That afternoon, a horde of students streamed through the campus quad in anticipation. The quad was on the north end of campus - wrapped in old concrete, and enveloped by overarching trees that never caught a glimpse of sunlight and a dismal patch of grass in the centre. Navigating through the thick crowd and coming into contact with strangers made Shishani feel slightly uncomfortable. It wasn’t enough to make her retreat though. She marvelled at the masses of people who had gathered to watch the “Decolonise Now Movement” protest. There had been chatter all around campus about the movement - how it was challenging, and the ways in which the black body, history and identity had been objectified, depleting it of its humanity.
Shishani was immersed in unruly excitement. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it – all she knew was that something powerful was happening on campus. She was convinced the movement was finally seeking answers to questions that she and her peers had all been too passive to say out aloud. Their conversations had been confined to their dorm rooms where they repeatedly questioned: why was it a sin to be black? Why were they forced to conform to the culture of whiteness? Why were certain spaces reserved for certain races? It had never made sense to her - this racial divide that privileged some and denied others an equal existence.
As a first-year student on campus, she had been riddled by a sense of non-belonging. She didn’t speak a local language, so the black kids always excluded her in conversation. The white kids on the other hand, made her feel uncomfortable in her own skin, always touching her hair and telling her how well she spoke. The coloured kids would only speak to her in class, but once they were out, they never wanted to be with her. Whenever she felt the loneliness creeping in, she thought of home.
She remembered the friends she had left behind, and how it never really mattered what colour you were to them. She soon learnt that these people out here associated with their “own”. It was just easier that way: no one really cared to learn the others’ cultural nuances. Even the friends she would make were her “own” in more ways than one - binaries she had never experienced. All having been born beyond the borders of where they now found themselves in, is what brought them together.
The “Decolonise Now Movement” protesters had been a headache to the university’s management for over two weeks now. When the protests started, they were just a fringe group of Pan-African students, or so the establishment thought. Yet their numbers had grown to the hundreds in the space of a few days. They protested on campus every day, occupying buildings, and calling for the fall of the last remnants of the Western empire that existed at the university. The curriculums were filled with dead white men, not to mention the names on the buildings, statues and the duppies that stared at them in lecture halls.
Carefully navigating her way through the large crowd seated on the Babylon Hall stairs, her lanky legs missed heads only by inches. She shot her fiery smile as people looked at her irritably. Her eyes seemed to glitter with a strange innocence. Shishani and her friends squeezed into a little space right in front of the protestors.
The campus was overflowing with heavy police presence, and officers were scattered on the periphery of the quad. Right fists in air, feet swaying from side to side, the protesters sang old freedom war cries.
“I can’t wait to hear what the movement has to say,” Shishani whispered excitedly.
“You need to relax. We all know what they’ve been saying.” Mutinta returned. “Now let’s see what they’re going to do about it.”
Mutinta’s face was like a bronzed pearl: beautiful but always staunch. Shishani had always found her astonishingly gorgeous. Her black afro was tied back by a kente band and she constantly bore an intense look of concentration as she watched people around her. Kwame gave both of them a side-eye. Wearing thick spectacles, he bore a bold and serious look. He was tall and built like a mountain and his skin shimmered like the twilight. “I don’t even know why we’re here,” he said. “This has nothing to do with us.”
“Geez guys, why are you being so negative?” Tatenda shook his head in disapproval, pushing back his dreadlocks as they flung into his face. “Let’s just hear what they have to say.”Tatenda went silent, waiting for a response. Kwame did not reply, but he did not rise to leave either.
“Come on guys, let’s be real about this shit,” Kwame admonished. “Firstly, this nonsense about colonial statues falling on campus is borderline ridiculous. What’s this going to change? Secondly, you aliens having nothing to do with this.”
“Are you being serious, dude?” Shishani rolled her eyes. “It’s a start to redressing the inequalities that exist on campus. I mean, broadly speaking - it could become significant in addressing systemic societal inequalities.”
