Seeking our ancestors

2009-10-09 00:00

WE all have stories to tell. That we lived in this country at this time will be fascinating to anyone in the future who takes the trouble to look back. Even our ordinary routines will be instilled with quaintness and profundity by the passing of the years. And so what we now think of our ancestors will one day be thought of you and me. That is the fascination of history.

Each of us in the community that engages with this newspaper has a legacy of our own. In most cases it will stretch back into the hills and plains of this south-eastern seaboard of Africa, or the territories to the north of it. In others­, it will stretch back to the streets of Calcutta or Madras, or the countryside of Gujarat; or to the shires of England; or to the alluvial­ patchwork of the Netherlands; or to the fields and villages of France; or the mountains and valleys of Germany.

In some instances this migration occurred in stages: via Angola or Mozambique, or Kenya or Zimbabwe. In others, the contact bet­ween different cultures brought into being a community whose origins are divided between Europe and Africa.

In each case, even the nature of the migration or the mingling has a story of its own: of families seeking­ better lives, or fleeing persecution; or even of individuals forming bonds with other individuals and in each movement or association starting yet another story with its own set of human dramas: its births and deaths and joys and sorrows.

The young, it seems, fail to appreciate this tapestry of family history. Only once the greater part of a person’s life is over and the pattern of the past begins to emerge in the perspective of memory does there often develop in men and women an interest in where they came from. Sometimes this story is encased in an oral tradition, sometimes it takes shape as an inscribed family tree, but what gives it life in each instance are the individual men and women who make up the story — who they were, what they thought and what they did.

The nature of this pageantry will have been brought home to anyone who has watched Who do you think you are?, the compelling series that has recently been screened on SABC2. Based on the BBC series of the same name, the South African version focuses in each episode on an individual with a public profile and then accompanies him or her on a journey down the byways of their own family history.

Although the heritages of 13 South Africans have been screened so far, to my regret I have only seen several of the more recent­ episodes. One on Dion Chang, the fashion designer, whose family emigrated from China­ to South Africa several generations ago, gave a fascinating glimpse of the courage needed for someone from a distinctly foreign culture to gain a foothold in this country. That not long after his family’s migration­ their kith and kin back in China had their lives turned upside­ down by the Cultural Revolution reminds us of the consequences of making, or not making, a particular decision.

Another episode, on musician Vusi Mahlasela, showed the value of strong and nurturing family members, and how important the oral tradition still is for communities of African origin. Yet another, on film and TV personality Colin Moss, uncovered English and Irish lineages, and probed the complications of some marriages bet­ween members of the English and Afrikaans communities.

How the retreat of empire from African countries set in motion among former colonials a migration southwards, and how deep roots in the Eastern Cape among settler families have left unresolved land issues with their Xhosa­ neighbours, came to light in the family story of adventurer and media personality Patricia Glyn. And the final episode screened to date, on cartoonist Zapiro (Jonathan Shapiro), uncovered the long shadow that the Holocaust still casts over many of South Africa’s Jewish families.

There is much to be learnt from these varied sagas. For a start, how important it is for each of us to know who we are, particularly in a country that pigeonholes us because of our particular histories. Also, we are reminded that this enlightenment can best be achieved by asking questions of our parents and grandparents while they are still around to answer­ them. With every death a door slams on a lifetime’s experiences that can at best only be partly reclaimed through years of painstaking research.

Another lesson is how instructive it is to link the stories of our ancestors to events in history, because­ even if our families didn’t themselves make the headlines, they were inevitably caught up in what was happening around them.

Most important of all, we should seek out and salute the heroes and heroines of our legacies: the men and women who triumphed over often harrowing adversity, holding households together, single-handedly bringing up children, making sacrifices to provide good educations, and laying the foundations for future generations.

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