Prejudice lingers in the shadow of our being, unseen, unknown, only coming into consciousness through some chance encounter, a conversation. Just as quickly as the realization comes it is gone. Because once prejudice is seen it no longer has power or form and simply fades to nothing.
Back in 1983 I arrived in Zimbabwe, a wet behind the years 23 year old, to take up a teaching contract at Rimuka High School. I will never forget that first day when Principal Happy Ndanga drove myself and four other Australian teachers through Rimuka township.
The poverty shocked me. Row upon row of elephant back houses, so called for the curved corrugated iron roofs on a single adobe room. Women sweeping the dust with their straw brushes bent over at the hip; licorice thin boys playing with their wire toys. But it was the faces of the men that terrified me. I saw anger and violence in their black faces. They had been through thirteen years of civil war and one hundred years of white oppression. How could they not harbour hatred for the white man in their veins? How could they not hate me?
A few days later I walked into a classroom of forty black faces; children with African features that made them indistinguishable to my eyes. How would I ever tell them apart? And they had weird names such as Learnmore, Lovemore, Givemore, Jealousy, Misery, Snake, and Shona names such as Jorum, Tandiwe, Wadnaznayi, Sipelile. How would I ever learn their names?
I felt uneasy around my students but it was the ‘angry’ black faces in the township I feared. In my mind blackness was associated with violence. Where did this association come from? How did I learn to fear Africans because of the colour of their skin?
My response shocked me because I considered myself to be a progressive, open minded leftie. I had come to Zimbabwe for adventure yes, but also to experience the great Socialist revolution of the new Zimbabwe. I had read Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and absorbed his damning critique of colonialism into my DNA. So I thought. Yet the sight of the first black faces had revealed the emptiness of my ideological convictions and turned optimism to fear.
Fear of the other is one response of culture shock. But this was more than culture shock; it was a complete narrative of violence. I was certain I’d be beaten up or worse if I walked through the township. Perhaps I’d watched too many Jungle Jim and Tarzan television shows where black people were portrayed as either violent savages or submissive servants. Or taken to heart Conrad’s Heart of Darkness where Africa was the untamed, dark continent that could turn a white man insane.
There were no black Africans walking the streets of Sydney in 1983. I relied on these television shows and news images of war and famine and my reading of history to construct my image of Africa. I had to go there to discover that Africa consisted of 48 countries and thousands of tribes and languages.
Though I didn’t think about this at the time I wonder now if my fear went way back beyond television and a few books, back over 200,000 years to the African plain where man was born, where fear of the other was necessary for the survival of the tribe. Perhaps that is all culture shock is: the jolting awake of a hard wired survival mechanism.
But perhaps the greatest irony is that a fear so deep seated can dissipate so quickly. I don’t know quite when the ‘angry’ black faces in the township became friendly faces. It was probably around the time I learnt all the names of my 240 students, learnt to see their African features: the shades of brown, the delicacy of facial features and the intricacy of the girls’ hairstyles. It might have had something to do with my Shona colleagues’ tendency to drop the last syllable ‘ee’ sound from some words and add it where it didn’t belong that made me laugh. I was known as Mr Voice(instead of Voysey) while they referred to dusty bins and texty books. Or it could have been Old Man Mariga gently holding my hand for ten minutes in the staffroom as we talked. Or the warm smiles from mothers and shouts of murungu – white man – from their children when I cycled past on my way to work at midday to begin my afternoon shift. Within a few short months I felt as comfortable wandering through Rimuka as I ever had in the streets of Sydney.
The truth is I don’t know when the fear went. I just turned around one day and it was gone. When prejudice has a face a name a language and a smile there is nothing we have to do to combat it. Like a helium balloon it just floats away.