“When Dani left, Dani never left.” The comment left me silent. He had hit the nail on the head. We were downloading music videos from YouTube, and I’d insisted on introducing the other Amazwi volunteers to Mango Groove, a South African band that had been popular while I was growing up. It was funny to watch the video now, the song so familiar but the images so out of date. A symbol of my struggle back here in South Africa: the comfort of what I knew competing with a feeling of outdated perception.
The strongest memory I have of South Africa is the one I formed at sixteen, imprinted on me just before we left. It was the end of May 1994, a month after the first democractic elections. I still remember that amazing day, watching TV at my grandfather’s house, our transitional home before leaving to Canada. People waited patiently to vote, talking freely to those around them, everyone so happy. For the first time, the whole country was united in a common purpose: participating in the creation of a free and fair South Africa. The elation was contagious, but along with joy, I felt an immense sadness, knowing I wouldn’t be there for much longer. It seemed ironic to be leaving at such a high point. Until the previous September, when my mother had returned from her trip to Canada and confirmed that we would indeed be emmigrating, my life had been relatively carefree. That year, the schools had been opened to people of different races, and I had been in a class with black, Indian, and Asian children of my own age for the first time. I enjoyed getting to know these diverse students, and seemed to connect easily with them. I got along especially well with an African girl called Hlubi. We would chat and laugh together, but she lived in Soweto, and we never saw each other outside of school. It was the year of veldskool, when the standard eight classes trekked off into the bush, for a memorable week of fun challenges. It was also the year my friend’s father was killed in a car hijacking, making the increase in the country’s crime rate suddenly very real in my life. I still remember the terrible silence in the classroom that day, and my own feelings of grief, anger, injustice. I couldn’t begin to imagine her pain. All of this made up my life at the time. The time before the world I knew fell apart and I was transplanted in a foreign, almost unreal, land.
The happy times I associate with my life in South Africa then have stuck with me. Small things bring those moments back. Listening to 80’s music, buying the biscuits I used to get as a child. The taste of Black Cat peanut butter. Hearing people use words like takkies and lekker as the most normal thing in the world. South African jokes. Humour I understand. The familiar. This close.
Arriving in Johannesburg, I’m home. That well of emotion rising in me each time the plane lands at the recently renamed OR Tambo International Airport. Jo’burg holds my heart. That has become even clearer now. I feel my love for the red earth on the side of the road, the trees with their branches twisting wide and high. Winding down Sylvia Pass in the car, I remember afternoons driving back from my grandfather’s house. Jacaranda trees meeting in the middle of the street, creating a purple sky. Their roots filtering down deep into my being.
But other things have a distance to them, a gap in perception that can now never be removed. My throat tightens when I see the high walls and electric fences surrounding the houses. I blink at one wall near my father’s flat, wonder how much higher it could be built. The houses look like well-kept prisons. I feel out of place, like a foreigner, noticing this. I cannot be comfortable with this part. I cannot listen to the news without flinching, cannot come to terms with the matter-of-fact way violence is reported, cannot think about what does not make it into the daily newspapers. I can turn my eyes and ears away, but I cannot forget.
Since emmigrating, I’ve visited South Africa every few years, as often as financially possible. At first, my mother, sister, and I came back together, but since 1999, it’s been just me. Each time I’ve returned has been difficult. Along with the comforting familiarity of people I love and places I know has been the unfamiliar, as the country has changed and people evolved. And I, too, am different. I’ve struggled to really connect in a way that does justice to who I am today. At times, I feel perceived as the same sixteen-year-old who left, and while I’ve certainly clung onto that time, I know my experiences since then have changed me profoundly. I want to be known as me, as all of that, not one or the other, not only one part. Can the teenage Daniela who lived in South Africa be merged with the adult Daniela who has lived in Canada, studied in Australia, taught English in France? Can those different aspects of the same person be combined and communicated to those who matter most to me? Finding that balance is painful, and sometimes feels impossible. It’s as if I’m standing with one foot in South Africa and the other in Canada, caught in a no-man’s land between two different worlds, unsure if they’ll ever be able to coexist harmoniously inside of me.
