By: J.D. Mechelke
As commanded by our week’s community leader Amanda, we were all wearing our PJ’s. I had this yellow and hole filled shirt, sporting a “Life is Good” logo and the phrase, “Remember where you came from.” The smell of pizza permeated the room. It was pretty good except for the vegan pizza, which tasted like old cigarettes (God bless Emily for her ethical decisions). We had just gotten back from our Urban Homestay. It was good to be together. We had become a family of sorts. The seven of us sprawled in a circle across the living room floor along with Attila, our mother hen. Amanda had shuffled a deck of cards and spread them out in between all of us. I picked up the first card, not really understanding what the heck was going on. I laid my card out in front of everyone; an ace. Amanda picked up her notebook and found the question associa ted with the ace: “What fulfills you the most in life currently?” While I’m definitely one of those people who likes to speak before thinking, this time I really had no idea what to say.
The day before, my host brother Donovan drove his siblings and I to a farm outside of Windhoek. It was hilly like South Dakota combined with the dryness of New Mexico. There was a big army tent set up across from this towering tree. It reminded me of all the trees mentioned in Genesis: the places where death and life happened, an orienting place, a place of reunion. Under this tree was where the people in my host parents’ generation cooked food all day long. The farm was, for today, the setting of a first of its kind family reunion. The matriarch of the family hadn’t yet seen all of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in one place. So for her 72nd birthday, she wanted a family reunion.
At first I was very conscious of difference. I was the only white guy around, the only one with a full beard, the only one whose first language was English, and the only one who was comfortable burping and farting in front of old people. It was about 10 in the morning when the assembly of young and old clustered under the old army tent. Great-grandma sat on the long side of the tent in the very middle. Everyone found a seat in a semi-circleish thing around her. My host-mom grabbed me. She had me sit next to her so she could translate form Afrikaans into English. Someone could’ve turned her speech into a cliche “trip down memory lane.” But even for a foreigner, it was easy to tell that this was something different. You could tell from the look in her eyes as she smiled down at her great-grandchildren. “Remember where you came from,” she said, like a mother spreading a blanket over her new-born.
She told us the story of her life. She had walked through a land ravaged by Apartheid. She had raised her children through Apartheid. She had seen the liberation struggle. She had seen the revolution. Though these statements are all true, Apartheid was not the main subject of her reflections: it was family.
The week away from the Center on Simpson Street was a week immersed in difference. But it was also, for me, a time to remember where I come from. The time spent accepting the hospitality of strangers reminded me less about difference and more about our universal desire to belong. I saw this struggle to belong with the little girl who’s complexion was lighter than the rest. This struggle was also evident with a gay man who was constantly denied respect and responsibility from family elders. And I saw this struggle with myself, not quite sure where I was supposed to stand.
It was Sunday evening when we got dropped off from our homestay’s. That night our unconventional family of seven plus mother hen was sprawled across the floor in a circle. Amanda read me the baffling question: “What fulfills you the most in life currently?” There’s a lot of ways I could’ve answered the question. And most of them would have been truthful. But being with each other, laying around in our pajamas and our communal breath of pizza smells, made me realize that I belong.