This year-end marks a half-way point in my life. I was born and raised in Durban (South Africa), and spent the first 18 years of my life there. After finishing High School, I made the move to Cape Town – to attend a university on the other side of the country -and have now spent 18 years here.
Stranger in a strange land
In the initial period after the move, I always felt I’d go back. Cape Town was never a permanent home for me – but rather a temporary stay until I could get back to the place that was always so familiar to me. In my first year, especially, I remember looking at all the “CA” number plates and feeling like this was foreign territory. I was a Durbanite, trapped – by my own decision – in a strange land.
Sure, the mountain was cool, and it was a beautiful city. But it was not home. It was not where my heart was.
The longing for home wasn’t helped by the explosive relationship I had with my older brother, who lived with me in that first year. He had a special talent for bringing the aggression out of me. He just didn’t know boundaries. And I – being a very private person – didn’t take kindly to that. And yet he didn’t seem to learn, so we’d have fight upon fight; the worst being when a neighbour threatened to call our parents and try to get us kicked out of the place we were staying.
But we had fun too. He was the only friend I had, and he helped me a lot – despite our volatile relationship.
Life changed after the first year, when my mother swapped places with him and things became more stable at home.
As the years passed, I reached an amazing personal turning point in my life, and my new quest cemented the feeling that I wouldn’t go back to Durban. Cape Town had become home. It was where I hoped my long-term future lay…yet a lack of success in this quest, along with unstable employment options (internships and contract work), meant that I was never sure of where I would end up.
The escalating crime in Durban, and an apparently declining job market there, meant that it was unlikely I’d go back. At one point, when I was particularly stagnant in both my marriage and employment quests, I was being pushed to move to London for a while. It was a prospect which I hated – since I see London as cool to visit, but definitely not to live. But I accepted it as a real possibility, given my lack of success in Cape Town.
A new life
That all changed, though, in 2007…the year that my life took on a new phase. After years of struggling, marriage came, followed by my first permanent job a few months later. (Yes – I was a ‘man of leisure’ when I first got married 😉 )
And so I finally became a grown-up, after many years of fighting it. I became independent from my parents, moved into my own place, and the spiral of adult life events clicked into place. Fatherhood, a new home, Hajj, another child, then another job.
I sit here now – 18 years after I arrived in Cape Town – as a completely different person. And though I don’t dwell much on my Durban life anymore, I allowed myself to slip into nostalgia mode a few weeks back – with “Memories of a past life” (which, incidentally, is an extremely rare bout of poetry given that I feel like I’ve lost almost all my creativity nowadays).
Back to my roots
Just after writing that, I got an unexpected opportunity to go back to Durban for a few days. Unlike previous visits – when I was still single – this time I came with a whole troop.
It was not just one person anymore, but four. Accommodation was at a hotel – since there’s no family home in Durban anymore. But still, it was close enough to my old neighbourhood – so I got to be in familiar surroundings.
Instead of basking in memories, I spent time pointing out places of personal history to my oldest daughter. I would have loved to take her around many more places, but our visit was far too short.
It was beautiful, though, spending time with people I’d known my whole life. I got to see my parents reminiscing with faces from the past; a sort of comfortable-ness that I don’t see in them much nowadays. I think it’s so comforting to be around people that have been so close to you for decades as you grew from childhood to adulthood…before old age arrived.
They may not have shared the last 10 or 20 years of your life, but the bond you had will always be there. And it’s amazing to rekindle that, now that people’s lives have moved on so far from the early days. And, of course, it’s nice to connect the next generation (my kids) with the past.
Another observation was that Durban’s obsession with food seems to have mushroomed. Maybe I became immune to it while I was there, or maybe the number of restaurants literally has grown. But it was striking, to say that least.
What saddened me, though, was the utter decay in the city centre. It’s like the local government, businesses, and people – have just left the CBD to die. A city which was so vibrant and majestic (to me, at least) in my childhood…is now so dirty and run-down…buildings so archaic. No maintenance, it seems, because nobody seems to think it’s worth putting money and effort into restoring the place. This despite the fact that Durban is supposed to be hosting a major sporting event soon (The Commonwealth Games).
The hills, though, are still there. I never realised how many hills there are in Durban until now. And green. Just green everywhere. From the sugar cane fields to grassy patches and parks. It’s a stark contrast from the dry, drought-hit Cape province I now call home.
And so after that brief visit, it was back to Cape Town. Back home. To a life so far from history. So far from what once was. But this is reality: life moves on, and things will never stay the same as what they were.
Nor should it. Because we all need to grow, for a stagnant life has dangerous consequences.
But although the times and places change, the ultimate destination remains the same. We’re all headed for the Hereafter, so these temporary phases of our lives – no matter how long they may last – must never delude us into thinking that we’re here forever. We have purpose in each stage we pass through, and the challenge is to get through these years – adapting and adjusting to the changes – while keeping our eye on the prize.
So, whether I’ll remain in Cape Town another 18 years – or 36 years – Allah alone knows. But the reality is that it doesn’t matter where I am. What matters is how I am. And that is what will determine my real, permanent home.
Image: Mashup of Cape Town and Durban pictures using pho.to's double exposure effect.