Scatterlings

*{A retrospective — to a post written in early 2014, soon after we moved back to South Africa after nearly 9 years in Asia and the UK. It’s fascinating to read it 4 years down the line, something I’ll be chatting about more in my upcoming Newsletter}*

Six months after moving back to South Africa, I still wake in a cold sweat and question the sanity of having left our comfortable life in Blighty. After all, South Africa is not for the faint-hearted. It’s beauty astounds you one minute and the inequalities make you despair the next. Extremes underpin so much of life here, and the issues that compel people to leave – crime, corruption, poor service delivery – are real.

My relationship with this country has blown hot and cold in the nearly two decades that I’ve come and gone. The first time I emigrated, to Australia, I was relieved to bid farewell to a place whose politics I despised. I grew up mixed race during apartheid and though privileged, I struggled with identity in such a racialised society. I found it hard to relate to life in homogenous, regulated Australia though and came running back after less than two years.

Six years later I followed my boyfriend (now husband) to Beijing where he’d been offered a job, and by then, I’d fallen head over heels for Cape Town. But still, I couldn’t resist one last adventure and so off we flitted, totally unarmed for the culture shock that lay ahead.

My memories of Beijing are so surreal I often pore over photo albums just to convince myself I didn’t imagine the whole thing. Cycling round the streets in an apocalyptic smog, undecipherable neon signs everywhere, with a swarming mass of people who spoke a language (cultural and linguistic) so very different from my own. I made the most amazing friends, and discovered so much (the Sichuan food cravings haven’t gone away and random Mandarin words still pop into my head).

It was a hugely enriching experience and despite constant homesickness, we got hooked on expat life, moving from Beijing to London via the unique, pulsating city of Hong Kong. And got married and had two kids somewhere in between all the packing and unpacking of suitcases.

What was it, eight years later, that made us come back? Perhaps the smogginess of Asia and the sogginess of Britain wore us down. Perhaps we became jaded from having to reinvent ourselves with every move. Maybe it was the grind of raising young kids with little help far from home. Or the yearning for unfathomably big blue skies, waking to the squawk of a hadeda, and the comfort of being with people who know you, your history, warts and all.

Being back, there have been a few crises of confidence in the future of our country. Some minor niggles – a brief panic over load shedding (that never took place), and generally adapting to the less sophisticated infrastructure. Some not so minor – the Pistorius trial dominating the news, Nkandla. And a major niggle – stories of crime affecting those close to us.

Socially, we haven’t just slipped back into our old lives. Not that we imagined friends would be clamouring round fighting to get a piece of us, but things have changed and people have moved on. Much of this is a stage-of-life thing, where people have turned inward to focus on raising their families. We’ve done the same. Nonetheless, we’re having to carve out a new space for ourselves.

One of the hardest things to reconcile is the disparity in the lives of the haves and the have-nots. This uncomfortable truth cannot easily be ignored. The short stretch of road on my daily school run is like a microcosm of life here, where wealth and desperate poverty coexist. Moments after you pass an exclusive gated community cosseting the privileged minority, you’re left contemplating life behind the high walls of one of the country’s most notorious prisons.

This being my first Cape winter in eight years, I realise how much I’ve missed the stormy north-wester and pelting rain that makes everything sparkly green. Rugged up on the sofa, there is also the lurking thought that many are not warm and dry. And so it goes. Gratitude, and guilt, back and forth, round and round.

It’s these issues that have made me flip-flop constantly over whether to stay away or return and the reason why, even after our tickets home were booked, I was still on the lookout for reassurance that we were doing the right thing. I was heartened when the moving company commented on a surge in families returning to Cape Town; encouraged by local media reporting on a ‘brain gain’ with many expats returning.

My feelings, I think, echo those of many in the South African diaspora. Their longing for home is palpable, even while they bash the country from afar and make gloomy predictions about it imploding.

But here we are, and as the months go by I’m less focused on fortifying our house, fretting instead about whether the boys will get into good schools and where to find paraphernalia for Easter bonnets or stokies for winter.

My kids are thriving under these African skies and I love admiring their mozzie-bitten ankles, bruised shins and sun kissed skin. I feel totally energized after time spent with fellow South Africans who love this place and refuse to focus only on the negative. On voting day this year I felt a sense of belonging I’ve not had anywhere else. There was an air of optimism that was uplifting.

Ultimately, it’s not about this place trumping that place, or choosing the right place. It’s about home, and where that is for you. And despite my fickleness towards this beautiful, spirited country, it is undeniably my home, and the only place in this wide world I’ve felt like sinking roots deep into the earth.