August 2019 / 'What and Where is Home? A Mother’s Perspective' by Ukhona Ntsali Mlandu / South Africa
ART, RESEARCH, THEORY: In the August column we are pleased to feature Ukhona Ntsali Mlandu: a performance artist, curator, writer, arts administrator and a single, queer mother of two, now living in Goshen village in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Her move out of Cape Town was necessitated by an exhaustion of operating in an arts context that had no measures in place to accommodate her as a working mother. Currently, Ukhona navigates life between the Goshen village and various cities with her children aged 9 and 14 years, in order to sustain and provide for her family. One of her more recent projects is Makwande.republic, a retreat and a residency in her ancestral home in the Goshen village. ‘Makwande Republic’ is centred around giving space to the creative process and re-imagination of what ideas of productivity may look like and with a particular interest in supporting families in whatever format they present. Here, Ukhona reflects on the notion of ‘home’ and the many, complex meanings that it both carries and conceals for her.
“WHAT AND WHERE IS HOME?
A MOTHER’S PERSPECTIVE”
“I spent the first 13 years in the home pictured above in this group's profile picture. This home is in my ancestral village in the Eastern Cape Province of rural South Africa. I responded to an overwhelming urge and a supernatural pull to come home a couple of months ago, after only coming home on my way from somewhere else or rushing elsewhere for over 22 years. Once here I had to confront my personal and communal archive, accept loss, and begin to make sense of the historical erasure and dispossession that characterises narratives in these parts,; reconnect with the safe space and healing aspects of this home and this community, this land where I was nurtured and taught that I could stand among nations and know that I am enough. I began to, and continue to, think about ways in which I could extend such a space for healing, connection, breaking, mending, asking, writing, imagining and re-imagining of one's self and the collective to others who may need to take time here for reasons legitimate to them. I see it in my mind's eye and I am slowly curating this vision into life. I have hosted a few guests who will share their reflections in their own time. I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people (family, my circle of influence, my community in this village - from elders to the youth and colleagues) who trust this creative impulse and vision who continue to hold me and support me and show immense respect and trust for this process. Safe spaces and taking time out to care for one's self is vital in refilling the proverbial cup that makes us able to continue to be who we are in the world that can commodify our pain and politics. I believe in the need and the power that this space and others like it can have in nurturing a community that hopefully makes it here physically or one that continues to use this platform to send out vibrations to other like-minded individuals. I have added you here because there is something about you I thought could connect with this.”
In December 2017, I shared the above status on my Facebook page after having spent 6 months in my ancestral village in the eastern part of South Africa. ‘Ancestral village’, in my context, means the place where, as far as I can remember and there is a record (oral and written), where my maternal ancestors are from.
The records date back to the late 1700’s. Goshen Village is therefore what I could “legitimately” call my ancestral village. This is speaking of course from the point of departure that everyone has to have a place from which they and their people hail. This notwithstanding that my people, the Mlandu’s, are part of the clan of AmaNdlovu, who are part of the Hlubi or Shubi tribes who were: nomadic people whose known migration patterns can be traced in central Africa moving in various directions (north, east, south, west).
The migration patterns were influenced and guided by a myriad of things including weather, grazing lands, the ability of land to produce food, adventure, self-actualisation, ambition, love, etc. This could be said for most African nations and tribes, as the idea of borders, nationhood, and the need for security of tenure in that sense of the word was introduced by colonialists, as they forced Africans to accept the territories that they imposed on them. It was normalised to stick to these territories and to later, when the need arose, fight to defend them. This notion of conquest and conquering is relatively new to Africans but here we are.
Here I am needing to lay a claim on a corner of the world because the times demand it. My own socialisation has happened only at a time when this idea of home is normalised and ingrained in the collective psyche and imagination.
