It’s 3 am. I am standing in Walmart, looking around me and watching shoppers push their carts through the aisles as though it is mid-morning, late afternoon, anything but 3 am. A woman in front of me is on the phone, explaining to the caller that she’d be home before the baby wakes up. It was the only time she had to get her grocery shopping done. A man and his elderly father are strolling down to the pharmacy. He is apologizing to his father that he works such long hours and that this was the only time he had to get him to pick up his script. And so, it goes on and on. I watched each shopper, and realized that 3 am shopping was convenient, and somewhat normal. I didn’t really need to be there, but I wanted to leave the safety of my home, and see if it truly was normal going to the store at 3 am. Each time someone brushed past me, I shuddered. I know how it must have looked like to them, but I didn’t know how to explain myself. Instead, I smiled and walked away.
Slipping into my car at around 2:40 am, caught me a little off-guard. I couldn’t help but look around me, sure that someone was hiding behind a shrub somewhere, ready to pounce on me. I made a point of holding my breath, so as not to make a sound, but the thumping of my heart echoed into the silence. When I finally reached my car, I slid in, locked the doors, looked around me one more time, and finally exhaled. I made it!
Driving through the streets of a well-lit town, wasn’t as horrifying as I thought it would be. During my drive, I couldn’t help but think back to my home. South Africa. Locked behind steel gates, barbed wire, burglar bars, security systems, in-house security gates, and armed with anything that could be turned into a weapon, there was no guarantee we’d even survive a night imprisoned in our homes, let alone, take a drive to the corner garage. Stealing ten minutes out on the porch for a quick breath of fresh air, or a few drags on a cigarette, was unthinkable.
When I reached Walmart, my heart was thumping again. There were too many cars. Why were there so many cars at that time of the morning? I sat for another ten minutes or so, witnessing shoppers coming and going, normally. At 3 am. Without looking around them. Without fear. Without anxiety. There was nothing at all about them, that could tell me shopping at Walmart at this hour, wasn’t normal.
I didn’t need to be there. What I did need to do, was understand that our lives in South Africa, wasn’t normal. I needed to know that we weren’t exaggerating the conditions we were living in. I needed to understand that our fear is real. I need to admit to myself that our defenses and attempts to safeguard ourselves, would never be enough. I needed to know that there is not one corner in South Africa, that is safe. I wanted to make sure that I, and our people weren’t simply imagining the dread we were going to bed with, and waking up to each morning. I had to prove to myself that I wasn’t amplifying my emotions or fears.
Like other South African scatterlings around the world, we were numb to our murders, to our crime, the violence and the tortures. We became desensitized to the hatred towards our race, our culture and our tribe. We are used to it. It was normal to us. It was how we met each morning. It was how we ended our days. We lived, but we didn’t.
In the first few weeks of arriving in America, I still pushed the dresser against the bedroom door each night. I stacked books between the door handle and the surface of the dresser, so that an intruder or attacker couldn’t turn the handle. I placed a door stopper underneath, and got into bed listening for familiar sounds, in an unfamiliar country. Each time the furnace would kick in, I sat up straight in bed, and listened. Each time the air-conditioner started up, my heart missed more than just a few beats. Cars driving by would force me to my bedroom window, and I would watch until I could no longer see them.
But, 18 months later, even though I am no longer suspicious of what might come in at night, I still get up a few times each night to check the doors, the windows, and the door alarms. I am safe now, I know, but I wasn’t once. Overcoming the fact that houses flow into one another, without walls or fencing to divide, keeping intruders out, was by far the most unnerving experience of my life. How can people live so carelessly, I thought? Watching pet owners walk their dogs at night, made me shudder. Little children walking the streets before and after school, or at Halloween, just made me want to grab mothers, and shake the living daylights out of them. But wait. They know nothing of the fears we live in South Africa. We didn’t always, and that’s where they are now. They are living our “didn’t always.”
I was once a child in South Africa. A safer one. Just like it is now in America, and most other countries. I once walked the streets, daily and often, after dark. I once pedaled my bicycle to school, and into town whenever I could. Our doors were often overlooked, and remained unlocked until morning. Our cars were parked in the streets, the keys still in the ignition. I once lived in a home that didn’t have security, fencing, walls or burglar bars. I grew up in a time when the military, police, and the law was feared. I lived in a time when our president was fair, and applied the law to each South African, irrespective of race, religion or political belief. I lived through tough discipline, education standards that were high, and there was no sympathy for my failures. I lived in a world where I had to earn every penny I earned, and pay every penny asked of me for the home or car I wanted. I lived in a time where pastors and preachers were the closest to God, and I heavily relied on their Biblical wisdom. I lived in a time where teachers were obeyed, feared, admired and respected. They knew everything. I lived with the knowledge that doctors and nurses were the smartest healers in the world, second to God. I lived in my garden, with friends of all races. It was a time when crime never went unpunished, respect was earned, given and received, discipline was feared, education standards were high, health care was superior, and we had pride for our country, our service men and our citizens.
What we are left with now, is a tribe scattered across the world. Some stay. Some leave. Most are angry. Most are bitter. Most have given up, and many have lost hope. We’ve forgotten how we once lived, and how we deserve a country in which we are safe in. A country where our roots matter in. A country we contribute to, and are proud of.
So, while I stroll through Walmart at any given time of any given day, I long for South Africa. I will always check the shelves for ginger beer, Aquafresh, Marmite, ProNutro, Ouma’s, Grandpa powders and biltong. Once in a while, I find home on those shelves, and it brings me back to life again. Perhaps someday, I won’t have to place an order on Amazon, just to have a little bit of South Africa, in my home. As determined as we are to adjust to our new surroundings and adapt to unfamiliar traditions, we can’t help but cling to our culture. We fiercely defend who we are, and where we come from. We feel no shame for who we once were. We have no disgrace in our patriotism, or Christianity. We just don’t fit in anymore.
Like a tight-knit family, we have been orphaned, split-up, and scattered across the world, longing for those like us. I long for the familiarity and safety we once knew. I long for those who sound like me, and speak like me. I listen for them, and once in a while, when I think I hear someone like me, I walk the aisles, in search of that voice, and language. Perhaps, its nothing more than the ghosts of my home, but perhaps someday, the voices will have faces again.
Until then, for those like us who stay behind, we will oppose, fight and let the world know that the devil has found a home in South Africa.