Leaving home…

What is it like to leave home - Zimbabwe, the place that grew us - and settle in a distant land? Is it simply a question of exchanging one geographical location for another, consigning the past to treasured memory, and embracing change? Or does nostalgic comparison, and a continued sense of displac

ement, prevent us from seeing new surroundings through anything but our own culture-coloured lens? MICHELLE BURTON looks at the paradox between leaving behind the old, and striving to find place in the new.

LONDON – It’s Christmas, a season of joy and glad tidings, and yet all the more poignant for its reminders of home. When I left Harare Airport in July 2001, I did so with resolve – determined not to look back as I shuffled through the boarding gates with luggage and children and high hopes for a better future. With that conviction firmly rooted, I arrived at Heathrow in high spirits the following morning – to be met with a glorious summer sky, and the efficient frenzy of first-world utopia. Two hours, and one sleepy village later, I opened the door to my new home in England.

Four long years on, bright anticipation has evolved into dulled acceptance that although there are many similarities between the two, the differences inherent in my two continents divide loyalties as cleanly as the oceans that separate them. On the one hand, I am grateful for the opportunities afforded this new life’s tenure – on the other, I long for my country with the same intensity as an October veld yearns for the first of the season’s storms. And the culture shock that was, still is.

Some aspects of life on what I fondly call l’Isle de Gris (the Isle of Grey) are so similar to Africa; some quite glaringly different – and it seems natural, somehow, to compare everything in England with its counterpart 6000 miles away. Not only the cold, and its icy tendrils of discomfort – although I have become accustomed to central heating, and the need to wear 12 layers outdoors – but the rain. It cascades softly – almost apologetically, here. Falling consistently throughout most of the year, it lacks the formidable – the great, rolling drumbeats of thunder and lightning sound that epitomise the purple skies of home. And things are always wet.

Everywhere you look, moisture clings tenaciously; except in summer, when heat mirages float above the horizon to produce an almost tangible sense of home, and driving along sunny, suburban scrub feels, magically, the same as winding Mazvikadei’s contours. Except that there is no dust – no acrid smell of dry-earth atrophy to tease your senses – only sea-breeze humidity, and the taste of nearby MacDonald’s. That said, the seasons change wondrously here – from golden, sensuous warmth to russet-coloured autumn – from dark, depressing winter to vibrant spring-filled energy. And I love that.

The people, too, are different. When I first arrived, I spent most of my time smiling at everyone. More concerned with decorum than window-shopping, I missed most of the local bargains in my quest to appear friendly, eye-contact approachable, and accepted. As the years have worn on, I realise that eating a cream doughnut – noisily – on a crowded, anonymous coachful of travellers is more acceptable; better, even, than trying to make non-verbal contact with passers-by, who find the mores of social niceties implicit in our African culture suspicious – and irritating. I have not yet conceded to spitting in the street, or hurling abuse at those older than myself. I have not yet acquired the expletive code of language more readily understood than the English of yesteryear. But, I do find myself walking the streets of local Wiltshire with an acquired air of casual disdain. And when someone smiles at me, I find myself wondering why!

I miss the slow-paced lifestyle of our third-world roots. Given a choice between the bumper-to-bumper Bristol traffic that turns a 30-mile journey into tedious expedition, and pushing my car along a relatively empty, pot-holed road to find petrol, I might choose the latter. Faced with the dilemma of how large a suitcase I’d need to carry worthless millions to Bon Marche for a week’s shopping, or the glossy, over-filled counters of luxury goods once only imagined, I’d probably choose the former.

Last week I met a fellow Zimbabwean; someone with whom I might have had no contact once upon a yesterday. But distance is a great leveller, and displacement the unifying force that binds more effectively than politics. He was a kindred spirit – of different race, culture and language, but at once familiar. And between us lay the unspoken; the question we all ask, as Zimbabweans cut off from our birthright – will we ever be able to go home?

It’s Christmas – the shops are filled with lights and trees and decorations that shout the season’s greetings. But, oh, how I long for the scent of a real fir, its improvised 40-gallon container brimming with garden cones and last year’s re-cycled tinsel. And on Christmas Eve, I don’t want to watch tradition’s latest horror flick; I want to weep at the story of Jesus.

11-january-2006
Zimbabwe Vigil Diary - 10th December 2005

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