Evolving language

I’m sure you know a few people who are very pedantic about the English language – the only right English being that spoken in England and the antithesis being American. However, those of us from the old colonies and dominions know that our English is just as valid and has evolved and become enriched through the other languages in our environments. Jewish friends in the UK are often surprised at the range of Yiddish words which feature in South African English (Yiddish poet Frankel Fram; SA literature). And then we have that wonderful language spoken on the mines but which never fully developed – Fanagalo. (song by Thys giving a basic flavour of the language, and for those looking for something a bit more serious as an example, I was surprised to find the Story of Jesus according to Luke all in Fanagalo.)

I’m a great one for coming up with new words. One of my favourite is ‘stoven’ – a combination of ‘stove’ and ‘oven’. I fell into the word accidently when we were having our kitchen refurbished and in talking to the builders got myself so confused as to which item I was referring that it seemed easiest to combine the words. Ten years later, we still refer to the stoven. More recently, I’ve discovered the word ‘niblings‘ to refer collectively to nieces and nephews. Again, it’s a new word yet to move into common usage and I hope it does. This makes me realise I’m quite lazy, happy to find short cuts, which remain meaningful – text speak is completely out in my book.

It’s unlikely that any words I come up with will end up in the Oxford, Collins or other reputable dictionaries in the same way that Roald Dahl has had words acknowledged. I’m not sure how many of these six words I’ll be using regularly. I think I’m more likely to use transvaalitis, perhaps tweaking its meaning slightly as I do like the image it conveys.

The evolution of language is important. It allows us to reflect our time and societies more effectively. Micro-nation, a term made popular by Wangari Maathai in The Challenge for Africa to describe the various ethnic groups found in Africa today.

Another significant term to come out of Africa, from an earlier time is holism. This was one of Jan Smuts’ contributions to philosophy. The word, originating from the Greek, was brought to prominence by Smuts in his book Holism and Evolution. Smuts developed on Darwin’s theory explaining how everything is interconnected. Many rejected Smuts’ theory at the time, taking this to be against Christian beliefs. In doing so, they ignore Smuts’ deep spirituality – it all fits together, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. In fact, it transcends Christianity to be all encompassing, irrespective of belief. (Nature’s Holism; Callie Joubert)

Finally, I think we need to start reclaiming certain words for their original and varied meaning rather than having their use narrowly restricted. Words such as gay and aid(e) immediately come to mind. Then there are those words which are acceptable in some communities but not in others – rubber vs eraser, pants vs trousers – while others have different meanings: now, just now and now now. This post might also be of assistance for someone trying to understand South African English. And then of course, there’s always Jeremy Taylor’s Ag pleez daddy (not quite politically correct today, but definitely reflective of its time).




This arrived in my inbox this morning as I was trying to decide what to share. It reminded me of our trip through Calvinia, a few years back now, when we discovered they have an annual sheep counting competition as part of the Hantam festival. Here’s what happened in 2011 (in English) for those interested. This could be a bit of a challenge for those suffering from insomnia if there are such limited opportunities to ‘count sheep’. There are some opportunities in Australia too by the looks of things and New Zealand have taken Counting Sheep to new levels – a little more accessible in this format.

I rather like sheep, along with cows, pigs, camels, elephants and warthogs (not necessarily in that order). And this week, two South African-made sheep made it into our garden. They’d been waiting in-doors for the English summer. (For anyone interested, they don’t know how many breeds of sheep there are anymore – too much interbreeding?). I first developed a liking for sheep back in 1995 when I first visited the UK and noticed that the sheep in England had longer faces than those in SA. (I shall resist the temptation of expanding on long and fat faces in the current political climate of both countries). I recall Geography lessons at school where we were taught about fat-tailed Merino sheep living in the Karoo (ie the Calvinia area). I think we covered sheep farming as often in Geography as we did ‘die Groot Trek’ (Great Trek) and the Boer War in History. For some reason, I took a liking to the sheep whilst reluctantly developing an interest in the last two subjects because of their implications in a post-Union SA.

