American intern Zolan Kanno-Youngs recounts how a three month job opportunity has allowed her to connect with her long-lost African family.
Cape Town - By acquiring an internship in Cape Town through my University’s co-op programme, I’ve finally been able to achieve a dream of connecting with the long-lost side of my family, and in the process uncovered what has always been a mystery about my nationality.
Through circumstances my mother couldn’t control, she never knew of her father or her half brothers and sisters, or that they were living in Joburg.
She no longer spoke to her mother, so she only knew of the two details about her father that she was told as a child: his name was Thomas Tlou and he was African.
She had tried research in college but never could come up with enough information to actually find his location – until four years ago when she came across an obituary featuring his name.
She was overcome with grief to learn that he died from a rare blood disease before she could ever see him.
This sadness was quickly replaced by curiosity when she learnt that he left behind a wife, two sons and two daughters.
Using a tool that wasn’t available during her college years, Facebook, she looked up the names in the obituary and sent them a message explaining the situation. Two days later, she got a response from her stepmother, Sheila Tlou, saying she was coming to New York City to meet her new daughter.
My mom confirmed that her father had had relations with her mother in a past life, but he never knew of her existence. Regardless, she was embraced into her new family.
We learnt that while they were from Botswana, they were living in Johannesburg as a result of Sheila’s work for UNaids. My mother was both ecstatic to have met her step-grandmother and sister and shocked to see them open their arms without hesitation. I felt the same emotions when I received an e-mail from Sheila on the day I accepted an internship in Cape Town. It said she was buying me a ticket to fly to Johannesburg as soon as I arrived.
It wasn’t hard to find Sheila once I stepped out of the airport in Johannesburg. She was the only one dressed in traditional Batswana clothing and her eyes were glued to the exit as if she was looking for someone. When we exchanged eye contact, she immediately jumped up and with a welcoming hug said: “Zolan, my grandson, you are home!”
I wasn’t treated like a visitor at my new home but rather like a family member that had just gotten back from a long trip. One of my uncles drove up from Botswana to see his new nephew. The other made sure to have lunch with me before his flight back to school in the US. Moloko, one aunt, made sure to pay a visit for the weekend and my other aunt, Junia, who looks just like my mother, threw a braai for the occasion. My step- grandmother played Batswana documentary after documentary, fixated on filling me up on my African heritage I had never known about.
One person lecturing me on the history of Botswana caught my attention immediately. Upon looking at his facial features, I immediately knew that this was my grandfather Thomas. I learnt that he had been a professor at the University of Botswana. There were so many similarities with him and my mother: their confidence, their intelligence and the way they could command an audience.
While attaining an internship abroad may be another knock on a resume for some US students, it brought me a profound sense of fulfilment.
By getting that job acceptance letter from South Africa, I had completed my mother’s goal of having the only family she had known for most of her life, me, connect with the family she had always dreamed of knowing.