On Language

By Melissa Wozniak

The first thing you have to do when you get to Cape Town, South Africa is learn how to be a knee-jerk racial profiler.

No, the first thing you have to do when you get to Cape Town is to get comfortable with the label Coloured, which is fundamentally different from black or white.  It’s awkward, snaky, illicit on the American tongue.  It’s also the same thing as saying, “I’m Irish.”  Back in the day of colonial rule, when tribes ran South Africa and then the Dutch showed up, and then the British, and then the Indian merchants and slaves from the Malay Peninsula, East Asia and other parts of Africa, and even though whites considered themselves superior to the natives and slaves they regularly mated with them, the gene pool got mixed up.  It made the practicalities of apartheid really difficult.

But it’s been nearly 20 years since Nelson Mandela gave his inaugural address to a free South Africa, in its soul and marketing slogan the Rainbow Nation.  Its new constitution is regarded by the rest of the world as the purest working incarnation of democracy.  Like any country, there are people who are post-racial, just like there are ones who cling to the hateful close-mindedness of the past.  The reason you have to learn how to profile, before even stopping for a photo of gorgeous Table Mountain looming blue on the horizon at the end of the N2 highway from the airport, is that it is the only way to make sense of the present.

You can close your eyes on the ride from the airport.  You can ignore the haphazard field of corrugated steel roofs separated from the highway by a barbed wire fence and rippling in the sunlight like a mirage, making it unclear exactly how far it extends.  South Africa isn’t defined by its shantytowns.  It isn’t defined by its Mediterranean-style beaches, either, or the Ferraris that cruise the strip in Camps Bay.

What it’s defined by is the presence of both, and how even if you close your eyes on the way from the airport you’ll still have to deal with the juxtaposition of the two on a daily basis, because that’s the friction that gives Cape Town its indescribable energy, a messy complicated throb on a tiny strip of land sandwiched between a majestic mountain and the endless sea.

The Europeans called it paradise.  Coldplay agreed.

History can be ugly.  You learn from it, and then you relegate it to textbooks.  The thing with history, though: Laws change immediately, but reality doesn’t.  The reality is that looking at an aerial snapshot, apartheid still exists in South Africa.  Neighborhoods that were black, white or Coloured are still black, white or Coloured because community—family—determines where you live, and those bonds go deeper than any law can.

Money does too, and that’s more complicated.  See, back in the day, laws controlled what kind of education a person received.  Education controls the cycle of poverty.  So to end poverty you must have education, which requires money and that by its very nature is unequal in society, particularly one that used to regulate it by the color of one’s skin.  So how do you end inequality?  You wait for it to work itself out.  Or you elect new politicians.  Or you enact affirmative action hiring laws meant to lift the poorest of the poor—blacks in the shantytowns—to an even playing field, at the expense of other races that may need the opportunity, too.

It’s the knee-jerk observation of a woman’s skin color crammed next to you in a public taxi that gives perspective to her rants about there being no jobs.  It shifts attention to the children, and how you help them get textbooks so they learn math and economics and figure it out one day. It is the plebian way to begin to understand the higher philosophy of a nation.

Then there are the practical reasons for racial profiling.

There are three different clicks in the isiXhosa language, on the C, X and Q.  You’re supposed to simultaneously click and pronounce the letter, which is pretty damn near impossible for non-natives—even the name of the language, isiXhosa, you say while making a noise off the side of the cheek like how you call a dog.  Tsk!  Click!  Pop!

But as a foreigner in town on a volunteer grant, you make the effort to master that, somewhat.  You try out a few words on a kid admitted to the pediatric ward of Groote Schuur, the stately white-columned public hospital which serves a largely indigent population and is the site of your volunteer work for the next five weeks. Unjani?  Ngubani igama lakho?  How are you?  What is your name?

The kid is four, and four-year-olds are universally hard to understand, but instead of opening her mouth she stares at you blankly.  So you try the one word you know in Afrikaans, and you declare it with such gusto that no four-year-old’s heart could possibly maintain its steely guard. Grondboontjiebotter!  Peanut butter!  Nothing.