“Shishani, let’s think about this rationally my friend…” Kwame said.
“Arrggh, you’re so irritating…” Shishani replied, almost yelling. “That damn statue is just symbolic. No one wants to walk around staring at duppies that killed their ancestors, and they’re just fighting for equal opportunity and representation for people of colour at the university.”
“Fine Shishani! But you don’t count anyway,” Kwame said pointing his finger at her – reminding her that she was not one of them.
“Come on Kwame, why you gotta be like that?” Tatenda came to Shishani’s defence.
“I’m just being real though. How can you claim to be a Pan-Africanist, then have a conversation about bringing down irrelevant colonialist statues, and ignore the violent policing of foreign African people in this country.”
“Exactly,” Mutinta agreed. “They were looting and attacking foreigners a few weeks ago. I’m told even the cops just stood by and watched, and these kids are out here making noise about statues.”
“You can’t have a conversation about the denigration of black people,” Kwame asserted, “and then pretend like you’re not in the streets doing the same thing to other black people, it’s not right. This anti-black sentiment perpetuated by other black people is too real for me not to acknowledge how their rhetoric fails to address it.”
“The tide may change one day and the rest of Africa will shut its doors,” Mutinta chimed in.
Shishani looked straight ahead at the protestors setting up the PA system, glaring at Kwame. Standing in a semi-circle the protestors brandished posters that read:
“WE WILL NOT BE SILENCED.”
“WHITE PRIVILEGE MUST FALL.”
“OUR VOICES MUST BE HEARD.”
“NO MORE LIP SERVICE.”
“I understand what you’re saying,” Shishani conceded. “But you can’t think so narrowly. We’re all Africans. We all live in the remnants of empire, this is as much our fight as it is theirs.”
“They don’t fight on our team though,” Kwame retorted. “Where were they when hundreds were abused and displaced? The burning man died under the gaze of our so-called fellow Africans, and they thought it decent to laugh at his anguish.”
“I understand, it’s not justifiable, but you cannot define an entire nation, by a few bad seeds.”
“But it’s okay for them to define my people based on stereotypes.”
“That’s not what I’m saying Kwame,” Shishani frowned. “They’re our people too, black just like us. The liberation of Africa was a collective one, and why should this be any different.”
“Alright guys,” Tatenda interjected, slightly irritated by their conversation.
“Fine. You both have a point. Their silence on xenophobia is problematic, sure, but we need to stand with them now. This is our university too, we’re all freaking Africans.”
“Exactly,” Shishani related. “One step at a time. This is the first.”
The voices in the crowd rose like a tide, hands clapping, faint songs, the piercing sound of feedback moved through the air, as the sound engineer tested the microphone. In that moment, right there on the stairs of Babylon Hall, Shishani felt as though her truths would finally find voice.
“Yellow-bones. You fit right in. Of course it’s irrelevant to you.” Kwame murmured.
“Say what?” The smile on Shishani’s face evaporated.
Mutinta hit him on the head. “Stop it!”
“If you have something to say, say it to my face loud and clear.” Shishani’s eyes glinted in rage as she involuntarily tensed her neck muscles.
“Until you walk around in my skin, and have grown ass people as well as little kids yell ‘kwerekwere’ at you everywhere you go, you will have nothing relevant to…”
“Ey,” Tatenda exclaimed. “What’s gotten into you man? She’s not the enemy.”
“Yeah dude,” Mutinta scoffed. “All of us know what it’s like to be treated like outsiders - our experiences are just as real. This isn’t a discussion about melanin.”
Kwame glanced at Mutinta, but he did not speak. No one spoke. Silently rising, grabbing his backpack from where it lay between his knees, he started to walk away.
Kwame turned back to get in the last word. “That’s why niggers stay losing. Melanin is everything…”
They all stared at him, startled. His words were drowned out as the first member of the “Decolonise Now Movement” roared his discontent on the microphone.