By Namhla Thando Matshanda
On a recent trip to the Horn of Africa I spent a substantial amount of time in Somali-inhabited areas. Most of this time was spent in Ethiopia’s Somali regional state, with a brief visit to the autonomous northern region of Somalia, Somaliland.
I feel compelled to write this piece in the context of xenophobic behaviour often meted out to other Africans in South Africa, but in particular to the sometimes repulsive attitude towards the Somali community.
I found myself in this very fascinating part of Africa for the purposes of gathering data for my doctoral research. My research has nothing to do with Somalis and xenophobia in South Africa. However, this is an issue that I find very relevant to the ongoing process of state-making in South Africa. That xenophobia is an issue the majority of South Africans find abhorrent is without doubt. What remains is to do something about it, rather than issue empty rhetoric of condemnation every time another African immigrant is assaulted. We could start by reaching out and showing a genuine interest in the people we call by derogatory names, find out where they are from, how do they live there and what brings them to our country.
Going to the region, I was not particularly concerned about my nationality. My primary concern was to meet my research objectives. However, in the middle of my research the issue of xenophobia in South Africa revealed its ugly face in the most unexpected fashion. I was in eastern Ethiopia, not yet in the Somali regional state as arranged under the federal system. On this particular day I was visiting a camel market in a rural town. I was with a guide and everything was going well, we were mingling with the merchants and brokers. In most instances it would take a while for people to realise that I was not a local, and once my nationality was established, many of the responses would be quite positive with the customary inquiry into Madiba’s health. However, on this occasion one man went completely berserk and started cursing after realising that I am from South Africa. He was not pleased, and made his feelings clear. A crowd gathered and the situation appeared to be deteriorating quite rapidly.
I managed to escape unscathed, and the people were divided, another crowd was reassuring me that I should not worry and that “we are all African”. The incident decidedly shook me and made me think critically about the fact that my next move was to go into the Somali regional state. Nothing was going to stop me, I concluded, definitely not the one man at the camel market. It was during this time that I met a man who would become my most trusted friend, Mohammed Jami, an Ethiopian Somali man. Mohammed took me to the Somali region and beyond to Somaliland, he told me that I have nothing to fear. He also assured me that as much as revenge is central to indigenous Somali justice, it never applies to women. Well, that was a relief! Not really though, because I always felt incredibly safe throughout my travels.
In a bizarre twist, in the capital of the Somali region and beyond the border many believed that I am a local. It did not help matters that I was wearing local attire. On several occasions many people could not believe that I was not Somali. Once they found out that I was in fact from South Africa, many would simply retort with “Mashallah”.
I could have had many meaningful conversations with people, were it not for the language barrier. However I am still quite pleased with the quality of interactions I had. It was incredibly humbling to see that despite the ugly stories that come out of South Africa, people still have faith in the country. It was even more extraordinary to discover that many still want to make their way down south, for education and business opportunities. I also met many who had good stories to tell me about their experiences or those of family members currently living in South Africa.
The sooner South Africans realise that they are not in a superior position to other Africans the better for everyone. In Somaliland I was told stories of how some South African freedom fighters were issued with Somali passports before leaving the continent. It is sad that our people seem to have forgotten this so quickly. The current wave of massive intra-African migration has long-term social consequences. This will no doubt contribute to South Africa becoming even more culturally diverse in years to come. This is a profoundly important experience that needs to be nurtured properly. I have been moved in the most unimaginable ways by my experience in this region of Africa, and I hope this will motivate others to venture out and discover just how we are more alike than not.
Namhla Thando Matshanda is a South African currently living in the United Kingdom where she is pursuing a doctoral degree in African Studies.