Where do I belong?

Where do I belong? For me this is a fraught question, as it is for many migrants.

When the migrant ship Australis slowly manoeuvred out of Cape Town’s docks in December 1974 and set off for the open sea I stood on the deck and watched as the majestic Table Mountain, under the shadow of which I had been born, receded into the distance. I felt an enormous sense of relief and I vowed never to return. Then the mountain disappeared over the horizon and I felt as if I had escaped from a prison. I couldn’t stand the place, with its racist, authoritarian government and its ultra-conservative, pious Afrikaners, who had as much compassion for people of colour as a predator has for its prey.

I have now lived in Australia for more than sixty percent of my entire life, so this is clearly where I belong, right? The places of my youth have changed beyond recognition, so surely I now no longer belong there. And yet, I am not always sure where I really belong. The place where one has lived as a child and as a young person is indelibly engraved into one’s psyche, regardless of the passage of time. Its tendrils retain a firm hold over the years. And so it is with me.

What is it that binds us forever to the places of our youth? It is the landscapes, the shape of the trees, the native flowers and birds and animals, the smells. It is the accents and the unique local sense of humour of the people. Even after forty years away my heart still soars when I hear Cape Coloured people speak their distinctive Kaapse Afrikaans, or when I hear the clicking sounds of a black person speaking Xhosa or Zulu.

A few years ago I borrowed my brother’s car and drove along the road between Gordon’s Bay and Hangklip, near my home town of Somerset West. The road winds its way between the ocean on one side and steep mountains on the other. As a young man I went there nearly every weekend, having barbecues with friends or girlfriends, snorkelling and sunbaking.

I spotted some wild proteas on the slope of the mountain, near the road. When I stopped and walked up the slope I suddenly smelled the aroma of the fynbos, the local vegetation, and was overpowered by the familiarity of the smells. I can’t even remember having ever registered these smells when I was young. I was so excited that I kept sniffing at the plants. Then I realised if anyone spotted me they would probably think I had escaped from a mental institution.

During the forty plus years that I have lived in Australia I have naturally grown to love the smell and the shape of the gum trees and I adore the sounds of the warbling magpies and currawongs. They have also become a part of my psyche.

When I was working at the Glen Waverley Library five years after I had arrived in Australia, I came across a book called Wild Australia: a view of birds and men, with paintings and drawings by the Australian artist John Olsen. His illustrations struck a strong chord within me and I realised for the first time the extent to which Australia had become “my place”.

At the time I was a complete ignoramus as far as art was concerned and I had never heard of Olsen. I wrote to him that same day and explained how I had struggled to come to terms with Australia’s animal and plant life and landscapes, which differed so much from that which I had grown up with. I told him his art work had captured the essence of Australia’s places and it had made me realise that I really felt at home in my new country.

Olsen responded:

John Olsen letter 11.2.80

Ironically, when I am traveling in South Africa these days and I see a eucalypt or a callistemon with its red bottlebrush flowers, I immediately long for “home”. Such is the ambivalence of my belonging.

A couple of years ago I caught up with Johan, a university friend, in South Africa. It was the first time I had seen him since I had left my homeland all those decades ago. We had lost touch with each other when I departed, but now we were overjoyed to meet again.

“It’s so good to see you again after all these years, Tiens. I had heard somewhere that you had gone to Australia and I’ve often wondered how you were going there and what you were doing.” Then he added, “So when are you coming home?”

And for a little while there I felt I was ‘home’.

The writer Gillian Slovo, daughter of a South African political refugee, described this ambivalence perfectly in an article in The Bookseller of 31 January 1997:

North London is where I’ve lived most of my life. But there are things about South Africa that feel more like home to me … I have to deal with the fact that, like most exiles, I am at home in two places, and a stranger in both.

My children do not suffer from the same ambivalence as their father. When my son Neil was six years old I took him and a couple of his little mates to the local swimming pool one day. They were all sitting in the back of the car. I overheard one friend asking Neil, “Why does your dad speak so funny?”

“How do you mean?’ asked Neil.

“He doesn’t speak the same as us Aussies.”

“Oh,” Neil replied. “That’s because me dad’s an Afro. And me mum’s a Pom, but me – I’m an Aussie!”

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A chance encounter with the Primrose Rugby Club

Primrose Rugby Club 2

On a blustery day in September 2012 my wife and I were relaxing in our seats in the rear of a plane on the tarmac at Cape Town’s international airport on our way back to Australia, when a babble of excited voices filled the aircraft and a group of young boys, accompanied by some adults, made their way to where we were sitting. We quietly braced ourselves for a long and noisy flight.

