I live by the sea.
I have always lived by the same sea on the same coast in the same house. I live in a sleepy city, a city where nothing seems to happen where people sit at the beach and stare until the surf and the sky become one long burning blur.
I live in a place where people leave.
My city is Durban, the green streak that cradles the curve of the Indian ocean on the east coast of Africa where the warm Mozambique current runs. In my city things grow with passion; guavas bloom with bright pink centers, heavy watermelons and bags of lemons are sold on street corners, avocados adorn trees like Christmas lights, bunches of bananas burst out of purple sheaths, children sit atop trees and eat giant sticky mangoes between their fingers. A seed splits open in shoot before it even hits the ground. The green here sometimes makes your eyes water; it is so vibrant, so swampy, so lush that it feels like you are swimming.
Everything is so abundant and unashamed of what it is. Coriander abounds after the rains, moss blooms on walls, birds bicker on rooftops, fishermen struggle with shoals of sardines in their nets and sugar cane rolls over hills like endless waves. It is hard to hold pretensions when surrounded by such abundance and that is why, perhaps, my city is looked down upon by other cities in this country. My people are thought to be a touch uncouth, a little rough round the edges. People here shout over walls for their neighbors, they haggle at the markets, they wear flip flops to meetings and they drive with their windows down.
When people leave this city, they change their accents, they say, ‘Oh, Durban?’ as if they have never heard of the place before, as if they had never lived here once. They laugh as if it is a funny little spot on the map.
They try to rinse the green out of their eyes.
They say the city is too slow. Too small. Too stilted. And they are not wrong. Job opportunities are few, creativity is undernourished, ambition is trampled, tradition weighs heavy, ideas are stifled, egos are bloated and progress never seems to fully arrive. We trip over ourselves too much.
Meanwhile everyone else moves on.
It often feels to me like I’ve been left behind. Like anyone who has ever wanted to do something with their life has packed up and left and somehow even though I have also been this person I have ended up staying. It’s like that feeling of moving while standing still on the sand as the tide comes in: all you’re doing is sinking deeper.
Everything here looks to the ocean whether it wants to or not; the entire city seeks the water as if thirsty. The sea is always a thing calling you to look back even though the only thing you want to do is turn forward. Perhaps this is what it is, instead of ignoring the call like others, I am too busy cocking my head to listen, instead of looking forward, I am too interested in looking back.
Perhaps this is my problem.
I am a zombie movie aficionado and there is a line in World War Z that Brad Pitt’s character says when trying to convince a family locked in their home to escape with him: Movement is life. I think about it often – movement is life. If you move, you might survive, if you stay behind you are stuck. In the 2014 novel, Station Eleven, one character, during a worldwide pandemic finally flees the flat he is hiding in after months. His paralyzed brother who has to remain behind chooses to end his life because he cannot go with.
Movement is life.
To survive you must move. If you become too comfortable where you are, you cannot thrive. If you lock yourself in one place, you stagnate and nothing will ever happen to you. Life is a moving thing: the earth rotates, seasons change, trends come and go, language morphs, viruses mutate, technology advances, people get older; they find partners, they have children, they buy houses, they move cities, they change jobs.
But does that mean to stay still is to die?
Because I am learning that to stay still is not easy. That to remain in the same spot can be excruciating. And that there is certain value in staying; it means being able to endure, it means being able to truly know a place, it means being able to pause. If you stay in one place you have a moment to look, not only at your surroundings but at yourself.
Perhaps moving is the easy choice. Perhaps moving is just running away from something. Perhaps that something is yourself.
Is movement really movement if you’re going in circles?
Perhaps there are things to see, when one stands in the same place for so long.
The sea traces the journey of my origins. It carries the same current that brought my grandfather from India here 85 years ago in 1936 when he boarded the SS Takliwa with his mother. After the 21-day journey he arrived in a country where, he says, he was astonished to see there were street lights at night, where fresh water ran from taps that filled him with such excitement that he could not help but put his mouth to the spout to drink. He lived in a house with extended family along the river as if the sea itself had deposited him on the banks after his journey. He missed India dearly of course, he said, but there was opportunity in South Africa, a better future. He came to this city to find a better life.
On my days when I feel like I have been left behind, I wonder if perhaps my staying here honors his movement.
This is the city where people with dreams leave but it is also the city my grandfather with dreams arrived in. It is the city he walked in for over 60 years, most of it as a travelling salesman selling cloth and lace from a briefcase in the CBD, and then as a retiree catching a minibus every day and walking the streets from morning to evening until his death at 93.
Perhaps my stillness is to make up for his movement.
I’ve watched my city for more than 30 years now, watched summers sweep in to smother everyone with a blanket of humidity, watched thunderstorms roll onto the coast during late afternoons in January, watched spring carry in crops of bougainvillea and noisy mynah birds, watched ground nuts erupt at market stalls in April and oranges abound in winter, watched my city grow more and more convoluted with corrupt politicians and clueless leaders who know nothing about how to bring this city to life.
I have watched people leave.
