I vividly remember pink tights, little pink ballet slippers and a black leotard. I was a five-year old ballerina. I loved pointing my toes, and doing plies as I participated in a concert for the families. I’m not sure why but I stopped going to ballet class when I started “big” school.
I am a lucky person because I have two homes!
Now some of you may know that I was born in Mozambique. My family left sometime during the 70’s to settle in South Africa. Because of the civil war that raged for another twenty or so years, I only returned to Mozambique, on holiday, 20 years after I left. It was a road trip and when I crossed the border into Mozambique I felt a mixed bag of feelings of longing, nostalgia and a sense of coming home. Mozambique is my soul home.
Sometime in the 80’s I became a South African citizen, the country that I feel a deep sense of belonging, the roots deep. In 2001 Che and I travelled to Portugal for my brother-in-law’s wedding. It was February, rainy and cold. Aside from the wedding it was a miserable time due to the weather. Born and bred in Africa where there is sun at least 300 days of the year, this European winter is foreign and doesn’t do it for me.
After two weeks I was glad to be on a plane back to South Africa again. As the plane touched down at OR Tambo airport in Joburg I started to cry because for the first time ever I felt that I was home, really home.
South Africa is my heart home, my real home, the home I will fight for, love and hate, cry and laugh over. It’s a tough home, one that teaches responsibility, that has no room for freeloaders or complainers. It takes real guts to live in South Africa. South Africa is filled with beautiful, tough and courageous people. It’s definitely not a place for sissies.
I have 6 official names. It is customary in Portuguese tradition to give a child a first and a second name. Then the maternal grandmother’s name and the maternal grandfather’s name. Followed by the paternal grandmother’s name, finished off with the paternal grandfather’s name which is also the father’s name. So no one is forgotten.
Modern Portuguese parents are dispensing with all of this and I agree. The “old” way makes it lengthy, and the poor child (and later adult) has to explain time and time again why they have so many names. And official forms, for example, never have enough space for all of them.
My first and second names are the same as my Mom’s friend who is also my Godmother. I was named after her. For many years I didn’t like my first name – Regina. It was too serious and grown up. It wasn’t a little girl’s name. I much preferred to be called by my nickname – Gigi.
When I was born, my uncle, who was a well-known writer, was a fan of the movie Gigi with Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier, and decided that would be a good name for the first grandchild of the family. He also wrote a song of the same name and dedicated it to me, which was sung by a famous songstress of the time in Mozambique, Natercia Barreto. I don’t have a copy of this song, it was probably lost when our family fled from Mozambique. I’ve searched YouTube and even though there are songs by Natercia Barreto, Gigi is not there. I have doubted its existence, although some relatives do say it exists. When I find a copy I will most certainly blog about it :-)!
So the name Gigi stuck and I’m only known as Regina academically and professionally.
The name Gigi has also been the source of many jokes – “Ha ha, my dog’s name is also Gigi!”
When I got married the feminist in me decided not to take my husband’s name – I would then have 7 names! I had to write a letter to the government asking that the population register be changed to my unmarried surname, because in South Africa (at the time) it was assumed that a wife would take her husband’s name, without the common courtesy of asking or confirming! You can imagine how this went down well with me!
When I registered my marriage in Portugal (many Portuguese people are registered in the country of domicile and the country of ancestry), the government there asked me how I wanted to be known – so no assumptions were made! I was most pleasantly surprised that my individuality and dignity was considered.
Regina is Latin for “queen”. It is pronounced “ruh-JEE-nuh” NOT “ruh-JY-nuh”. My high school principal used to call me “ruh-JY-nuh”. No matter how many times I told her the correct pronunciation, she continued pronouncing it incorrectly – leaving me feeling mortifyingly embarrassed time and time again.
I have been called many variants of my name – Reg, Reggy, Reginald (I went to an all girls school and we all had male versions of our names) – and have grown to love the uniqueness of my name…Regina.
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The then present
Kneeling on the back seat of the taxi, I looked at the diminishing form of my grandmother, weeping on the hot concrete pavement. She was staying behind. Not coming with us.
Framed by the rectangular back window of the taxi, I watched my grandmother becoming smaller and smaller. She disappeared as the taxi rounded the corner and it was then that her memory started to become bigger and bigger in my heart. That’s all I had left of her. She became larger than life – the one whose cool touch would no longer soothe my fevered brow, whose reassuring voice would no longer tell me real bedtime stories from her life, who would no longer teach me to sew or crochet, and who would never again pick me up when I fell on the concrete pavement in front of our house.
The rest of that day was a blur, me a bit player, following and doing what I was told. Arriving at the airport, I remember white gloved security officials searching through our bags before allowing us to pass through to the boarding area. I remembering feeling afraid of not being allowed to pass through, of not being able to join my Dad waiting for us in a strange land, of being left behind. We were on our way to a new country, a new home, a new language, new friends, new everything.
Plucked from everything familiar, I knew anxiety and fear for the first time in my life. I spent the entire flight being sick. Arriving on the other side, my Dad was the first face I saw when we came out the sliding doors to the waiting area. He’d positioned himself right at the front, and I remember his gentle relieved smile full of love as he saw us for the first time in many weeks.
The then past
I should have suspected something was afoot when my grandmother had asked me, a few weeks before, how I would feel about moving to a new country.
“I don’t want to go” I remember saying, “English has a different alphabet, how am I going to learn?”
I don’t remember much more about that conversation. I don’t remember the process of packing in my house. I don’t remember saying goodbye to my neighbours and friends. I don’t remember saying goodbye to my nanny since birth, Eliza, or our cook, Armando, who used to make special dishes for me, lightly spiced, so that I would gradually get used to eating hot food. I don’t even remember saying goodbye to my uncle and my aunt and my great-grandmother. All I remember is my grandmother making new dresses, for me and my sister, in her little sewing room under the stairs. The room I loved to hide in, escape from homework, to spend time watching her making beautiful clothes.
The then future
Even though I was with my Mom, Dad, sister and brother in the new country, I later came to realise that overriding the fear and anxiety on that day, the 25th October 1974, was a sense of abandonment. Even though I had moved forward to a new life, I had left a part of me behind, in the land of my birth. I had left a part of me behind in that house in front of the hospital, in the little sewing room under the stairs, on the concrete pavements where I had played hopscotch and skipped with my friends. The large extended and close-knit family of my initial years was gone, involuntarily split forever on that day.
To my 9 year old mind that was as bad as it got. Trying to make sense of that single defining moment, for decades I marked the day in my mind – it became a count-up to the number of years spent in my adopted country and the number of years apart from my grandmother. I stopped counting in the year that she died – 2008.
The now futureThe story narrated above was not unique. It played out in many families at the time in the land of my birth. It is still being played out, as you’re reading this, in countries and families too many to count without feeling a sense of desolation.
And as I often relive the memories of my Grandmother and of the country of my birth, I am reminded of something Marcel Proust, author of the French novel “À la recherche du temps perdu” (“In Search of Lost Time“) said:
In the midst of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer! - Marcel Proust