Sheep were not indiginous to South Africa and for those looking to expand their knowledge on this front, the famous Farmer’s Weekly has just the article. This year marks the 200th anniversary of successful merino farming in SA, although the sheep were first introduced in 1789. For those mining in Kimberly, getting lamb was relatively straightforward in the days before supermarkets and freezers. However, it was a bit more of a challenge on the Tranvaal gold fields, until cold storage was developed (article 1, 2). Sir David Graaff played an important role in developing storage facilities, both by rail and on the sea.

And for those who love eating lamb, perhaps Iceland requires a visit – it’s the main red meat on that island.


Things we take for granted

A recent trip to Rwanda again brought to light how we take things for granted.

Rwanda, as I’ve said before is a place too good to be true and long may it last. There are problems as with any country and still scars from the genocide 23 years ago with people still needing to be reintegrated into communities as they are released from prison etc. Where are the Nelson Mandela’s of the world practising forgiveness when you need them most? I can’t help but think too, of the importance of handshakes in building relations. In Africa, we have a three-hold shake symbolising solidarity (although others exist too), but a Muslim friend recently explained to me that the shaking of hands – ie the passing of hands against each other briefly folding fingers around is in effect a way of offering forgiveness for past misdemeanours – purposeful or not. What a lovely thought and another friend – Christian – shared with me his thoughts: simply writing For-I-give.

In Rwanda, I’m hesitant to say I’m involved in the aid industry, but truth be told, I am. I cringe knowing what I know about most aid agencies and hope the work I do is true to my principles and beliefs. I was horrified to hear a friend tell me he’s applying for two jobs – both with aid agencies – one British, one Australian – as they are offering double his Rwandan salary for similar work he is currently doing for a semi-state company. How can any country develop self-sustainability when market prices are so inflated? In addition, there is talk of putting a tax on second-hand clothing – a staple supply. The reason? To protect or encourage the local clothing industry. Surely the answer is to find ways to reduce the cost of locally made items and basic materials such as kitengi (cloth)?

Whilst all of this was happening/being spoken about in Kigali, a short drive away in one of the neighbouring rural areas of the capital, the schools don’t have electricity, the pupils are crammed 5 to a desk which should take 3, the teachers young and mostly enthusiastic, are unable to teach their subject English as they can barely speak it themselves. These classrooms are better equipped and built than many I saw in Tanzania, but are still a huge way off from what we take from granted in Britain, South Africa and elsewhere. The staffroom consists of a concrete floor and everyone sitting around huge big tables with chunky wooden chairs. No clock on the wall – a standard basic in every classroom or training room in England.

A flashing light caught my attention – a teacher was taking photos on his phone. Further investigation revealed that of the 9 or so teachers in the school who do double shifts of teaching (7.20am-11.30am; 1pm-5pm), 3 have smart phones. Rwanda is a classic case of the technological divide. So much can be done online and throughout Kigali Wi-Fi is generally present, however, not all are able to access it. This is not only the case in Rwanda, the same can be found in Tanzania, Malawi and many other African counries.

Not too far out of town, one gets the ‘untarmac’ roads letting you know you’re in the countryside. It’s quite surprising how close to town these areas really are. Managing these in ‘normal’ times is one thing, but I shudder thinking how people do so in the downpours we had whilst I was there. Even those travelling on tarmac found it treacherous. One can’t take the sun for granted on a daily basis, even in March, but at least the sun does shine more frequently in Africa than in Britain.

Practise what you preach or Do as I say…?

My significant other recently told me, in answer to a question, that I have a tendency to overreact. This, I know I do when I’m stretched and overworked (all my own doing of course) and in all honesty, overreaction has been the order of the day for the past few months. But as with those annoyingly wonderful ruts in the road, finding a way out of it has taken some creative manoeuvring, not least a change in perspective.

This was reinforced recently on a semi-planned visit to the one of my regular haunts and a place to really get me overreacting. We’ve had a love-hate relationship since I first started researching there twenty years ago. The pedantic non-user-friendly manuscript ordering rules and myself came to a functional working arrangement years ago, thank goodness, so what still irks me every time I visit? The inconsistencies around security. And it’s not just at the B that I suffer this irksome practice.

