I will have to get used to reading between the lines and to accept that what Western shrinks might have stamped ‘passive aggressive’, in the African context simply is polite behaviour. And I will have to find a proper way to respond…
The editor of YNaija is worried for my wellbeing. After a couple of explicit comments on my Femke/Funke blog, she sends me an e-mail asking me if I am okay with them. She is especially concerned about the one calling me an ‘idiot oyinbo woman’. I am touched, but assure her she has nothing to worry about. I did not mind the comment, on the contrary: I found it refreshing. I know sometimes I’ve been called ‘idiot oyinbo woman’ or something similar behind my back. I prefer it when people say it to my face. That is when dialogue starts.
Last year I reported on a literary workshop in Lagos. I was excited to be there as a journalist and a writer, thinking I would find kindred spirits. Very quickly though I noticed that some of the participants did not see me that way at all. They ignored me or pretended not to hear my questions. I had never felt this awkward doing my job.
Their silent animosity was explained by a more talkative participant, of which fortunately there were many too. It had to do with me being a white journalist, and the discourse amongst African intellectuals about the way the continent is being depicted in Western media. They resented me because they gathered I was one of those western journalists scrounging off Africa’s sad stories. Knowing plenty white journalists coming to Africa do fit the profile, I could hardly blame them.
The problem was I could not defend myself against their judgement, because it had not been made openly. I could not tell them I partly agreed with their analysis of media in the West or that I had been fighting the pity approach ever since I started travelling the African continent ten years ago. Neither could I explain to them that I had read How To Write about Africa too, and that I included Binyavanga Wainaina’s piece in every course I ever taught in journalism school in The Netherlands.
The Dutch are often perceived as particularly rude. We say out loud what many people wisely prefer to keep silent about. We hardly greet when someone picks up his phone, let alone inquire after someone’s family: we go straight to the point in nanoseconds. When we do business abroad, we need special training in order not to ruin our economic opportunities by being unacceptably blunt and direct.
Funny how I, coming from such a place, decided to move to a country where criticism often is something one has to read between the lines. Where subbing people – criticising them in written form without naming their names – has become an art form and even books with the truest of accounts of reality are presented as fiction in order to avoid direct confrontation (and lawsuits).
I will have to get used to reading between the lines and to accept that what Western shrinks might have stamped ‘passive aggressive’, in the African context simply is polite behaviour. And I will have to find a proper way to respond. Any tips on the matter to this discourteous Dutch woman would be quite welcome.
Meanwhile, let me emphasise once more that I do not mind being called an ‘idiot oyinbo woman’. As long as you do it openly and explain why.
Talk to Femke on Twitter @femkevanzeijl
Previous entries of Femke Becomes Funke:
Editor’s note: Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.