5000 miles from my home
I sometimes think emigrating must be a bit like having a sex change – you instantly become a person without a past, says Susan Erasmus.
No one knows what it means when you tell them where you went to school, where you spent your childhood holidays, and where your gran lived. You have to explain everything. You don’t see anyone face to face who can remember the creepy teacher from the primary school or what our TV was like in 1976.
Whether you left your country for work, personal or political reasons, you’ll know that feeling of really missing home. It’s a dull ache somewhere between the ribs. And it never really goes away. But fortunately, you have real life with which to get on with, so it sort of dissipates as time goes by. But the ties that bind are not that easily cut.
Your language, your family, your ancestors, friends, familiarity and shared pain. Because being South African is complicated for all South Africans. It takes a trip out of the country to make us realise just how complicated. And also to make us realise that Africa smells different. The light is different. We are different.
Being from here is a bit like being from a large dysfunctional family. You can never quite let go, because there is so much that is unresolved, so much that is ongoing, so much that is unexpected. And much that is expected, alas. Our history is both bloody and miraculous, we have been the pariahs and the darlings of the world in quick succession, it is a country of hope, perseverance and despair.
When you leave these shores, you do take a small portion of this with you. And you recognise this in other people as time goes by. Your eye catches the name Thumi on a nurse’s uniform. You notice a lecturer whose surname is Swanepoel. Someone who might share some of your history and your memories and who might know what ‘lekker’ and ‘gogo’ mean. And to whom you might not have to explain a good SA joke.
My sister has lived in other countries for 23 years, but for reasons few people understand has never given up her South African passport. When coming here for the first time in almost a decade, she was greeted by the customs official with the words: “Welcome home”.
The most wonderful party I have ever been to was held on the banks of the Ohio River. There were four black South Africans studying on the campus, and they were delighted to hear that a group of very diverse Southern Africans (we worked out that between us we spoke over 20 different languages) was heading their way.
And what do all good Southern Africans do when they feel a need to celebrate? They drink and they braai. With or without Brenda Fassie, Lucky Dube and Mango Groove (this was 1995). In our case it was with. I clearly remember an elderly white lady being twirled around to a reggae beat by a youngster with dreadlocks. It was the happiest celebration I have ever been to. It was eventually ended at 2.30 by the police after a resident complained about the noise. Show me a good SA party that doesn’t end in that way.
I have not spent nearly as much time as many other people outside SA, but I do remember about six weeks into a study tour in the US getting a pain between the ribs. I was walking in Washington D.C. when I spotted an SA flag waving in the wind on the roof of a large hotel. The US is not big on displaying any flags except their own, so this came as a surprise. I found myself walking into the hotel and asking the receptionist whether there was any reason for their choice of roof decoration.
There wasn’t. It was purely random and she thought it was the flag of Kenya. Well, at least she got the continent right, which made for a nice change.
I walked into the street and stood on the pavement feeling bereft. It was time to go home. I was lucky, because I could.
To all South Africans who can’t, wherever you might be or for whatever reason, know that once you have had African dust on your feet, it will never really wash off.