When the idea of Celebrate Southern Africa was born, I thought it would be fun – something exciting and interesting to get involved with and to enjoy some South African company.
Little did I realise the impact it would have on me…
The concept of belonging has occupied my thinking over the last couple of years as I really don’t feel I belong anywhere.
I left South Africa to travel 22 years ago, and I am still here. I now have a bit more than the backpack I arrived with, but it still does not feel like home. When people hear my accent, I feel them metaphorically taking a step back and I am treated like a visitor or even a tourist. I often have to fight my corner because I am not taken seriously – what does she know? She’s not even from here. I have to have cultural references explained to me and I am often left out of conversations because I have no idea who or what people are talking about or the jokes they are making. Sometimes people notice this and make a joke of it too, but I do often think they really don’t understand how it makes me feel – and why should they? They have not been in the same situation. Being so socially isolated and so lonely can be quite difficult – character-building, but still difficult.
I go back to South Africa for holidays and you know what? It is the same there. Besides the memories I have of the first 24 years of my life in the country and my on-going friendships with my South African friends, I have lost 22 years of social and cultural experiences. I don’t know who people are speaking about, what incidents they are referring or what somethings mean. I feel like a stranger in my own country.
Those who have emigrated and immigrated will know what this feels like. And since I lost my mother, I barely have a DNA connection left in South Africa. I have no children, no parents, no grandparents, no grandchildren, no siblings, no nieces or nephews, not even any god-children – so I am as genetically isolated in the UK as I am in South Africa.
So, where do I belong? I am kept at arm’s length in the UK and I am unfamiliar with so many things in South Africa.
But, by making contact with South Africans who are in the same position as me in this country, I instantly feel connected. A South African pointed out that working with other South Africans in the UK and running a business that attracts South Africans, means they feel less homesick. That has touched my heart because I can completely understand. I am not only homesick for South Africa, I am homesick for South Africans too – people who understand how hard it is to be away from what we know, people who use the same language, make the same cultural references, people who are carving a niche for themselves in a foreign country without their family and friends, South Africans who ‘get’ each other and who share the same history and roots. As I get older I value my history so much more. I am proud of my past and my family tree, but it means so little if we don’t make it work for us in the present and take it proudly with us into the future.
Celebrate Southern Africa is not just a weekend for me to enjoy South African food and drink, South African products and South African company – it is about me being connected, feeling a part of a community and being with people who understand me without knowing me – it is about one of the most basic of human needs – it is about belonging.