This is my friend Rob Davey who lives in Zimbabwe. i have not seen Rob for something like 10 to 15 years i imagine and yet we recently connected and i asked him if he would write a piece for this blog. i have a saying that ‘Quality Shows’ and with some people you just identify that immediately – Rob is one of these people – reading this piece will give you that impression as well. We would do well to have more Robs in the world… or at least to hear their stories shared more often – please pass this around – it is gold! Lessons for South Africa [and others] to learn from experiences in Zimbabwe:

My wife shops in a flea-market in the middle of a township in a rural town in Zimbabwe, she is tall blonde, slim and undeniably white in complexion despite a tan earned by the many hours we spend outside in the sun. She speaks a bit of the local language here, she understands quite a lot more of it than she can speak so she can hear the comments some of the people make as she walks by.

Comments along the lines of, “change the price quickly she can pay more because she is white”, or , “why is she here?, whites don’t belong here”, or better yet, “ I can get her to sleep with me , watch , these foreign murungus (white people), like what we have”.

I understand a lot more of the language and speak a fair amount of it (having been born here and spent most of my life here) and so when I am with my wife I have a very strong urge to hit someone when I hear things like this. I usually avoid this by greeting everyone I see very loudly in the local language so they know I understand, generally things go better afterwards. Quite often the people who don’t make the stupid comments will throw in a little extra with our shopping, a couple of extra avocadoes or tomatoes or bananas, given with a quiet shy smile and a gentle “have a good day” or “thank you for supporting us”.

When we mix with white people later in the day, we hear similar comments , “stupid muntus (derogatory term for a black person), they don’t know how to do anything right”, or “you cant trust these guys (black people), they just lie to you!”, quite often these people are being generous to my wife and I, sharing a meal or a cup of coffee.

We live in a situation mixed with prejudice and generosity. My wife and I live in the middle of this situation, we have black friends and white friends, we find that black people and white people speak in a similarly derogatory fashion to one another or about one another, based on assumptions made due to popular opinion, or their experience of varying incidents that they feel gives them the authority to make sweeping general statements about an entire people group. It doesn’t necessarily make them bad people , it just makes them seem stupid and ignorant, both black and white (and occasionally coloured) lumped uncomfortably in the same boat, and periodically we also find ourselves in this ship that sails to nowhere.

When we do ourselves the disservice of seeing colour as the thing that primarily defines someone else then we are stating that we too are defined by the same thing, it’s not only insulting to other people but to ourselves as it negates or nullifies the myriad of experiences we have had, from birth up until the present, that have made us who we are. Granted some of those experiences may have been a result of someone else’s perception of our value due to our skin colour, but is not the colour that defines us but rather the experience itself.

To deny someone their personhood by labelling them with a colour as a means of attributing some generalised characteristic to them opens the door for the same thing to happen to you. Don’t you hate being labelled or treated in a particular way because you are white? Or black? Or coloured? Don’t you think its unfair when those rules are applied to you? Those generalisations that seem so justified when you say them seem ludicrous when reversed. When you begin to treat people like people, when you begin to treat people in the same way you would expect to be treated , whether you have done good or bad, something changes.

During a particularly unsettled time in our country’s recent past we broke down on the side of the road in an area renowned for politically motivated racial violence. It was a public holiday and there were severe fuel shortages and so traffic was sparse and we had to spend the night on the side of the road. We had water but no food to speak of and were wondering what to do about this when a man walked up out of the darkness and greeted us politely, as custom demands here he waited to be invited into our circle before he addressed us further. He was carrying a small pot of scrambled eggs, some bread and he had another pot containing hot sweet tea, (it was a cold night). He had seen us break down and when he realised that we were staying for the night he set about making us a meal.

There are a few remarkable things about this situation, it would have been politically expedient for him to ignore us or subject us to some kind of abuse, in fact by helping us he opened himself up to being abused by others. He emptied his house of food to feed complete strangers, I know this because I went back to his hut to help him carry his belongings. We were all white and he was black.

Now on the reverse side of this, during the time of violent farm invasions a farmer friend of mine found that over the Christmas period some of the people that had violently invaded his property were stuck out there with no food, he mobilised a bunch of people and bought food and supplies and slaughtered a cow for them and delivered it all to them so that they would have food over Christmas. By doing this he opened himself up to abuse and isolation from his peers undergoing similar trials, it would have benefitted him to make sure the people invading his property had no food so that they would leave. He gave to them when he was experiencing need himself. They were all black and he was white. These are not isolated incidents, this is humanity at its best, and it happens all the time.

Remarkable things happen when we see people beyond their colour, when we see people with hopes and dreams and faults and fears before we see them as black or white or coloured. What we see is humanity as it should be. Whenever we think of colour first as a means of describing anything but the person’s appearance we all lose, immediately. I am living in Zimbabwe, it has ugliness, it has racism in abundance in every direction. It has a great deal of hardship and poverty, and I am grateful beyond measure because when we experience need we can empathise with others who do so too.

We are not called to ignore injustice, racial oppression, or any other of the violations that seem to frequent this beautiful continent. We need to address these things, but we address them simply as people, not as people of any race except that of the human race. We cannot expect people to change if we are not prepared to change ourselves, the responsibility is ours first before it is someone else’s.

[For more posts that look to rally hope for South Africa, click here]