It really was a whole world away. In the small Catholic church outside the town of Derrylin in Northern Ireland, the mourners were wrapped up well against the icy winter outside.
In my sister’s lounge in Randburg, watching via a webcam in the church, I was wearing slops and shorts. Perhaps I should have dressed up for the funeral 10 000km away – but with a twisted ankle, I was struggling to get shoes on. And it was a hot afternoon in Africa …
In any event, my aunt Bridget, whose final journey we were witnessing, wouldn’t have minded. She was never one to stand on ceremony … and she loved her brother Donal’s kids even though we were born and grew up in Africa and only saw her for the first time when we were adults. And she was proud of her grand-nieces and nephew, who were the first Seerys to get university degrees.
Bridget never even finished school: there was not enough money. So, she, her sister Veronica and their brother John worked from before dawn to after dusk on the small Seery farm. My father was forced to go to London to look for work before the war and all the time he was away – in the Royal Air Force in the war; in South Africa and then in the South African Air Force during the Korean War; and later raising a family in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) – he sent money home to keep his siblings going.
So, my sister and I have not come from privilege or been colonialists – the opposite, in fact, given that Ireland was the first place colonised by the English. Monday 12 4 December 2017 And, looking at my cousins and Bridget’s friends in the church, I wondered if I could really call myself Irish. I look like them but I still find it almost impossible to translate that Northern Irish accent and I find the Emerald Isle, with its perpetual bad weather (how do you know its summer in Ireland? – the rain’s warmer), not the sort of place where I could live.
Then there are the narrow roads, which seem to fit perfectly with the narrow minds of people who’ve lived for generations in the same place. Not everyone in Ireland, or in Europe, is like that, of course … but I don’t consider myself to be one of them.
The other day I was called a “Westerner” – whatever that is supposed to mean. My response: I was born in Africa, just as you were and I have as much right to be here as you. The race fundamentalists on both sides of the pigment scale – those in Europe who want to stop immigrants and expel the people already there in the name of keeping their countries “pure” and the African nationalists who want to send all whites back to Europe to somehow right the wrongs of colonialism – scare the daylights out of me.
The world is changing, borders are not the constraining fences they once were and technology is bringing all of us closer together. Racism – from all sides – is what threatens to drag us back into darkness and away from the light of progress. If we are to leave a better world to our children and grandchildren, then we must recognise this and we must change …