“You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right. and yet it is innate in human nature to try to go home again, and it may in fact be what life is all about: getting back to home…………” (Maya Angelou, 1987)
Does it happen at birth that the Spirit of Place insinuates itself under one’s skin to take up residence in the heart? Or as children do we so thoroughly absorb by osmosis the essence of our environment that no matter how far we travel, a particular scent, birdcall or blossom can spell so emphatically the word Home?
It happens as I step out of the plane onto the top step of the stairs that something deep within me shifts. It’s a jolt of recognition – almost imperceptible – but it’s just enough to push me ever so slightly off-centre. The airport is still tiny. There have been one or two small changes but essentially it’s the same. No sky bridges here. The wind, forgotten but instantly recalled, buffets us into the building and by the time I reach the luggage carousel I feel flighty around the edges.
(Spirit of Place – or soul – refers to the unique, distinctive and cherished aspects of a place; often those celebrated by artists and writers…..it is as much in the invisible weave of culture as it is the tangible physical aspects of a place – monuments, boundaries, rivers, woods, architectural style, views and so on or its interpersonal aspects…) From Wikipedia
I’ve come home. But how? I’ve lived away from the Eastern Cape for almost 40 years; well over half my lifetime. I was born in East London and I tell people I grew up here, but in reality, most of my real growing up into the person I am today, has taken place elsewhere and if anyone asks me where my home is I say ‘Johannesburg’ without a second’s hesitation. Would I want to live back here now? Absolutely not. So how is it that now, in reply to someone’s query as to when I last visited, I catch myself saying ‘I haven’t been home for 11 years’?
I wait for the rental car. It takes a while. We’re on slowtime here and I mentally shift gears. The air, sea-laden, shimmers on the Indian Ocean horizon. It’s hot and humid and it’s only August – late winter in Southern Africa. It is, in all ways, a different country from the Highveld. And then at last, I’m on the road into town with the sea, so familiar, a turquoise stripe on my right. It’s so long since I was last here but I believe I could manage this drive blindfolded and I consider that ‘to know after absence the familiar street and road and village and house is to know again the satisfaction of home’ (Hal Borland)
I no longer have close family or friends here but around every bend, in so many suburbs and on every beach I am besieged by Memory Ghosts. My father strides out in bow tie and braces, a roll of plans under one arm. My grandmother trundles by in her little yellow car. My mother prunes rosebushes in the garden of my B&B. My siblings now live in England and Cape Town and yet in this sub-tropical miasma I feel their absence acutely.
Most of my school friends, proverbial ‘scatterlings of Africa’, are strewn far and wide across the globe, but I step off a plane at that little airport and suddenly they’re back and all around me. I am ambushed by memories; the ghosts of summers past, crazy crushes, first love, first heartbreak, the slow cycling, two abreast, home from school, dissecting the day just past. The recollections are vivid and played out against a backdrop of rampant Eastern Cape flora. I’m home and yet I’m away. My moorings are cut loose. There is no one left here from my past close enough to ground me.
I recognise this feeling. It’s why I only return to East London if I have a specific reason. In the years I spent here, this was a peaceful, pretty little town and life was easy. For me. Apartheid was flourishing but that was a concept I only became aware of during my junior school years. The status quo into which I was born was a given.
This time I’ve come for my 40th Matric (Senior Year) Reunion. I went to Clarendon, a (white, then) all girls, government school. I started at the Prep in 1963 and finished at the High School in 1974. It was a very comfortable, stable schooling and the most part, I loved it.
Things are different in East London now, I’m told. I should expect to be shocked and horrified. It’s changed so much. But as I wind my way towards my guest house, I am neither shocked nor horrified. It has changed, certainly, and there are parts of the town I choose to stay away from. There are parts of Johannesburg and Cape Town I steer well clear of too, just as there are areas of New York or London where I’d feel very uncomfortable. A few years ago I took a wrong exit off an Atlanta freeway and found myself in a neighbourhood that was quite definitely not where I belonged and where I experienced more visible animosity that I’ve ever experienced in South Africa.
