Where do you come from?
As a child, the only reference I had to this question came in the form of a children’s book that told a story about a Mum and a Dad. My sisters and I used to flip through the book, scanning the boring pages until we reached the part where they were naked and affectionately hugging each other, with little hearts floating above their heads and we could see his willy and her fanny. It took me years to work out what that book was all about even though it was titled ‘Where do we come from?’. I knew where the Mum and Dad came from because there was another book on the shelf that said Men were from Mars and Women were from Venus. Having only ever lived in one country, no one had ever asked me where I came from. I was born in Zimbabwe, my parents were born in Zimbabwe, and that’s all I knew about that.
The great perks of having a mother in the travel and tourism business was all the people that we got to meet, from all walks of life. Some would stop by for a quick drink, talk about their safaris, thank my mother and move on. Some would decide to stay a bit longer in Harare, the occasional one-nighter, with the more frequent coupla-monthers. We made friends with people from all over the World. Vancoover, addillade, eddinbra, bangcock, mayne and doobye. I met some people who smelt like freshly ironed linen and hot crossed buns. Some said their aye’s like this some said their ah’s like that. Some had hairy armpits and some never took their shoes off. I even met a man called Wombat. One year he returned to Harare to stay in our cottage and we got him a T-shirt that had a picture of a wombat on the front and the words eats, roots, shoots and leaves on the back. No matter which house we were living in at the time, there were always other people there with us. It only came to an end when we left Zimbabwe.
Finally I was given the opportunity to demonstrate the common course of introduction with a well versed answer. Naively, I presumed everybody knew where Zimbabwe was, or at least the continent that it sat on. I was worried about our safety when we first arrived in Dublin. There weren’t any electric gates at the entrance to any properties, nor any electric fences crowned with barbed wire bordering the homes. Not even burglar bars on the windows. It took time for me to get used to night noises being night noises and not the potential of someone breaking into our house. Gradually I adapted to this unsafe way of living. I discovered a lot about the perception of the place that I came from, that was completely different to my own experience and understanding of growing up there. Such a small country, with so many problems. I took full advantage of any indication of ignorance as to what life was really like living in Africa, by telling tales about my pet lions, the lake that we owned where our houseboat was moored, the size of our property that we had left behind, including all of the cars and quad bikes. I have since forgiven myself for this, because I was a teenager desperately trying to make friends. And I learnt, as I grew older, to not defend the country that I had come from, by boasting.
Ireland’s fist of strength came from its cracking punch lines of daily curveballs, like an endless stand-up gig as you wait for what’s coming next. There was humour in everything. Great craic, y’know? I don’t know why my parents named me Colleen but girls names don’t really get more Irish than that. Except for Aoife, Niamh and Nuala. Pronounced Eeffa, Neeve and Noola.
The ‘th’ is pronounced with a ’t’. I would hear it tirrrty treee times and a tird in a sentence. I swear to ya, on ya ma’s life, I thought my first English lesson was in Gaelic. Truth be told. Every single family supper that we were welcomed into, at some point, turned into a musical festival that was totally off the charts. You could join in or just watch. With or without you, a daughter would burst into song, as a grandpa picked up an instrument whilst some fella did a little dance. Not just a skip, a tap and a hum, but a flapping Michael Flatley Riverdance, a tin whistle, and the voice of Enya. Tank you very much. Drives through the countryside, listening to Carol King and looking out at the green velvet hills smothering the landscape that gratefully reflected the abundance of rain. Pub life so impressive that drinking a pint of Guinness or Ale a day is a prerequisite for long living. Sawdust on the pub floors was like standing in a novel. Or perhaps my previous life. Fish and Chips. 24hr garages for purchasing a bar one ice-cream and a coke, anytime. Acting school in an old building next to the square in Temple Bar. I felt very Irish. It was a bit like coming home.
The negotiation of transition from the inherent, instilled fears of growing up in an impoverished 3rd World country were seamlessly exchanged for the new, unfolding fear of change. In keeping with tradition, we were gracefully abiding by our family ethos of change being the only constant in our lives, but this change was different. While I enjoyed the freedom of leaving my school bag alone on the beach without having to worry about whether it would still be there when I returned. Sinking my bare feet into the cold sand, I was equally daunted by the warning my mother gave me about being careful not to step on any needles. And realising she was not referring to those of the knitting variety. I would get a great surge of independence whenever I used public transport and managed to navigate my way around town, all on my own. But equally still haunted by the attack my older sister had experienced one morning on a train, by a group of young, aggressive thugs. And as I climbed into bed one night, sleeping well without any inbuilt security system, as did a thief climb over the low wall, break into our home and steal my frigging school bag. Unfortunately it was found in the neighbour’s front garden with all of my books scattered about.
The old became the new, something offering, something lacking. A part of me was still Zimbabwean, another part of me was embracing being Irish. And right there folks me traveller was realised, so I gypsied up and galloped to London. Every corner and every crevice of this brilliant city presented itself with endless possibilities. Just making choices without flirting with any of its sultry seduction still lead to a sensory burnout. An overload of ideals on how to live the life of a Londoner. It whipped my gypsy pony into rebellion that included a brief affair with Spain and a dalliance with Edinburgh. Never mind where I came from, where the hell was I going?
After 9 years of seeking and sampling, trying to claim some land, with the hope my blood was blue, I decided to fluff my feathers and take flight once again. Searching for some sturdy sticks to build my nest, I moved back to Africa, to Cape Town. It took me two years longer than any other member of my family to achieve my South African citizenship, but I was home the moment I first saw the mountain. And the first night’s sleep waking up to those not forgotten sounds. Snap back to reality oops there goes gravity.
The colours, the beat, the sky. The faces and everything happening just now.
My blood once again resembling the soil. My heels feeling the growth of their roots. The Lion resting behind me. The boat moored in the harbour. Who needs a lake when you have the Atlantic Ocean?
I owned none of it, yet had all of it.
At last, I was standing in belonging.
So as interesting as the question is to ask, you can appreciate how difficult I find it to answer. Especially now, when faced with the challenge of answering that question in a language that does not yet roll off my tongue as delicately as I would like it to. It’s obvious then, that I am not from Germany. And though my passport might be Irish, and my citizenship South African, it’s always easier for me to simply say, I come from Zimbabwe.
It takes a few words to say where we come from. But what if we started asking where we think we belong?
Und du? Woher kommst du?