Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Does Africa Have A Song For Me?

On Sundays on SABC there is a wonderful show called "Who Do You Think You Are?". In it they take South African celebrities and with them set out to discover their ancestry. Often surprises are revealed, as family histories as we all know are often rose coloured. This last week it was Patricia Glyn's turn. For those who don't know her, which is likely everyone outside of Southern Africa, she is a writer and a radio and TV personality. From her website she seems also to be quite an adventurer. She was born in Zambia and grew up there until her family relocated back to South Africa, to Cape Town, when President Kaunda, a personal friend to her father, nationalised many of the family's assets. She is of British ancestry.

During her search to uncover her past, she discovers that a branch of her family was given land after the British army forcibly and brutally removed Xhosa people from it. There was a point in the show where she asks some elderly relatives who have lived their whole life on that very farm about the eviction of the Xhosa. One elderly woman vehemently proclaims that their land was unoccupied. When Ms Glyn points out that in fact that is not true as she had learned the truth of the matter the day before from the historian, the old woman becomes silent. What she knew to be true was now not, and who she knew she was was now altered.

Glyn feels a bit hopeless about this situation. She is now one of the bad guys. She has to accept that she gained in some incremental way by the Xhosa being denied their land. No apologies for this travesty have been forthcoming from the white British nor restitution to the Xhosa. Glyn, to her credit, meets with the elders of the Xhosa speakers in the area of the farm and apologises for what has happened. Though this may seem trite, I took it as an honest acceptance of guilt. What else might she have done? She has no claim to the land herself. She has no power to give it back. But at the very least she has accepted her fraction of culpability. That is more than most have done.

But Glyn is in a quandary. She finds herself in a situation that I think all white people in Africa find themselves. For her, this is the only home she knows. It is the place that she belongs. But she repeats Karen Blixen's plea," If I have a song of Africa, does Africa have a song of me?" I cried when I heard that. Is there any white person on the whole of the continent who can answer yes to that question? Will there ever be?

I don't know what makes this continent unique, perhaps it is only unique because it is where I struggle. Perhaps the same can be said for non-Asians in China or Japan. The obvious outward difference forever keeps you as the other. Forever. No matter what contribution you might make. No matter what you may feel personally. No matter your personal history. You do not belong.


Anonymous said...

This made me feel sad. One of my best friends is married to a Japanese man. She has lived in Japan for the past 20 years and has two children who were born in Japan, but she does not feel that she truly belongs in Japan.
'I never will,' she says from time to time. She is sad about it but feels she cannot change it. It is hard for her to love her adopted country so deeply, yet feel she can never belong to it as she feels it belongs to her.
Beautifully expressed, Lauri XX

Anonymous said...

I agree that it's sad. On the plus side, being an outsider is what makes it possible for you to write about the country. I belong to my adopted country, and that's why I can't write about it objectively. ~Miriam

Lauri said...

Selma, I'm so glad you posted this comment as I've often suspected as much. It is to do with rather homogeneous cultures defined by external features. Of course in Africa there is the whole legacy of colonialism as well.

Miriam- though I write about this it is an issue that I go from extreme to extreme. Often I embrace the difference. A lot of times I am the only white person around. This gives me immense freedom. No one expects a single thing from me. I always tell people I could walk down the road naked and people would just think - oh that's what white ladies do. That freedom gives me a lot of room, one of the main reasons I stayed put.

Unknown said...

its very touchy but very true. sad isnt it.

Euri said...

Mommy felt the same way when she lived in Wales. They didn't like Americans over there and they made mommy feel like she didn't belong even though she had lived in the UK for six years.

Elizabeth Bradley said...

I empathize with Patricia Glyn. What is she to do? She cannot right the wrong done to the Xhosa, so very sad.

For most of my life I used to say, "Well, at least my family wasn't involved in slavery." I assumed they weren't because both my parents people were from Eastern Canada. I even had a great-grandmother that was a full-blooded Huron Indian.

But then, my sister became obsessed with ancestry and she dug around in the records and discovered that our ancestors in Canada did indeed keep slaves. We just don't hear about it. Canadians had slaves too!

I changed my tune. It makes you sick to think that any part of your blood is made up of people capable of rationalizing such a barbaric, inhuman practice, really sick.

Onalemang said...

You are a white woman? why didn't i think you were an American of Black descent?

daoine said...

I never felt like I belonged in Africa either, and not just because I'm white. When I first set foot in England I felt an overwhelming sense of home I'd never felt before. My mother felt the same thing. Maybe we are more connected to "place" than we realise.

Lauri said...

Elizabeth- that is fascinating, I never knew there were salves in Canada. But also it is very difficult to judge people out of their time, so don't be too harsh.

Onalemang- You obviously didn't read my post a few months ago called "I'm white damn it".

Daoine- that's the opposite of waht Patricia Glyn said in teh programme. When she was in UK she felt now connection at all she only felt home in South Africa.

Karen said...

Perhaps the song is only for your heart, and not to share. I feel a deep connection, not only to the parts of the world where I've lived and visited, but to those places where my ancestors lived.

There is a song I hear, even here in America where so many horrible things have been done to so many innocents. It is a song of the land itself. The mountains, the sea, the sweet soil that teems with life.

It is a connection I feel to the Mother, and I pray I will hear it no matter where I go, no matter what my ancestors did.

I can only answer for my own mistakes, and teach my children the sacredness of the world around them.

Helen Ginger said...

Aw, man, this is like the second blog I've been to today that has made me want to cry.

There have been wrongs and racism in so many places. Places that today try to hide it or forget. If you lived in the US, you would believe only the South had slaves. Not true, of course, but that's the way it's portrayed.

Straight From Hel

Lauri said...

Ms Karen- I wish the world would let us only answer for our own mistakes but sometimes it doesn't.

Helen- sorry to have made you want to cry, I've been in a terrible mood all week. I think misery seriously wants company. :( I promise next week to be better.