Bonjour! Liberated in Libreville
IBLAME it on my upbringing. Every time I go out, I check my pockets to see if anything gives away what’s inside. I grew up in Durban, Inanda to be specific, at a time when you never answered your phone anywhere and only the brave would walk around wearing headphones because that’s the last thing they would do with their phone before it is “expropriated”. Only the foolhardy used those long passages. The smart took the long route because they would get there with all their belongings intact.
I walked around Libreville with that mindset, constantly checking my surroundings as I explored this city. It’s in me now and I doubt if anything will change that. But there was no danger in this relaxed place. I shuffled behind one woman, doing that dance where you try to go one way and the other person goes that way too and you repeat that act a couple of times. She was carrying a handbag and pulling a large bag. Not only did she not look back, she didn’t even clutch at her handbag tightly.
I walked the streets of Libreville at night without any threat or worry. After the games in Port-Gentil, I saw people walking almost 10km at 11pm back to their homes. I realised then that I have to leave my paranoia behind.
Mandela, crime and Aids – in that order, is what South Africa is mostly famous for in these parts. A lot of the volunteers at both the venues I have been to, Stade de l’Amitie and Stade Port-Gentil, have been to South Africa. They spoke about its beauty and crime.
Our translator, who studied at the University of Johannesburg, told me he was mugged at the Nelson Mandela Bridge, which connects Newtown with Braamfontein, so many times he’s lost count.
But the one thing that touched me most was that many of the locals I had exchanges with understood a bit of isiZulu and isiXhosa. And here I am not able to even construct a sentence in French. I only found out about Fang, the most spoken Gabonese language, when I was researching about the country before my trip here.
I have always known that we South Africans are insular, hardly looking at anything that happens beyond Limpopo. To us, no life exists there. That’s why we speak about going outside the South African borders and into other parts of the continent like it’s signing your death wish.
“Make sure you’re safe,” is a statement from family and friends as you leave with a passport. One of the volunteers here, in his soft-spoken manner, gave me a dressing down I will never forget. He asked me why I can’t speak French, one of the most widely spoken languages on the continent. I muttered something about where I come from. He said the problem is that Englishspeaking Africans are spoilt by those who speak French and can also understand English.
It reminded me of the first time I arrived in Joburg. I could only speak isiZulu and when someone responded in another language, I would still use my language until they changed. Back then it was because I couldn’t understand nor speak any other language. I still do it because I am spoilt. I know they’ll change to isiZulu. Damn! I should be more open-minded. That’s why I intend to learn French this year and if someone speaks to me in Setswana, I’ll respond in my broken version of it.