On home and belonging: what I learnt in Colombia last year

A clock in downtown frozen in time

I recently spent a year in Bogotá, Colombia — the longest period of time in the country of my birth since leaving 23 years ago. Being back in South Africa now, the country where I’ve spent most of my adult life, has reminded me that this journey of finding a place to call home is marred with all sorts of detours. In that process, we learn interesting things about the human experience and this year has given me lessons about language, social norms and memories amongst others. Here’s a take on the ones I think I have figured out:

  1. The stories we remember from childhood are often true

It was difficult to connect with the culture and the various norms of a society I deliberately worked to free myself from, such as very rigid class structures and an extreme culture of ‘who you know’. Engaging in this felt like a betrayal to the person I had become as a result of being exposed to different realities. As a child I felt inadequate and dreamt of living elsewhere, largely because that was the desire nurtured by our parents. At 40, it became clear that our parents did not encourage us to travel abroad and explore the world for purely adventurous reasons. Life was indeed easier and more open outside the national bounds -not only the physical ones but particularly those invisible to the naked eye.

2. Language, a tough relationships to rekindle

Even though I tried to reconnect with my mother tongue and even managed to score an infrequent column for a reputable online platform, I was not able to feel in my own skin when I spoke or wrote in Spanish. My ability to connect and appreciate the beauty of the language stopped with the books and articles. As I told someone recently it was similar to realising that despite the daily hours of training I spent on the tennis court in my teens, I was never going to make it to the big leagues. Indeed, as a result of the many years living and working in English speaking environments, I rarely used my mother tongue, but even after finding myself surrounded by it over the year, it was disquieting to feel limited in my ability to fully use it. I had spent so many years trying to feel comfortable in a second language, I did not realise the reverse process was unfolding with my mother tongue.

3. One never really ‘returns’

For the obvious reasons, such as people and places changing, returning is no more than a symbolic act. Memories are inaccurate as our human mind tends to edit the story in ways that make sense but can’t necessarily be traced back. That delicious desert I remembered from my childhood lacked not only nutrition, but flavour, and yet the yearning for having it one more time continues, until having it guarantees disappointment once again. The places that hold stories can’t be experienced again because the people who matter in the story are gone. It seems as though one is in a constant struggle to create new memories that simply pale in comparison with the romanticised version that our minds have kept in our inner hard drive. I felt that I simply could not get ‘unstuck’ from past memories and therefore found it hard to create fresh and new stories.

4. Home is where you feel useful.

In addition to having built my most meaningful memories and relationships, South Africa is where I became a functional, though far from perfect, member of society. When I arrived back two months ago, within 24 hours I already felt more useful than I did during the year I spent in Colombia. The last year was one of the toughest periods I have undergone as an adult. I struggled with an inner conflict between wanting to find my place in a society that my passport names as ‘my own’ but feeling that in fact, it wasn’t my society anymore.

I suspect the lessons will continue to emerge, especially as Covid shapes up our collective future. Looking back might be done through new filters and that year might become a source of more wisdom I am able to extract at the moment.

Today ‘back’ in Cape Town, I continue to process what the last year meant. It was a real treat to have the chance to spend time with family and get to know some of them for the first time. It was also a time to look inward and accept the adult person I have become –with all the inadequacies and all. It was also an invaluable opportunity to realise South Africa, for the time being anyway, is what feels like home. In just over a year things have changed, not all Covid related, and so I came back to a different and not-rosy reality, but it also feels a bit like I never left.

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.