So, I am is’febe. At least I have been called that.
Once, dear reader, when we were much younger, a cousin of mine used that word: is’febe. Part of what it is to be as young as we were is learning to use language. Many times you get the structure right only to stumble over the particulars.
Having just slaughtered a goat or something else equally slaughterable, the men gave the older boys the intestines and the liver. Modeled on the existing dominant structures, white male dominance, the older boys’ responsibilities over the resources automatically extended over the younger boys. The older boys, perhaps testing their power, perhaps just salivating over the prospect of braai liver, dangled the meat in front of the younger boys. They, perhaps responding to that power, perhaps excited in their own right, extended their hands to touch the treasures of intestines and liver. My cousin, impressed by the weight and texture of the liver (and by how far it had travelled down the power structure to get to him?) said, “yho, sis’febe!”
Our mastery of language has since then progressed. That description is not, given a choice, one he would use to capture that moment. Nor, if it is at all up to him, would he now utter that word as loud as he did then. Then, caught in a moment that is eternal, the piece of liver suffered the indignity of being described as is’febe.
Perhaps I deceive myself, but I had not thought that there is anything substantially similar between a piece of liver and myself. If, then, I have been described as is’febe, and the piece of liver has also been described as is’febe, exactly what makes both the liver and I fit the description?
We could, of course, draw out an implicit assumption. We could argue that the word has been used incorrectly in either or both above cases. If incorrect in one of the cases, and we favor my young cousin with the error, then we could withhold this favor from the shadows. They, we could argue, understood and used the word as it was meant to. In this case I, but not the liver, come out is’febe.
If incorrect in both cases, both the liver and I are misfits to the description. In this case, more starkly than the first, we are left wondering who or what fits the description is’febe?
I admit that I am not the best second language speaker I know.
I am the only strictly second language speaker I know. Perhaps that says more about the extent of my knowledge than anything else.
I suspect that some of my linguistic woes are rooted in this knowledge.
There was a time when I had thought, foolishly it turns out, that justified true belief was about something external, something in the world. In this time, let us call it the times, it was quite true that the language of my ancestors could not speak that which is. It was not the fault of the external world that just was. It was the fault of the language. Geared as it is towards something else, the language of my ancestors is unsuited to expressing a world that just is. It is so static, a world that just is. The language of my ancestors is, of course, not unique in this respect. Many respected languages started their careers inadequate to the task of expressing a world that just is. As one of the most respected philosophers of the times saw, language has to be taught.
I am not sure what first language speakers teach their languages. I am overcome by embarrassment whenever I try following their lessons. They are so right.
You see, dear reader, I continue to teach my language what I have received from my ancestors: umntu ngumntu ngabantu. Let us call this received teaching ubuntu. Ubuntu, as I teach it to my language, holds that between an external world and umntu, the former emerges from the latter. It further holds that unless umntu is, the external world has neither meaning nor existence.
You can, I believe dear reader, now see the source of my linguistic woes. Imagine that you are wrong about, say, the nature of the external world. Even should you speak the language of angels (or God hahaha!) you would still be wrong.
I laugh at this notion, and teach my language to do the same.
Imagine, further, that I teach my language that only the world is capable of being wrong. What, then, would I teach it about umntu, and her relation to the world?
Of course I might have taught my language this lesson even had I been a first language speaker. But being strictly a second language speaker, I really cannot say.
Bantu is a language.
We disagree about this, it and me.
I think Bantu is more than a language. Of course I am not so far gone as to deny its utilitarian value. Here, in the land of the free, the extremely limited use that I can put it to is apparent.
And so, against the run of history, I tie Bantu up with my innermost being. And where I could spread my wings and fly, should hold my hands out for more and, above all, should realize just how lucky I am, my head is instead filled with thoughts of Nongqawuse. What, I wonder again and again, words did she use to utter her false prophecy.
Bantu, on the other hand, insists that it is no more than a language.
After the first few months of going cold turkey of everything African, horrified at my craving for Mzantsi (so parochial!, that need) the language emerged as an indispensable crutch. Part of it, I realize, is its insistence that I do not need it. And so, just to spite it, I need it. The other is, embarrassingly, the fact that it is right. If only I could be brave, this could be my home. Then, if I chose, I could do more for Bantu in English, as so many of my continentmen are already doing.
It is people like me, backwards retrogrades, who hold everyone up.
I saw just how much I agree with Bantu when I was recounting an experience I had in Mzantsi to a progressive academic. Even such a simple telling (turns out it was simple only to me) quickly turned into a linguistic game. I lost that game.
The problem between the progressive and me, it emerged gradually, was language. I am classified as a second language English speaker, he a first language speaker. When speaking to each other the point of reference for words and their meaning was he. The meaning of my experiences must make sense to him, so that he can meaningfully translate them.
If I am to express my experiences correctly, I will have to learn to articulate them correctly. To articulate them correctly, I will have to learn to speak correctly. To speak correctly, I need no more than the right language.
And so, with that progressive as with retrogrades of every hue, I could not speak Bantu.
I do not remember much from the time when I landed in Kansas. I think there was much emptiness, and a decent quantity of desolation keeping it company. I saw both from the sky as the aircraft landed, so I guess they could not have come from inside me.
Have I memories of the time I wish they are of those two falling without the father knowing of it.
I have naught but the madness that comes from personal choices.
When I heard a voice ask “Ndiphi?” I thought my personal choice had come for me. It was not. Disappointed, I had to focus hard to recognize what I was experiencing. Bantu, the language, impinged on my senses. It must have been this out of place experience that made me think of the Germiston train station. When I first went to Africa I had also thought of Germiston. But this was not Africa. I was in America. That is not what I told the language. To it I said, “In Kansas.” I said it in English.
Have I memories of that instant, I wonder at the collision of insignificant moments, words. People.
I remember feeling cheated later. I should have given Bantu a Wizard of Oz line with a township twist.
I could get a taxi to Lawrence, if I was willing to pay R500. It really was not so bad in dollars, less than a hundred. But I was not counting in dollars. Was there a cheaper taxi? Yes, R220. No, was there a taxi I can take to Lawrence, please, not a maxi taxi. No. A train? No. Where could I get that $35 transport again? Someone calls, they give the person on the other side a description of me. Just out the door, Sir, and wait for them to pick you up.
All the while the presence of Bantu on my senses, insistent, insubstantial, out of place. Perhaps the Dorothy line would not have been very funny after all. In JFK, where the last leg of my journey started, the last call for passengers to Johannesburg had not tickled me much either.
Walking to the door and into the sunlight of Kansas must have been hard on the language, for it asked again, “Ndiphi?”
“Kansas,” I answered, “then Lawrence and the University.”
I wanted to, but did not ask why it had come with me.