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When folks are surprised about where I'm from ...

By REV. ROD SMITH - For The Courier-Times

When I first arrived in the USA from Africa I was asked if I missed wild animals. A fly on the wall might have thought I’d abandoned my rhino, zebra or giraffe at the airport when I boarded the plane.

Perhaps I’d come to the airport by elephant.

The truth is, apart from monkeys, which are plentiful, and run in packs through the trees and can be seen on any given day, I have never seen wild animals except in game parks. I had to drive several hours and pay an entrance fee, hire a spotter who’d ride in the car with me, and hope to see a rhino or a giraffe in the wild.

One interested person asked if I was glad, now that I was in the USA, that I could get ice cream whenever I wanted. The questioner, an apparently otherwise intelligent woman, was clearly a victim of odd propaganda. She believed Africa had or has little or no ice cream – or perhaps that ice cream is unique to the USA.

The unfortunate term darkest Africa was clearly her view of my beloved continent. Had she no idea that local ice cream franchises and coffee shops and bakeries in all the beautiful and sophisticated malls often carried their own specialties of yogurt, sorbet, and pure, full cream ice cream to lure discerning and often exceedingly wealthy and sophisticated shoppers?

I was frequently told I am white and that I speak English as if both were news to me. People talked loudly to me, and slowly. They rounded their mouths and enunciated perfectly, they surely watered down their thinking (perhaps not) although this was more difficult to monitor. They communicated with me as if I were hard of hearing and intellectually compromised. I wrote a letter to the congregation at the church on my arrival and a secretary asked who’d helped me write such good English.

One fine day at the airport in Atlanta the pastor of a very large congregation with an expansive mission program (I hope the irony will clang in your ears) and in whose church I was to speak within days barked individual words at me: “HELLO ......., HOW........, ARE......., YOU......., NICE .........., TO .........., MEET.........., YOU....... YOU……., ARE……., VERY ……., WELCOME………, HERE.”

Since he talked to no others in his party in this odd staccato manner it was clear he did not have a speech impediment. Ah ha, I finally got it. He thought I could understand little or no English AND that I was hard of hearing.

“YOU……..,THANK……, YOU……., BIG…….., THANK …….VERY……., GREATLY,……… BOO……..,BOOO, BOOOO, “ I said adding a few guttural clicks.

I was once accused of not being a “real” African. I was just saying I was African to get sympathy. Hear that? If you are African you either want or deserve sympathy. Being born there, being reared there, having parents who were born there was not enough. I was parading myself as an African to get attention. I was trying to be controversial! That was it. I wanted people to feel sorry for me as if being born on the African continent is somewhat of a curse.

Icing on the top (excuse the cliché – but it is rather a good one if you grow up in a land without ice cream) was the person who asked me if we had golf in South Africa, yet.

I did not know whether to laugh, cry or scream “Gary Player” at her.

Oh, well. I know that people in New Castle know better. In my three months here several people have asked the origin of my accent and never batted an eye or raised a brow or commented on my hue when I said, “South Africa.”

They all seemed to know that Africa is not a country or a state, say like England or Ohio and that the continent is home to 50+ countries — separate countries as unique and separate from each other as the USA is from Brazil or as Togo is from Greece. They all seemed to know, high school students included, that South Africa is a very sophisticated country with homes as grand and sophisticated as anything New Castle or Indianapolis, New York, or San Francisco, or any city in Europe has to offer anyone.

The Rev. Rod Smith is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in New Castle and is a regular contributor to The Courier-Times.