“Made in Afrika”… That has so many meanings in my life. It brings tears to my eyes as I write this. It makes me long for something I wonder if I will ever have. It’s a place and life I long to know.
Tonight, I went to the OSU “Made In Afrika” night, a community event for a night of performances, food, and culture to present and demonstrate about the many diverse cultures and ethnicities found in Africa. There was a fashion show, traditional food served, drum and acrobatic performances, dances in traditional garb, a short skit, an educational cheetah, and a short video.
While I loved all of it, the video is what really stood out in my mind. Students from the African Student Association talked about many things in relation to Africa and their cultures. They allayed some misconceptions people in America often have about the countries, cultures, and people that live there. They spoke about what they miss from home, their favorite foods, the places they would like to visit some day, and what the word “Africa” meant to them. Many said “family”, “friends”, “community”, and “freedom”, but the one that stood out to me was when one man said “home”. I cried a little on the inside.
To be so far away from the place you feel is your true home is heartbreaking. I will never be able to understand what that is like, for young African people to travel so far away from all that they know to come to school here… That takes so much courage. To always feel out of place, to have to learn an entirely new language. Not English, but American, and the many culturally-taught phrases and interactions. To not understand jokes because they’re specifically American in nature, or deal with subtle things that cannot be taught along with the language, or to understand the little catch-phrases that come along with living in an entirely new place. That I know very well.
I was not born in Africa. I was born in Charlotte, NC, about as white and middle class as you can get. I went to a private school and led a privileged white, middle class life. But I have never seen myself as American. My mother is from South Africa. Yes, she is just as white as I am, and her ancestors probably did horrible, terrible things to the native people there, but this far down in the generations, Africa is her home. Even though she left it, it is a deeply ingrained part of her. So I didn’t grow up as an American child. She raised me the only way she knew how; to be South African.
Our house is a tribute to her homeland. We have traditional masks on the walls, impala skins on the furniture, animal print fabric upholstering the cushions, and little “medicine man” statues flanking the fireplace. Most of the furniture is also from South Africa, and she has shunted it through three continents till it sits where it is today. The artwork is a combination of African workmanship and things she has picked up during her travels. Her jewelry is often of African origin. She has moved her home with her everywhere she has gone, carving out a little piece of Africa into whatever new place our family has landed. I grew up in this. I was taught the manners she was as a child. I was taught the pronunciations she used. I sound more British than I do American sometimes, and I decisively choose to pronounce and spell things the British way. She raised me with her morals, and her customs, and her culture all around me, and I cling to that.
When I was sent to school, people corrected me constantly on my pronunciation, spelling, use of Celsius instead of Fahrenheit, metic system instead of imperial, even my reluctance to sing patriotic songs to the American flag. Slowly, my South African-ness was being stripped from me. At the beginning of middle school my mother decided to homeschool me, and probably did a better job of teaching me than any teacher in the deep south would have done. However, just like with a young puppy, children need to be socialized if you want them to integrate well with other humans. She tried, she really did – I was just very resistant to it, and probably always will be. When I was put back with other kids, my differences were even more apparent. I didn’t understand little inside jokes. I didn’t know the music and movies, actresses and singers, tv shows and popular bands that they all talked about. In short, I was “out of the loop”. I could talk more easily to adults about politics and international events than I could converse about how hot Zac Efron was. More than ever I clung to whatever I felt made me me. My mother, my home, my culture.
Until recently, I didn’t realize just how strongly I longed to feel like I belonged. Growing up as the child of immigrant parents (although I didn’t realize that moniker applied to them until about a year ago), I was always the odd one out in a group. I’m not quite American, but will never be called South African. I have a mixed accent, a mixed culture, a confusion of being half one thing and half another. I was born about a month after my parents moved to the U.S. I was “made” in Africa, but people don’t see that. They think that since I was born here, that automatically makes me an American, and to not feel patriotic or obsessively loyal to this country makes me a strange person. That automatic push to force me to be American kicked my stubborn side into overdrive and I now aggressively push back and try to be even more different than I already am.
For the last couple years I have felt an incredibly strong pull to go back to South Africa. To go home. So when that video was shown with one of the students saying he thought “home” when he thought about Africa, I cried. Because I want to go home. I want to know what it’s like to be home. Not the place I was born, but the continent I feel an inexplicably strong connection to, an extremely strong longing for.
I’m not romanticizing it. I know there are many difficulties and that it’s a harsh place to live, a dangerous place for a white girl to go to without understanding the social constructs and racial conflicts. I know it would lack many of the creature comforts I see as the “norm”, and that I would probably feel just as out of place there as I do here. I know all of that, and yet I still yearn for it. I can’t stop thinking about it, and it’s become a thorn in my side. When people mention “going home” referring to flying back to whatever state they came from, all I can think about is flying into the Johannesburg airport in the middle of a lightning storm, as I did when I was 12. I think about visiting my grandparents, even though I have very little connection to them having grown up so far away.
Mostly I think of Kruger National Park. I long to be back there. As a wildlife major more than a little obsessed with large charismatic carnivores, Africa is the holy grail of a wildlife scientist’s playground. Not only that, but my mothers stories and the images evoked by my heritage is that of seeing the wildebeest herds, a lion eating a warthog, seeing seventeen different kinds of antelope in one day, and watching giraffe stretching their necks to reach a particularly juicy bunch of leaves. I watched so many nature documentaries as a child I felt like I was actually there. My single memorable visit to Kruger has stuck with me for the last 9 years like an octopus would to a glass window… It’s impossible to get it off.
Hopefully someday my career will take me back home, and I’ll find a research position in a lab researching anything from Bateleur eagles to carbon deposits pre- vs. post- wildebeest migration. Or I’ll successfully get placed as a Peace Corps volunteer somewhere in Africa, and truly get to know the people and the culture that I long to know, even though it still won’t be quite mine. I just know that until I get back there, and I live for a time within the continent, I don’t think i’ll be able to get this empty, lost feeling out of me. I won’t be able to move on until I go back, as cliched as that sounds.
I lay in bed as I write this, tears silently sliding down my cheeks, which will lead to red puffy eyes in the morning. That’s how strong that longing is. I can’t even look at pictures of my mother’s trips there without turning into a soggy mess of homesickness for a place I have never actually lived long-term. But regardless of birthplace, I can’t help but feel that my home is literally over 10.5 thousand miles away from my current location, and any way to make that distance grow smaller is a step in the right direction for me.
So I will keep striving to find a way back, a way to go home again, and hopefully find some kind of peace. I’d say it’s not going to run away any-time soon, but I have a feeling that rising global temperature might just have the natural ecosystem I so long to see again sprinting towards the edge of an ecological ledge of no return.