It is important to note that my decision to return to my ancestral village for an undetermined time was influenced by a number of things. One reason that I wish to point out at this stage was that of a long and drawn out lawsuit between myself and my landlord in Cape Town. Circumstances had seen me lose the case on the basis of the Roman Dutch Law which the South African courts apply, prioritising right to ownership. The opposing lawyer argued purely on the fact that the long drawn out lawsuit was compromising the owner/landlord’s ability to hold on to their property, thereby compromising their constitutional right to security of tenure. This argument completely disregarded and diverted attention away from the whole host of my South African Constitutional Rights, Consumer Rights, Human Rights, and Children’s Rights, that this landlord had violated during the course of mine and my two minor children’s stay in their property, including breach of contract on their part. The entire experience was so traumatic and it brought up so many questions around home and belonging. As a single-parent mother, the ability to provide a safe home for my children is my sole responsibility and it is something that is at the core of my priorities, and yet I had experienced an external force violate this in ways that I don’t even have the vocabulary to articulate. While I had the conviction and resources to fight back as a matter of principle, it was something to have the law rule in favour of the landlord owing to a concept that was imposed on this continent by foreign influence. The African continent’s overriding values can be said to prioritise ‘Ubuntu’, a concept that centres humanity and being humane as the first rule of engagement with those we engage with, and those around us, including nature and the environment. Loosely translated, ‘Ubuntu’ means ‘I am because we are, you are because I am.’ Needless to say the experience left me tired and dehumanised. Up until that point I had come to call Cape Town home for 23 years. This incident made me feel like I had to leave and find home elsewhere.
At this stage I was called to remember another incarnation of home in the form of my ancestral village and home. While I was not born in Goshen, my mother was, and so was her mother, and her mother’s mother, and so on and so forth, until as far as I know the 1800’s. I had however lived my formative years in this village until I moved to Cape Town at the end of 1993. There is something about the village that felt and is unmistakeably home, and part of it is theoretical. There is also a part of the village that is alien, especially considering I had left at the tender age of 12. My soul needed home and this was the home that was available to me, and I made moves to go there. I packed away a life of 23 years and moved to the village.
The village was a far cry from the life that I had become accustomed to. The life I know. The life that I and my children knew how to make sense of. When I got there, a lot more people knew me, of me, of my people, than I expected. Based on their social standing and the way my forebears lived amongst other people in this village, my particular reception was warm. This affirmation and acknowledgement of my family’s story within a rich tapestry of a collective narrative was what my soul needed at that point. Giving my children this frame of reference where their personhood was attached to, an acceptance and respect that was inherited and granted to them unreservedly was healing. I believe it will make for a healthy foundation for their sense of self beyond their time in the village. For 23 years I have made home in another place, and having travelled and dared to call cities like Washington, DC in the USA my second home, owing to a time I spent there during a 3- year Fellowship. The love affair I have with Philippine cuisine is intense and in its peak and because food is a very important aspect of my quality of life, there are aspects of the Philippines that resonates with feelings of what home should be and is. Nairobi feels like home and the magic of the African metropolis always beckons. For this and many other reasons I was, and I am well aware, that it is only a matter of time before the novelty of the village life, adjustments, and the absence and presence of some privileges get juxtaposed with all the conveniences that are absent. All the lifestyle preferences that are not easily available become glaring and frustration starts to set in.
…So, what happens when home is not enough?
What happens when home is no longer enough?
What happens when home was never enough?
I don’t necessarily have a silver bullet answer for any of the questions, and I merely pose them to make sense and ask questions on how that sense of home as the place of origin is not universal. On the other hand, being in the village brought up ways in which I had made a home out of notions of productivity and use of time that were informed by my context as a world-citizen making sense of life in a capitalist society. I was unfamiliar with the work ethic of my new context, their relationship with time, the way they perceived my contributions in a professional setting in contexts of development for the region. They were discomforted by the extent to which I was comfortable with dreaming ideas and then going on to move to execute them without a sense of limitations and boundaries. I was displaced by their boundaries for what they think is possible for a rural village in the eastern part of South Africa. I was disoriented by their sense of complacency. I was uprooted by their suspicious tendencies towards my intentions. I felt a certain rejection to my invitation to dream, imagine, and re-imagine. I was an outsider at home. I cannot pretend to not understand their reluctance and hesitation in the greater contextual politics of survival. I started to, and I continue to, entertain the idea of home needing patience, consistency, and time away at regular intervals versus arriving at a place of acceptance that I have outgrown the space or rather that my growing and sense of growth does not fit the frame of this place. I repeat that this, this is an idea in exploration.