I have watched so many people leave. I have seen how much has changed and how much has remained the same. It feels sometimes as if I am in a bad marriage with this city but somehow, I have decided to stay, to stick it out, to be the partner who is somehow trying to make it work.
Winter is coming, the papaya tree is no longer bearing fruit, people are dusting out their blankets and the sun is turning a little watery at the edges. When I was little, I dreamt of living in other cities. I dreamt of apartments in high rises and busy sidewalks and strange lands that I would have to adapt to. I dreamt of pushing kids in swings in autumn filled cities and crossing busy sidewalks in high heels. Drinking coffee in parks. Instead, I sit at my window and watch the moringa tree grow a little higher as I grow a little older. I didn’t think I would still be in this city walking along the same sea and the same shore and returning to the same house. Maybe my dreams were not big enough. Maybe they couldn’t pull me out quick enough. Maybe I am not who I think I am.
What does it mean to stay in a place where everyone leaves?
It means to look back over your shoulder and listen. To wait for something, although you do not know what. It means to stand in the wind and hold yourself still, even when it feels like you are going to blow away.
(Originally published in Issue 2 of the Indian Ocean journal, Portside Review)
A beautiful piece, and an incredible description of a place that will always be home for me, no matter where I go. I never really realised the greenery – the extent of the lushness – until a few years ago when I visited from Cape Town, which was going through extreme drought. Those mangoes and other fruit always grossed me out – the street sellers from my childhood gave rise to a fruit phobia I still hold to this day. But the abundance is inherently Durban, and may it always remain so.
I think the general perception of ‘progress’ is flawed, because we don’t always need to be moving in order to grow. As you say, staying gives you a patience and insight that’s inaccessible to those who are always moving… always chasing the next thing, and rarely looking inward to find themselves.
Maybe your travels give you the doses of variety you need, but your heart needs to remain grounded at Home. At least for now. Perhaps there’s purpose in your remaining so long, and when that purpose is eventually fulfilled, you’ll move on to places that need your gifts and presence. Maybe it’s best to let go of expectations – both our own and those of others – and simply live, making the best of where we are, until Life takes us to the next stop.
This is lovely, thank you.
So beautifully written thank you
Beautiful writing Shubnum!
Having grown up in Durban and now living overseas, I miss the people and that unique feel and smell of the air at dawn. Still harbor fond memories of my misspent youth on the beach. Searched far and wide but those waves in Durban beach are still unique and my main reason for coming back to visit in summer. 😉
Its a quandary on whether to leave or stay so I wish you the best.
You are an amazing writer,Shubnum.
The honesty and vulnerability of your work makes it so relatable and joy to read.
I also enjoyed your article that appeared in the New York Times last year.
By and large people and places generally benefit from movement and history is decorated with examples of that, but in the same breathe there’s a case to be made for those who don’t move, whether because of choice or circumstance.
To stay can mean devotion and dedication to something, and in a world where things change almost instantly, those who remain behind become preservers of worthwhile traditions and norms.
Thank you for such a beautiful article. It resonates so strongly because it articulates something which I wonder about regularly. The question “what would my world be like if I had moved?” remains unanswered for me. I know so many people who answered that question and moved somewhere else, usually to Europe or Australia (or the Cape), and I think that that their question might be “what would my world be like if I had stayed?” I wonder why I haven’t moved, is it lack of courage? Is it just laziness? Or is it something more complex? And this is, for me is the real beauty of your piece because I do think that staying may more courageous than moving, and I do value watching my garden turn slowly into a forest because many years ago I planted too many trees too close together. I was born, and still live, in Johannesburg. It is an alternatively ugly beautiful city and is a place to which many people move out of necessity. Every day I drive to work and I see poverty and neglect and yet I still stay. In the evenings I drive home and sit in my little forest and wonder.
I moved, I didn’t stay. Your description of Durban is superb – it is the Durban I think about on a cold winter’s day in Europe! I remember the avo’s and mangos, the pawpaws and bananas – we had about 15 banana plants in our garden. We had more than 20 indigenous trees in our garden. We had Hadedas and fruit bats, and could hear the cry of the Fish Eagles over the Umgeni River and the Coucal telling us it would rain! That is the Durban I remember,
You make words come alive. Thank you for a beautifully written piece.
I left Durban almost 33 years ago when I left the country to ensure that I would stay out of the old apartheid army. My life since then has included 10 years in London and heading for 23 years in Cape Town but I still miss Durban. Thanks for writing this – so evocative of all the senses of Durbanness!
Brilliantly written !!!
I left. Not long ago. Durban is part of me, and it’s a very big part. The noise, the life, the no-rules, the fun and laughter. Traded for safety and sterility. Was it correct, it is what it is and I miss it every single day.
Durban isn’t a backwater, it is alive with people and the people of Durban are amazing, the best in the world.
Thank you Shubnum for this beautiful piece. I grew up in Inanda and later Westville. You spoke of Durban that is in my veins. I may have left for Joburg after varsity and miss the place you speak of so much still.
I must also just say, it is so good to read well thought comments without malice about staying and moving.
Shubnum, thank you so much for this truly transportative and nostalgic string of prose. Your writing is magical.