I’ve no issue with being checked when I enter a building but please, do it properly if you’re serious about it nor not at all. Don’t waste my time by making me take my bag off my back, open it for you to just glance in it and tell me to go through and then when I question the action tell me it’s for my safety. Usually, I end up in a little altercation with the poor security guard on duty who is just ‘doing as he’s been told to do’. But on my last visit, I happened to be there on a day they were trialling a new system (couldn’t see anything different other than more men in suits around, but hey-ho), so happened to raise the point with the guard checking my bag telling him about the need for him to do a thorough check of my bag if the B was serious about my security. He thought I had a good point to make and would take it up with his manager standing behind him. On my more recent visit, arriving at 9.44 in the rain, the queue was wound round the side under cover to past the Conference Centre. Entering the building, I calmly said to the guard (the same one I had previously encountered), ‘I hope you’re going to do a proper search today’ and proceeded to open all the zips on my bag whilst apologising for insisting despite there being a queue. To his credit, he acknowledged the queue and thanked me for insisting and assisting him to do a thorough search of my bag. For the first time in ages, I’ve managed to get into the B without my blood pressure rising or overreacting. I wondered how many others insist on having their bags searched properly?

The significance of this more pleasant encounter was that when Social Sciences couldn’t find the publication I’d ordered, I was in a much better frame of mind to deal with it – an African adventure approach was what the doctor had ordered on this occasion (I don’t usually visit Social Sciences, but this is where you find Session Papers), it worked. It turned out the person serving me was new on the counter usually being in another reading room so together we both learnt something about the room. Sad to say, the document all this was over didn’t contain what I’d hoped it would. At least I can tick it off the list.

Back to practising though… it’s the inconsistencies that annoy me most. Not the policy providing it is based on common sense and this I think is where we go wrong today. The tickbox dictates how we practise as do our traditions. How are we to create a world where people are people and respect each other for being people irrespective of their beliefs if we don’t compromise? As an historian, looking back, I distinguish between ethnic groups and micro-nations to explain the interactions and consequences of the past, but looking forward and being in the present, we’re all people bringing our rich heritage with us.

Recently, a group I’m involved with invited another group to join us – we had slightly different practises and in getting the two groups together, compromise had to be made. However, at the final preparation meeting which I couldn’t attend, some dogmatic thoughts dominated and the compromise solution was done away with. For me, as I explained to someone afterwards, it was as though I’d invited a vegetarian to dinner and purposefully fed them meat. The group having professed to be open, turned out to be as closed as other groups in terms of accommodating peoples of different beliefs. I probably did overreact to this situation but thankfully before taking any action sought the wisdom of others. It’s still got me thinking though about practising what we preach and how we get there when people are coming from such different starting points. (cf review Tim Butcher).

Practising what one preaches has its challenges as Jan Smuts discovered during his command in East Africa. Not one to sit still at headquarters behind the lines, he pushed forward sleeping out in the open with the men, reconnoitring himself much to the horror of his British staff and concern of his South African staff. But, putting himself in this position, he won the respect and admiration of the rank and file. One can’t say the same about the officers though. The downside of Smuts being ‘on the ground’ meant he often missed the big picture and the strategic overview, didn’t pay enough attention to supply lines as he was coping or wasn’t aware of the real situation. It was also one of the reasons he didn’t tackle the black-white issue in South Africa. He couldn’t find a way to bridge the gap between his personal beliefs and where mass white thinking was at the time. On this issue he took the political expediency of trying to stay in power in order to reduce the impact but that had its own consequences, not least his historical reputation.

It’s not always easy to practise what one preaches as the circumstances dictate otherwise, but knowing where to draw the line and being flexible enough to deal with it will go a long way to making life a little more pleasant for those on the receiving end of my overreaction and hopefully me personally. My current behaviour-changing challenge is to deal with inconsistencies more cheerfully. It paid off at the B, perhaps it will elsewhere too.

Language dilemma

Writing historical accounts seems to be getting trickier in this globalised world.