When I left Cape Town, my move meant negotiating a long-term relationship with my partner. In a way, our individual and collective existence in Cape Town in close proximity to each other geographically, and the way our lives were organised in the city, meant that we had a sense of home with each other and our joint children even without co-habiting. This home was disrupted by my move and the strain was, and continues to be, felt. If loving and partnering then offers one an opportunity to build a life with another and expand with another, what are the tensions between the home of one’s origin and maybe even childhood and the home they make with another and for their own offspring? Where is home for my children? It would be interesting to hear what their answer is. Given our current reality it benefits me to think that home for them is wherever I am.
Our family home here in the village was empty when I moved back in. No one lived here. My own parents and grandparents and all the elders that could be living in the house have passed. While I enjoy the benefits of being home alone, in this context please read reluctant eternal child in this context who associates being here with being nurtured but is here with the role of ‘mother’ attached to her identity. I had the task of bringing warmth and comfort back into the walls. Bringing my own and invoking the memories of what sense of making home and making meaning supports my ideas of what home for myself and my children needs to be.
I must share that I have two surviving aunts who both don’t live in this house as I said. The one who is in the vicinity has Alzheimer’s. The children and I get to spend time with her from time-to-time. Her long term memory is somewhat intact while her short term-memory is not. It’s her solid rendition of home that she carries with her and the memory of those who have passed that is so delightful for me as an act of collective memory and remembrance that my children get to hear from someone either than myself. My aunt however sometimes needs to be reminded that her parents and siblings, including my own mother, are no more. Her reaction to this news at times can be so heartbreaking to witness in its newness. She knows home is home, and boy does she love her home and the memories that ‘home’ holds for her. She must however be constantly be reintroduced to who constitutes home for her at this time in her life. She can meet this with great excitement or sadness. She is not always guaranteed to recognise all the people that know her, yet she is cultivating an amazing sense of who is familiar and safe and who is not. We all have to rely on her sense of danger to tell her who and what is safe or not when she not supervised. We live with the strong hope that it never fails her.
My other aunt who lives in Cape Town has in the absence of my mother through death done nothing to make sure that I continue to have a sense of home. She has not done much to make sure that the ancestral home structure remains standing and she has done nothing to make sure that the family remains home to each other by instilling unity, ritual, and general constructive familial ties. In my opinion, she is the epitome and centre of what is toxic and unhomely about our family and home in the realm of the living. This coupled with her refusal to acknowledge ancestral ties and messages passed on to me and others to access and reconnect with our traditional and spiritual path of healing intergenerational pain and trauma and moving the conversation forward by healing the present and setting ways of making meaning for future generations. Even constructive dialogue or a counter- narrative to contest these very words would be more than she has been willing to offer and would be welcome.
Home, safety, and a sense of danger is something that most must navigate within the home because the home can also be a source of pain and abuse. As explicitly stated above, my home has toxic aspects that stem from years of internal politics, some traumatic events that were never addressed, some members of the family deeming themselves to be more of an authority in this collective identity and archive and doing nothing to propel it forward. The tensions and internal politics are emotionally violent. They have required that I acquire a clarity of purpose about my time at this particular home at this stage of my life so as to be able to eliminate distraction and avoid the misdirected use of my energy. This is something that is easier said than done, but it certainly does not involve holding a romanticised view of what home and the humans that form part of this construct. I continue to ensure that my actions and intentions continue to serve the idea and need for home that I came here to address. I insist on doing this with the belief that my actions are important in breaking the intergenerational ways of relating within my family which do not serve the vision I have for myself and the sense of home that I need. In a way, while the physical bricks and mortar of the home may be one thing, the act of actively constructing what means to you has room for self-determination and a bold insistence on co-authoring and co-creating what that looks like. Elimination of what is toxic is a huge part of this. I say all of this mindful of my positionality as one who is negotiating home as an adult with agency. This is not the case for everyone.
