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[OPINION] It’s not who you are, it’s how you are

An important lesson shared at a recent family reunion is that it’s not who you are that’s important, but rather it’s how you are.

I married into the family but am held as part of it. It was an awakening and welcome to learn that my city slicker children have very deep roots in the Karoo. Their paternal ancestors are buried in a dusty, bedraggled cemetery in a poverty-stricken town. The family from all over South Africa was invited to meet in the town and the newly replaced and repaired tombstones were unveiled by a representative from the families of each sibling. These lives and stories date back to 1854. Our children are the fifth generation. To fill in the pieces of their ancestry by elders in their family is a privilege our children were afforded.

As parents, we need to give our children roots, a living history and a full identity of who they are and where they came from. I left with a sense that all the weak links in their family chain are now being repaired and shone up.
I was at a heritage celebration recently where a prominent Khoi chief pronounced that all of us have Khoi heritage, everyone. I felt a bit of relief as I always believed I didn’t, but then I had a lot of questions which were not easy to answer.

I am from one of those families who know more about their Indian and English heritage than they do about their African heritage. I attended my own family reunion three years ago and was amazed to see how many Joshuas filled up that function room. Everywhere I looked I saw somebody who looked familiar. There were multitudes of flipcharts of family trees placed at the table of various families from the top of that tree. Some of our family definitely fell from that tree, but we are still family and we form part of a rich tapestry no matter which side of the tree we fell. There are accurate dates of arrival in Africa from St Helena Island. A speaker flew in from St Helena to fill us in on our ancestry. It was fascinating and overwhelming. Some Joshuas and family homes still exist on the Island. An exploration is on my bucket list.

Fortuitously, the reunion happened the day after we buried our mom. My three sisters and I joked that we were now ‘fourphans’. Prioritising the family reunion in spite of our enormous loss is one of the best honours we could have shown our parents. The sense of belonging looking at our own lineage, seeing all our names there, together with our parents, our spouses, our mother and her parents. It was incredible to make so many connections, to see men who looked like my grandfather’s family, ladies who looked like my aunts, the fancy family, the not-so-fancy family, and the family members who had formed the original circle to create this history. They were connected lovingly and willingly, because of a yearning to belong to a big picture.

I heard gasps as people connected their dots and aunty dots with tales that were always told in their families and now they got confirmation. A truly magnificent start to filling in missing pieces of our own heritage and completing our identity as African families established on this continent generations before.

Of course, there were also lots of whispered stories. That is the place my curiosity is always peaked and where my interest lies. I believe we find our true relatives in those spaces of sorrow, pain, injustice, resentment, jealousies, worry and doubt. We need to go there and clean up wounds which have passed on from generations and then new generations lose their identity in the estrangement of their extended families.

Sadly, the fact that we all think our family and its problems and successes are unique makes us all the same. Read again. A perfect family is only perfect for me when they can accept how it was, how it is and be willing to do better. Be willing to forgive the past, even if they don’t accept it. Put it in the past where it belongs. Be willing to hear any versions of a legend that has passed on through generations. These wounds can be healed if we acknowledge they exist.

Most families have juicy secrets which sometimes speak from the grave. Then and now there are family matters that are swept under the carpet. Funerals and weddings are usually the tables at which these stories get shared. The relationship breakdowns, the marital breakdowns, the deaths, the fights about religion or God or the abandonment of acceptable family values, work ethic or not throwing away the family name through reckless behaviour, these are the realities many families deal with, or not. The uncle who drank too much or abused his wife, the aunty who loved shopping without a budget and then got her family into debt or the alcoholic granny, these are people first.

All these stories matter, they inform who we are. We often love telling our tales of the successes in our families. People liberally share all the best marketing for their family: the never-before-done by any other human being, who married up, where they live and how educated or wealthy they are. So what? Most people don’t care. What you do in adversity as a family is often a lot more worthy of conversation.

It is that time of my life where my identity is important because I have children. I don’t want them to enquire about their heritage after I am gone. I want us all engaged now.

Irrespective of how fancy, famous, infamous, good or bad your family is, none of the credit or blame is due to you. How you are in the world is always important. How you own your identity matters. Where you connect with people will show in the quality of your friendships and your friends. Do you influence them by leading by your own example, or do you hang onto the coat tails of your family?

Shame and secrets and lies and betrayal are as much part of all families as the good news stories. As a family, it is necessary to cover all the ground. None of us is responsible for what our family did or did not do a century or an hour ago, unless we were directly involved.

In many coloured families, we are familiar with those family members who reclassified themselves as white during apartheid. That was their prerogative. Some members of the same family could pass for black African. Generally, rejection is common in both these situations. The black family were marginalised and the white family isolated themselves from their coloured relatives. Surely this is a mess worth pursuing without losing the message.

We do future generations and the history of our country a massive disservice by hiding facts and failings in our families. Most of us have such powerful stories of overcoming adversity, poverty, absence of educational opportunities, absence of personal power, human rights and an unpredictable future.

After that powerful family reunion weekend, I am determined that my children have an even better understanding of their heritage and a secure, unmoved acceptance of their entire identity. After all, the main lesson was it is not who you are. It is how you are in the world. No money, status, education, social ranking or titles should support you in the world. Neither should the lack of all those fillers. You do you and the world will accept you as you are, and as you aren’t.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn

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