15 April 2011

5000 miles from my home

I sometimes think emigrating must be a bit like having a sex change – you instantly become a person without a past, says Susan Erasmus.

I sometimes think emigrating must be a bit like having a sex change – you instantly become a person without a past, says Susan Erasmus.

No one knows what it means when you tell them where you went to school, where you spent your childhood holidays, and where your gran lived. You have to explain everything. You don't see anyone face to face who can remember the creepy teacher from the primary school or what our TV was like in 1976.

Whether you left your country for work, personal or political reasons, you'll know that feeling of really missing home. It's a dull ache somewhere between the ribs. And it never really goes away. But fortunately, you have real life with which to get on with, so it sort of dissipates as time goes by. But the ties that bind are not that easily cut.

Your language, your family, your ancestors, friends, familiarity and shared pain. Because being South African is complicated for all South Africans. It takes a trip out of the country to make us realise just how complicated. And also to make us realise that Africa smells different. The light is different. We are different.

Being from here is a bit like being from a large dysfunctional family. You can never quite let go, because there is so much that is unresolved, so much that is ongoing, so much that is unexpected. And much that is expected, alas. Our history is both bloody and miraculous, we have been the pariahs and the darlings of the world in quick succession, it is a country of hope, perseverance and despair.

The most wonderful party I have ever been to was held on the banks of the Ohio River. There were four black South Africans studying on the campus, and they were delighted to hear that a group of very diverse Southern Africans (we worked out that between us we spoke over 20 different languages) was heading their way.


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