Going Home

2016-01-25 07:04

The last visit to my native land, South Africa, in December 2013, marked my 10-year anniversary as an expatriate. In that decade away, I lived on two other continents (Europe and North America,) got hitched and procreated twice. I also became an American citizen, while painstakingly holding on to my South African nationality and passport to counter the nagging feeling that I somehow betrayed my roots by leaving them behind.

Upon arrival in Johannesburg it dawned on me that it felt for the first time, not that I was “coming home,” but that I was “visiting.” I did not feel like a foreigner exactly, but I felt somewhat estranged from my birthplace. I don’t feel wholly “American” either, as much as the country is home these days. I make and bake bobotiebeskuit and malva poeding in my kitchen in Phoenix, Arizona, infusing our home with “Proudly South African” tastes and nostalgia. I say bliksem when I hurt myself. I order Mrs. Balls chutney and Freshpak rooibos from an online store. I served up koeksisters, samp, bobotie, biltong and Nelson Mandela history at my son’s Elementary School World Fair.

Still, on the day of our arrival at Oliver Tambo Airport, I opted to stand in the long, snaking, snail-paced foreign passport immigration line, as not to leave my travel-fatigued, U.S. -passport-bearing husband alone with our two American rugrats. Finally at the front of the line after an hour-long wait, I was admonished by the passport control official for my unpatriotic choice of queue. I, as a dual passport holder, should have been waiting in the “South African Passports” immigration line. He was oblivious to the fact he struck a nerve - my inner ambivalence about where I belonged and how I felt about South Africa, with its haunting history and optimistic, yet troubled present.

I consoled myself with the reminder I did not quit my country on purpose. I was not scared away by the daemons of our history, which still bare the fruits of inequality, poverty, unemployment, violence and failing infrastructure. I would have stayed loyal and put despite these monstrous relics of our sinful past, because South Africa is a majestic, irresistible place of unparalleled, intoxicating beauty and of irrepressible smiles, vibrant hope and a can-do spirit, in spite of our Apartheid baggage and infuriating politicians. How could I be to blame for leaving when fate or the gods or destiny…I don’t know who…brought an American man into my life’s orbit while I was living in Cape Town and that he turned out to be the love of my life? I was not in charge!

We stayed in Johannesburg for five nights. The children and I slept away most of the first couple of days in our Emperors Palace Casino hotel room near the airport, recovering from jet lag, while the American husband attended a World Bank conference on Agriculture at the same hotel. On 5 December, three days into the trip, we woke up to the solemn news of Nelson Mandela’s death. I will be eternally grateful for the providence that took me back to South Africa during those days. The weeks that followed were steeped in memories and tributes and were both mournful and celebratory in remembrance of the great man. I was able to grieve in the company of my fellow South Africans for the immense void Madiba's departure left in the South African fabric. I could explain his legacy to my young children in a place where the love and admiration for him were palpable. Together we could honor the life of a titan of the African continent. The collective grief I felt in solidarity with (the majority of) the country brought me home.

Our Johannesburg stay came to an end. Recovered from our travel fatigue we hit the road to Madikwe Game Reserve near the Botswana border in North West Province. I have to admit I had never heard of Madikwe before my Google searches for “Game Reserves without Malaria near Johannesburg.” What a fabulous discovery it was, thank you search engine algorithms!

Madikwe Reserve bowled us over as a success story of our New South Africa. Going on a guided safari with an experienced, rifle-carrying guide who served us coffee and muffins at daybreak, was admittedly not high frequency adventure travel, but afforded thrilling, breathtaking experiences all the same. An elephant herd of mothers and calves ambled through the brush within arm’s length of our open truck. Highly endangered wild dogs cleverly dodged our advances, allowing us only brief glimpses of their painted pack. Giraffe necks mingled gracefully with the treetops. Troops of zebras, impala and wildebeest playfully scampered and galloped across the savannah, ever alert and on the lookout for their nemesis predators. Three adolescent lions were sleeping lazily in the shade of a tree, and lifted their heads royally in a moment of superior contemplation to gage whether we were worth their attention. They deemed us unworthy. A buffalo with handlebar horns rested coolly, submerged in a muddy puddle. We saw a rare waterbuck up close. A mother rhinoceros and her playful baby visited the watering hole next to our lodge at dusk every evening. Cheeky aardvarks came for a drink and  annoyed the rhinos.

During the Apartheid years the land of Madikwe belonged to The Republic of Bophuthatswana - the independent homeland of the Tswana people, which sounds lovely, except that the Apartheid regime propped up the puppet government and told the world the people were self-determined in an effort to bolster and justify the “separate but equal” philosophies of Apartheid. As democracy dawned in 1994, the area became part of the South African fabric once again.

In earlier years, efforts were made to subdue the Madikwe wilderness for agriculture, but like the people, the land refused to submit, and eventually the area was set aside for conservation. Madikwe today is a success story and shining example of how respectful treatment of the land and people leads to environmental conservation, a thriving tourism industry and job creation. The 750 square kilometre game park offers employment to local communities and Big Five wildlife to tourists – lions, elephants, buffaloes, rhinoceros and leopards.

We stayed at The Bush House, a lovely, intimate mid-range lodge. With the favorable Dollar/Rand exchange rate, the cost was modest compared to the experience: R2 550 per adult per night bought lovely accommodation, all meals and two 3-hour-long game drives – one early in the morning and one in the afternoon. We paid another R1 500 to upgrade to private game drives so that our animal-crazy children could go along. (Children are typically not allowed on group game drives.) These rates, which cannot buy a Motel 6 room in Manhattan, constitute a small fortune for many South Africans. The other guests at The Bush House were all foreigners: Brits, Swedes, Australians, Americans…and I.

In the end, I decided I still belonged, despite the dollars in my pocket and the unintended American twang in my accent. I concluded dichotomous feelings are part and parcel of the first generation immigrant experience. I can regret the loss of place and physical presence in the country that raised me, while maintaining a bond over distance…and simultaneously rejoice about the happy life I am making in the Arizona desert. My bond with South Africa shaped me, informs who I am and transcends physical proximity. The pride the beauty of the land and people instilled in me made me realize that South Africa was still Heimat*if not home.

*Heimat is a German word with no English equivalent; it denotes the relationship of a human being toward a certain spatial social unit. The term forms a contrast to social alienation and usually carries positive connotations… People are bound to their heimat by their birth and their childhood, their language, their earliest experiences or acquired affinity. Heimat as a trinity of descendance, community, and tradition—or even the examination of it— highly affects a person's identity.) Wikipedia.org

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