Thought and Reflections on Estrangement


Then Almitra spoke, saying, we would ask now of Death. And he said: You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?

Khalil Gibran, The Prophet


I remember walking in downtown Jo’burg with my aunt.  We were stocking up  supplies for her spaza shop, when two men flanked me on either side and grabbed me from the waist, hoisting me up by the belt. They dragged me in this manner at length, ensuring a considerable distance between me and my asthmatic aunt, who was encumbered by the large bags she was carrying. Straining my neck, I struggled to look back in the hope of sighting her, who, amidst the people wandering about, was lost in the throng, out of sight. Excited onlookers riled up by the frenzy were jerked to attention. Some pointed, others jeered, and a few continued without a hint of perturbation. I wondered what it was they saw, as I silently appealed to them – to someone, anybody – for an intervention. They saw me and yet there was no mention or indication that they recognized a person under duress, in need of help. My captors, who had not said anything to me for a length of time, announced themselves to be policemen – SAPS. Their civilian clothing had blended them with the mass of people going about their business, making it impossible to identify them (a strategy adopted so as to ensnare timorous undocumented immigrants). In my inarticulate jabber, with my stammer exacerbated by an unbearable sense of dread, I switched between ineloquent Zulu, English, and even some Shona, trying to inform them that I was South African. They marched on, with stolid, expressionless faces. My appeals became squeals, matched by their silence as they strode forward. I strained to walk, rising onto my tiptoes to relieve the pressure of my scrunched-up pants that pressed up against my groin.


My relationship to South Africa has been tenuous. My claim to citizenship often, if not perennially, feels so illegitimate that I am accustomed to feelings of anxiety whenever I introduce myself as one. Imposter. To lessen this this unease, I usually add qualification: “I was born here but my parents were from Zambia,” I am wont to announce. In anthropology, the autochthon is an original or indigenous inhabitant of a place, an aborigine. This concept literally means people sprung from the earth itself – the original inhabitants of a country as opposed to settlers, émigrés, expatriates and other sojourners. My parents were a kind of émigré, until their passing. No more than a month after they had been interred, was I transferred to Zambia into the care Grandpa, who took custody until I returned to South Africa a few years later,to begin primary school.


It is uncanny and yet oddly consoling to read words written by another person, who, is often, far removed from you across history, distance and time, and to find in their prose, an acute sense of what you have experienced and felt. This is the sensation that apprehends and transfixes me when reading W. G Sebald, and even today, I am still reeling from the passage in The Rings of Saturn, in which he narrates that,


“Michael was nine and a half when, in November 1933, with his siblings, his mother, and her parents, he came to England. His father had already left Berlin several months before, and was installed in one of those unbeatable stone houses in Edinburgh, where wrapped in woollen blankets, he pored over dictionaries and textbooks until late at night; for despite having been professor of paediatrics at the Charité, he now, in his fifties, had to sit his medical examinations all over again in a language unfamiliar to him if he was to continue in practice as a doctor. Michael later wrote in his memoirs about the fears and anxieties of the family as they travelled toward the unknown, fears which came to a head in the customs hall in Dover as they looked on with horror as the Grandfather’s pair of budgerigars, which had so far survived the journey unharmed, were impounded. It was the loss of the two pet birds, Michael writes, and having to stand by powerless and see them vanish for ever behind some sort of screen, that brought us up against the whole monstrosity of changing countries under such inauspicious circumstances. The disappearance of those budgerigars at Dover customs marked the beginning of the disappearance of his Berlin childhood behind the new identity that he assumed little by little over the next decade. How little there has remained in me of my native country, the chronicler observes as he scans the few memories he still possesses, barely enough for an obituary of a lost childhood.”


It often seems to me that adulthood is a drawn-out process for mourning one’s irrecuperable childhood. Sebald captures the rupture that I was confronted with when I found myself coming of age, suddenly deracinated. Also, the disappearance of one particular childhood and the assuming of another is not immediately perceptible, but insidious, transpiring subtly. You lose the language, you lose the accent, and then the memories become dimmer. After moving to South Africa,  on many occasions I would wake up in the new house in Germiston and wish that when I opened my eyes (which I had kept shut since the point of rousing) it would be the blue curtains of Grandpa’s house stirring before me. I cannot say for how long this continued, but at some point I stopped wishing to be spirited back, and further still, I reached a time when I forgot the details of that house in Bauleni altogether. What has remained is the longing, an interminable sense of nostalgia and melancholia, and these, opaque and spectral scraps of memory are barely sufficient for an obituary of my lost childhood.


