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Biophile Magazine -- » South Africa: I think of her and I stay

"This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness." Dalai Lama

South Africa: I think of her and I stay

by Sarah Unsworth

FILED IN: Issue 17


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This place, South Africa, how do I describe what she means to me? There are days when my thoughts turn to those friends who have left, all for reasons they justify in this ever-changing land. Yet I choose to stay. When questioned, mostly by my own fears, I find myself thinking of her. My country. My home.

After being born in Kenya, the next 20 years of my life were in South Africa, living here without truly knowing her. My energy spent on my own growing pains and joys, I was innocently oblivious of her and her conflicts. When I left to travel at 21, I did so with no hesitation. Strangely, it was from London that South Africa became unforgettable, looming large to become an undeniable part of my being. There was no forced exile for me, I chose to leave and I could choose to return. Yet not having consciously loved her I could not understand her pull.

As the years went by there were times both in London and Australia when it seemed the earth of Africa held me together when I came closest to loosing my soul. Mother Africa, my spirit cried out. Still, I was young and knew that there would be time again to burn my feet on her soil, so I chose to ignore her calling for a while. Until one morning, early December in London. It was cold, the light drizzle turning bone marrow to ice. Dashing to the station, I grabbed my post from the box and unopened plunged it hastily into my bag.

A while later, in the stuffy heat of the tube I opened an envelope from home. It was a photograph, taken of the setting sun on a desolate beach on the West Coast. It was a photograph of solitude, of silence and of spectacular beauty. On the back my friend had written “another amazing day in paradise – where are you?” Where was I? I panicked as I gazed around me. In the artificial light of a train continuously underground this world seemed all the more surreal. I felt I needed to reach out and touch it yet I could find no substance. I was anonymous in this massive concrete jungle and turning inward, I realised I had no past or no future here, no bearings and no grounding. Instantly my time had come to go home.

Two weeks and a cheap one way ticket later I found myself on a plane heading south. Oh, my soul soared at the thought of it, lifted high above the clouds, 20, 30 thousand feet, I rose. 8 hours later we were flying over Zambia and Africa spread herself out beneath me like a patchwork quilt, a mass of red earth and rivers snaking their way over countless miles of untamed land. At Lusaka for a stopover, I stepped from the plane leaving the last of the English chill as a wall of heat enveloped me. Sweat trickled in rivulets down my shirt, challenged only by the tears flowing freely down my beaming face. Oh, how I had missed her. My Africa. She welcomed me.

Now years later I still think of it. There are moments when I miss my life overseas, I miss the high vibe, the continuous stream of people you meet from different countries, the feeling of safety and the excitement of being in an unfamiliar world. But I have come home. South Africa holds me tight and sometimes as hard as I try, I cannot fully understand why. Then at the height of my confusion, she opens and lets me in for a moment to witness her delights. And again, I am hooked. Perhaps it is just being able to take myself to a place close by where I can witness the magnificence of the end of the day, and then to be able to believe that this spectacle is all for me.

It is the continuos smattering of gifts that overwhelms my meagre senses. I am a romantic about my country. Sometimes all I see is her beauty, it lingers with me constantly. The horrific statistics of Aids, the images of death, crime and violence seen daily are enough to crush the soul of the strongest yet somehow I manage to look past it. For it is the beauty that holds me. It is the beauty that moves me.
Even in the death, the crime and the violence all I see is Africa. I see her journey, her history and her altered destiny. Sometimes it seems too much of her to ask her to contain the violence. I want her to, I urge her to. For her people to be greater than that, to move ahead, to be at peace. But I understand that time moves slowly in Africa and that it is I who needs to be patient. So I forgive her her violence and I love.

Imagines of her people reverberate around my brain. It is often something as simple as the petrol attendant who always cleans my daughters window with a beaming smile simply because it makes her smile and because I know, when asking him, that to do that is his pleasure, not just his job. It is his smile that is so freely given.

And so I think her and I ask myself, is this a gift I have been given to be here? Yet then I turn and it is the street kids, calling to me, testing my patience and my concern, asking for life, for money, for the next high, the next meal and I look on in sadness and despair, and mostly do nothing. It makes me ashamed and I think of her. It is my business and the fact that I am accepted as a business woman in a man’s world that makes me proud, and grateful, and makes me think of her.

It is the freedom of her open spaces, of being able to drive on an endless road from here to nowhere, that makes me think of her. It is taking my small child down to nearby beach at the dawn of the day, to let her play in the waves, for her to smell the ocean and to feel the sand between her toes moving with the tide. Incomprehensible beauty all around and it makes me think of her.

It is hearing a dozen different dialects, knowing no other than my own and feeling my inadequacy, my illiteracy and my limited knowledge of other cultures. It makes me wonder at it all, and it makes me think of her. It is her abundant colour and her tireless vibrancy. It is her music and the scope of it. Of kwela rhythm in a concert for freedom, the celebration of it and knowing that no other music can tell such a tale. A tale of strength. A tale of the power of good over bad, of love over hate and in her music hearing the surge of it under an African Sky.

It is the memory of that day in 1994 when we all stood side by side, making history as we touched our collective soul, that makes me think of her. It is today, when I still hear her struggle and I still feel her hope and it makes me want so much more for her. So I know her to be special as I know I am special in being here. So I think of her and so I stay.

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