I was eight when my mom packed our bags so we could escape the imminent collapse of the Zimbabwean economy and set sail for the greener pastures of the City of Gold.
But for me, Johannesburg proved to be far from rosy. At school I was constantly bullied for being an outsider. The word kwerekwere, a derogatory term for a foreign African, was hurled at me so often that it practically became my nickname.
We spent a year in Johannesburg, then relocated to Durban. I decided I’d had enough and devised a plan to escape the bullying. Instead of using my overtly foreign first name, Shingai, I began using my second name, Neville. To explain my “white” name and why I couldn’t speak any South African dialect, I’d tell people that I was an orphan who had been adopted by a white couple.
Strange as it sounds, my strategy worked. Instead of being insulted about my being a kwerekwere, my fellow students held me in high esteem and I went through primary school viewed as what’s referred to today as a “clever black”.
This front, save for the part about me being an orphan adopted by a white couple, continued until I was 21. I was Neville to everyone and my entire image was based on this.
It wasn’t until the xenophobic attacks of 2008 and 2015 that I sat down and contemplated my identity and what I stood for. I was hurt by these attacks and I reflected on how I myself was attacked as a young boy.
I decided then that I didn’t want to live in fear anymore. I wanted to feel with my people and it was the perfect time to prove to myself that I was brave and courageous. I decided I had to finally escape the feeling of cowardice that I had been feeling all these years.
Shingai means “be brave, be resilient” and that is exactly what I am going to be. That was two years ago. I just turned 24 and I’ve spent the past few years embracing my name.
Viewing 21 Joburg: Memories of Growing Up, a listening project by Maia Marie, Nomonde Mbusi and Mats Staub, was an emotional experience that took me back to this journey of self-discovery.
21 Joburg is a free daily exhibition showing at The Market Theatre until August 9 and is a work of art showing participants recalling their coming of age with tales of their formative years.
The format is based on each participant recording their stories before returning to listen to the edited audio recordings of their own memories. It captures the raw emotion and you can’t help but reflect on your own journey.
It resonates with me because of my personal story and how definitive the decision I took at 21 has been for me. Watching others tell their own stories is a therapeutic journey, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who will find this a special and enriching experience.
* 21 Joburg: Memories of Growing Up is at The Market Theatre in Johannesburg until August 9.