you know me… Xenophobia became a reality for me at Rhodes – “The hub of multiculturalism, where ‘leaders learn'”. Never before had I felt ashamed to be me… being Zimbabwean is what I was, what I am and at Rhodes I found myself not wanting to be me… but fortunately only for a brief moment in my freshman naivete… In lectures when I introduced myself there would be jeers… How could I possibly be Zimbabwean some asked.. You speak so well, they said. You are classy, some intoned. Who knew that Zimbabweans were classless people with a speech defect? Certainly not me!

A then “close” friend once said to me:”You look South African, why not tell people you’re from here? Why identify with the Zimbabweans? You’re so much better than them!”I was speechless, so much so that I have not been able to utter more than a “hello” to this person I once called my “friend” – after all, I was Zimbabwean and proud of it to boot… how then would he be able to introduce me to his “better” South Africans? Surely he would suffer the ridicule that he associated with Zimbabweans?

I come from a country with the highest recorded literacy rate in Sub-Saharan Africa. A country where you are greeted with a smile wherever you go. A country where every older woman is your “aunty” and older man your “uncle”, where your neighbour is your friend… I come from a country where the wealth extends beyond the resources straight to the people and where the sun shines even as it rains. I come from a country rich with culture and heritage. Don’t jeer when I say I am from Zimbabwe.

Don’t let your fear of my intelligence manifest into hate, allow that fear to make you desire to better yourself as a person not because I am the “other”. Don’t look at me and wonder where I’m from and hope I won’t say Zimbabwe. Look at me and see a human being, see Ottilia. Look at me and wonder what music I might like, what literature I enjoy, what drives me.. Don’t look at me and try to (un)stereotype me. I am NOT your stereotype! I am a proud Zimbabwean, with a character as unique as yours.

I am tired of the snide remarks about Zimbabwe and its people. I seek your empathy, your acceptance (even though I really shouldn’t). I want to feel that I am surrounded by leaders and not by xenophobic bigots. I am a Pisces… I am allowed to dream…

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