It’s a simple enough question really. I’m from the U.S., a west coast native from California and Arizona. But then it gets complicated. Because although I certainly was part of busy and whole lives in both of these places, neither has truly ever felt like the place I’ve yearned to be.
When I lived in Latin America I felt like I edged closer to this sense of belonging. I inched towards the possibility of finding a place I could return time and again and slip easily into. But the 18-year-old I will always feel when I return to Fortaleza had her path greased by the helping hands of an incredible study abroad program. Those relationships, while strong and necessary are still limited to a handful of close friendships forged through caipirinhas, dancing, and dozens of bug bites.
It wasn’t until I graduated from college, packed my bags, and moved halfway around the world that I started to truly build a home and a life for myself. The first person to make me feel at home and loved in South Africa was a little four-year-old girl named Botshelo. This giggly girl, who would go on to become my host sister (and today often referenced by her own mother as “my daughter”) pulled me to play red light green light, told the other kids to stop calling me lekgoa (white person), and gave me the hugs I needed to feel welcome. When I left my PST family for site we all cried, aware that I may never see them again. But today I would do anything for this family who opens their doors any time I show up, who willingly treks across the city to see me, who embodies love in the truest sense.
When I moved to site my first friend was my 7th grade neighbor who I jumped rope with. My sanity at site came from (and was taken away by…) the kids who gathered to play with me day in and day out. But my ability to persevere through the reality of life in the village came from my counterpart, a woman other teachers came to call “my mother”. She opened her arms and office to me and created a space for me to be vulnerable, to hurt, to miss home, to be angry or cry, to laugh, to improve my Setswana, to complain, to rest in the AirCon.
The thing with South Africa is that it is a messy, complex, and difficult place to call home. And yet, it is somehow where I feel most at ease. This is the place that I had my seminal growth experiences. The place where I built networks of relationships by myself, where I experienced myself as an individual, where I reconsidered my personal goals and my role as a white-passing woman.
These days when I crave food it’s pap and cabbage, atchar, and wors that I miss. When I want to dance I thrown on South African house and my vocabulary remains sprinkled with the occasional eish, is it?, and shame.
Being back feels natural. I was nervous, to say the least, about diving back into a place where I dealt with so many ups and downs, a place that has painful associations. But then I slipped in, my learners screaming when I arrived at school, each one eager to do an interview with me. I drank tea with my host mom and granny in Mpumalanga under the twisting pink skies of a South African sunset and fried magwinya outside over a three-legged pot when load-shedding made the stove a no go. Being back puts my pain and fears and concerns in perspective, shrinks them. It’s not to say that I didn’t deal with tough stuff during my service, or that I’m fully healed. But it also means I’m here and feeling freer than ever.
As I contemplate heading back stateside tomorrow evening the goodbyes feel less bitter than sweet because I know without a doubt that I’ll be back this side.
Oh and to answer the question:
Ke tswa kwa California, mara ke Motswana.
(I’m from California, but I’m Tswana)