Are you safe? Please stay safe

The statistics and scenes of violence against black immigrants in South Africa are horrible. A young Cameroonian student in South Africa writes about what it is like to live under such insecurity.

Anne-Sophie Leens via Flickr.

I was very excited when I was given the opportunity to study in South Africa in 2017. Cameroon’s political crisis had reached boiling point. On October 1 of that year, the Southern Cameroons Ambazonia Consortium United Front had declared its independence from Cameroon’s French-dominated central government. Foolhardy boys were being encouraged by online “leaders” of the Anglophone secessionist movement to take on the Cameroon government. Meanwhile the mercenaries also known as the Cameroon armed forces were killing these boys from Ambazonia (also known as Amba boys) like flies. Still, the news of my scholarship came with apprehension, knowing what I had heard of South Africa: Periodically, locals had gone on pogroms against Africans from elsewhere on the continent, there as immigrants, refugees, students or temporary migrants. Hundreds had been killed, often in a gruesome manner and thousands left homeless.

Several people asked if I would be safe and I responded with false bravado, “Would you ask me that if I was going to the US given how often mass shootings happen?” Still I recall breaking down one evening, a month before my departure. I had read an academic article by my then-prospective supervisor about horrific sexual harassment statistics among South African students. I wrote to a close Cameroonian friend and told her I felt like having sex before I left, so the first time would at least be pleasurable. God forbid, I traveled to South Africa and that first time was a rape.

I was having this conversation in the dark, due to the power outage in my part of Buea that evening. I struggled to find a taxi heading into town to meet another friend, someone I was meeting in person for the first time. As I crossed Mile 16, I came across men wearing heavy armor, their presence frightening. But despite the violence and instability at home, South Africa seemed scarier because of its rape statistics; scarier than America’s mass shooting; and even more so than La Republique Du Cameroun’s hired men with guns who made getting a taxi difficult, and robbed me of the very sense of security they were meant to ensure. I remember my new friend telling me not to be so worried about South Africa. Later that night, I prayed, “Lord, I will not experience what my mother has not experienced.” It was a silly prayer because I’ve never asked my mother if she’s been raped or sexually molested. And she’s never asked me either.

I stayed in South Africa for nine months uninterrupted before I visited Cameroon again. During my time away, the crisis back home grew even worse. I often joked with friends that the fear I had of South Africa was now directed towards home, as we increasingly heard of both soldiers and Amba boys raping young women, of homes being burned with its occupants inside, of kidnappings, and of mutilations. By the time I returned in December 2018, I wrote out a will; dramatic, I know. I prepared my mind and friends in case I was kidnapped: “This is what you should do for me and who to contact.” I bought a stun gun and pepper spray for myself and several female friends.

Back home in Cameroon, I adjusted to the insecurity. We have all adjusted to it. We have learned when and where to speak. Not to speak freely in public transport for fear of informants, nor to visit certain neighborhoods for fear of kidnapping. This was very similar to the way I protected myself in South Africa, by never being off campus late by myself. Never going downtown alone. The way I had my seamstress adjust my clothes prior to traveling to South Africa so they wouldn’t show cleavage, so too I adjusted my schedule in Cameroon and my identity to suit whoever I was dealing with; whether it was a Francophone soldier or an Ambazonia fanatic.

So, after one year, after experiencing a similar insecurity at home and abroad, when people write and ask if I am okay, I sometimes wonder how to respond. But these days, the simple answer is, “Yes, I’m safe. I’m not at risk of xenophobia given my profession, socio-economic privilege and location on campus …” Yet the more honest answer is: “No one’s safety is sure anywhere. Today just wasn’t my day by God’s grace.”

Growing up, I moved around a lot so having a home of my own has truly been a great aspiration. Packing out of my place in Buea earlier this year was heart-wrenching, though I can’t complain when I know how many Cameroonians are lining up to leave the country by any means necessary. Still, this is the first time in a long while I can be classified as a real immigrant because it is the first time I am unsure of when my return ticket will be booked. When I considered writing the piece about my perceptions, as an uncertain immigrant, I thought of how one determines where one can be home.

I am often asked; “Can you live here? Do you want to remain in South Africa?” This question is generally posed by South Africans, while other immigrants mostly assume I will stay and even suggest what I could do after the PhD. I was told by a friend—who has never been to South Africa—that I should never let South Africans know I’m staying in their country for long, or else they will feel I came to take their opportunities and I will experience hostility. Luckily for me, my truthful response is considered the safe answer. I typically say, no, I’m not planning to live here. I want to return home, but I just don’t know how soon for sure. I have noted that this response puts some South Africans at ease, but not by way of, “oh you’re not going to take my opportunities.” I sense the ease comes from their sense of my privilege. This one isn’t desperate. This one has a choice. This one is just passing through because Ja, neh, if I was doing a PhD, I too would be passing through.

