Exiled to Chase Home

Leaving Home for Home

I’m a “post-freedom” exile in my 15th year away from home. I have had short retrieves every summer to come home, see family, and fall once more in love with my country and people. But the knock on the door inevitably beats, and my conjugal visit with South Africa is over again.

I am not the only one. I am a droplet in a flood of hope. Our flood started as a trickle when people started exploring outside South Africa. Prior to this, international travel was the parlance of the advantaged and rich. Now, it is a torrent of hope as young South Africans scramble to find something better, something more than home. What a sad state it is when home is no longer enough, when home is no longer the seat of nurturing when home is too busy trying to reimagine itself yet forgetting the youthful pillars that would hold and buoy it in this new future.

I write this sitting in a minibus barreling for the border between Thailand and Laos on a visa run to get a tourist visa. I do this to stay 60 days longer in the land of smiles. I do this to get more time to make my fortunes. I do this to find the greener pastures I feel home no longer holds. I am not the only one.

Dealing with reverse culture shock

I left South Africa at 22 and went to South Korea to teach. At the time, it was for experience and to make enough money to help my mother back home because God bless her, she broke her back trying to father three boys. The first two years were for experience, and once I had my fill, I ran home as soon as possible. But unlike the comfortable, well-worn shoe I thought I would be slipping into, home was like one of the holey weather-beaten Bata toughees I had gotten too used to in my matric year, comfortable, but you felt every stone and puddle you stepped into.

Not only was I dealing with minor reverse culture shock, but I found myself counting every penny and stretching my paycheck like a fitted sheet on too big a bed. I had a degree and some experience, but finding even an entry-level job in the field I wanted was impossible. My brothers were growing up, and as the eldest, I heard the struggle in every joint creak as my mother got up to go to work her two jobs. So I ran.

How many first steps lost?

I ran towards an opportunity where I could be a good son and a good older brother. I left the country and was almost immediately living up to my responsibilities. I am not the only one. How many first steps have been lost? How many weddings, first cars and births have passed through outstretched fingers, bridges overseas and borders?

How self-indulgent of me to cry over being home when I can see life etched on the faces of those who never left. In many ways, I am lucky. I live a life that many could only imagine, and I imagine my ancestors, most importantly Ntombizodwa Nogaga (my grandmother), are proud of everything I have achieved and have become. However, there is a cost. My niece is starting primary school, but I have only ever held her once. My mother’s eyes are turning grey, remembering the teenager who left with so much potential. I stand on life’s hump, looking back at the moments lost. They never tell you that when you travel, life at home doesn’t stop because of your absence; in fact, it moves on in spite of it.

1442 days of potential moments lost

I was in China during Covid, which meant four years of choosing between livelihood and family. Home had no opportunities to come to, and China held no options to return after seeing my family. So, I sat in my apartment, ticking off the days and the memories. 1442 days without seeing my brothers, my sisters, nieces and nephews. 1442 days of potential moments lost, trying to make a living while the living went one without me.

1442 days of self-imposed exile. 

1442 potential moments are the price of my life.

We sit in bars singing “Nkosi Sikelela, piecing together braais and bartering for rooibos tea while riding the waves of scenes from contemporary South Africa. We weep and agonise over every political faux pas, from a president unable to say large numbers to war games with the world’s current pariah. We cheer when Amapiano comes on and when the Bokke win World Cups. We are South Africans, and while we may fight, we never let anyone speak against our home. As exiles, we try to guard our memory’s light. Without that light, who are we? It has cost us too much, we have lost too much, life has moved too much.

Nyameko Ishmael Bottoman is a South African author and teacher. After graduating from the University of the Western Cape, he moved to South Korea and subsequently other parts of Asia. This was where he reignited his love for the written word. He helped develop the first South African online magazine in the role of editor.  He has published two books, a children's book and book on South African Folklore

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