The best days of primary school always coincided with the few weeks the local teacher education college, Mpumalanga College, sent us student teachers for practicals. The reason is obvious to my fellow Bantu Education survivors. “Normal” schooling in our time can fairly be described as one long, vicious beatdown by our teachers. And trainee teachers tended to be averse to meting out beatings.
Also, most of these youngsters in their late teens/early 20s were as meek as lambs. I remember one trainee who was so nervous during her first lesson that gallons of perspiration flowed down her neck and into her blouse, while she tightly squeezed her hankie into a sorry wrinkled mess.
There was another student teacher who stood out: a certain Mr Mafoko. I remember his name because after he completed his diploma, the school hired him permanently. He was a bundle of energy, oozed confidence from every pore, and took to the classroom like a cadre to tenders.
But he had a habit of punctuating every sentence with, “Are we together?” This might seem like an innocuous quirk, but when you’re 45 minutes into a double physical science period and you’re being bombarded with your 79th serving of “Are we together?”, it can be a tad annoying.
So, after Mr Mafoko delivered what seemed like his millionth “Are we together?”, a voice at the back piped up: “Hhayi, u-together wedwa!”
(You’re together by yourself). Silence engulfed the room. His bright smile turned into a menacing scowl. “Who said that?” I sympathised as the blows from a bamboo cane rained upon the poor belligerent soul.
That’s my segue into the fact that there are phrases folks use in everyday conversation that drive me totally bonkers. “Are you with me?” is one, or the equally infuriating, “Do you understand?” I feel like interrupting with: “Have faith in my comprehension skills. You’re not dazzling me with the mechanics of Intersecting Storage Rings, Tevatron or ISABELLE in the Large Hadron Collider facility. You’re only explaining to me why my electricity bill is so high.”
Other variants of the same pathological need to be understood include the equally annoying, “Alright?”, “You see?” and the Afrikaans version, “Verstaan?” (Understand?) I start fantasising about grabbing the other person’s ears and twisting them until they scream “Of course you understand!”
Do not get me started on the titles and salutations conferred on me every day. What grinds my nipples about this phenomenon is that folks address you with these titles from a well-meaning place in their hearts. This is what made it difficult, for instance, to tell the sweet old lady in the Dis-Chem at Killarney Mall to stop calling me “sweetheart” a few days ago.
I have no words for how much it grates me to be referred to as “sweetheart”. Or “darling”. Or “skat”. And, like I said, these are the favourite terms of endearment of pleasant, friendly leopard-print ladies.
As for my black brothers, I have similarly big issues. The turn of the millennium coincided with the ascendancy of one President Mbeki to the highest office in the land. He was referred to as The Chief because of his penchant for calling people “chief”. And so the “chief” era of salutation was ushered in (alongside a growing tendency for people to sommer stick a random “indeed” anywhere in a sentence).
Everywhere I go nowadays, people address me as “chief”. The word conjures an image of a grotesquely rotund man sipping sorghum beer, with a knobkerrie under his fleshy armpit. And I don’t think that’s me. Even in my native isiZulu, my brethren call each other “nduna” (chief) all the time. It’s a term of artificial respect. It’s not malicious at all. That still doesn’t stop it from riling me.
I’m not even going to go down the maddening salutations that, before the dawn of democracy, were reserved for a white figure of authority. All of a sudden we’re all “ngamla”, “mlungu”, “boss”. Drives me bananas. As for my neighbours in Boksburg, Benoni, Brakpan, please ease up on the
“china”. I’ve never been to Beijing.
And seeing as I’m in an equal opportunity airing-of-grievances mood, my black sisters behind service counters everywhere, what is up with that condescending “Papa” when you’re explaining something? You know the one I mean: “No, no, no — your boarding time is 12h35, Papa neh?” It makes me feel like a three year-old with my underpants around my ankles being told, “Papa, we pee inside the bowl, alright?”
The word conjures an image of a rotund man sipping sorghum beer, with a knobkerrie under his fleshy armpit