I feel the issue of privilege is often missing from discourse on the immigrant experience in South Africa. Oh, yes we know that xenophobic attacks do not target all immigrants equally, we have factored in race, but we haven’t really considered the power of perception. Who is seen as a threat and why? Where does the class struggle come from? I have only ever sensed hostility as an immigrant twice. The first time, it happened after I ventured towards an old white guy who drives a taxi and who had once driven me to my place on campus. The black brother on the side was upset, saw it as an affront that I had chosen the white guy over him without registering that I had used the old man before, or considered that the white guy’s taxi was nearer and I was struggling with bags. So, I was jeered at and made to feel small. Yet, I understood the brother, because when you have lived with racial inequality day in and day out, you tend to see everything as being about race (the reason why living in America can kill you). Every experience is then colored by race.

The next experience involved a group of young lawyers who accosted my colleagues and I—all of us immigrants doing PhD’s or postdocs. After the introductions, they asked us if we were government ministers’ kids because they couldn’t fathom us, immigrants, living on campus and enrolled in our respective programs, unless we were the kids of the government mis-managers looting the wealth of our home countries. When we told them that we were on full scholarships from the university their expressions changed. They asked us: “Don’t you find it odd that the university can give you enough to get accommodation on campus when so many of its students have to come in from downtown and the townships because they can’t afford living on campus?” I did find it odd. I could have debated and told them that I deserve my sponsorship because I am providing a service to the university through my research. But, I recognized that even though I felt their hostility was against me, what they really hated was the unjust system. I was just a symptom of the disease. That I could see this, and that I could empathize with the black brother who was offended when I approached the white taxi driver, is in itself a privilege; the privilege of being educated enough to know better. A privilege many don’t have, and many were intentionally robbed of.

These two instances being my only experiences thus far, I feel ill-equipped to respond to queries about safety in the face of xenophobia, or to raise my voice in anger about it. To be honest, I see too many similarities between those who carry out xenophobic attacks and the Amba boys in my country. Their anger is justified, though they are expressing it in the wrong way and directing it at the wrong people. Victims of xenophobic attacks are the poor immigrants, the ones who can’t get white collar jobs and so have to struggle in the already brimming field of entrepreneurship, and blue collar work. The victims of xenophobic attacks are seen as threats because the South Africans who didn’t benefit from the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) wave see them as their only competition. Meanwhile the white minority and BEE beneficiaries couldn’t care less about correcting that misconception. I’ve yet to hear of a xenophobic attack against a university professor. And let me tell you, many are immigrants. Yes, there are stories of immigrant white-collar workers being passed up for South Africans, but nationals getting preferential treatment is not rare, and being a runner-up is a reality for immigrants everywhere.

Xenophobic attacks, however, are different. A bottom-level occurrence. As I learned in Cameroon earlier this year, being poor and of low socio-economic status amplifies everything. Those who are being attacked run small shops, vending kiosks, and work in the service industry. They live and work in the congested areas, in low-income housing, and are therefore not protected by the distance and aura of the suburbs. Just as is the case in Buea, where those who are forced to respect ghost towns and those who can have their homes raided at any time live in Mile 16, Bomaka and Muea. Just like I implied earlier, there is Buea and there is Buea. So too, there are immigrants and there are immigrants. We must not act like we are ignorant of why xenophobia is a thing. That ignorance is dangerous whether fake or real.

It shocks me every time I hear an immigrant complain about how lazy South Africans are, how much crime there is here, how much we immigrants deserve the opportunities because we are obviously more educated, more qualified, more willing to take pay that is lower than that of the white South African’s pay, and be happy doing the work. It surprises me, because I feel like before coming to South Africa, everyone should do their homework. Understand the policies, the history, and the social factors that contributed to a people not respecting the system of education. Be grateful—if you must— that if we are “better” it is because we did not experience what they went through in their recent past. And finally, consider how the environment for crime was created. Actually, the last part makes me laugh because for a country with a supposedly crazy crime record, South Africa is still able to maintain its shops and buildings with glass doors and windows—something that couldn’t be done in Cameroon. We would rather have windows with bars, steel gates, and fences with prison wire and shattered glass at the top… But I digress.

