I’ve just read a novel called The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa and it got me thinking back to our life in South Africa, the place we called home for over 6 years.
The German Girl is a novel, based on a true story, about the plight of German Jews during WW11, and in a sweeping tragic undercurrent it also encapsulates the joys and sorrows of exiles worldwide seeking a place to call home.
Read the book : The German Girl
While I might not be a refugee, and definitely lay no claim to tragic hardship, the book made me think about our daily life in South Africa and about expats and exiles.
Up-rootment and not a gin and tonic in sight
We were expats who moved because of changed circumstances. We weren’t forcibly moved due to gun toting political instability in our backyard or war, but we did begin a new life in a new country, and moving and leaving was hard.
The idea of being an expat comes with a serrated edge. The notion of gin and tonics at sunset along with outdated imperialism and colonialism follow the notion of the expat, though most of all the word implies being some sort of an up-rootment, and being geographically removed from one’s roots.
And it’s not always the peaches and cream existence that cartoonists capture in pencil, because geographical freedom comes at a price.
Leaving a country of domicile is always hard, emotionally and psychologically, and the last country from which we departed was South Africa.
Before that I’d lived as an expat in 10 other lands as our little family followed my husband’s career as a geologist, but it was in Cape Town that we sunk roots deep and strong, and expected, in reality, to stay.
Then a number of events exposed our family to danger and we felt threatened, and we decided, because we were oh so lucky (and we could) that we would emigrate for the sake of our children’s future.
Though this time there was more of a forced separation, we weren’t moving because of jobs but because we felt we needed to. Had the situation been different, had the politics been stable, we probably wouldn’t have left … and this time we moved feeling more like exiles than expats.
We’ve lived in Australia now for almost 10 years. I love it.
Yes, I can truly say that this is a land of opportunity with an egalitarian society – a beautiful country, a lucky country, in more ways than one.
Here, I’ve made new friends, real life friends, writer friends and online friends. At the start of my half century I started a new career. I can thank a bucketload of fellow Aussie bloggers for encouraging me in that pursuit.
With such great people as new friends and mentors, I’m finally able to look back on how I felt all those years ago, as we were on the verge of leaving South Africa, and I can feel a tug at my heartstrings as I read, but no urge to return their to live.
But at that point, on the cusp of giving up everything we knew and had worked for, and saying good bye to everyone we knew, my horizons were not full of sunbeams and sunlight, and I felt a great big well of loss in my heart that almost engulfed me. They say that you miss your life much more fiercely when you are still living it, than when you’ve moved, and this much I know is true.
How much worse must it be if you are a political refugee, stepping onto a rickety boat, chased from your known into the unknown with no guarantees?
I cannot begin to imagine.
I do know though how starting out for a new life at the age of 51 felt for me, and even with a soft landing to look forward to, there were a complex range of emotions going on.
Life in South Africa – July 2008
The hardest part about leaving South Africa, is on the surface, not really wanting to leave at all. Who can justify leaving a land of such variety and outstanding beauty; a rainbow nation where national forgiveness, courtesy of Madiba, has become like an eleventh commandment?
But who am I trying to kid? I’m a spoilt-white-woman, and I know I’ve had it too good for too long. I’m often caught off guard wondering how I’ll cope without domestic help and garden services? Will my marriage survive?
What about all the dirty socks left stewing in dark corners, and the piles of children’s clothes needing washing, half eaten pizzas and banana peel rotting under beds? Shame on me! Having daily help at home means I haven’t really had to deal with that kind of thing for a few years.
Good grief, just listen to me!
Will I still be able to afford a daily glass of world-class wine, and what will it be like living in a land where the Wild West rules of Africa no longer apply?
No camping safari holidays to look forward to? Sparse danger. No bribes? Little everyday corruption. No shrieking alarmist headlines. Isn’t that, well, a little boring?
An Antipodean lifestyle though and the merits of a life ‘down under, are very appealing. Certainly the beach so close, the barbies I hear about, and those new world wineries all get the good life hormones standing to attention. It’s a fair country too, they say. A place where a ‘Fair Go’ is a right and not a privilege, where a caring, egalitarian society is mostly accepted as the norm.
Now that’s something to write about.
But despite this, there’s something else, something uncalled for, that grates and niggles, always pulling me back to our life in South Africa like a strong bit on a headstrong horse. The time worn cliché, “Africa gets in your blood,” is so true. Something about this crazy, non-conformist, alarmingly beautiful but brutal place gets under your skin like a fever, like an itch, like a virus that will never leave. And I know, as much as I look for reasons to leave, there are just as many to stay.
Braaivleis, boerewors and the ‘Boks’, plus the spirit of African unity (albeit that it sometimes springs from a ‘we may not all be here tomorrow due to the crime’ sentiment) are powerful inhibitors of the removal van.
So too our friends and family – oh how I’ll miss them.