A book I recently read had [sic] behind the word ‘Kaffir’ every time it was written – this was in quotes where [sic] is commonly used to indicate that an error has been spotted and recognised in the original. As a South African, it’s been engrained that this is a word not to be used because of its connotations. Recently, however, in one of the local UK chains, there on a spice shelf was ‘Kaffir Lime’. I might also mention that one of my favourite Anton Goosen songs is ‘Wit Kaffers van Afrika’ (white kaffers of Africa) which as I understand was the song to open South Africa’s very first equivalent of Woodstock, Houtstok, back in 1990, on 31 May.

The real dilemma arises though for the historian who wants to write about urban development in mining towns at the start of the twentieth century. Working through local newspapers in Boksburg Public Library when researching for information on Sir George Farrar, I was struck by the pages of applications for licence to open up ‘Kaffir Kitchens’ – what exactly these entailed I cannot say as I was on a tight research deadline and couldn’t stop to digest in detail. What I do know is that it will be very annoying for a reader if every time the word was used it was followed by [sic].

Similarly, ‘non-white’ in inverted commas as it appeared in the same book. I am just as comfortable using non-black, non-Indian and non-coloured when working/writing about other specific groups. It is a short hand. The alternative today, is to list all the specific groups one implies by the all collective which when there are word limits, doesn’t give much opportunity to get the message across.

Another term to come under scrutiny recently is ‘Boy’, and its female equivalent, ‘Girl’. In the South African context yet again, this has negative connotations. However, doing some research for someone on the Peninsular Wars, I was amazed to see in the Muster RollsMuster Rolls lists of ‘Boys’ going back to the early 1800s. This suggests there was a specific roll filled by young boys (how young I do not know) and that as colonisation occurred, this term was transferred to locals (natives – another controversial term for some) who did the same tasks. As older men in the colonies started to take on this work for various reasons, the title/term stuck. It’s a term frowned upon in South Africa, yet black friends and colleagues in Africa (Rwanda, Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana to name but a few) talk quite comfortably about their ‘house girl’ or ‘house boy’.

How we read and understand terms depends on our cultural heritage. I once worked with a woman called Kulvinder – Kuli to those who knew her. However, I struggled to do so until one day I felt I had to come ‘clean’ explaining why my emails were always addressed to Kulvinder and similarly, why I hesitated every time I wanted to say her name. She was astounded when I told her that in SA, the diminutive of her Indian heritage name was the same (sounding) as the derogatory word for Indians – coolies. Both of us wiser having cleared the air, Kulvinder became Kuli, although I still inwardly wince every time I use the word.

One could argue that I’m coming at this from a group which named rather than was/is named. I can, and do, fall (partly) into the category of ‘rooinek’ (red neck) as well as ‘rock spider’ (English and Afrikaans respectively). In Swahili, I’m bluntly ‘white man’ (Mzungu), in Masai ‘those who confine their farts’ (Iloridaa enjekat), in Gambia, ‘Two Bob’ (early white settlers paid two bob for something to be done), in Ghana ‘Fada’ (from Father/Priest).

Working as a cross-cultural historian, it is becoming more apparent that historians need to find ways to deal with terms which have an historical context and at the same time political connotations for specific groups.

Reflecting on this recently whilst writing a review article on three South African Prime Ministers and my own reaction to white South Africans writing about ‘whites’, ‘Africans’ (ie blacks) and ‘Afrikaners’, it struck me that the white African group of mainly Dutch descent (aka Boers) have embraced their African-ness in their own-given title ‘Afrikaner’. And the Afrikaans word for black people is ‘swartes’ – directly translated as blacks. So why in English do the majority of white South African historians refer to black South Africans as ‘African’? I can understand this when writing contextually about the 1950s and 1960s – white South Africa has used different terms over time to refer to the black ethnic groups in the region. I remember at secondary school being told the word ‘Bantu’ was no longer appropriate and acceptable. The term was to be replaced by ‘Black’. Before ‘Black’, it had been ‘African’. How my ears tingle in Tanzania when I hear black Tanzanians refer to themselves as Bantu to distinguish themselves from the coastal peoples.

I don’t know what the solution is to this language dilemma. If historians were only writing for themselves there might/should not be an issue as we’re objective reflectors of the past (as scientific as we can be). However, we’re invariably caught up in the political of what we write about and therefore sensitive to the language we use. But at what expense? How much does being politically correct lead to cultural misunderstandings and myths being perpetuated?

