Looking back in order to go forward

This weekend I felt as if I had finally landed. A medley of emotions, which took me from missing Cape Town very sorely one evening to becoming overly excited about the possibility of turning the land where we are living into a retreat venue to help heal the problems of the world.

I suspect such mental swings are part and parcel of this process of making a home in a new country –which just so happens to be my birthplace; but I also think it had something to do with being faced with my past and my future within an almost uncomfortable proximity. Between seeing the nearly 40-year-old women with whom I went to kindergarten, to hosting my little niece and nephew and witnessing how they, so effortlessly, inhabit the world, the weekend felt like having a 360 degree view of my life in this country.

On Friday, I joined a group of fascinating people. We had all been students of a catholic school in Chia, a town nearby where I lived in the 1980s. I had not seen any of them for more than 25 years and though the same early-childhood memories united us, we were clearly all adults with stories, anxieties, successes and tragedies of our own.

Nevertheless, and despite our vastly different experiences in the past two decades, I realised we were all very similar. Some had children, some didn’t, some still lived with their parents, some had widowed; it was a true mix of lives but as we sat there we all had the same queries about the world, about being fulfilled at work and personally, as well the future of the place where we live.

I was quickly transported to my school days. I remembered the daily 8-km trip to school with Doña Rosita, the friendly neighbour to whom my mother entrusted my sister and I every morning; until one day I decided I was old enough to get into a mini bus taxi and thus impress my mother by making my way back on my own. I was 8 years old. My mother was not only unimpressed, she was livid and proceeded to ground me for weeks. There was no point in reminding my mother that my classmate Alejandra who travelled the same distanced did it all the time. She was street-smart my mother replied. The implication was that because of her upbringing she had no choice but to travel alone. Something I didn’t “have to do” –no matter how brave and independent I deemed it to be at that age.

This reminded me of the class system that even in the low-middle class school I went to was well at play. When we finished primary school we had to choose between an ‘academic’ and a ‘commercial’ (or vocational) high school curriculum. The logic was that those who paid less would likely become secretaries and the rest might aspire to become something else. I can’t recall the difference in the actual course work, except that those in the commercial line typed really well –a skill that would matter a great deal to survive in today’s world. Be that as it may, it was apparent that even at that age and within that context we were taught to see our counterparts in the light of social class. In fact I remember learning to feel superior because my parents could afford signing us up for the academic lot. Little did I know that it was part of a class system that was bigger and more perverse than any of us could understand at 10 years old.

Then there were the memories of being a student in a religious school led by nuns; most of them extremely nice, but in general working to support an environment which suppressed anything that contradicted the Catholic Church.

My mind took me back to history class. I must have been 12 years old when we were studying the Asian sub-continent. I remember raising my hand and expressing profound fascination that in India people worshiped cows and prayed to a variety of Hindu gods and that if we had been raised in that environment we would be doing the same thing. The teacher paused and while I waited to be congratulated for sharing something I had read in my own time, she was preparing the most loathsome reproach. She proceeded to humiliate me in public by saying one must be stupid to believe adoring cows was sensible; that I should not forget Jesus Christ was the only answer and we must be grateful that we knew the truth. I was devastated but it also became evident that I wasn’t being taught the whole truth.

In effect, my parents knew that and there were many dinners at home during which they would try to ‘un-teach’ us some of the dogmatic catholic script we were fed in the classroom. My father would always emphasise the fact that there were many religions and prophets in the world and that all were worthy of our praise and admiration. And so I grew up to be an agnostic and eventually an atheist. Something I didn’t advertise widely on Friday of course. Religion is a strong cultural pillar in this country.

Indeed, religion was one of the topics we didn’t broach on Friday and neither did we talk about politics. Here as in any other place of the world, those are the subjects which are better left unspoken, lest the magic of a shared past vanish and turn into a combative present.

Twenty-four hours after dwelling on my past I was confronted with the future as I watched the two youngest little humans of my extended family (Emilio and Juliana) who, in many ways, represent the missing link to this place for me. As time passes and I reconnect with people and memories, I realise I am still stuck in a vision of Colombia in the 90s. Despite its ongoing challenges, contradictions, and the fact that social class remains a marked divider, the truth is that a lot has changed and my generation might have less in common with those who are growing up today than I tend to believe.

Indeed, I often find myself wondering how young people think and experience class, religion, race, and their outlook on this country more broadly, but I have little if any contact with them. Though if Emilio and Juliana are anything to go by, I am left with the promise that new generations are fearless and bold, funny and curious. It might be that kids are just like that no matter where they grow up. Hopefully this country will continue to evolve in such a way that they don’t fall prey to the inhibitions, hang-ups and narratives from which I am still struggling to become free.

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Marcela Guerrero Casas

I am passionate about cities, public space & community engagement. Born in Colombia, I have spent my adult life in the US & South Africa. Cape Town is home.