Nikiwe Bikitsha wonders what she will miss about South Africa as she prepares to embark on a 10-month fellowship in the United States.
The French writer Marcel Proust used to say “n’allez pas trop vite” – do not go too fast. Take the time to observe and reflect on moments, feelings, thoughts and your surroundings; take it all in ... slowly. Only when you are able to do this, Proust argued, would you be able to see and digest life meaningfully. That is why he was able to write in such ponderous and voluminous detail in his classic tome In Search of Lost Time.
Time has a way of sneaking up on you when you are going too fast. I have just two weeks left in South Africa before a 10-month fellowship in the United States. I have been wondering what I will miss most about home.
It has dawned on me that while I am on this jaunt the only time I will be able to speak my home language, isiXhosa, is when I call or skype home. Otherwise I will communicate in no language other than English. The other Hubert Humphrey fellows are from West Africa, North Africa and Europe, so the chances of them knowing what I mean when I exclaim “thiza!” are slim.
It makes me feel bereft and, as I count down towards departure, I take every opportunity to speak isiXhosa, to roll out the words and spit out the clicks with great gusto.
For example, when I am annoyed or cross, I say “mnxim!” with much more force than the actual object of my annoyance may warrant.
A few years ago, while on holiday in Europe, I was starting to feel a little homesick – again, that restlessness that comes from a deep yearning to converse in my mother tongue. To be sure, I was having a blast and I was not going too fast. I had taken in the awesome sights of Rome’s Colosseum and been left breathless by Michelangelo’s exquisite statue of David in Florence.
Not too fast
As I was walking through a leather goods market on a crisp autumn morning, I was startled to hear someone yell my name. She pronounced it with such acuity that she could only be an isiXhosa-speaker. It was a young woman who had recognised me from television. She was studying art in Florence. I was amazed. We both recognised the longing to speak in our language and prattled on at length about her brave adventure. The encounter sustained me for the rest of my stay.
My poor family. They, too, are paying the price of my staring and taking everything in as I try to go, but not too fast. I float around, peering at them from every angle so that I can imprint on my mind’s eye every facial expression and chortle. I need to be able to tap into these memories when my distant adventures start weighing on me.
Even the chilly weather has found favour with me. I walk out in the morning just to feel the icy breeze against my face – so I can remember what winter feels and looks like.
Arizona, where I am headed, is one of the hottest places in the US and has no distinct cold season, although it does get colder when you head towards the Grand Canyon.
I have mixed feelings about whether I will miss the hurly-burly of political life in South Africa. The long, long road to Mangaung is filled with enough potholes to make the trip there bumpy for everyone. It is a politics of which I have grown very tired. Talk of slates, tenders, cash for votes and, in some cases, even allegations of political assassination has left me morose and cynical. I am desperate for a reprieve from these machinations.
I will, however, miss interviews with the likes of ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, whose first response to every question I asked began with the words: “No, no ...” For example, it might go like this:
Nikiwe: Is the sky blue?
Mantashe: No, no ...
And then he would proceed to confirm that the sky was perhaps not blue but indigo, in an attempt to deflect you from the question you had asked.
I will not be divorced from politics altogether. I will be keeping a close eye on the rough-and-tumble of the US presidential election race in which Barack Obama will be trying to secure a second term. He is in a bitter struggle against Republican Mitt Romney, in my view a man with far too much jet-black hair at his age to be taken seriously. Nonetheless, it will be a fascinating race to watch and report on.
Nikiwe Bikitsha will be back on these pages later this year, writing an occasional column from the United States