Technology meltdown

Don’t you sometimes wish technology would just disappear for a bit? But then, as soon as you can’t access your emails or the internet there’s major panic and you can do nothing else until it is sorted.

One of the things I love about travelling is that you can’t have 24/7 access to the world. Well, I suppose it depends on where you go, but generally it can take a little while to get linked up to the new networks and finding that free wireless spot.

I remember being in the somewhere in the Namib desert a few years’ back and purposefully pulling out my phone to check the signal – NONE. Wonderful, peaceful. Since then, I’ve done the same on various other travels and relished the fact that there is no signal. But always, the thought is squashed by ‘what if you need to get assistance?’

What did we do in the ‘good old days’? I recall having to phone my dad from the office before I left of an evening (if I was going to be late) to let him know I was on my way and oh boy! would I hear it if I hadn’t phoned or was later than the time he estimated it would take me to get home. Bearing in mind that this was in the early 1990s in South Africa and the potential for hi-jackings much higher than now (although stories coming out in 2016/7 are suggesting a return to a more lawless society as the wealth gap increases. I sincerely hope not!).

About 6 years ago, I was talking to some teachers in rural Tanzania about computers. They were desperate for at least one in the office as it would be a time-saver! I was told that pressing a button would allow so much to be done. Yes, it would but getting to press that one button would require hours of training and distraction from other work which also needed to be done. Having the internet added would make their lives more fraught. A simple example to test the theory: Before mobile/cell phones, I asked, how many letters or instructions did they get from the District Education Officer demanding their presence in his office? Bearing in mind that today if you own your own transport you could get there in 45 minutes otherwise by public transport it could take 2-3 hours. Compare that to the demands received since mobile phones came in to operation.

Similarly, how long did it take for letters to be typed up, posted and replied to? With the internet, people expect instant response and the time spent drafting, writing, typing, checking and then in the post system is all done away with. My correspondence went up hundred-fold (at least) with electronic connection.

I never heard another request for computers to solve their workload problem. The fact that there was limited electricity, irregular supply where it was available and the need for technicians and wind-free storage space weren’t even touched on.

Why have we become slaves to technology rather than let the technology be our slave? The number of telephone conversations I have to listen to on public transport is annoyingly high. Why do I want to know about your troubles at work or relationship issues etc. People tend to forget they’re in a public space – I’ve even heard someone discussing  an illegal immigrant (before all the current media hype) being at their house: this openly in a tube filled with people they didn’t know. I’ve learnt as an Afrikaans speaking South African – the last language you want to use to say something personal in whilst in a public space is Afrikaans – you’re bound to be understood and I can tell a number of stories where this has happened to the embarrassment of the other person. Similarly, many other languages are spoken and although I might not understand what you’re saying someone else is bound to especially if you’re speaking louder than a whisper. I’ve eavesdropped in French, Swahili, Dutch and German. Oh, for phones not to work on public transport – but then how would I know when to get to the station to pick someone up?  How did we do it in days gone by?

A friend of mine in the US has experienced just the same sort of frustrations with technology in public places and has started tweeting out reminding people of phone etiquette in particular.

In the UK, we’ve managed (just about) for phones to be switched off in meetings and theatres (not on public transport though) but in Africa generally and other developing areas where having a phone is still seen as a status symbol (rather than where not having one is viewed as being in poverty), phones ring loudly, are answered and conversations held in front of everyone else despite all around the table being there for another purpose. How do we break these cycles?

One thing I’ve learnt from my travels in Africa and elsewhere is that it’s alright not to respond to a text, email or other instant messaging system immediately – sometimes you just cannot and, surprisingly, the world hasn’t collapsed. I’ve learnt not to expect an instant response and won’t chase too quickly. I understand you might not be able to.

There is a lot we can learn from each other … if we’re only willing to listen and observe what is really happening around us.

