Cattle graze at a farm in Delmas, in Mpumalanga province, South Africa.
August is a harsh month in South Africa. It is the heart of winter. With its sunlit days and freezing nights, it is the mirror of this country of great contrasts and equally great syntheses. A large part of the interior lies on a high plateau, over which a high pressure weather system settles in the winter, keeping the skies clear. There are no clouds and the atmosphere is thin; in the day, the power of the sun gets through unfiltered, as does the cold at night.
August in South Africa, unlike the languid month in Europe, is a month of work after the short school winter break. Among children, whose academic year ends in December, there is a strong sense that this is the final stretch before the Christmas and New Year holidays, before the exams that will lead them to the next class or to the rest of their life. I, too, will be returning to my school these days, 40 years after the last August that I was there, in Pretoria. For the first time in the company of my children, I will return to the countries, cities and places where I grew up.
Life’s currents move in mysterious ways. I am taking my wife and children (all of them born in Greece) to Africa in the same year that my father, who was born in Egypt, died in Greece. Maybe I could not return earlier because, while he lived, I did not want him to miss us while we were gone, or to feel sad that he and my mother could not join us. Born in the once thriving Greek community in Egypt, my father loved South Africa and Mozambique, for accepting him, for the opportunities they had given him. I feel that gratitude, too. Maybe I delayed my return because I wanted my children to grow up first, to finish school. Maybe the truth lies in my difficulty in bringing together my separate parts, parts shaped by different experiences in South Africa, in Mozambique, in Greece. In each country, in each stage of my life, I gave myself fully to whatever I was doing, to those whom I was with, without trying to yoke together these different lives. Aside from the visits of relatives and some friends, in the 35 years that I have lived in Greece my contacts with Africa were minimal. I had devoted myself to Greece – drawing on all my energy to raise my family, to work, to make friends, to share the concerns and the joys given me by this country.
From the time I got to know the village on Crete in which my mother was born, I knew that I wanted to live, to work, to die in Greece. I wanted the children that I would have to know what it meant to have roots, to know their land, to be members of a community with a strong history and strong bonds. When, at the age of 22, I decided to live in Greece, I left behind my parents, relatives, friends, networks, experiences and the discernible lines of a future in order to start from scratch in another country. I had the great fortune to be embraced with love by many, to enjoy much support. Perhaps my greatest difficulty was the sense that I did not know the language to any great depth. I did not know the codes shared by people who had grown up together, who went to the same school, who had been shaped by the language and who, in turn, had affected it with their experiences, obsessions and preferences. In Africa, when I went to nursery school I did not know English; in Greece, the language I knew was based mainly on my studies of Ancient Greek at university. So, as in my childhood in Africa, I listened and learned, I did not speak much.
But it was not only the pull of Greece that brought me here. In South Africa I struggled with the fact that I was a member of a minority that lived better than the majority. I did not feel “different” only because my black hair and my difficult surname had set me apart from my mostly blond schoolmates in primary school, at high school and university; I also felt anxiety and guilt because I was white on a continent of black people. Today this may sound simplistic, perhaps even insincere, but at 22 I wanted to feel that I belonged somewhere where I would not feel guilt for my existence. In Crete, in the months and years that I spent with the old-timers who still remembered when the Turks were still there, with the people of my mother’s generation, with my cousins and friends, I found my roots. I felt free, I felt the pride of a nation that fought for and won its freedom. Today I understand that I should have done more to fight against apartheid, as many Greeks did, among them our family friend George Bizos. I did whatever I did, through writing mostly, but I knew that this would not be enough. And Greece was pulling me, as was my desire to feel that I belonged. In Greece I have felt this blessing at every moment. Whether at home or traveling, in every love and friendship, in every adventure, in my family, in every sorrow and frustration that we experience together or alone, I have felt it. It is so clear that we Greeks have so much in common that the endless divisions among us are made more tragic by the lack of a real cause. United we would achieve great things. But then we would be burdened with the responsibility of defending our achievements, we would not each have the freedom and the ambition to drink of life with such passion, to take all the opportunities that it offers, to be free to make the same mistakes for ourselves.
Why do I write this today? Why do I beg your indulgence with personal concerns? Because it is August. Because, in my own life’s August, it is the first time that I feel able to bring together inside me the tributaries of my life’s river. Because I am a tiny drop in the ocean of the Greek diaspora and I want to express my gratitude at my good fortune to have this life.