Wendy Young shares a love letter to her home, South Africa
BY WENDY YOUNG
I have a pinguecula.
It is mine and I’m keeping it.
It isn’t doing any harm and it isn’t too terribly ugly.
A pinguecula? you might ask. Is it some sort of strange pet I’ve never heard of? We’ll come back to what exactly it is.
First I’ll tell you about what other South Africans in the UK look like to me. I follow a Facebook site full of Saffas in the UK, with thousands of members. Some have only just arrived, having gone through whatever brutal bureaucratic process they had to follow. They step off the plane into their quarantine hotels and they start asking questions – of the rest of us, who have been here longer – like: Where’s the best place to find the right shoes for walking in the snow? Or: please tell me I can still get hold of some Aromat (Barbecue salt full of MSG but goes on everything from meat to scones). They panic, immediately, because oh my goodness it is all very foreign. Are there really no ants? Anywhere? I left some food out and I haven’t seen one single ant. Or fly. Or cockroach!
They get hundreds of replies to their questions. Most of them tell of how it is still possible to be fully South African even if you want to have a British passport one day. They have a braai (like UK bbqs but also very different) every weekend, even if it is zero degrees outside. They make their own boerewors (sausage with at least 70% beef and a lot of spices, including coriander) if they can’t find any and they eat their meat with pap en smoor (maize porridge eaten with tomato and onion). They use the same spices in the same jars they grew up with because there are many shops – online and physically – that sell authentically South African things. Things they can’t do without because it is part of who they are and they will not change or become less South African for any reason. They work SO hard at holding on. They insist on swearing in Afrikaans and they meet other Saffas as regularly as possible even if, back home, they would never even have been friends with these people.
I think it is a way of saying “we’re ok, we can do this, we didn’t need to become nothing in order to have something better”. My own experience has been very different. Of course I crave biltong (it is really quite different to but is likened to beef jerky) and of course I jump up and down whenever I’m given any. When we found Iwisa pap (brand name) on Ocado I was super excited (and very relieved that I still knew how to cook it).
But I’m so HAPPY in my new British life. I revere David Attenborough. I pour gravy on my Sunday roast. I think the view of a winter night outside the window is like a fairytale, when I’m snug in my onesie sipping hot chocolate. I go for walks when it is anything above five degrees – I have to draw the line right there! – and I agree that taking our shoes off before we go into the house makes perfect sense. I only ever speak Afrikaans with my family who are all still in South Africa, which makes it once a week, verbally. I text in Afrikaans almost every day but I only listen to South African music when I feel I am strong enough to cope with a few tears.
I can’t talk about how much I miss my family and that it has been far too long since I last saw them and that Covid has taken so many things away from all of us.
But I CAN talk about my pinguecula. It is a bump, a little growth, benign, a thickening on the tissue that covers the white part of the eye and I have it because my eyes have been exposed to a lot of sunshine. I don’t mean the kind of sunshine we get in the UK. What I mean by sunshine is the solid, rich, thick, heavy strength of a sun that beams straight into your face approximately 3,000 hours a year. (We get half as many sunshine hours in the UK. The strength is measurably far less. Plus we spend most of those hours indoors.)
I have UV damage in my eyeballs.
But I’m glad about that. I’m proud of it. I bask in the knowledge that the first 36 years of my life were spent in a place where the sun shines like nowhere else on earth. It holds you, if enfolds you, it grows you, it moulds you into who you become.
I have become careful of it and when I last visited South Africa I could only be inside that absolutely baking deliciously smelling of the sound of sonbesies (tiny bronze beetle that sings like tinnitus when it is hot) kind of sunshine for maybe half an hour at a time. I felt disappointed in myself for having become such a wuss. My brain tells me I SHOULD be careful, that it was madness not to cover up and not to protect my skin and my eyes for all those years. My heart says, “ohhhh but it feeeeeels so good”. It feels like standing inside the very mouth of God when He spoke the world into being.
So while I am ready to let go of my South African passport once I get my British one, I have a pinguecula to remind me of who I really am.
Wendy Young lives in Warwickshire
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