I don’t like the idea of “nationalism”, it sounds divisive and exclusive, but on days like Freedom Day I secretly wish I could hold a more legitimate claim to this country, which has adopted me. In thinking about this, a poem I came across on Facebook recently comes to mind. It is entitled “Diaspora Blues” by Ijeoma Umebinyo and it reads:
“so, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
Never enough for both.”
I, like most people born in a country but “made” somewhere else, continue to call my birth-place “home” because it is what most expect to hear following an accented greeting. The question that often follows goes “Do you miss home?” And I am put in the unenviable position of coming across as heartless by confessing to a stranger that I don’t, but what I often refrain from saying is: “I am home” as if the questioning that would likely follow is too difficult to fully justify.
This seeming yearning for belonging to a place is not an active search for identity in my case. In fact, there is something I have always enjoyed about being a foreigner. It must be acknowledged that I am one of the lucky ones. I didn’t flee a place at war and my experiences overall have been rather positive. From early ears, I had a positive association with foreigners as being travellers and when I first became one (a foreigner) I was young and adapted to new circumstances easily.
I was 17 when I first arrived in the United States as a foreign student from Colombia. It was the late 1990s and at that time, my country of origin did not enjoy the best reputation, to say the least. Furthermore, a Spanish-speaking accent equated to being either “illegal” or not very smart. Those were impressionable years and I strived to change my accent, to adopt “American” mannerisms. Even my initial fervour in clarifying that “America is not a country” but an entire continent had started to quickly dwindle. Very soon I realised it was easier to “blend in”.
Ten years later, I moved to South Africa. To my surprise this new land welcomed me with open arms and many of the traits I had so hard tried to change were seen with curiosity and appreciation. Being a Colombian became a sort of currency and with it I gained friends from all types of backgrounds, genuine interest in my personal history and a “neutral” or baggage-free position in a polarised society. I was in my mid-20s, most opinions had been formed but I was trying to find meaning in my life, particularly with regards to my work. It was, after all, a job that had brought me to Johannesburg in the first place. I struggled to find meaning in the conventional context of a job. I had arrived to work for an NGO, with the delusion of many NGO-types that my education entitled me to somehow “know better”.
That part of the plan didn’t work out. In fact, for years I bounced from job to job not able to feel I was making a difference. It was only well into my thirties that I was able to create a niche for myself. Although I realise I do not know better and I’m not going to fix anyone’s problems, there’s something I have – my “foreign-ness” – which has helped open some doors. It enables me to introduce ideas with the implicit licence for naiveté and gives me a chance to break rules that I simply don’t know about. With time, the “slack” I am given becomes a little tighter. But I still believe herein lies a type of “soft” power, which unlike US academic Joseph Nye’s concept, is not tied to politics or any type of cultural agenda, it is simply the sharing of our human experience across artificially constructed borders. At least that’s been my experience. A friend once said there is something very powerful about doing something for the place where you choose to live, and this encapsulates the whole concept of “home” for me.
Freedom Day brings up memories and emotions that I can only try to empathise with because I did not experience the trauma so many people born in this country can describe first-hand. I can imagine and relate to it by listening to their stories and reflections, but I have no illusion that I can simply step into someone’s shoes and know what it feels like. What I do know is that the changes that took place in this country 22 years ago helped create a reality that now enables people like me to become part of the story. Today, regardless of my place of birth, this gives me a sense of responsibility, ownership and also pain for the dream that is not yet realised for all who inhabit this beautiful land.