So you evaluate.  She looks black.  IsiXhosa should have worked, because kids generally don’t learn English until grade school and isiXhosa is what’s spoken in black homes.  Unless she comes from KwaZulu Natal in the east, in which case she probably knows isiZulu, or one of the other 11 official languages in South Africa, or one of the dozens of unofficial ones.  Maybe her family came from that tiny province that spoons Swaziland, but linguistically isiNdebele and isiXhosa are similar.  Maybe her family came from Zimbabwe.

But is she really black?  She’s light.  Coloured?  But not Cape Coloured—there’s black somewhere in her lineage, not Indian or Malay.

So you continue to evaluate:

The nursing sisters go about their daily tasks on the pediatric ward, wheeling metal carts of medicine and nappies between neat rows of painted metal cribs.  They lower the side railing of each crib to adjust tubes and tuck in blankets, to reposition the celery-stalk arm of a tiny patient stricken with meningitis or dehydration or any number of stomach ailments.  Beside each crib is an easy chair, and in almost every easy chair is a mother, slouched and exhausted.  Some of these mothers have spent a week on 24-hour watch.  They sleep in the easy chairs on the ward.  They shower around the corner.  By default, they’ve formed a tenuous community.  One kid cries, and another mother straps him to her back with a blanket and paces to soothe him.  They have their own share of burdens, these women.  In a low voice, a teenaged girl frets about not consulting the sangoma, the traditional healer, a revered figure in Xhosa tradition that links physical health to the relationship with one’s ancestors, or sometimes to witchcraft.  In a not-so-low voice, a much older first-time mom, with tender nerves and tea-colored eyes streaked red, agonizes over the fact that the undiagnosable illness in Crib 2 is a result of giving her baby the wrong name.  She decides her family will hold another Hindu naming ceremony at once.

The easy chair beside Thimna’s crib is empty.  The toddler has one pudgy foot over the railing, shrieks on contact, and needs someone to give her a firm talking-to, in whatever language.

But which of the nurses are also Coloured and therefore know Afrikaans?  If you ask a black nurse to communicate with this kid in Afrikaans, will she be insulted that you thought she was Coloured?  How are you supposed to tell?

There are scores of history books detailing hair texture pencil tests and other measures government officials once devised to determine such a thing.  As a two-day resident of the country, you see firsthand, morals aside, that at its core, apartheid is stunningly idiotic.

The nursing sisters all try their luck with Thimna.  Afrikaans doesn’t work, either, but the wren-like melody of it sounds pretty, even when the sisters cry out, “You naughty child!” (which is often).  The crib in the corner quickly becomes the social focal point of the ward, and more often than not Thimna is attached to the back, hip or hemline of someone—the sisters, the mothers, an eight-year-old fellow patient.  She is a brick of energy, one that hurls its stocky frame against the rails of her confines like a manic human pinball and races circles around the nurses’ station, stopping only to tremble with the rattling pneumonic cough that brought her here.

The cough is wicked, but it’s improving at a rate that impresses Dr. Roux on his morning rounds.  Thimna doesn’t have time for it.  She speaks constantly, even though technically she’s not really speaking, and the cough is just a punctuation mark in a long paragraph of made-up vowels and consonants.  It isn’t baby’s babble.  There are deep inflections, pauses, a thought visually dancing across the toddler’s eyes.  Questions end with a rise in pitch.  Sometimes she scratches the smooth, close-shaven crown of her head, stares at the ceiling for a moment before pursing her lips and continuing on.  She gesticulates like a diva.  You imagine another little girl in America wearing a pink tiara and hosting an imaginary tea party: the matter-of fact authority with which she’s telling Mr. Bear that no, the princess is not available to see him tonight because he is a bear and only unicorns are allowed to go in the castle on Tuesday. You participate as an honored guest, sometimes in English and sometimes in her tongue, mimicking tones and expressions and getting caught up in this dreamlike exchange until you abruptly realize it’s the best conversation you’ve had in awhile.

