Last weekend, I signed up to stay with a family for two nights in a delightful neighborhood nestled like a hat on top of the city’s center. Bo Kaap is a Muslim community of about 10,000 people. Each little house is painted a bright color from hot pink to mustard yellow, making it the convention center for any tourist with an Instagram.
When I first decided to study abroad, I knew that homestay wasn’t going to be for me. Something about living with a mother that would fold my delicates, cook me meals and give me a kiss on the cheek as I left for school felt weird, and I decided to get my cultural fix by living in a dorm with South African roommates.
I lived in a house with my mother (who I really just called “Mom” all weekend), her lovely son and his wife and son. From the get go, I was presented with the house rules:
- Do not do anything for yourself
- Do not raise a finger in the kitchen
- This is your home, feel at home.
- You are loved unconditionally by your family
- Anything you say, let it be.
My brother came into my room to chat the night I got there and we ended up talking for a long while. He was telling me about what an angel his (our?) mother was when she came in with a plate of cakes and mini pizzas, minutes after we had just arrived home from dinner. “Just in case you get hungry,” she said with a smile, and I realized that the Mom Code, the instinct that feeds this belief that your kids are always not eating enough, is a universal force. As I was falling asleep, I heard someone hollering, “Alyaaaaaa! Alyaaaaa!” from the window. I was wondering just how I became an overnight sensation in this new suburb when Mom popped her head in and informed me there was another girl, Aaliyah, with the same name down the road. Again, I took it as a sign from the universe that I was home.
The following morning, I met with a group of girls to brainstorm programs for the young girls in the Bo Kaap community. The issue, Mishka said, was that in the shadows of this colorful Muslim community, there were daunting issues of alcoholism and substance abuse. Young girls in the neighborhood, lacking positive role models or parental guidance, were in need of programs to build self esteem and mentorship relationships. We chatted in the playground for the afternoon before going home to our respective mamas for some Cape Malay lunch. Afterwards, we got the chance to spend a day with the girls. As I sat on the merry go round as a young girl of about 10 years and 80 pounds spun it round and round, I remember thinking, “God, I’m really close to falling off of this thing.” But I eyed all of the other preteens clinging on with no problem, and resolved to Fight On through it all.
To no avail, I’m pretty sure that girl spinning the merry-go-round was literally Hulk. I flung from the merry-go-round to the ground, tumbling, barrel-roll style, four times before sticking a landing on my butt. There’s no graceful way to stand up among a group of children, pick leaves out of your hair and maintain a modicum of street cred. Nevertheless, the girls brushed me off and taught us all how to play netball, a hilarious and exciting mix between lacrosse, basketball and just running around aimlessly.
I went home to a full table of my family, their kids, their sisters and their parents. We ate and laughed until a tear almost fell into my roti. After we cleared the table, my mother said she was going to teach me how to sew. She ended up stitching me a gorgeous white dress with lace lining the bust, to wear on my birthday the following week. It was definitely the kindest gift I had ever received.
Through this adventure, and through my semester here as a whole, I have collected family members and friends in different provinces, cities and countries. Sometimes when I’m on the bus to class, getting candy from Pick N Pay or WhatsApping a crew to get some Nando’s on Main Road, I get this rush of my future hindsight, knowing that in a few months, doing these things will not be part of my routine, but just a memory of the greatest semester of my life. I am not a South African native. No matter how much braai I eat or families I call my own, I can’t say that I’m South African. But I watched a TED Talk last week that said that a person is defined by their localities, not nationalities. No one feels a sense of kinship with the country on the passport, or the government and laws under which they live. People identify with the neighborhoods they live in, the store clerks they know and the meals they learn how to make with the people with which they surround themselves. In that sense, I am a local of Bo Kaap, of Forest Hill, of the sunny Jammie Steps at University of Cape Town. I’m home by the back bookshelf at That Place Cafe and certainly no stranger to My Sugar Confectionary, home of the most redonkulous cookie butter milkshakes in Sub-Saharan Africa. As a consequence of gaining these places as centers of my universe, there will always be a place that I miss and a place I was once lucky to know.