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Growing up biracial in South Africa

What is “race”? I was not aware of it growing up. Then I started school. “Well your dad is Ugandan so that makes you Ugandan.” “Doesn’t that make you coloured?” “You kind of look more Indian.” And so I began to define myself in opposition to others.

My name is Brian, in 1990 I was born to a South African Indian mother and a Ugandan father in Mthatha, a small city located in the hilly region of what is still often referred to as the Transkei in the heart of the Eastern Cape.

This is my home.

Now the former Transkei has been home to a fairly large, diverse and reasonably well integrated immigrant community for several decades. Many internationals in the area, including my father, were employed by what was then called the University of Transkei. It was there that the unlikely union of my parents began, in the midst of turbulent race relations across South Africa in what was a small town with entire neighbourhoods filled with academics from Kenya, Poland, Uganda, India and many more. Sounds romantic doesn’t it?

In my early years I was very fortunate to be surrounded by several members of my father’s side of the family from Kenya and Uganda. So much of my earliest memories are of thoughts and experiences I shared with them. They were all older than me and I looked up to them immensely.

Most of my mother’s side of the family lived in Durban and while we did not see each other often, I felt a strong connection to them whenever we did. Regular visits from my grandmother often included every Indian dish she could fit into her luggage that would survive the 6-hour bus trip on our roads. I looked forward to those sweet meats and curries and strange deserts packed meticulously in her cases. I remember she always used to ask if we ate “hot” food; this confused me because my parents cooked curries regularly and I didn’t think anything of it. So I answered that same question – year after year. In the early years it did not occur to me in any sort of profound way that I was biracial. Or that it was unusual, it simply was. I liked fried green bananas from Uganda in the summer and I loved the jalebi in the spring time from Grandmother’s visits. That was my experience of my heritage, through our conversations, through shared meals and through the stories of the old days in far away lands. I assumed this is how it was for everyone. In some ways I was right. But in painful ways I was very wrong.

This is my story (Part 1) (Image 1)

What is “race”?

As I grew older I started to become aware of this thing called “race”. It was something quite unfamiliar in my house; we didn’t speak about people this way. When the time came to begin navigating school this started to become an important thing. “What are you?” “Well your dad is Ugandan so that makes you Ugandan.” “Doesn’t that make you coloured?” “You kind of look more Indian.” If I’m to be completely honest, I was very uncomfortable about all this. I hated these questions. I am ashamed to admit that at several moments, particularly in Primary school, I lied about my heritage in the hope that I would gain the elusive acceptance with my Indian classmates. I wanted to be like them. They had a special regard for their culture. I desperately wanted to be a part of it and feel like I belonged. But I could not. At the end of the day, I was not Indian enough.

Family holidays *Ugh*

My parents are workaholics, so when it came to the end of the year they were adamant that we go on holiday to explore the country and get away from it all. They love nature. I hated these trips. We always went to beautiful but obscure parts of the country, and while I was always grateful to be there I dreaded going outside. Walking around town with my entire family made me very self-conscious about how other people where looking at us. I was and I still am ashamed about how I felt about this. I know I shouldn’t have cared but I couldn’t ignore how different we looked to the other families. We all looked so different from one another. I felt somehow embarrassed about what I am, very sensitive to how other people would treat us, increasingly bitter. I regret feeling like this on those trips; it was an amazing opportunity to see the country but no matter where we went I couldn’t bring myself to care about what the landscapes looked like or what the wildlife was up to…

Me with my family
Me with my family

I was lucky enough to gain entry into the University of Cape Town after high school. I was incredibly excited to head off to the big city. This was a chance to redefine myself. I was finally free. Or so I thought. Within minutes of arriving at the residence where I was to spend my first two years I was faced with that painstaking moment where you need to decide where you’re going to sit in the cafeteria. I looked across the hall it may as well have been colour coded. White students sat with white students, black students with black students. And, well, you get the idea. Luckily I spotted a senior of mine from high school sitting at a fairly mixed table and I chose my seat. It took me a very long time before I developed the confidence to break the barriers that existed in my own mind and decide to sit at other tables. I really wish I had been braver sooner.

Towards the end of my first year… my father had arranged for us to visit Uganda. This was it, I thought. This would be the moment where I could find out where I belonged… Where I would feel some kind of spiritual connection to my fatherland and magically everything would make sense once and for all…

Now unfortunately my trip didn’t really work out that way. But that my friend, is another story.

Until we meet again.

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