Thursday, June 27, 2013
the voices of my childhood
I was born in 1969 in Durban, South Africa. Apartheid was the law of the land, Nelson Mandela was on Robben Island serving a life sentence and Indians had been in South Africa for roughly over a 100 years but were not deemed citizens. Growing up under apartheid is strange and impossible to explain to people. And even now...so many many years later...I find myself at a loss to explain our lives under such conditions. Apartheid was an evil political system...there is simply no other way to say it. Your race determined every single aspect of your life...where you lived, whom you could marry, where you went to school...if you even had access to an education. There was a restriction to information, books...knowledge. We were forbidden to write about apartheid, political prisoners or...even acknowledge our hardships and inequities under this evil system. Worst still was the evil way apartheid erected walls around your mind and heart; around your very soul...telling you what you could read...whom you could love. There was always a sense of deep fear growing up in such an environment. as a child...I had no idea how to make sense of the nonsensical...how to understand why certain words were not allowed to be spoken. Words like...apartheid or Mandela. It was scary + strange but simultaneously...normal because it was all I had ever known. These experiences shaped me... deeply and completely.
It was only when we immigrated to Canada (I was about 13) that I could gain a little perspective. That I could actually learn about the history of South Africa that was grounded in truth. But so many of those memories, experiences and wounds were put into a deep recess of my heart and locked away. Shut tight.During my teen years when I started struggling with my identity...I pulled away from both my Indian roots as well as my S. African ones. "I'm Canadian" I told myself...it was so much easier at the time especially since I was immersed in my own personal struggles. . But even as I distanced myself emotionally...I always kept abreast of what was going on politically. I was always in awe of Mr. Mandela who shone like a beacon in my stormy days and nights. Nelson Mandela was the giant of my childhood. Looming behind every single memory I have of South Africa was this mythical figure of a man. Flesh and blood YES!!! But mythical too. Larger than life in my heart and soul. And he has never disappointed me. In a world full of drudgery and jadedness ...here was a soul full of grace and brilliance...who shone like the sun. Who never faltered on his ideals...who inspired millions to be better...to do better. Who sought reconciliation, a clean heart, forgiveness and bridging differences and deep divides. Who was brilliant beyond measure and compassionate; he has heart. Here was a man for the ages.
Now here's the thing...race (our ideas of it) are a complex, layered, nuanced thing. But growing up under these stifling racial conditions instilled in me a love of freedom and democracy; taught me that the personal is (very) political . That voting is a privilege. That freedoms are never to be taken for granted...but they are ideals to cherish.
Now that Mandela is on on life support...now that he is towards the end of his life...it has brought up all of these locked away stories and deep and raw emotions in me. Memories I had long ago forgotten...stories I had buried. In truth...I never thought he would survive Robben Island. I firmly believed that he would be tortured and killed along with so many many others. Then...when he became President...I feared for his life fully expecting and bracing for an assassination. The fact that he is still alive...that he is still here...is a gift I never expected or imagined. It is nothing short of grace.
Mandela, Miriam Mkeba, Nkosi sikel' iAfrika ,... Zulu, Basutu, Afrikaans...These are the voices of my childhood...these are the voices of mySELF. They are strong...they are powerful. As much as I claim my Indian and Canadian influences...I have to claim my S. African ones as well. Now...I have never been back there since I was 13...and I have no desire to. It has been much too painful in too many ways. There are stories of struggles and hopes, common realities colliding with the highest aspirations...and ...many many untold stories as well.They have shaped me ; and I...I am forever grateful.