This time back home is different. This time I’ve come back to South Africa with a new purpose: making a difference in my home country. I will be working with Amazwi, a non-profit organization empowering rural African women to express their voices through the written word. I will mentor five previously unemployed Shangaan and Sotho women from the rural community of Acornhoek as they fine-tune their journalism skills producing stories for the Amazwi Villager newspaper. About local issues, written by journalists within the Acornhoek community for local readers, the Villager provides a means through which residents can learn what is happening around them. Acornhoek, part of the former “homelands,” where blacks were forcibly relocated during apartheid, now has a population of close to one million, the majority living in poverty. My work with this community will be crossing the line between black and white that I never could have done as a child, a line my Jo’burg-based family and friends will probably never cross, at least not in the same way. The new constitution professes equality and freedom. The reality speaks of an ever-present, subtle segregation that permeates every part of South African society. Lines that are invisible but very much real, lines few people will openly acknowledge. Over the years, I’ve noticed increased integration as well-dressed Africans drive nice cars and fill the ornate Jo’burg shopping centres. But what I don’t see is social integration. I don’t see people of different races visiting each other’s homes. It struck me most strongly on my most recent visit, in December 2006. On a trip to the supermarket with my stepmother, my smile at the black man behind me was interpreted as an invitation to ask me to buy his bread for him. My stepmother laughed and warned me to be careful, that they would try to get what they could out of you. The strangeness of the encounter made me realize how far I had moved, mentally as well as physically. I didn’t like the feeling of having to adjust the way I behaved according to the race of the person in front of me. This was a different kind of prison.
Arriving back in Jo’burg this January, I was eager to spend time with people before heading to Hoedspruit, my new home and place of work. Everyone had questions about what I would be doing this year. Everyone had an opinion, and wasn’t shy to express it. My cousin of sixteen, one of the sweetest kids I know, said, “Working and not getting paid! I would never do that.” His father had asked why, if I wanted to be here, I didn’t just look for a job in Johannesburg. “You speak French, don’t you?” he asked. “Couldn’t you just teach French?” Moving quickly past the fact that while I could indeed communicate reasonably proficiently in French, that didn’t qualify me to teach the language, I tried to explain that it wasn’t about the money. I wasn’t actually looking for another job. And I didn’t necessarily want to be living in Johannesburg, although I wanted to be close enough to come and visit often. Thinking about my uncle’s reaction later, it was not out of place. He was a doctor with three young children, working in private practice, and making a lot of money. Even though his family had already had direct experience with the crime in the country, he did not plan to leave. My mother had made her children’s safey her first priority, but my uncle didn’t want to start from scratch somewhere else. In contrast, my mother’s sister told me what I was doing was really worthwhile. My aunt acknowledges the situation in the country: high crime rate, damaging electricity shortage, and worrying upcoming elections, but she doesn’t talk about leaving. She has her own way of dealing with the reality here. My cousin said she was very proud of me for following what I wanted to do. Other friends also expressed the idea that if I was doing what made me happy, they were glad for me. With my father, it wasn’t so simple. He and his wife worried about my safety, and my decision to put my life on hold for a year, as I wouldn’t be advancing towards a state of financial and familial stability. Our idea of what was worthwhile just didn’t match up.
And Hoedspruit? “Where?” people asked. “Why are you going there?” The small, historically white community where Amazwi is located, Hoedspruit is a town you can walk through in 15 minutes. The endless traffic jams and bustling shopping malls of Jo’burg can’t be found there. On the contrary, if you drive through Hoedspruit too fast, you might miss it completely. While Johannesburg is full of sturdy buildings surrounded by high walls, if you were to fly into Hoedspruit, all you would see is an endless stretch of green. There are no clouds of pollution, and no concern about wandering around the town. And, Lerato Farm, my new home base, is as far away from urban life as you can get. Twenty minutes drive to Hoedspruit in one direction and twenty minutes to Acornhoek in the other, it is surrounded by acres of open space. The bush goes on for miles here, and clear night skies are full of stars. While Johannesburg pulses, time on the farm seems to stand still. I live in a house with two other volunteers; there are four safari company employees on the property, and no other people in sight. I got used to hearing the questions about where I was going, along with the requisite look of amused disbelief, from people in Jo’burg. The concept of willingly relocating to a tiny town, a small game farm to boot, was completely foreign to them. The idea of working without a salary for a year; the notion of giving back to one’s nation, something so valued in Canada, was beyond comprehension.
After ten days catching up with family and friends in Johannesburg, I set off on the five-hour drive northeast to Lerato Farm. While the Jo’burg streets remain heavy with my emotions, where I am based now is free. Walking past giraffes munching on leaves, the long, yellow grass swaying in the breeze, the hot sun warming my whole body, I find a place of peace. I walk without looking over my shoulder; I walk away from other people’s perceptions of what I’m doing with my life. I walk under a big sky alive with possibilities, holding the questions for which I have no answers. This is my connection to to the land of South Africa. Without the rest of it, pure in its beauty.
Photo Credit: Briget Ganske