I was out with friends having a perfectly fine Sunday somewhere down near the Thames in Berkshire. We were joined by a couple and the first thing that was said to me was, “You’re from South Africa.” Now ordinarily, I’d have said, “Yes. Gosh is my accent still so obvious?” But suddenly and without warning, I was deeply offended. “No,” I said, “I’m not,” and left it there, hanging in the air not knowing where to land.
Because I’m not from South Africa – not really. I was born there, but I am very obviously not an African. Feelings of guilt and shame and not being welcome any more – if my kind ever were – sent me scuttling out of Africa in the late ‘nineties and I came ‘home’ to Blighty. I had never lived here and most of the family had done what mine did and found pastures new, so in a very real way, I was alone and a stranger.
But I was ‘home’ – or so I thought. I speak English – with an accent, but it’s my mother tongue. I have a degree in English Literature, the Beatles are the soundtrack to my youth, I understand cricket, I love Marmite and I can pronounce Featherstone-Haugh. But as the years have gone by, I have felt less and less at home. Too many people point out that I am ‘not from round here’, my accent singles me out as ‘other’ and as the ‘immigrant’ issue hots up, I am often asked why I don’t go home.
But where is that? I am clearly not from Africa where I was born and because I wasn’t born in the UK, I’m not from here either. I think needing to feel like one belongs, like one is ‘home’ is a deep-down, visceral need. Not sure where it is on Maslow, but way down the bottom somewhere. And I have this ghastly feeling that I don’t belong anywhere.
Or maybe I belong everywhere? But that isn’t really the same thing at all, is it?