King Proteas , indigenous Fynbos (especially the smelly stuff ‘Kakiebos’ found in the Klein Karoo), quiver trees, baobabs, and huge Fish Eagles shrieking in eerie solitude along riverine valleys are mesmeric reminders of the bush and of our life in South Africa.
Big skies, wild animals, evocative cities, vibrant art and an ever changing tapestry of veld, mountain, sea and Berg compete for airspace in my mind.
How will I ever forget clouds bustling like crisp white linen over the Cape mountains, issuing a strong warning of the South Easter, the benign but bold, cooling Cape Doctor wind of old. Poetic, huh, but let’s not forget the ruined hairdo’s, and aborted lunches al fresco.
Stuck in my memory of our life in South Africa is the sweet, acrid smell of woodsmoke, hillside rondavels in African villages, big smiles, big hearts, resonant music , picture perfect little ‘dorps’ and Dulux white Cape Dutch homesteads, fields of lavender, acres of sunflowers and vast expanses of bright yellow rape seed.
Having the privilege to attend a 3 day Herero Wedding in Namibia as the only white person in attendance will forever snatch a place in my soul.
Living an illusion… maybe. Living in an ivory tower… definitely, especially as I’m lucky enough to be counted amongst the white middle classes. So reality stares back at my reasons to stay like a jagged knife poised above the jugular.
For the other side of this dubiously perfect coin is tarnished and stained with echoes of apartheid and great injustice out of which seem to spring a ‘gimme’ mentality and a legacy of crime. Aids is rampant, unconcerned with age, sex, class or gender.
Have I been a big social agitator or activist? No.
Should be ashamed of myself? Yes.
The fabric of society – is it crumbling along with the infrastructure and service delivery? There have been zenophobic attacks in the townships and the Zimbabwe crisis loom large in our everyday psyche right now, like Hitchcockian psycho-thrillers that are all too real. A populist, ANC President and an ANC youth league that’s come out, metaphorically speaking, with guns blazing and pangas flashing in the sunlight.
Is there a future beyond the big, brash 2010 World Cup Stadium in Cape Town? Will the band aids start falling off after that, or is our illusion correct – that the world at large will scoop us up and save us?
If we stay – can we help the African situation, or are we a scourge? What about our children’s future?
And what of that great land mass down a bit and to the right on the map? It’s sparsely populated and it’s big. I keep thinking that in Australia we will be free, at least as free as our imaginations will allow. Free from guilt, unshackled from the heavy, ostensible mantle of responsibility instigated by so much privilege, set loose from living in what we believe to be a first world country with distressingly visible poverty and disease.
Of course we can never be completely ‘free’ of guilt even in Australia because we will still have our eye on world poverty and suffering and we are abandoning friends and family. Guilt is a sentiment which will probably niggle our consciousness for the rest of our lives.
But there are many like us with families overseas, so who am I to indulge in self pity?
Why so glum? We are departing for a country which on the surface seems to have everything.
The politics are stable, the country is beautiful. And life there will be redeeming.
Moving to Australia
Call me frivolous, selfish, and indulgent if you like but a life without iron bars on our windows protecting us like caged animals from human predators, will be a welcome relief.
A life without burglar alarms and fierce dogs and an overworked police force. I can’t wait for the time when my offspring are unlikely to be held up at gunpoint for their cellphones, and when we can feel comfortable driving at night anywhere in reasonable safety even if we break down, and when every knock and jolt is not potentially an armed burglar trying to breach the safety of our home but merely a possum landing on the roof; when car-jackings and hi-jackings are not the norm, when rape and child abuse is not rampant in huge shanty town communities – right at the edge of our suburb.
Call me neurotic, unhinged, if you like. Question my motives, I’m damaged like everyone else, but deep down there will always be two sides to the story.
Do you want to leave South Africa? Well, my heart says, “No.”
But ask me again.
Do you want to leave South Africa? And my head says, “Yes.”
An Expat in Australia
Australia has been welcoming, indulgent, compassionate and freeing. I count myself so privileged to be able to live here.
I wonder how South Africa has changed since I wrote my impassioned piece about leaving. I wonder what daily life in South Africa is really like today?
I realise that many of our friends continue to live and be happy there, some are moving back to South Africa from other parts of the world, including Australia.
This post is no reflection on other people’s choices, or life situations, just an honest look at how leaving felt for me back then … back in 2008 … and how I feel now.
Have you had to leave a place you loved hard?
If you are on the verge of departing, or have left your country of domicile, I hope that you might take some measure of solace and optimism from my experience … which comes down to the basic idea that life might, and often can be better when the umbilical strings have been cut, and your new life has begun ‘on the other side’.
They say that you miss your life much more fiercely when you are still living it, than when you’ve moved on, and this much I know is true.
Have you ever had to leave a country or a place you’ve loved really hard?
Where was it? How did you feel?
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