Of no fixed abode – guest post
I am a South African living in York. I’ve arrived here by circuitous route. After spending my entire life growing up in apartheid South Africa, unable to travel out of the country, at the age of twenty-one I finally left for a year of exploring Europe and East Africa. I returned home to South Africa for five more years, travelling extensively for business and pleasure during this period, having the blinkers slowly removed from eyes.
What became apparent to me over time was that South Africa felt less and less like home. Perhaps it is because I am a white, English speaking South African whose ancestors belonged on a small, wet island far to the north rather than the hot, dry plains of Africa. Or perhaps it was that South Africa was changing – rightly so – beyond the country I knew so that it already felt foreign to the place of my childhood. Or perhaps it was just the excitement of knowing the rest of the world was out there waiting to be explored. Whatever it was, I wanted to leave. And I did. Simply. There was no wailing or gnashing of teeth, thinking I might never return. I just left, ready for the next challenge.
I moved with my company at the time to Boston in the USA, then to New York City, before moving to the UK eleven years ago – jumping from Oxfordshire to Berkshire to North Yorkshire. Each move was just another adventure. I gave no real thought to where home really was.
But, having children plants roots for you whether you intend to or not. Once you’ve gone through a country’s maternity system, forged desperately needed friendships with post-natal group buddies, and figured out the pre-school and education system, you are well and truly entrenched. Without even noticing it, you start to feel that where your children are born, that is your home. Because it’s their home.
This became apparent to me when I realised I was silently cheering for the England rugby team in a match against South Africa. It was reinforced when we were offered the chance to move back to the States. I didn’t want to raise American children. I wanted them to be British. My husband is British. It made sense that we raise them in the image of his, if not my, childhood, rather than something foreign to all of us.
Yet I still don’t feel British. Nor do I feel South African. I feel like a person of no fixed abode. I desperately want my children to feel some of their South African heritage. So in a bid to infuse them with some of my culture I’ve tried teaching them a few Afrikaans and Zulu words. We discuss South African history and current events. I cook occasional South African meals and gnaw on Biltong. And they love to tease me when I yell ‘Ag no man!’ in a South African accent when something goes wrong.
But they’ll never feel the pulse of Africa in their blood, will never know what it was like to grow up in a hot country, where you ran around barefoot with unparalleled freedom to roam. That South Africa doesn’t exist anymore. It is no longer my home. And hasn’t been for some time.
I have no idea whether we will remain in the UK forever. Part of me is desperate to put down roots, to give my children the stability of knowing where they are from so that they don’t grow up feeling that they too are of no fixed abode. Yet a small part of me has the desire to give my kids a more global experience, to keep wandering and exploring, so that they can choose a place in the world that is right for them.
Perhaps I will never know where home is. I will always be a citizen of the world. But for now, home is where my children are.