My ancestors were a rather motley crew of German peasants, French Huguenots, some rather odd British folk and who knows what else. My paternal grandmother (who was born of British parents in Libode in the former Transkei) caused me terrible confusion as a child by referring to England as “home”. I found this incomprehensible because it had never been her home and it certainly wasn’t mine. Still, when I visited the United Kingdom in my mid 20’s, (in an effort to earn some real currency to pay back my vast student loans) I imagined that I would feel some affinity to the British people. But although they were perfectly marvelous in many ways it was immediately clear that they were not my tribe and I was not home. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I ached for my real home from the minute I arrived. I felt a desperate and subversive longing to inject a few jaunty taxi loads of South African chaos into the annoying orderliness and the endlessly polite traffic and courteous queues. I felt exceptionally out of place: the only giant, tanned, cheerful, bright (not wearing the obligatory slurry colour) weirdo on the underground. I never stopped trying to make eye contact and greet everyone and most people recoiled from me as if I was a freak. I longed for big beaming smiles and instant connection, easy laughter and South African accents. I especially missed the sound of isiXhosa and once, in utter desperation, I followed a beautiful black man all the way to his front door in the hope that he was a bro and would recognize me instantly as a compatriot (sadly he was disappointingly French and communicated only in eloquent shrugs). I tried to comfort myself with the exquisite food choices in the dazzling supermarkets – the food was all so aesthetically pleasing that I could hardly wait to cook with it. But it tasted like cardboard and nothingness. There were no mielies anywhere, no biltong, no rusks, no vetkoek, no fruit or vegetables that tasted like sunshine and earth and rain. And as for the wine… well that was just disappointing.
I eventually grew to admire the gentle green beauty and appreciate the perfection precision but I longed every day for the smell of rain on parched dust, or the sight of acacia trees in bloom, or the rugged magnificence of the Karroo, the Kalahari, the Baviaanskloof, the Wild Coast…..
There is something heartbreaking and even more lovely than the singing of it in the landscape of this country (and the Eastern Cape in particular). It’s rough texture is woven into the very fiber of my being. Aloes and Ngunis, acacia, river euphorbia and spekboom make me feel as if all is right with the world. I love this place with a possessive, passionate intensity that makes my chest hurt. The sheer drama of it. The fact that it is simultaneoulsy both sweet and wild. The constant reminders that the land and its people have endured great hardship and emerged stronger and more beautiful because of it, is so evident in every aspect of the landscape. When I first returned to South Africa, there were days when I had to restrain myself from lying down in the dirt and pressing my face against its red earth heart and trying to put my arms around this tragic, lovely, hardy, soulful corner of the earth that I call home.
I was raised by a village whose ceremonies woke me in the middle of many childhood nights with the sound of their beating drums. It was never the sound that woke me, but the thudding rythm resonating with gentle urgency through my half sleeping form as the heavens threw aloe moon shadows in the dust outside my window. I was raised by a village whose children played klip klip in the veldt with me and whose parents sent us home with a cuff at sunset from the river where we fished for eels. We obeyed without question because we knew as well as anyone that sunset heralded the arrival of the river people. My childhood is permeated with the sound of ululating voices, the sight of cooking pots and shweshwe and with the smell of snuff, pipe tobacco, cooking fires, mqomboti, sweat and cowdung. I’m staying because my history renders me a stranger elsewhere. I’m staying because that same history makes me an heir at home.