The next time I moved, it was from South Africa for Zimbabwe, where I was to begin secondary school at Kutama College It was a boarding school in Zvimba, a rural region in Mashonaland West. Migratory patterns are, taken from a broad perspective, largely predictable. The sequence follows, or rather flows, from the poorer countries and regions to the more affluent ones. Usually, the travellers leave their places of birth or occupation under adverse/inauspicious circumstances: civil war, political discrimination, economic deprivation, as well as other reasons. This had been the case with my Zulu grandmother, “granny” who emigrated, following my grandfather’s marriage proposal, to begin a new life  in Zambia.

Years later, in August 1993, 64 Muzovu Street looked just as ordinary as the other houses  that stood in uniform rows to its left and right side. All unindividuated, they were painted in the same government standard-issue brown. Whenever I have returned there, it always strikes me that there is an ascetic harmony to these fields of low-cost housing that extends as far as the eye can see. Mangala lay in the interior room ebbing in and out of consciousness, and so frail that she looked spectral, ethereal. The lump had been detected late following the death of her husband, who that same year in March, had been involved in a fatal car accident. Soon after that, Mangala, with two small children still at the breast and a third, an embryo in its second trimester, moved in with Granny, who was to console her in her time of bereavement. A few weeks later, during her antenatal consultation at UTH (university training hospital), a crestfallen doctor, straining to contain his own sorrow, for he had heard of her recent loss, told her that the report from the lab bore grave news. This was in April. In May the malignant cells had spread to her cervix and Mr Tyson, an orderly, moved in to help with the palliative care, whilst Granny watched and consoled the little children. In June she was admitted to the hospital, where I am told, that on the day of her little girls’ third birthday, on the twenty-first, the nurses organised a party. Mangala, who had been in a constant state of fatigue, was enervated, and watched on as the little girl, unaccustomed to the doting attention she was receiving, was beaming a beatific smile.

“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience” writes Edward Said, who, despite writing on the plight of Palestinians displaced by the establishment of the Jewish state, speaks to an experience that I can claim to having an intimate awareness of, having led an itinerant/nomadic life. In 2009, on my return from Zimbabwe at O.R Tambo Airport, a sneering janitor shot me with an acrimonious question: “when are you going back home?” It has been eight years since that interdiction, and despite having achieved some semblance of stability in Cape Town, the gnawing feeling of estrangement has never dissipated: “Exile is life led outside… and no sooner does one get accustomed to it than its unsettling force erupts anew.” (149) However, it must be acknowledged and even confessed, that I am a citizen of South Africa, and this has enabled me precipitous gain (manifest) in the form of access to scholarships and some work. I should be mindful to exercise some sensitivity in how I wield this identity of the exile for it is true, “exile originated in the age-old practice of banishment” (144). My life has been nomadic, and whereas there have been qualities of the exilic, this does not wholly typify it. Going back to Said, he tells us that,

“…poets and writers lend dignity to a condition legislated to deny dignity. From them, it is apparent that, to concentrate on exile as a contemporary political punishment, you must therefore map the territories of experience beyond those mapped by the literature of the exile itself – you must think of the refugee-peasants with no prospect of ever returning home, armed only with a ration card and an agency number. Paris maybe a capital famous for cosmopolitan exiles, but it is also a city where unknown men and women have spent years of miserable loneliness: Vietnamese, Algerians, Cambodians, Lebanese, Senegalese, Peruvians. As you move further from the Atlantic world, the awful forlorn waste increases: the helplessly large numbers, the compounded misery of undocumented people suddenly lost, without a tellable history.”


One can add Cape Town and Johannesburg to this list. Itss masses of undocumented women and men, who bundled, have bussed or walked to these enclaves, with little hope of returning home.


“And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in the exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind for ever… Looked at from the bleak political perspective of modern mass dislocation, individual exiles force us to recognise the tragic fate of homelessness in a necessarily heartless world.”


The opposite of exile is nationalism – the other ‘N word’. As a consequence of the estrangement that I have been confessing, I often find myself dwelling on the features that distinguish me as an outsider, primarily: class, complexion and accent. This heightened state of self-consciousness, and self-surveillance, manifests in Cape Town, Jo’burg, even Lusaka, Harare, and more severely in Basel, Munich, and Boston. If adulthood is about leveraging one’s misfortunes, then I perhaps stand to be at an advantage here. As a nomad I belong nowhere and everywhere simultaneously. Again, Said observes,

“While it perhaps seems peculiar to speak of the pleasures of exile, there are some positives things to be said for a few of its conditions. Seeing the entire world as a foreign land makes possible originality of vision. Most people are principally aware of one culture, one sitting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that is contrapuntal.”

To feel perpetually out of place is to be a sceptic. t is to look at people, situations and places over, twice, thrice, with equanimity; and it is to elide insularity, dogmatic orthodoxy and provincialism. The stranger knows that homes are always provisional in this secular and contingent world and that, “borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons.” The only home truly available now, though fragile and vulnerable, says Said, is in writing. This home, he continues, transcends national and provincial limits.

By Zimpande Kawanu