G-SPOT

When you are forced to learn the language of self-preservation

I hope there will come a time when I don’t need to remember 'indololwane'

In Summary

• Ethnic cleansing in SA forced me to remember my old free pass

People protesting against xenophobia in South Africa hold placards in front of the South African consulate in Lagos
People protesting against xenophobia in South Africa hold placards in front of the South African consulate in Lagos
Image: REUTERS

Indololwane. This word, meaning elbow, in isiZulu was meant to be my password if I ever got cornered by a mob of afrophobic Black South Africans when I first came to live in South Africa back in 2011. 

I was living in Norwood, one of Johannesburg’s so-called garden suburbs, but working in Braamfontein, a busy central suburb, bordering the CBD. I had read somewhere, or been told by someone, that if you knew the word for elbow in isiZulu, you might be allowed to get away.

I didn’t honestly think this was reliable information. I mean, what if they asked about the word for knee? Or if they wanted a full-on conversation? Where would saying ‘elbow’ get me? Also, isiZulu is only one of 11 official languages here.

Nevertheless, the word stuck in my mind. Eight years later, I have learnt a few phrases of that language, as well as the Cape Town dialect of Afrikaans. Nevertheless, in the back of my mind, I hold on to indololwane like a Monopoly player holds onto the “get out of jail” card. Just in case.

This past week when the South African version of ‘tribal clashes’ (even though ethnic cleansing is closer to the truth) arrived in Cape Town, I remembered my old free pass.

I may live in the middle-class Southern Suburbs and work in a smart part of the CBD, but my work takes me all over the place.

I sometimes find myself in lily-white posh neighbourhoods, where I’m just another black face, until I introduce myself and my name gives me away as being “not from here.” At other times, I am in poor black or coloured informal settlements, where some think I’m coloured and others assume I’m a black South African, or even an Indian from Durban — again only until I open my mouth to speak and sound foreign again.

I hope there will come a time when I don’t need to remember indololwane. The same way during election season in Kenya, I worry about benefiting from unearned Kikuyu privilege in some places, while watching my back and everything I say in others, just in case the aforementioned privilege starts to show. 

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Speaking of privilege, but in a completely different sense, it has been my immense privilege to work with some of the best journalists in Kenya and around the world for that matter. One of my favourite colleagues, who also became a personal friend, was the late great Ali Nadim Zaidi, who died last week.

I met Ali when we worked on the East African, back in the early 2000s. Over the years, we became very good friends. I remember the feeling of belonging I felt when I was first invited along to one of his famous soirées at his home in Loresho and was introduced to his family. 

My old boss Philip Ochieng once wrote that Ali was “the most imaginative East African headline writer (in English)” he had ever known, and from PO, no slouch himself, this was high praise indeed and fully deserved. But for me, Ali was also one of the warmest people I ever knew. I’ll miss him. Rest well, Mr Ali ,from your friend Ji.

Follow me on Twitter @MwangiGithahu