The boys were all dark-skinned and clearly belonged to some sort of sporting club.

Whilst growing up in South Africa during the Apartheid era, I had never once played sport against, nor even sat next to anyone who was not white. Under the laws of the time everything relating to racial matters was separate or ‘apart’ – sport, public transport, park benches, churches, schools, toilets and even public parks.

Having been active in the Anti-Apartheid movement for many years, it was a novel and heart-warming experience for me to share the plane with these excited, dark-skinned youngsters.

Their coach’s seat was not far from mine, on the other side of the aisle. I could tell that he had an excellent rapport with the kids. One of the boys came past and ruffled his hair. When they became too excited and noisy, he called them to order and they quietened down immediately.

“What is the name of your club?” I asked the coach.

“The Primrose Rugby Club. Our boys are going to compete in a rugby competition for Under 13s in New Zealand.”

I had never heard of the Primrose Rugby Club, so I asked him how long the club had been in existence. “It started in 1896,” he said. “It’s a community club. I used to play for them myself when I was young. We have at least one boy here who is going to play for South Africa one day,” he added confidently.

The separation or ‘apartheid’ between races when I grew up was so comprehensive that this rugby club, which had existed not far from where I had lived as a schoolboy, was unfamiliar to me.

“Do your teams sometimes fly to other parts of South Africa to compete?” I asked him.

“Oh no, very few of our players would ever have been in an aeroplane before.”

The excitement amongst the boys was palpable. One of them had taken more than a hundred photos on his digital camera in the plane even before take-off. Another exclaimed: “Look! They even have little televisions in here.” He turned to me. “Could you please show me how to switch this on?”

The plane started moving towards the runway. I asked the young fellow across the aisle from me if he had ever travelled in a plane before. “No, never,” he replied. “I’m very scared!”

As the plane gathered speed on the runway the boys’ voices grew louder and some of them cried out aloud in fright when it lifted off the ground. Suddenly, one of them started singing the post-Apartheid South African national anthem, “Nkosi Sikilel iAfrika” (“Lord Bless Africa”, in the Xhosa language) and all the others immediately joined in to sing their fear of flying away. It was an enthusiastic and beautiful impromptu performance.

Later, back in Melbourne, I googled the Primrose Rugby Club and found an amateur video of the boys on a New Zealand rugby field, standing in line and facing a long line of their young New Zealand opponents, who were performing the haka. I could imagine just how immensely the boys of the Primrose Rugby Club would have enjoyed that moment, and I was grateful that something like this had become possible in my lifetime.

Some months later I googled the Primrose Rugby Club again, curious to know how their tour of New Zealand had gone. One website informed me that they had made history as the first ever international team to have been invited to compete in the prestigious Annual New Zealand Junior Rugby Festival. Then I found a photo on another website that caused me to be overwhelmed with great emotion, as well as with a strange feeling of immense pride. There was the trophy for the Under 13 Champions of the New Zealand Junior Rugby Festival, perched on the shore of Table Bay, with Cape Town in the background.

Primrose Rugby Club trophy

 

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 POSTSCRIPT

At the time of writing this piece I had tried my utmost to find a contact email address or snail mail address for the Primrose Rugby Club so that I could share this story with them, but to my great frustration I was unable to do so. Then, out of the blue four years later, I received the following message per email:

22 June 2017

Hi There

It was by chance that I came across your article which was written in 2014 about a group of young rugby players setting off to play for the very first time in a foreign country. 🙂 Boys from Primrose Rugby Club.

I was on that plane with those boys and I would love to share your post on my blog: zivs2.wordpress.com

It was a really fascinating story which I would love to share with you some time.

Best regards

Zivia Sallie

 

22 June 2017

Reblogged this on The World of Zivs and commented: It was per chance that I found this article today. To all the Primrose Rugby boys, staff and parents who travelled on this flight with us…I’m sure you will all just be smiling when you read this.

 

22 June 2017

Dear Tim

You cannot imagine my delight in discovering your article this morning. It brought back so many fond memories of this tour and I have already shared with most families linked to that tour.

I will take some time out and email you the details and I am certain you will find it extremely fascinating.

The tour was a great success. We returned to SA with a Silver plate and boys whose lives had been changed forever.

I hope to be in touch sometime soon.

Best Regards

Zivia

 

23 June 2017

I shared your post with many of the parents and they thanked me for sharing because it brought back so many beautiful memories for them too. One of the families now live in New Zealand and the mom, Insaaf, said that she was in tears just remembering that time. She has also travelled with the group.

Zivia