This piece was written by my cousin Keitumetse Diseko about growing up, finding ones self and being fabulous with it. Although it was originally written for a youth magazine I could really relate. Tumi’s journey took her from Soweto to Shanghai, via the African continent. On the way she worked for MTV, and was instrumental in championing African music on the channel. She and some friends went on to set up the MOAMA awards for African music… as you do. She’s an amazing woman with an eclectic mix of passions. But it wasn’t always easy being different from the herd, and that is something I really identify with. I have often felt like an outsider, least accepted by the people I expected to accept me the most. I spent years either trying to bend to fit their expectations or rebelling in anger against those same expectations. Either way I was being controlled by what other people thought I should be. But, like Tumi, once I stopped wanting other people to be OK with what I am, I began to really quite like myself. And the things I tried to hide, or change to fit in, are probably my best bits. Anyway, thoroughly enjoyed this read. I hope you do too.
Growing up in Johannesburg was a big contradiction. I was born into a politically and socially active family during the politically and socially turbulent 1980’s. I spent the first six years of my life living in Orlando, Soweto, and the years following that, living in Johannesburg’s Eastern suburbs. Although I went to school in what became known as a Model C (mainly White) school, the history and identity gained living in Soweto never left me. For a long time, I was one of very few black kids attending my school and I was the only black person in my class for a long time. At the beginning, I felt like an outsider, but I made friends, so it was ok. They were white and that was ok too, despite the tensions at the time. I was exposed to a wide variety of art, music, film and literature, and this came out more and more in my personality as I got older.
At some point through my primary school life, I got Black classmates! “Finally”, I thought. I was really excited and looked forward to playing games that were familiar to me at break time, or even to speak seTswana or isiZulu with people outside of my family. It didn’t happen that way though. Like many black kids who grew up in similar circumstances, half in one world and half out another, I had trouble fitting in. I so wished these new girls could be my friends. To them, I was an outsider, too white in the way I spoke, or too white in my preference of music. Outcast by girls who looked just like me, I just didn’t fit in.
The experience would carry on into my high school life, when I finally went the extra mile to “fit in” to what I thought was a more “kasi” ( or “gully”) experience to the one that I had experienced in my early years. I hung out in the township more, tried to make friends with amaghintsa (hustlers) or those who so badly wanted that street life. I could pretend to talk the talk and walk the walk but in reality, I still didn’t feel like I fitted into that environment and I was starting to question my identity more and more. “Who am I and how do find my place in the world? Will I find acceptance?”
Growing up is not easy. Our parents do the best they can with what they have and more often than not, they don’t have much, except for hopes of a bright future for their children. My single mother was no exception in the way she raised my siblings and I. I grew up never doubting myself or my dreams. I had an idea of the kind of person I wanted to be and what career path I wanted to pursue, but at the same time, I also felt a deep need to be accepted by my peers, even if it meant being untrue to myself and in some instances, endangering my future prospects.
Part of growing up is being honest with yourself and figuring out what you truly want your future to look like and asking yourself “what am I doing to contribute to the success of my future?” Many young people are bullied physically, but we never consider the effects of emotional or psychological bullying – in my case, it was someone making me inferior or undeserving of friendship because of certain preferences that are considered alien. There are thousands of young people who are seriously affected by this kind of bullying. They keep silent and retreat into their shells, under-perform and even resort to trying to make people afraid of them through violent behavior.
Once I had taken control of what I want for myself, the mentality of trying to be a crowd pleaser disappeared. I took a chance and accepted a dream internship at MTV – a TV channel that I grew up watching and spent days daydreaming that I was a part of. I became part of a team that played a big part in exposing different genres of African music to each other. Our work played a big part in breaking the barriers for artists from across the African continent. I travelled around the continent, and was exposed to multitudes of cultures, music and fashion. Today, I can proudly say that I played a part in music from around the continent being accepted into mainstream South African spaces. I continued to dream: I wanted to learn new languages and to continue to travel. I wanted something different.
In 2010, I applied into a Chinese Language and Culture programme at one of the best schools in China and was accepted. I left my job and moved to Shanghai in 2011, where I’m learning how to speak Chinese. In South Africa, people often mock me about my choice to learn Chinese – do you eat dog? Ching chong cha! I’ve learnt to let those comments roll off like water off a duck’s back. For me, it’s all about learning new cultures, gaining insight and becoming an African citizen of the world. I’m not there yet, but I think I’ve come a long way in learning to follow my path and to recognise my dreams, staying head strong, no matter what people say. I am discovering similarities between my own culture and Chinese culture, and I feel like I have a home away from home. We come from a complicated history, but it makes us stronger as we navigate through life, trying to make our dreams come true. That’s the best we can hope for as Mzansi (South African) youth on a path to scratch our names onto the fabric of the world.