Apr 01

‘I had a deep-rooted sense of wanting to find identity & belonging’

Sbonga Dlamini returned home after spending several years abroad in various parts of the globe including the US and India.

I was born in a remote village in northern KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. At the age of 13, I moved away to Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School for secondary education. At the start of Grade 11, I received an opportunity to finish my high school education at an international high school in India.

After completing high school, I left India to attend College of the Atlantic in the United States where I completed a B.A. in Human Ecology with a concentration in the sciences and global health. Next, I took the opportunity to gain work experience and technical skills in biomedical research for a year in the US.

It was during that time that questions of home, identity, and belonging really started to be firmly implanted in my mind. I never got a sense of belonging in Maine. I was reminded of that every time I engaged in casual conversation with locals or tourists who would inevitably and always ask a question I had come to dread ‘Where are you from?’

It had become difficult for me to articulate a succinct response to that question because who I had become at that point was the result of factors much, much greater and arguably much more important than a geographical location. However, passers-by are typically not interested in conversations laced with nuance so, my answer was always ‘South Africa.’ 

After living in my college hometown for 5 years, I decided to move back to where I was from. Moving back to South Africa was a decision influenced by career aspirations, immigration/visa bureaucratic hurdles, and a deep-rooted sense of wanting to find identity and belonging. My career aspirations in the global health and humanitarian work fields were never going to materialize in the idyllic little town that was Bar Harbor, Maine so that encouraged me to come to South Africa and gain the experiences I needed in order to do that work. Also, being on some immigration/visa status in the United States could be extremely limiting at times and I had come to resent not being able to pursue endeavors, not directly related to my education, that could compromise my legal status. Lastly, I had correlated ‘identity and belonging’ with where one is from so it seemed natural that I would find the answers to those questions once I made the move back.

The best thing about being in South Africa is seeing my sisters, brothers, cousins, grandmother and, on occasion, an old friend. Being in the presence of these individuals, this time without a looming departure, has been an eye-opening experience. Watching those closest to me develop into their own persons has brought me the most joy. I also love the endless supply of different flavours of rooibos tea, the fact that I don’t have to deal with snow, and the way in which time has a way of stopping still in this part of the world. I love the way people prioritize relaxing and having fun.

The downside is that, 7 months into my move back to South Africa, I have come to realize that who I am/have become has little correlation to where I’m from. My current identity has been largely shaped by experiences that did not take place in South Africa therefore the hardest part has been struggling to feel like I belong.

For example, my education in India and in the US took place in environments where students were never afraid to challenge social norms and experiment with ways of expressing themselves and their views. In fact, we were encouraged to activey scrutinize, examine, and observe our surroundings in order to come to objective conclusions about ourselves, our values and beliefs, and the ways in which we relate to society at large. This way of thinking did not fare me well when I found myself back in the conservative and traditional town in which I spent the first decade of my life. I was always subtly cautioned, at times explictly, not to express my ‘liberal agenda.’ Personal choices regarding my body, ie not shaving my armpit hair, draws comments of disgust from those close enough to observe such. Saying ‘miles’ instead of ‘kilometres’ and sometimes forgetting to use the metric system draws sighs of frustration and eye rolls.

But mostly, I recall being reminded ‘You’re not in the US anymore. This is South Africa’ more times than I cared to hear. It hurts. I’m trying to learn ways of striking the balance between sharing my authentic self while still being mindful and respectful of those around me. I desperately want people to acknowledge that, even though this is my home country, I am still somewhat a stranger and, with time, this will correct itself. However, I reckon that I’ll be asking myself questions about belonging and identity regardless of where I end up.

My advice to others (and myself) making the move back is that, if possible, seek out that person/people or community who are able to give you the support you’ll need during your transition. I am grateful to have someone in my corner whose only requirement of me has been to breathe. I hope those returning have those people in their lives. I also recommend reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and Belonging: a culture of place by bell hooks. Adichie brings to life the many struggles of the African in America and then, eventually, back in Africa.

Gyasi chronicles the journey of being uprooted from the places which have become familiar and the many joys and griefs those journeys bring. Bell hooks has an eloquent way of validating the complex feelings and emotions that arise when we really start to question who we are and where we belong. The books will initially give words to your emotions, ways to think about identity, belonging, and home but after that, everything is left up to you to be experienced. Lastly, have solid plans in place to build your identity capital, meditate, drink lots of water, and remember to breathe.