I hope you understand that I am in no way excusing xenophobia. Nor am I trying to paint South Africa to be better than it is. What I am trying to do is pass on a lesson I learned from Cameroon’s crisis. As much as we can call out the violence, let us not be ignorant about why it happens. A viral post that was wrongfully attributed to comedian Trevor Noah stated that those who participate in xenophobic attacks have “misplaced anger and prejudice built on an inferiority complex.” That is correct. So while calling them out for their attacks, can we address the roots of the anger they’re misplacing? Can we address the socialization that builds the prejudice and the inferiority complex? That could be a more sustainable solution.

My ongoing research examines the assumption that acquiring higher education empowers Cameroonian women by first re-conceptualizing empowerment based on relevant theory and the opinions of Cameroonian women themselves. As I followed tweets on #UyineneMrwetyana (a University of Cape Town student murdered by a postal worker when she went to pick up a package), my research came to mind. This young woman would be considered empowered for acquiring higher education in a country where statistics show she would have had to overcome a great deal to get there. But how empowered was she indeed? In light of her rape and murder, what power did she truly have to exist?

During my stay at home earlier this year, I was discussing with a group of friends and older colleagues about my “protective measures”: the stun gun and the pepper spray. It began with them suggesting I was exaggerating, but the conversation unearthed a well of information about tactics women have devised to get themselves out of dangerous situations. If I planned to write a post about it, the title would be “Things women shouldn’t have to know.” I would mention things like carrying a red pen and a sanitary pad if visiting a male friend or new boyfriend’s house so you can go into the bathroom and fake a period if they come on too strong. Things like giving the wrong name and phone number when asked by a guy you do not want to share that info with but then putting off your phone and explaining that your battery is dead so they can’t try the number until you’re gone. Things like carrying your drink while dancing at a party so it is never left unattended to avoid getting drugged. Or, when having a boy visit your room, leaving your door open… things like this and many more that prove we all know men have a problem with accepting a “no.”

So when I hear “stay safe” or “please take care” in the wake of #UyineneMrwetyana, what I am reminded of is the need to take more protective measures to ensure I am not next. Because we expect another victim. A conversation with one of my research participants comes to mind. I said: “I am well educated, earn an income, speak more than one language, can vote and articulated my thoughts. I am so empowered… So much so that I can worry about my dressing and change three times before leaving my house. So much so that a ‘sorry’ starts nearly every other sentence I make. So empowered that I can’t wear a pant suit and gain entrance to certain government buildings in my own country. So empowered that I mentally debate word choice so I am not perceived as rude, unladylike, and unlikable. So empowered that I use my mom, or an imaginary partner as an excuse to fend off unwanted advances. So empowered that I walk around with pepper spray. So empowered that I know all these ways to survive. And yet, so obviously disempowered because I need all these ways to survive.”

And that is how we are, learning to stay safe.

A lesson from a philosophy class has remained with me over the years. As Mr. Afanyi, my upper sixth philosophy teacher explained, one of the reasons Philosophy took off more in Greece despite the fact that the Greeks learned from the Egyptians, was because “the Greeks had sufficiently answered the question of subsistence.” In other words, one must address basic needs before emotional, psychological and intellectual battles. When you have no food, you don’t question whether you are using it to feed emotional wounds. Your stomach growling is far more pressing than any emotional hunger which would make you crave sugar.

So when I receive a message saying “Seen the news of what is happening in South Africa, are you safe?” I usually appreciate the concern, but then wonder if I should respond truthfully; should I say that I am not safe, especially from myself?  Then I remember, no, they are asking about physical safety, and not the insecurity of your mind that cripples your ability to function.  But the irony of responding that I am safe amidst the xenophobic attacks while still struggling with, and recovering from, thoughts of self-harm is one which I don’t have the words to capture here. Let’s just say it’s a poignant incongruity.

What is more of an enigma is how one responds to those concerns being shared by people who are contributing or have contributed to your poor mental health. Imagine the effort it takes to unlearn toxic thinking and heal unseen wounds by yourself. Then imagine that the person responsible for your wound writes to wish you to stay safe in the midst of the violence. Yet, as much was one would like to scoff at these concerns knowing that even the threat of physical harm trumps the reality of emotional and mental harm. So, when asked, “Are you safe?” You don’t respond that you’re dying slowly; fighting hopelessness and looking for a reason to believe you should keep trying every day. You don’t say you are not okay. You don’t say you are walking around scathed, “faith-ing it till you feel it.”

You take the question the way it is given, not the way it could matter. You interpret it simply as “are you out of harm’s way?” To which you respond, “Yes, I am safe. My neighborhood hasn’t had any xenophobic attacks yet.”

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