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Ways of belonging

South Africa
Illustration by Sarah John
Illustration by Sarah John

I had two babies inside me, the medical rationale for the unimaginable bone-weariness I experienced. The pregnancy started almost in tandem with Covid-19. Before most of the mayhem had spread globally I took regular walks up from my apartment to the nearby strip mall, recently renovated and shiny.

Once, as I approached the Mugg and Bean where I have cultivated some acquaintances, a woman in uniform addressed me in a friendly tone:

‘Why are you walking so slow today?’

‘I’m tired,’ I said, not willing to elaborate.

‘You’re not sick, are you?’

I was struck both by the question and the genuine look of concern on her face. A premonition perhaps of the kind of care that soon became commonplace as the virus took hold.

‘No,’ I said, and she kept me chatting, asked me where I was from and how she could tell that I wasn’t from here. Of course, not only have I lived in South Africa for over 20 years but I’ve been a resident of Jo’burg for 6. I sometimes wonder what it will take to finally be from here. Have we misunderstood ‘city’?

This is Jo’burg, after all; who, really, is from here? It seems whoever you speak to tells you a story of how their parents or their parents’ parents arrived. Isn’t that the essence of city-ness, a place we make home?

This brush with belonging, though, made me wonder what people will tell my children; it’s likely they will seem as anomalous as I do, if not even more so. Their origins are complex; both poetically and literally speaking, they have travelled a long way to get to me, they have come from far.

Where then do they belong? Right at the start, it was simple: they belonged to the sac, to the watery existence held fast and safe in my womb; but what about when they exited, what then?

Amid the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak in South Africa (early March) I flew to Barbados. I was hurriedly fulfilling the conditions of a soon-to-expire book research grant but really I wanted to take my babies (albeit in utero) to the land of my birth, the land of my mother and grandmother’s births, two women they will know through story, through the force of my love and through the magical inexplicable powers our ancestors have to reach and touch us in the present.

My trip was of course cut short and I fled back, surprising and confusing people who said, ‘But you’re home already’ and ‘Why not just stay?’. But no, it was Jo’burg I needed to get to, home. And yet I had risked so much to get the babies to the island in the first place – four months pregnant, twenty hours of flying, crossing two London airports. It had felt urgent. I think I’d wanted Barbados and all my relatives to mark them somehow. I’d waded into the cool waters of Batt’s Rock beach and said, ‘Land, these are my babies, please see them. Here, have them.’

While making promises to return (money, time, energy and Covid-19 permitting) once the babies were born, I knew that for now I would raise them in Jo’burg. And I knew that the warm-hearted Mugg and Bean attendant had been both right and wrong.

She was correct: nothing in my stature suggests I am from here because to be from somewhere is bound up in fleshy details like skin-tone and height and hip-width. But she was also wrong and I must find a simple way to tell her that to be from somewhere is also about where you run to without thought or hesitation. When disaster was mounting, risking much, I collected myself and my children and returned us home.

New Internationalist issue 526 magazine cover This article is from the July-August 2020 issue of New Internationalist.
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