I am reminded of my mother who was warm, friendly, a revolutionary and fierce feminist, yet very aloof and emotionally detached. It took me recognising that she was merely repeating a cycle. She was also of generations of black women who could not afford to love their children too much, because the luxury to do this within a system that sought to break the black family within an apartheid state of South Africa, would prove to be detrimental to the survival skills that a black person needed to have to make it in a world that wanted them dead or broken while extremely productive and subservient. It was in recognising this that I was able to reach out to my mother constantly and shamelessly to ask for what I needed, the kind of home I needed her to be in my teenage years living with her for the first time in a township (the projects) in Guguletu, Cape Town also for the first time in my life.
Townships at their core in my eyes and the intention behind their construction as per ample documents of the South African apartheid state were, and are, inhumane settlements which are meant to breed the destruction of those who inhabit it. They were, and are, a space reserved for black people made up of some who were forcibly removed from more prime areas in the area or those who were forced to leave their homes in the more rural parts of South Africa to come and seek employment as the consequences of land dispossession that affected this population. I lived in this township of Guguletu for 4 years and I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that there is nothing about that space that resembled home for me.
The spatial planning was offensive and oppressive to my 13- year old onwards sensibilities, as one who had grown up in Goshen village with ample space to live and breathe, with ample resources to take care of everyday basic needs. The moments I had with my mother in that space were very much based on the construct of home that I designed for myself and demanded that she become for my own survival in those spaces designed for breaking.
Does this mean other people have not made meaningful existence and homes in those spaces? Absolutely not. People have subverted and made incredible meaning out of that space in ways that I respect and admire. My mother was able to make her home in Guguletu, a home to all the youth who were freedom fighters of the liberation movement in those turbulent times of the liberation struggle. Her home later was a sanctuary for a combination of youth who were being stigmatised by society for living with the HIV virus, and refugees from other African countries. This is how she made sense of that space. It’s one of the ways that the concept of home is extended beyond familial lines. Such is the level of complication and matter of personal perspective that is home. It also has a lot to do with exposure to alternative constructs of home. It has a lot to do with resignation and resilience of the human spirit in one direction or another.
From now on I will be living wherever it makes sense for my life’s journey and it is my intention to make a home, because I am also a home to myself, my partner and to our children. I also give due respect to the observation that maybe for their minor lives, that one of the manifestations of home for my children is wherever I am. It is my wish that this continues for the rest of our lives with nurturing and safe connotations. My sense of self needs to explore and make home out of multiple spaces. I am not apologetic for this truth about my soul’s desires. I seek it wholeheartedly.
The construct of home very much depends on our granting ourselves the licence to correct course when safety becomes a concern, or is severely compromised or violated in the places that we call home. Be it in the form of an intrusion, a betrayal, a discomfort, a shift in our needs, a growth in a different direction, etc. There is absolutely no place like home in its complexity. Home is as nomadic as it has always been. The things and people that make home what we need it to be may shift and we would do well in accepting this fact. We are required to question the boundaries of what home is, to always be negotiating and making meaning and reject ideas of home that are violent to us. Home is whatever and whoever honours, makes our souls come alive, restores and heals our wounds, offers a sanctuary and encourages a sense of wonder and a will to go on with the quest for self-actualisation, while enveloping us with a familiarity that says “I’ve been here” regardless of the number of prior encounters. For every place like that, there is also potential for a familiarity and entitlement that can be as equally damaging and hurtful. There is nothing like that betrayal, I can attest to that.
May we find home when we need it in some trusted spaces we can count on and may home sneak up on us in the most unexpected places and ways and offer its warm embrace when we need it the most. May we find home in a book, a corner table at a coffee shop in a foreign land, in a stranger who is weaved into our path to make an undeniably unique pattern, in a piece of furniture, in an aroma, in a sound, a landscape, a piece of art, an accent, a slice of bread, a slice of heaven. Home is illusive and familiar all at once.
Ukhona Ntsali Mlandu is a performance artist, curator, writer, arts administrator and a single, queer mother of two, living in Goshen village in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. One of her more recent projects is Makwande.republic, a retreat and a residency in her ancestral home in the Goshen village. ‘Makwande Republic’ is centred around giving space to the creative process and re-imagination of what ideas of productivity may look like and with a particular interest in supporting families in whatever format they present.
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