The identity diamond

The issue of identity has featured rather frequently the past few weeks, not least at a talk I gave on Breaking the Myths around World War 1 in Africa (Feet of Endurance: World War 1 in Africa; images). I am lucky enough to hold dual citizenship however, as I’ve commented to people since the start of the commemorations of the centenary of WW1, and more expecially with recent developments in the UK, my African identity has started to dominate. I regularly hear black colleagues complain about being asked a variety of questions which they interpret as racist. At the conference a young school lad came to me in the break asking how I had remained calm as a member of the audience asked a question about black rank and file soldiers ‘falling to pieces’ when their white officers were killed. How, this young black Zimbabwean asked, could this white man with Rhodesian roots even dare to ask the question he did.

As a white African, I often correct white and black colleagues (in both Britain and on the African continent) when they make the assumption that I am British and have to explain that there are whites who are born in Africa, along with many other cultural groups such as Indian and Arab. Usually this is when the person concerned is moaning about how ignorant British people are of Africa or telling me that ‘you’re responsible for …’, ‘it’s obvious why Africa is so corrupt…’ etc. In one of my discussions following such an introduction, a Nigerian who has spent more years outside of his home country than in it, worked through a variety of identity labels eventually deciding that at heart he was Igbo. An Englishman in the same discussion associated himself with the village he was born rather than where he was brought up. In another context, an Italian living and working in the UK introduced himself as BrItalian – wonderful, I thought, does that really make me BrAfrican? It doesn’t quite work for BrScottish or BrFrench though…

An issue I find rather intriguing is what white South Africans call themselves. I have heard reference to SAE (not self addressed envelope) but South African English but if you listen to white South Africans talk and read historical books, they refer to black South Africans as African. So, what/how do white South Africans see themselves? Epecially being seventh or even eighth generation in the county with little other than tangential cultural links to a few European countries. Interestingly, if someone asks what I am, I’ll say South African but I generally associate more with Africa and sub-Sahara Africa than even South Africa.

I am African, born and bred there, but I’m more than that. I’ve taken on a fair amount of Britishness having lived in that country for so long, but I’m also an educationalist and historian (according to my business card), others describe me as an academic although I don’t have a university or other official academic post. And the list could go on – wife, friend, daughter …

It was an email reference to the ‘fairer sex’ by a male colleague who regularly challenges labels which made me decide to write this post. He wouldn’t have used the term indiscriminately leading me to  wonder what the origin of the term was considering that the women he was referring to (consciously or otherwise) all had dark hair and most, not all of Middle Eastern descent. Given the different uses of the word fair, I can take my pick as to what was meant and not be offended.

A student from the Caribbean once told me that a customer at the place she worked had made a racist comment asking her how she had blue hair (she had blue braids woven in amongst her black braids). For over 10 years now, this comment has stayed with me and I’m no closer to working out how it is racist. Another, also Caribbean, student told me emphatically I shouldn’t be wearing traditional African outfits (…) as in her view I wasn’t African and therefore not allowed to wear what I wanted. These occasions provided opportunties to open conversation and break down barriers. Similarly, the little children in the villages who come walking alongside me taking my hand, turning it over and comparing it to theirs or gently pulling the hairs on my arm – they don’t have any and their hands are two different shades compared to mine. This is curiosity – a way of discovery, learning and developing identity. My A-level French teacher welcomed my confused, often ‘stupid’, questions around the language – she told me she could see I was engaging with the language and working through the anomalies to get to the core (the truth).

And as for the diamond? It’s an analogy for what I am – a human being made up of many different facets. Some shine more brightly than others depending on where you the observer are standing and how closely you want to peer or stare. They say ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend‘ – I’m not so sure about that really, but I do see some endearing traits in diamonds – steadfast and unchanging (once cut), light reflector and yet transparent and penetrating (they can cut through glass). We’ve put a value on them deciding they’re expensive.

Reading Tim Butcher’s Blood River, I can’t help but recognise the damage assumptions around identity have caused. A discussion group on the book commented how selfish he’d been putting so many people at risk for a personal whim. Perhaps, but if Tim hadn’t undertaken his journey, what misconceptions would many still be holding about the Congo? Diamonds are the consequence of unpleasant levels of heat and pressure – out of horror comes beauty. It depends on how I look at it and choose to interpret what I see. Now more than ever, I try and find the positive in order to build bridges and understanding – the alternative is unthinkable.