In times like these it is easy to forget how de-sensitized we all have become to violence, particularly violence done to Black and Brown bodies. Books like “I Want to Go Home Forever,” shake us out of our media headline stupor and demand that we ask ourselves what we can do to stop the pain.
“I Want to Go Home Forever,” is an edited collection of ethnographic interviews with migrants to South Africa’s Gauteng province and with the residents, activists, and leaders who receive them. Some migrants come from as near as KZN and others as far as Pakistan. What they share is a geographical space that has come to symbolize dreams of great wealth and hopes against terrible odds. Because some of the interviewers were once my fellow colleagues at the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits, I am acutely aware of how difficult this text was to compile for those who are both scholars of migration and self-identified migrants themselves. It is also not lost on me how vulnerable the participants were in sharing their stories in such intimate detail. Few of us will ever get such a vivid picture as this of life as an undocumented person living on fringes of society in both the city where we live and the country where we’re from. This book is unique in the care taken and respect given to both sides of the page – writer and interviewee attempting to co-author new chapters in social history, considering ways to re-write happier endings, and penning new political possibilities.
The book opens with Nombuyiselo Ntlane’s heartbreaking loss. Her 14-year old son Siphiwe was killed by a Somali shopkeeper in 2015 and his death re-ignited a spate of violence against foreigners. Her words express the mourning of a mother, who not only lost a child, but who also feels that she lost her day in court. The shopkeeper plead guilty, but served no jail time. It is in the vacuous space of loss and anger, of lack of faith in the justice system and in her fellow man, that we hear from activists like Ntombi Theys in Alexandra and Lufuno Gogoro from Venda, who are trying to broker understanding, before they dare to broker peace. Readers hear about the systemic loss of land rights and ever dwindling opportunities for gainful employment that stoke animosity between South Africans and foreigners, as well as internal migrants from other regions of the country. The book offers readers an understanding of the misunderstanding, by showing how diverse and multi-dimensional questions of ownership and identity are in modern urban spaces.
I am sad to say that this book is a page-turner for all the wrong reasons. It is a narrative of trial and error. As much as Gauteng is poised to be a site of advancement, many people are unprepared for its realities. They are drawn into vulnerable lifestyles they never expected and they relive trauma they thought they left behind. For example, Esther Khumalo was a soccer-enthusiast born in Zimbabwe. She originally came to South Africa with her husband, but he later turned her over to a brothel to earn money for their family. We see Alphonse Nahimana who lost his entire family to the genocide in Rwanda and the refugees camps. But, it was in Johannesburg where he felt coerced by circumstance to play in the film Hotel Rwanda and to re-enact the traumas from the side of his aggressors.
Ultimately, the text is about a collection of stories that represent a series of painful choices – some given away, others stolen, many made with less than perfect information, and all with unforeseen consequences. As painful as it is, this is a book appropriate for a time like this, when we must all take stock of the accumulation of our own personal choices and decide if, as individuals and as communities, we are on the right side of history.