I am a mixed breed. At least I always thought I was. However in recent months, the process of obtaining my national identity document awakened a passage of self-learning in my life that will make me much of the person I will be for the rest of my life.
My father is an Australian national, born in Chingola, Zambia but he vehemently reinforces to anyone who asks that he belongs wholly and completely to the Rainbow nation. Chingola, was just a stopover on the way to Johannesburg, he emphatically states. My mother, on a bad day, calls him a convict. After all she says English convicts were the original inhabitants of Australia. She would know this off course, because although she has lived in South Africa for most of her life, she is English. A proper, pucker Brit. Earl grey, wellington boots, clotted cream and fish and chips. Well probably today more likely chicken tikka masala, and that’s really a large part of this story.
It’s this English piece of the nationality puzzle that has captivated my interest. It makes me wonder who and what I really am? Poised before adulthood, I feel the pull of my English forefathers in my mothers enthrall of that green and pleasant land. When I sing Blake’s Jerusalem, the patriotic rallying call, stirs my soul in those dimly lit pews of the school chapel in modern day Johannesburg. My mother’s over romanticism of Mud Island (my father’s words) have created childhood picture post card memoires that I have adopted as my own, lived vicariously through my mother’s eyes. White Christmases, the queen’s speech. Family gatherings around vast log fires… very “downton” darling…
So on the journey to find my British soul, a family holiday to The United Kingdom found me standing at the customs counter at Heathrow airport, looking at an African man darker than our own Jabu who works in the garden back home. The north London British accent felt like an oxymoron. It jarred. I felt unnerved. This British journey of self-discovery was not starting off like I expected. Outside the rain, damp smell reassures only momentarily before the Sikh in the bobby turban makes me feel like Alice in the looking glass. I cannot possibly be part of this cultural circus?
“Yu mon yu waan taxi” shouts the Jamaican driver as we follow my mother striding towards the black cab queue. My sense of national displacement becomes more profound. Picture postcard alignment regains momentum as we passed by fields with wooden fencing, daffodils on embankments, red double deckers and buses. I could see my mother’s discomfort around the visible manifestations of the changes that have taken place to her beloved country, quieten as she recognized the symbols of the “old England” she holds dear. How incredibly “homogenous” my mother is I realize. Is this I? Is this how I am to be? I am 16, and I realize I have reached that grown up moment in life that I have heard about, when who and what your parents are, is not who and what you will be, or moreover what you want to be.
From the Scottish highlands to the Cornish coast, via trains planes and automobiles we traverse England’s mountains green. We visit castles and dead kings; we stand on the right and mind the gap, see the mousetrap and eat at the Ivy. In all that time, I think is this where I come from, are these my people?
I know that my great grandfather fought in Africa for during world war 2 and that my grandfather trained as an RAF pilot. I meet my mother’s childhood friends, and various relatives and eat roasted pheasant surrounded by wet Labradors seated at long polished dining room tables. We drink sherry before lunch in drawing rooms and after watered down coffee in teacups. I look across at relatives that I cannot believe have any blood tie to me. Surely not these “toe-the-line,” soft handed, pale faced, second cousins. I daydream. The cousins are at the corner of Bree and Sauer Street, trying to catch a taxi. Why they are there is one of those funny questions you don’t need to answer in a dream, but the complete disbelief at what they see around them on their very proper English faces, makes me giggle almost out loud?
I catch my mother looking at me across the drawing room. I know that she knows, I have discovered who I am not.
It is our second last day before we return. High tea at Claridges is my mother’s final attempt to cement in her children her English gene pool. Echoes of deco, amongst potted palms, champagne in crystal flutes, loosed leaf tea and tweedle dum and tweedle dee serving finely sliced finger sandwiches and apple raisin scones. I was ready to go home.
I had arrived in this foreign land; ready to reconnect with ancestry elements that I was convinced would be there. What I had discovered was a country that was not my home and was not a part of my national consciousness. England is not my place.
Africa with its heat and dust and late afternoon thunderstorms and taxis and traffic and first world buildings and third world squatter camps and wild animals and pristine beaches and ragged mountains and barren deserts is my land and my heritage. It is the place of my birth and it holds the soul of my heart. I am an African, and I am proud of it.