My name is Brian, in 1990 I was born to a South African Indian mother and a Ugandan father in Mthatha, a small city located in the hilly region of what is still often referred to as the Transkei in the heart of the Eastern Cape.
During Apartheid the Transkei (or Republic of Transkei, please read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transkei) was a designated Bantustan for the Xhosa.
This is my home.
When I introduce myself as someone who grew up in Mthatha it is often accompanied with a great deal of surprise.. And more often than not I am prompted to prove my authenticity by answering a series of questions.. Because, I mean, why would I be from Mthatha right? *sigh*
Surprising as it may be the Transkei has been home for a fairly large, diverse and reasonably well integrated immigrant community for several decades. Many internationals in the area, including my father, were employed by what was then called the University of Transkei. It was there that the unlikely union of my parents began, in the midst of turbulent race relations across South Africa in what was a small town with entire neighbourhoods filled with academics from Kenya, Poland, Uganda, India and many more.. Sounds romantic doesn’t it?
In reality it was probably not as integrated and accepting as I imagined.. But for now please humour my romanticism’s…
It was in this environment that I began my early childhood life, in a suburb called Fort Gale. This suburb was largely owned by the University and many families of the staff lived in apartment complexes and homes across our neighbourhood. In my early years I was very fortunate to be surrounded by several members of my fathers side of the family from Kenya and Uganda. So much of my earliest memories are of thoughts and experiences I shared with them.. They were all older than me and I looked up to them immensely.
Most of my mothers side of the family lived in Durban and while we did not see each other often, I felt a strong connection to them whenever we saw one another. Regular visits from my grandmother often included every Indian dish she could fit into her luggage that would survive the 6 hour bus trip on our roads. I looked forward to those sweet meats and curries and strange deserts packed meticulously in her cases. I remember she always used to ask if we ate “hot” food, this confused me because my parents cooked curries regularly and I didn’t think anything by it.. So answered that same question – year after year. In the early years it did not occur to me in any sort of profound way that I was biracial.. Or that it was unusual, it simply just was. I liked fried green bananas from Uganda in the summer and I loved the jalebi in the spring time from Grandmother’s visits.. That was my experience of my heritage, through our conversations, through shared meals and through the stories of the old days in far away lands. I assumed this is how it was for everyone.. In some ways I was right.. But in painful ways I was very wrong.
As I grew older I started to become aware of this thing called”race”. It was something quite unfamiliar in my house, we didn’t speak about people this way. When it came to start navigating school this started to become an important thing. “What are you?”. In all honesty more often than not this question was answered for me in one way or another. “Well your dad is Ugandan so that makes you Ugandan”. “Doesn’t that make you coloured”. “You kind of look more Indian”. If I’m to completely honest, I was very uncomfortable about all this growing up. I hated these questions. I am ashamed to admit that at several moments, particularly in Primary school, I lied about my heritage in the hope that I would gain the elusive acceptance with my Indian classmates. I wanted to be like them. They had a special regard for their culture, they were always talking about some community event or something, I desperately wanted to be a part of it and feel like I belonged. But I could not. At the end of the day, I was not Indian enough.
By the time I had reached high school my extended family had all left the Transkei. There where not that many young Ugandans in my age group but we all knew each other and in most cases we were all friends. In all fairness we were not the most cultural lot, growing up spending most of our days watching British and American television and playing video games we did not share a collective cultural identity.. At least not one that I was aware of. I could not find what I was looking for there, I felt. So I kept trying, probably not in the most productive ways but trying nonetheless.
Family holidays *Ugh*
My parents are workaholics, during the year there is rarely a moment when they aren’t doing something productive. So when it came to the end of the year they were adamant that we go on holiday to explore the country and get away from it all. They love nature. I hated these trips. We always went to obscure but beautiful parts of the country, and while I was always grateful to be there I dreaded going outside. Walking around town with my entire family made me very self conscious about how other people where looking at us. I was and I still am ashamed about how I felt about this. I know I shouldn’t have cared but I couldn’t ignore how different we looked to the other families. We all looked so different from each other. I felt somehow embarrassed about what I am, very sensitive to how other people would treat us, increasingly bitter. I regret feeling like this on those trips, it was an amazing opportunity to see the country but no matter where we went I couldn’t bring myself to care about what the landscapes looked like or what the wildlife was up to…
I started to become aware that I had a chip on my shoulder, for some reason I felt defensive and in a sense bitter with the world. I had really begun defining myself in opposition to others. I started to think of myself as an other. This was not how I was raised. My mother would have been very upset if she ever knew I was looking at life like that.. So I kept it to myself.
I was lucky enough to gain entry into the University of Cape Town after high school. I was incredibly excited to head off to the big city. This was a chance to redefine myself. To be just Brian and not have every stare at me when I walk with my family through a mall or when my father fetches me from a local barber shop. I was finally free. Or so I thought. Within minutes of arriving into the residence where I spent my first two years I was faced with that painstaking moment where you need to decide where you’re going to sit in the cafeteria. As I looked out into the hall it may as well have been colour coded. At a glance, white students sat with white students, black students with black students.. And well you get the idea. Luckily I spotted a senior of mine from high school sitting in a fairly mixed table (although it was predominantly Indian) and I chose my seat. It took me a very long time before I developed the confidence to break the barriers that existed in my own mind and decide to sit at other tables. I really wish I had been braver sooner.
Even though it took me quite a while to break out of my comfort zone I was lucky enough to befriend many students from all walks of life quite early on, many of which had similar identity problems to me. I often reflect on many conversations with my dear late friend Steven who was of Taiwanese ancestry but had spent his whole life in South Africa. He had a wonderful spirit and an approach to life that really impacted my thinking. Steven was the among first of the many young people I would go on to meet here who were unashamedly themselves… And were okay with that
In my first year I met a group of students who were born and raised in Uganda. We quickly became very good friends, I was fascinated about them. I gorged myself on their stories and descriptions of home. I learnt the slang and was quickly starting to feel like I was part of a community where I belonged. There are many East African’s here and they formed quite a close knit group, they embraced me warmly and I appreciated it deeply. For the first time many people sounded excited to hear that I was biracial, apparently it was interesting. I started to speak proudly about my heritage… and then as though the universe had conspired to respond to my encounters my father had arranged for us to visit Uganda at the end of that year. This was it, I thought. This would be the moment where I could find out where I belonged… Were I would feel some kind of spiritual connection to my fatherland and magically everything would make sense once and for all…
As you’ve probably guessed my trip didn’t really work out that way. But that’s another story. I hope you found this interesting, let me know what you think and look out for Part 2!