Longing to Belong

October 26, 2023
4 min

As we left the UK in summer 2006, the debate was raging: can you be Muslim and British?’ Now as we enjoy the South African summer, I was both amused and disappointed to find we are part of another national debate: ‘can you be white and African?’

Well, three-year old Amaani certainly thinks you can: ‘I am an African’ she announces proudly, echoing the words of President Thabo Mbeki. But unlike him, she added modestly: ‘And I am beautiful and a good cooker’. Also I suspect unlike him, Amaani has successfully smothered one of her little black African friends completely head-to-toe with suncream, perhaps questioning the ‘white and African’ theory a little too literally.

Asim has developed a clear South African accent, with most sentences ending with ‘hey?’ and running around barefoot with his friends in the dusty school playground. Safiyya can now sing the different verses of the National Anthem in the appropriate balance of passable Zulu, Sethotho, Afrikaans and English. But Asim and Safiyya are adamant they are still English: ‘I was born there’, says Asim, logically. Safiyya comments wistfully, aiming to tug at the heart strings of anyone listening: ‘All my life as a child was there and all my family and friends are still there’.

But fortunately Safiyya’s words are not strictly true. The ‘long hours’ office culture of the UK does not seem to have hit here yet, so at least the children get to see more of their father, who in turn is now much more aware of three little people wandering around his house. And the children are starting to make a variety of friends, of assorted racial and religious backgrounds. In the UK, Safiyya used to always have to answer the question: ‘Can you be white and Muslim?’ since some of her friends were initially convinced you couldn’t be. ‘You don’t speak Urdu’ explained various children independently, whether of Pakistani or English origin. ‘You’re not brown’ was another equally convincing argument. Both statements happened to be true but rather irrelevant. And the question has never arisen here.

Whatever their racial identity, the children are finding it easy to have a firm religious identity here. Teachers and parents alike have checked to see if there are any special dietary needs relating to being Muslim – and have told me they are slightly perplexed when Asim methodically inspects any packet of sweets he is given to check there is no pork inside. All three have now joined a relaxed and outward-looking madrassa (Muslim supplementary school) for a couple of sessions a week, where they can learn and talk about God’s creation and question with like-minded children – and due to the wonderful weather, can take frequent breaks outdoors to mess around in the sunshine.

Last weekend we were invited by a group of Muslims to an upmarket yet halal branch of Spur, a national steakhouse chain and according to their branding: ’the official restaurant of the South African family’. The whole restaurant was alcohol-free, a fact which would have sent profits plummeting back in the UK - and also had a prayer room, although the children were understandably more excited by the play area. The kids soon came back to me though when I was brought an ice-cream complete with sparkler and was surrounded by around a dozen African waiters, singing some kind of jazzy ‘happy birthday’ song. It wasn’t my birthday, the people I was with just thought it would be funny! But Asim, despite rapidly polishing off most of the ice-cream before anyone else could get in there, was perturbed. He had worked out the ages we were all expected to be on our permanent return to England, and now I had just aged another year, so fast. ‘Are going back to England soon?’ he asked.

Like many immigrants, Asim is always planning his return ‘home’. And like many immigrants, I am planning to take the children out of school for a bit in the meantime to see their extended family and friends in the UK. Perhaps it is because we are all ‘white’ and also classified as ‘expats’ that we can get away with it! But wherever we take them, I know that their hearts right now are firmly in Africa – personally I think it is the weather - and they can all happily sing the last verse of the National Anthem at the top of their voices in a valiant attempt at unison:
‘Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom,
In South Africa our land’.

At the moment the national answer to the African debate seems to be: ‘if you want to be considered African, then you are’. So today our kids confidently think of themselves as Muslim and British and African and white, but this may well change a little if they stay out in the sun much longer.