I was at the Rwanda-Uganda border watching a glum security officer root through our bags when the lady sidled up to me and began to mumble something.
As a man who has spent many an hour on a bus travelling through the region, one learns to spot these individuals in time. Chatty people are a dime a dozen, but there are those who have a certain glint in their eye that suggests rational discourse is off the table. Unfortunately, one cannot always get away, and it was this verbal Alcatraz that I found myself in once the woman started rambling about Kenyans. By her accent, I realized she was Burundian.
“There are a lot of Kenyans going to Burundi” She whispered “Have you noticed?”
I replied that this observation had not occurred to me. I was also tempted to add that the banality of the information was completely disproportionate to the gravity with which it had been delivered, but I didn’t want to encourage her.
“I don’t like Kenyans” She said “They are mean and they won’t hesitate to stab you in the back.” She went on at length, but I will spare you the agony of those details. Suffice to say, our dear friend was not enamored of Kenyans, and her distrust of them wasn’t rooted in any rational foundation.
Later on as I thought a bit more about that rant, I realized that it reminded me for the umpteenth time of the gulf between the sweet rhetoric of pan-Africanism and the xenophobia and hatred that a lot of African nationals have for their brethren. It was only a few days later that I read about the marginalization of Somalis in Kenya. The story noted a Somali businessman who said Kenyan police referred to them as ‘ATM machines’ because it was much easier to scare them into a bribe. And needless to say, a significant proportion of the local community hated them.
And it was not too long ago that a football fan watching the England-Algeria game a few tables away from me during the world cup turned on a group of men cheering for Algeria, raging that North Africans were not ‘true Africans’ and were ‘terrorists.’ It is a sentiment I’ve heard in at least three different Countries in the region. Meanwhile Black South Africans xenophobia towards other Africans is well documented. From Ivory Coast to Zimbabwe, it is clear that we don’t seem to like each other very much.
All over Africa, prejudice and xenophobia towards other Africans reigns. Even those clutching their Kwame Nkrumah quote books often fall prey to that kind of thinking. It is something we rarely discuss as a problem. And yet we have surrounded ourselves with neo-imperialist bogeymen that haunt our intellectual dreams.
It reminds me of a very dark Israeli joke that the surest way to destroy the Country is for them to finally get peace with the Palestinians. The reasoning is that once an external enemy is removed, the Israelis will turn on each other.
Ultimately, such casual stereotyping, xenophobia and distrust is a reminder that for all the talk of ‘Pan Africanism’ and a United Africa, we are really too different to be undertaking such grandiose projects. All the talk of unification will repeatedly run up against the simple fact that our words and actions often promote the very opposite.
We should not delude ourselves that this is a minor problem that is only supported by some anecdotal evidence. Beneath the surface, we are at constant literal and metaphorical war with each other. And it is a war without winners.