The nursing sisters finally give up trying to figure out which language Thimna might know and use whichever one is handy.  They are persistent teachers—“You want your koppie?  Sound it out.  Kuh, kuh, koppp…”—but Thimna always manages to get a drink of water without ever properly asking for it, and stubborn child, she never attempts the syllables next time.  The sisters are persistent teachers, but they are also busy, and also there are children with dressings to change who are much sicker than Thimna, and also it is the mother’s job to teach vocabulary.  From the looks of things she has quite a bit on her hands.

But Thimna has an arsenal of communication tools that take the place of vocabulary.  Pointing, furtive smiles, a brow that stretches and scrunches in one fluid motion.  Wild, flirty, expressive eyes.  The most powerful weapon at Thimna’s disposal, however, is a pose that quickly earns the nickname around the ward as her Claudia Schiffer.  Arms akimbo, chin tucked and lips twisted in a pout, thick caterpillar eyelashes just daring to tell you where you hid the purple crayon.

Never once do you question the meaning or emotion behind Thimna’s words.  And yet, she’s puzzling.  You don’t know much about autism.  Or children, for that matter, whether learning a proper language is an inborn human desire or a behavioral choice.  You don’t know what goes on in this child’s head when she wraps her limbs around your waist like a brown little squid and tugs at your clothing so the two of you can walk to the floor-to-ceiling window and peer out over Cape Town.  She never wants to leave the window.  There is something close to joy in her eyes, but not quite.  Bridled excitement.  The shine of a child sitting in front of a wrapped present, imagination churning with different scenarios.  She has stories to tell, and soon the window is smudged with fingerprints.  The red Spanish tiles of Groote Schuur’s roof descend in levels down the steep terrain, nestled in the foothills of Table Mountain.  The peaks themselves aren’t visible, but downtown Cape Town is, a cluster of skyscrapers glittering with the prosperity of any big city viewed from a distance.  At the base of Groote Schuur is grimy, artsy Observatory, and beyond that are the manicured green lawns of Rondebosch Commons, where University of Cape Town students and well-to-do white suburbanites go for their morning jog.  The boxy rows of middle-class houses in the Coloured neighbourhood of Athlone lie over the bridge.  And after that, the sea: cobalt blue, shining cold and vivid.  There isn’t a cloud in the sky.  The only smudge is the perpetual wisp of smoke in the distance that lingers over the Cape Flats, a product of trash burning and fires kept for heat mixed with car exhaust and pollution from the rest of the city that Table Mountain funnels down into this wasteland.  Gugulethu, Langa, Philippi, Samora Machel.  Mitchell’s Plain and Manenberg.

Thimna doesn’t tell you where she’s from.  And it doesn’t matter, really.  Some people structure their lives on the self-perpetuated premise that they are victims.  Thimna, by product of will or necessity, has learned not only how to survive but how to get exactly what she wants without saying a word.  All she needs is one person willing to take the time to grasp her hand as she traces the ABCs and tell her, man, you’ve got the rest of this figured out.  The question that seems to have fallen through the cracks is why exactly this child does not speak.

A week later, the occupational therapist shakes her head. Appointments are set, an official intervention launched.

It turns out Thimna—sassy, street-smart, four-year-old Thimna—does not know a single language.  She lives at Sarah Fox Children’s Home.  She is a temporary member of a congress of kids in varying states of orphanhood because of the social situation at home, but she’s a lucky one, because technically she has a mother, even though no one by that name shows up at the hospital to visit the little girl.  Thimna’s chart lists an address in Khayelitcha, the shantytown by the airport, and a mother with severe alcohol dependency.  At some point between toddling through goat shit outside a home constructed from garbage bags and corrugated steel and joining the overcrowded ranks of Sarah Fox, Thimna never learned a language.

And until today, no one noticed.

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