Melbourne // Southern Africa: A Series of Stories
In 1994 in Melbourne, Australia, my dad sat in peace. He had marched and fought, and now could return to the country he’d left, with pride and without fear. 13 years later, we were packed up and heading across the world from our life in Australia to post-Apartheid South Africa.
The anticipation was fun; little me bustled with excitement at the thought of coming face-to-face with my family who I hadn’t met. I didn’t think of how far away I was about to be from the only home I had known, or how far I was going to be from my best friend and partner-in-primary-school once I left. Instead, I skipped through the airport wide-eyed at the big metal flying machines that would be carrying me to my new life.
The first few months in South Africa were spent living with my great aunt in a brown brick house far too big for its inhabitants. It slept 10 people each with their own ensuite and private route to the kitchen, as though to ensure socialising only occurred when absolutely necessary. The house was cold and hollow, filled with antique furniture and distant relatives; each one I was expected to greet upon waking up every morning. This was a lot of pressure for me, so I would do so only with the company of my 14-year-old brother, who was the bravest person I knew at the time.
He was also one of the few people who I could be sure understood me through my mumbly Australian accent and my recent feelings of lostness between two countries. He had accompanied me through transitions before, from training wheels through to big-girl bikes and when family road trips turned to plane rides across the world.
Most days began with the taste of brown bread and orange marmalade, accompanied by the smell of black Rooibos tea wafting through the air planting itself in the humidity. This combination became the smell of Africa as seven-year-old me knew it. Oversimplified and distinct, much like many of my assessments of my new home.
In an attempt to explore, my dad, my brother and I had decided to venture to the local mall complex; and less than an hour later, we felt we had seen all that is to be seen in a single-storey shopping building and began to head home.
As we walked I took each step carefully. Dancing around the cracks in the ground in fear of causing some kind of irreparable damage to my mother’s back.
Step, dodge, step, dodge, step, dodge. Drip.
A single drop dived onto my head, forcing my gaze upwards towards the now greyed sky.
“Let’s go quickly, it looks like it’s about to rain”
Step! Dodge! Step! Dodge! StepStepStep! No time for dodging, we were rushing now.
The rain had turned from casual droplets into thundering spills of water like seven-year-old me had never seen. Within minutes we were drenched, head-to-toe completely soaked. People had cleared the streets and it seemed we were the only ones caught completely off guard by the storm. The pavement had turned into a body of water in itself and within a few more minutes we were swimming.
Sweat mixed with rainwater made for stinging combination, and walking through a foreign place with blurred vision was hardly a recipe for comfort. Street signs had fallen, and vague landmarks like fruit stalls had disappeared.
My dad walked on my left side his hand tightly gripping mine and my big brother on my right, my hand in his. We walked through narrow streets, up hills, and across main roads.
Through it all I had my eyes completely shut; I let the two safest hands I knew guide me. Between these men, I felt as strong as them, as brave as them, and as confident. I was encased, held between the sweet safety of their hands. Suddenly I had no fear in this new nation, and lostness between two countries turned to home between two people.
The first time I felt truly thrust into this strange world of womanhood I was 15 and we were on our fourth holiday trip to Southern Africa after moving back to Melbourne in late 2007. It was a warm Wednesday afternoon, and my cousin and I were headed out to the local mall in Manzini, the smaller of the two towns in Eswatini, Swaziland.
As we waited at the intersection for our bus or kombie, we held our breath as we noticed a car slow down and eventually stop in front of us. We stood, 14 and 15 years old, in the presence of a worn-down red Toyota carrying four grown men smiling and jeering at us.
I couldn’t understand them; they spoke a language that had failed to be passed on to me. Normally I would turn to my native cousin to translate but all she said to me was a firm
“Just Ignore them.”
She was 14 but had become skilled in these types of interactions.
“Just. Ignore. Them.”
She said this while staring ahead blankly, careful not to make eye contact.
The men continued to laugh, trying to get our attention. They yelled words I was equal parts glad and nervous I couldn’t understand.
Minutes of our relentless ignoring passed before the back seat passenger decided to extend the moment indefinitely by taking out what looked like a high definition camera.
He pointed it towards us and *click*.
They were all still smiling, it seemed they found amusement in our fear and discomfort.
I turned around to avoid my face being seen in whatever context this photo would find itself in.
“Ahhhh I like the turn!”
More giggles, *click* *click* *click* and they were gone.
My cousin didn’t speak the whole way there and back. Eventually, she broke the silence.
“I’m so sorry Tembi, they’re not usually like that.”
I sat in the front row of my dad’s memorial service with what I’m sure was a blank expression on my face. There was a woman giving what seemed to be a very emotional speech; she was passionate and poetic, charged with a great amount of grief.
I watched her as she spoke in what sounded like verses. Slowing down and then speeding up as she danced through her words, the quality of her voice smooth and captivating, like a song or the monologue of a play.
It was a shame I had no idea what she was saying.
She spoke a language my dad would have understood and most of the people in the outdoor tent we sat under understood, but I was completely lost. We were simply props filling the role of ‘immediate family’ in the front row so those around us could mourn.
It was fair of course: my mum, my brother and I had said our goodbyes in Australia where he died. We had had our service and this was just round two for the family overseas who couldn’t be there.
We sat overheated and distanced, deeply immersed in the pain of what had happened but shut out of the mourning experience. My father’s friends recounted what I can only assume, by the laughs in the audience, to be hilarious stories of his days as a young man with them.
I imagine they spoke of their years of border crossing throughout Africa with nothing more than a backpack and a few Rands, in exile because of their refusal to belong to a country under racial oppression. I like to think my uncle Joe told the audience how funny my dad was, how he could make any situation light without even trying, and about how he always had to be the best dressed person in every room he walked into. I hope my uncle Danny told everyone how argumentative and intelligent my father was. About how he willingly would enter a debate with anyone about politics or history and fearlessly and gracefully argue his point.
Spaced out in that chair I had a lot of time to think about the service I hoped it was.
I had a lot of time to grow in frustration at the fact that no one thought to give their speech in the language his children spoke, and consider how we might want to be a part of this day in a more meaningful way than just a front row seat. But I also had a lot of time to feel guilty. Why didn’t I understand this language? This was a language that some of my father’s greatest stories were recounted in first. It was the language of his heritage and so mine, and I couldn’t understand more than “hello” and “goodbye”.
I sat at the celebration of his life and realised so much of it would die with him. All of the details and emotions that are lost in translation, the phrases that carry more context and connotations the could ever be expressed in English.
In July, 2017 I sat in a service in Melbourne, Australia and began to mourn my dad’s death, I lost him and experience the spectrum of emotions that go with that.
In March, 2018 I sat in a service In Hammanskraal, South Africa and realised I had lost just a little bit more, a part of myself too.
Cover provided by the author