My guest house in in Bunker’s Hill, a lushly green suburb within the sound of the sea, the thwack of golf balls on the course across the road and the fluting of birdsong. The guest are multi-coloured as are all the shoppers in the Mall, the drivers on the roads and the school children. The only real difference as I see it, is that East London, like the rest of the country is no longer an artificial society. Resources once reserved for a tiny minority must now spread much further and it shows, but it’s so much more honest.
A few years ago, seduced by photographs of beautiful old architecture, I started following a Facebook page called ‘East London; The Golden Years.’ More recently though, other ‘younger’ photographs dating back to the sixties and seventies have made their appearance. They show crowded beaches, theme parks and downtown. They are colour pictures but also strangely monochromatic. All the people are the same colour and now their sheer ‘whiteness’ offends me. I study them sometimes and wonder how that society was ever possible and how I was ever a part of it. ‘Golden Years’ is not how I’d describe that part of our history and it strikes me as being, in this reborn country, an insensitive title. I’d like them to stick to architecture.
No visit to East London is complete without a visit to Nahoon Beach. I follow the twisty road quite tentatively, unsure what to expect and emerge on the edge of paradise. Quite unchanged, the sand stretches on for miles and the usual group of determined surfers patiently await the perfect wave at the Point. It’s hard to believe that a beach like this exists in the middle of suburbia. I climb to the lookout point for a view without end. The dense coastal bush hums with the voices of a thousand beetles. It is a song unique to this part of the world; the theme tune to the summers of my childhood. Heading back to the guest house I surprise a cluster a small buck at the roadside in a moment of pure magic.
Back at the guest house I email one of my closest school friends who hasn’t made it back for the reunion. It’s a long way from Canada back here. She admits to feeling a little nostalgic and we wonder what it is about this little town that continues to tug at our heart strings after so many years.
And then there’s the school reunion dinner. By virtue of our age, ours is an all-white group. But at the table behind us, a wonderful rainbow spectrum of girls are celebrating their 10th Reunion and maybe one day they’ll also celebrate their 40th with shared experiences, highs and lows.
The Founders’ Day Service is the following morning and it becomes the highlight of the weekend. Clarendon has always been regarded as a good school within the parameters dictated by history. Over the past 20 years, unbelievably, it has managed to rise above the surrounding crumbling infrastructure and to grow and flourish against all odds. A melting pot of colour, creed and culture, the singing of The Lord’s Prayer in Xhosa reduces many of the ‘Old Girls’ to tears. The current Head Prefect, Babalwa Ngcongolo is spellbinding in her delivery of a bible reading and then goes on to thank the guest speaker in terms that outshine everyone else on the podium.
This is a government school, not a private one. How it has managed to excel like this, in what is one of the most economically-challenged regions of the country, is inspirational and speaks volumes for the passion of the staff, student body and the parents. All the girls radiate confidence, happiness and pride. The school assembly is one of the most positive experiences I’ve had in this country in a long time. Maybe when some of these girls have qualified and excelled in their chosen careers, they’ll go into politics. That would bring real hope to us all.
It’s day three and time to leave. I’m at the airport early and ready to go. I’m leaving home to go home. I’m from here but no longer truly at home here. It’s a conundrum and it unsettles me. The plane banks over the magnificent coastline, sets course over the aloe-lit hills and I feel the tension on my heartstrings loosen. On the journey back and over the next few days I try to distil the whole experience. It takes time and I’m abstracted until finally I accept what I’ve often suspected. No matter how far I may travel and wherever else I may call home, I have ‘Eastern Cape’ inscribed across a small piece of my heart. The words may not be visible to me or anyone else but I know they’re there. And more significantly, I know they’re written in indelible ink.
“This fond attachment to the well-known place, Whence first we started into life’s long race, Maintains its hold with such unfailing sway, we feel it e’en in age, and at our latest day”