When thinking about the heart of this series, it is about the moving parts of belonging. It is not a neat, easy-to-digest package of experiences and thoughts, but a messy back and forth between what one has known and what one has chosen anew. Sometimes, despite our choices to move to new environments, we yearn for the predictability of the communities we left. This is not a betrayal of the choices we made to restart.
I am reminded of the work of scholar Hazel Easthope on the politics of identity and place. In one interview, revolving around the nature of home, a respondent noted:
“It’s something like not head but heart … maybe just knowing that you know how to get along in that place, you know how things are done around here, you know what’s expected to live in that way. You know what you’ll come up against, you know how you’ll get through it, which is not to say that you won’t eventually learn those things somewhere else, but maybe it’s just that it comes instinctively rather than having to learn it.”
These are thoughts that still plague those who have had to leave home, by choice or by force. For those who avail themselves of friendships with us, it might be useful to consider these struggles when thinking about how to be a better support system. I mentioned in Part 3 that investment in traditional family structures is deeply ingrained. That was not to say that traditional family structures are inherently bad or problematic – we do miss them and can certainly still enjoy them.
The upcoming festive season will bring with it fun and celebration, but for those who have recently tried to make new homes, it will probably bring sadness. To take a friend, who otherwise would be alone during this time, home with you could make the world of difference. To see and hear things that are familiar in their association with the season can be the balm to a broken heart.
If you are staying for the holidays, to check in on your friends who do not yet have family structures of their own reminds them that they are considered. To include them in family activities, within the bounds of your comfort, shows intention and an understanding of their circumstances.
People who are displaced are often extremely self-conscious about being burdensome to others and will generally not state their need for companionship. This often compounds the feelings of displacement and loneliness. Keeping your friends in mind when doing social activities goes a long way to ease the discomfort of feeling dependent on others.
In this vein, I am reminded by Zanta Nkumane’s words on Black queer loneliness, in his article “Daily moments of loneliness”:
“Many Black queer bodies carry a virulent unfulfillment, which I can’t trace to a particular source but can only suggest that it bears the stains of children who never got to be whole. The unfulfillment of teenagers who never experienced a full open teenage love affair and adults who still fear holding their partner’s hand in public. Even if we don’t experience rejection by our families, we enter into a hostile society that has us in a perpetual state of ‘holding back.”
There is an important contribution that this quote makes to the discussion – the realisation that displacement does not simply revolve around being in a different place. It is also the realisation that for some people, every place is a potential source of hostility and rejection because of prejudice. Even when we do make new homes, the world outside still makes refugees of us. It is important to see this when thinking of ways to make friends feel at home.
We find it difficult to find safe spaces because prejudice is so ubiquitous. The climate of prejudice in South Africa that is currently bubbling up again around migrants is a perfect example. To be away from your home and in a place that also rejects your presence is a deeply distressing experience to have. The real experience of persecution makes it difficult to trust and so it seems safer to simply be alone. Being cognizant of how these dynamics impact someone when nurturing a friendship with them can go a long way to making a more nurturing friendship space that provides more than just companionship.
It is when we see people beyond the confines of how we have come to know the world that we are able to offer meaningful kinship. If we are truly interested in forming bonds, these are thoughts that should occupy our minds when evaluating our relationships. As we go into this festive season, with a difficult year of mourning and loss behind us, may we remember to spare a seat at the table?