Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Serendipity and Mixed Masala

I have crossed over. 

No, I have not become a Sith Lord, nor an ectoplasmic apparition. I'm just shouting to the world that I'm back at my alma mater... as a consultant. (Though, there are connotations that registrars are Jedi and consultants are Sith;  certainly, the apparition analogy may well be true because when I was a trainee some consultants would disappear into the ethers just at the moment you needed them, only to rematerialize silently behind your shoulder just as the physiologic shit was hitting the pathophysiological fan.)

Well, it's been one month into my new job and I can honestly say that I'm thrilled. For the first time since 2003 (when I spent a dreamy year in the Shire that is Maritzburg rediscovering myself, meeting my future wife and taking the first tentative steps into specialization) I'm actually excited to get up in the morning and come back at home cheerful enough to organise supper and entertainment in whatever room the wife deems worthy.

As a member of that endangered species that is the White South African Male, it was difficult to land the job, but I have no bitterness (in principle at least) towards the machinations of Employment Equity, and I'm not going to launch into a discourse about what is the best method to address the injustices of my country's past, because I have no answer. I'm grateful to have a job I enjoy and also chuffed that I got it based on merit, because my melanin-deprived skin certainly didn't win me any brownie points (see what I did there).

Historical map of Ceylon (Sri Lanka.) Note that North is left.

But wait. I could, theoretically, have argued the contrary. To my delight, I discovered recently that I do not come from supposedly pure WASPish stock (though I was raised Catholic). Far from it. It turns out a few of my paternal ancestors were, to all intents and purposes, Sinhalese. My paternal lineage comes from Sri Lanka, or Ceylon (it was still called that when my father was born there). Though my name is German, the ancestral Ernst left Bavaria for reasons unknown and joined the Dutch merchant navy as a ship's cooper.  He settled in Ceylon which was then a Dutch colony and under the iron rule of the Dutch East India Company. It had previously been Portuguese, and after the Napoleonic wars it passed from the Netherlands to Britain. He stumbled into a colourful history. I don't think it's an accident (even if the word means happy accident) that the old name for Ceylon was Serendipity. I love the old Dutch map alongside,  it's strangely Tolkienesque with it's unusual orientation. 

Strictly speaking, my father is a member of the Burgher People, who are a curious segment of Sri Lankan society, an ethnic group that formed during the colonization of Sri Lanka. As Wikipedia puts it, they "consist for the most part of male-line descendants of European colonists from the 16th to 20th centuries (mostly Portugues, Dutch, German and British) and local women." (I just love the patronizing colonial tang about "local women".)

So I am descended from Germans who assimilated into Dutch colonial culture (including language and religion) who then spoke English and intermarried with the Sinhalese, several of whom had Portuguese ancestry. I truly am a mixed masala. It is perhaps perversely fitting that my grandfather decided to relocate to the melting pot and racial tinderbox that was early 20th century South Africa. My grandfather, whose name I have, fought for the British in World War I, having been raised as a loyal subject of the King, even sojourning with Lawrence of Arabia during the more colourful days of the Mesopotamian Campaign. "Oupa", as I remember him, was wounded in the Battle of the Somme and decorated for bravery. It must have been such a betrayal when he, thoroughly British Colonial in upbringing (tea estates, English breakfasts, personal valet, C of E, a military surgeon) was placed in an internment camp during World War 2 for the sole crime of having a German name.

They thought he was a spy. He couldn't even speak German, never mind Afrikaans. Perhaps this is why, after the war, he denounced his British ties and identified strongly with the Afrikaners in his adopted land.
He left the Anglican church and joined the NG Kerk. Tragically, he absorbed the fearful culture of apartheid as well and obliterated any vestiges of the Church of England with the shadows of Knox and Calvin. (As a result, I have some family who live in the enclave of Orania.) Not that I have anything against the Reformation. I doubt my father would have raised us Catholic if that very necessary purging of excesses hadn't happened. (Oh, more colour, my father converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism after some existential soul-searching during the war. Such a mix. And my aunt married a Jew which certainly rocked the family boat - something that would end up enriching my life as I got to know the saint that was my uncle Edward.)

But back to Oupa Adalbert. He had first had contact with the Afrikaners back in Ceylon, where he met some prisoners-of-war from the Anglo-Boer conflict and was impressed and moved by their stolid reserve. Let's face it, the British "solution" of placing thousands of Boers in horrid concentration camps was an exercise in genocide that approached the Holocaust and the Ukrainian Holodomor. Forever let there shame hang upon Lords Milner and Kitchener. What touches me most is that my mother's family -
on my mother's side I am solid Afrikaner, with proud French Huguenot and Dutch roots -  never expressed any bitterness towards the English oppressors.

Sure, this was perhaps not the sentiment of most Afrikaners. Clinging to a newly-formed identity they desperately needed to survive a colonial onslaught, the white tribe of Africa might have avoided the whole sorry business of apartheid if they had approached their new citizenship of the Union of South Africa with the gentle decorum of my mother's forebears. My Afrikaner heritage, I am happy to say, consists far more of old Dutch stoicism (with all the cholesterol-laden cooking that comes with it) and French bonhomie, than fear of some imagined "other". I look at the spectrum of my cousins that range from right-wing to left-wing and can only smile and cling desperately to my libertarian world-view. It's all I can be, even if it's imperfect. I don't care what colour or religion or sexuality people are - I believe in universal human rights, but with that, universal human responsibility. I will fight to the death for your right to do whatever you want in your private life, as long as it hurts no-one, even if I abhor it personally. Such is the exhortation of the Nazarene, and all other great figures who have championed the Golden Rule.

So there, the unloading of my cultural multiple personality disorder. I am at once a proud Afrikaner, proud de facto Englishman, a happy white Anglo-Boer-African, an even prouder African, but - ultimately, humbly, and wholeheartedly, just an ordinary Earthling grateful to ponder the stars and be eternally moved.

1 comment:

Siri B said...

Quite an interesting lineage.
There is a certain recurring idea in my mind: I often keep wondering what would have happened in my life if a particular event was changed, how much effect it had on the latter events of my life. And in a similar vein, I think about the lives of my parents, friends, and various people I meet or read about, and how little insignificant-looking things actually have a big influence. [Maybe I should write a blog post about it some day. ;) ]
And look at your ancestry! Spanning so many continents and revolving around so many historic events that I do not dare to start off on that thought at all!