All around South Africa, December is a time of travelling; all roads for most people from big cities will be leading to emakhaya as we call it. Emakhaya means ‘back home’ as many black people don’t consider the big provinces like Western Cape and Gauteng home, but just a place of work.
Because of this, it’s very common, in Cape Town especially, when black people greet each other or make conversation with another stranger, the question that comes after “how’re you doing” would be, “Where in the Eastern Cape are you from?” or to be more accurate, “Ziphi ilali zakho?”
But this question is so much more than the English translation of where are you from, rather it’s a way to create a connection. If you are from the same village as the person you’re talking to, it gives you a sense of community. This is why people who are from the same city or village in the Eastern Cape call each other ‘Mkhaya’ – basically, this means your village sibling.
One can trace this back to the apartheid era and the Group Areas Act, which prohibited black people from living in certain areas, and where black people were most frequently forced to live in townships set on the outskirts of cities and towns. However, to some black people, the townships were spaces for their ‘temporary’ houses, which they kept just to be closer to the city. Their homes – back in the more rural villages – were their real homes. These villages didn’t have many job opportunities and this is why many people migrated to provinces like Gauteng and Western Cape to look for jobs.
For many black people, this is still the case today. It’s been intertwined with our culture to always go ‘back home’. Many people in the Eastern Cape have a mentality that people who come back from these other provinces are richer than them. And they even have names for people who haven’t returned for years – they call them ‘Amatshipa’, which is just saying that you have abandoned where you come from.
I consider myself a hard-core village girl. I grew up in the small town of Whittlesea near Queenstown. An extremely small town, literally a street with only a Shoprite, a Boxer and one ATM. I loved living there, it’s quiet and isolated from most things that we have access to here in Cape Town, a car passes by once a day and if you miss it you will have to go to town the next day.
I moved from there to one of the biggest cities in the Eastern Cape – East London. So for me when I speak of home I highlight these two places, it’s where I grew up and it’s where my people are.
When I came to Cape Town, I created another life with new people. But I never thought that when I went back to EC I would ever feel like an outsider. To me, the people who grew up in Cape Town and had never been to EC were the outsiders. I wouldn’t even go out of my way to make friends with them as – in my head – I had all the friends I needed ‘back home’.
When I return to the Eastern Cape, a certain load gets lifted off my shoulders. It feels like I don’t have to keep up anymore. I get to be around people who have known me from before I even got to know myself. My favourite thing to do is sit on the floor next to my grandfather watching TV, with him on his ‘special sofa’. Home is him getting up before dawn and waking up all the grandchildren to go feed the chickens and cows. When I’m there I always feel recharged. The quietness of the village calms me down.
But you see life is moving, and we adjust to the environment and change with it. I love going back home. I love seeing all my cousins that I haven’t seen all year. I love waking up on Christmas morning to a warm house filled with family members from all around the country and I love seeing my closest friends from my childhood. However, as the years go by, so the visits back home become smaller and smaller, and the conversations with my friends back home become smaller and smaller too.
I’ve started to plan my life around Cape Town. I enjoy the quiet Christmas mornings with only my mom and sister. I miss my other family members, but to me the Eastern Cape has become more of a distant memory. Over time my heart has found a new home and with every call asking when I’m coming back home, I realise that I was already home.
That is not the case for everyone; my neighbour has a house back home that she buys furniture for and is renovating in Gqeberha. She also has a house here that she hasn’t fixed up and isn’t ever planning to. To her home will always be Gqeberha, and Cape Town just a temporary place – useful, but not loved.
Every December she and her family travel back home. The excitement in their eyes as they plan their itinerary indicates that their hearts are still there. Almost everyone I spoke to about going back home said that they love the sense of relaxation and comfort they get when they are there – that this was something they seldom get here. It sees the Eastern Cape is not just a home but also a place where you get your sense of self again.
I may not consider the Eastern Cape my home any longer, but whenever I can, I will always find time to go back and connect. It’s important for my spirit to pay respects to my ancestors, and to visit and participate in the traditions that my family practises. Because even if I have changed, my love and respect for these things has not. I may not consider it home, but I will always respect it as a place that held my heart for many years. As they say home is where the heart is – and for now my heart is in Cape Town.
Are your friends closer to you than your family? Read about one writer’s experience here.
Tell us: Where do you consider home and why?