A friend from work invited me and my girlfriend to an event the other day. She’s Kenyan and she was organising an African themed dinner for Christmas. The aim was to bring together the Africans that were living in the town. I’m white British; a good healthy mix of English, Welsh and Irish, and Italian too. My girlfriend is from southern Africa, hence the invite. She was actually born in Wales but her parents are from Malawi and Zambia, and she spent most of her childhood in Malawi. We invited my neighbour and her lovely Zimbabwean carer too, they both came along.
We were put on a table with a dozen other people. Mainly couples of a variety of ages and from different parts of the African continent. We recognised a few of the people there, a cheerful woman with a perpetual smile who ran a small store on the lower high street selling African food and a few cultural items. We also knew one of the Namibian women, a tall, elegant woman I had met through a friend, she was there with her little daughter.
The local MP had been invited too and as part of the event he gave a brief speech about the virtues of multiculturalism. His wife was of Indian descent, which he was keen to point out, and which was admirable for the MP of a provincial British town in the West Country. Not that we were in any way monocultural. He said that census data showed just over eleven percent of the towns population was born outside of the UK, with sizeable African, Asian and eastern European contingents, and a fractionally greater percentage were of an ethnic origin other than white British. It was a surprisingly good speech actually; informative and humorous. He played upon the hashtag IfAfricaWasABar and joked about the fact that there were more Kenyans and South Africans in the town than Nigerians, but the Nigerians were the loudest and most visible. The room erupted in knowing laughter at that one.
The food was excellent too. It was a colourful mix of African cuisine and pizza and chips for the African kids whose taste buds had been westernised. There were mountains of jollof rice and seasoned chicken and huge bowls of nsima. We had dishes loaded with bobotie and injera and githeri, with sweet mandazi doughnuts for dessert. All washed down with glasses of Coke and Fanta. I couldn’t eat the spiciest food unfortunately but I loaded my plate with everything else.
The conversation flowed pretty well too. It was fascinating to get to know some of the people and their different stories and experiences in the UK. There was a Nigerian man; a large, jocular man who wanted a career change and was studying to be a nurse. His face was plastered all over the local buses. He was the multicultural, smiling face of an advert by the local university promoting their course in nursing.
Another man had just arrived in the country from Botswana. He was a scholar, with a quiet and learned demeanour, but he had got a low-paid manual job in a newspaper factory for now. He struggled with the pace and the accents and the cold reception from some of the workers. He captivated us with a story about the first Africans that came to the county as slaves and servants hundreds of years ago and the little that was known about them. Often it was just an anglicised name on a sad gravestone and a reference to their race or African origin. He said that these first Africans were small in number and they all but disappeared soon after slavery was abolished in 1834.
We also met a proud woman from Ethiopia who worked in a store on the high street, she used to be the cleaner there toiling away in the background, but she was such an impressive worker that she was employed directly by the store. Yet despite work going so well she struggled with an acute sense of loneliness; her close family and old friends were all back home.
With the mix of people at the table a few different languages were spoken. The woman we recognised from the shop occasionally spoke to her husband in their own language. My girlfriend whispered to me that she knew what they were saying. They were speaking in Chichewa, one of the many languages spoken in Malawi. It’s the language of her mothers region, and she was taught it from a young age.
I said she should tell them but she didn’t want to, she said it would open up a whole unwanted conversation about tribes and politics and upbringing from back home. So we kept it quiet. The steady hum of conversation and good humour carried on around the table. But then all of a sudden my girlfriend became tense and agitated. I could tell straight away something was up. I asked if she was ok. She shook her head and murmured that she would text me. My phone pinged and I opened the text. It said that the shop owners husband was talking about us in their language. I text back asking what they were saying. She replied that the husband said that she was probably from Zimbabwe and was only with me to get a visa.
For the visa?! What an insult, she was born here anyway. It was clearly a popular African joke about Zimbabweans or Africans in general that I wasn’t aware of, and its application to us was cruel. Did I look like a sad, lonely man who would marry a woman wanting a visa just so he could have some company? Did she look like the sort of ruthless woman that was just with a British man so she could live in the UK? Did we really look like that sort of couple? His rude and dismissive comment had got to us.
But then we had to laugh at the fact that we knew what he said. He was pretty foolish to assume that no-one in a room full of Africans spoke his language. He had made a revealing mistake and was unaware of it. We could be tactful and say nothing, but then he might dig himself a bigger hole and start insulting us even more, and maybe even other people. Maybe we should just say something and nip it in the bud so it didn’t get too awkward later on.
In the end the decision was taken out of our hands. As is often the case at a gathering like this my girlfriend was asked where she was from. ‘Malawi,’ she replied. The store owners husband looked up startled, ‘Malawi? Which region?’
‘Dedza.’ He instantly knew. He knew she had understood all of their private conversations. He knew she had heard his derogatory comments about us. I can’t lie, I enjoyed his discomfort and embarrassment. It was satisfying to see him squirm. He couldn’t look us in the eye after that. We were diplomatic about the whole thing; we didn’t rub salt in his wound, and when we left we were polite and said nothing of it. We had a good laugh about it after, even though it still stung a little.