Makwerekwere

Today Kay and I settled in Pretoria and embarked on the mundane tasks of grocery shopping and sorting the wireless Internet connection. Our place is in the Pretoria suburb of Queenswood, promoted as quiet, centrally located, and safe (“where kids still play on the street”). It is a largely Afrikaans neighborhood and this morning at breakfast I saw for the first time all Afrikaaners in one place speaking only Afrikaans.

A few miles away is Pretoria’s city center where private houses, walls and fences give way to the hustle and bustle of life in the city. There, predominately black South Africans and many foreigners jostle for space with traffic, tables piled with goods for sale, and each other. Tonight we drove through the claustrophobic throngs of people rushing to get home after work, doing last minute shopping and lining up the streets waiting for kombi transportation. Just beyond them, we saw in the abandoned fields and around dilapidated buildings dozens of people gathered, some making fire, some tending to makeshift tables, but most just passing time.

As we drove past, I wondered who among them were foreigners. Who were the refugees, the immigrants, the illegals? Who were these people in the field behind the National Library of South Africa making stone age fire?

Earlier in day we learned that in these parts there is a derogatory slang word for foreigners: “makwerekwere.” Derived from the Sotho language, it is used laughingly to describe black foreigners from other parts of Africa.

But how does one know who is a foreigner? And why is it that being a foreigner so bad? I am reminded of the poster that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees put out few years ago showing rows of people and asking of viewers to identify the ones that are refugees. So tomorrow we set out to find makwerekwere.

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