Look into my eyes… October 14, 2006Posted by isabelleinnamibia in Namibia.
…and I’ll accuse you of witchcraft and drag you off to the nearest witch doctor for an exorcism. Er,…right. As I have recently learnt, in many parts of Southern Africa, it is inexplicably rude to look someone in the eye, especially when you are talking to them. I’ve had various explanations for this, but it is generally understood to be a sign of disrespect. However, it is also understood that witches can look into people’s souls through their eyes and then cause all sorts of mischief, which could warrant some form of exile, torture or other unpleasantness. Having grown up in a society where not looking someone in the eye is a sign of shiftiness, under-confidence and other weak personality traits, I am at particular risk of being accused of hexing people’s cattle. Luckily I learnt this early on, so I have avoided causing too much offence (in this manner at least!). Yet now, when in conversation, I am increasing aware that my gaze is naturally drawn towards the eyes of others, and find I spend most of the time fighting this urge by searching around for something else to focus on. This is far easier said than done. I find myself concentrating so hard on not looking at the person speaking, that I lose myself in whatever I do end up looking at – so I am now proving the British understanding that if someone is not looking at you when you speak to them, it is likely that they are not listening. Or I aimlessly glance around the person I am speaking with, eager to catch a glimpse of their reaction to what they are saying and to see if they too are listening. For someone well practised at talking, I never knew it could be so difficult. Another reason to mention eye contact is because it is entirely inappropriate for me to make eye contact with any man, particularly one older than me, which most of the ones I encounter are. People are generally freaked out enough if you look them in the eye; as well as witch-craft, it suggests arrogance, over-confidence and blatant rudeness (traits unfamiliar to my meek self). But couple all that with the gender issue, it could also suggest that I am coming on them, or that I think I am above them, which, being the single, unmarried, young woman with no children that I am, is just an obscene notion in itself. So far, I have hit on various taxi drivers, security guards and colleagues without meaning to. However I am learning to not look at people I’m talking to whilst remaining part of the conversation. So if I seem shifty, distracting or just plain bored on my return home, please do not take offence, but be proud that I have mastered at least one cultural practice to help me with being accepted into the Namibian culture. I do however still have the issue of being on one of the lowest social rungs, being female, unmarried, young and lacking children. It is important to know where you are on the ‘power scale’, so as to know the best way to approach different people, and understand the behaviour towards you by others. Although skin colour can offer some form of authority or ‘power’, it is often misunderstood, bias or just a stigma in itself, especially in the shadow of the scarily recent apartheid. On a professional level, being white can overrule the fact that I am a young woman, raising my status somewhat, but again, often for the wrong reasons. But socially, I’m screwed. Often I have been asked, ‘where is your husband?’, or ‘how many children do you have?’, to which I have often spluttered ‘I’m only 23’ in justification of having neither husband nor children. Sadly this is not an acceptable excuse, and it just means that I have not yet fulfilled my potential as a woman, and therefore will struggle to command any respect. Oh dear, better get cracking on getting me some kiddies and a husband quick-smart. Any takers? (Just kidding, Mum!) I should also note that men have it easy here. Their inter-leg appendage automatically grants them some status, but to be deemed a real man, he just needs to own some cows. What a steaming pile of bull$^*!