In the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet, under the letter “P”, is something that rarely sees the light of day. But it is one of the most important things I possess. It arrived without fanfare in the mail one day, in an envelope that some clerk had forgotten to seal. I was all alone in the house when it came, and I just hugged it to my chest with an inarticulate cry of sheer joy. It’s my American passport.
My passport has two security stickers on the back of the dark blue cover that were affixed at the Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. Inside, the light blue pages are watermarked with emblems of the fifty states, and there are higgledy-piggledy passport control stamps dating from January 7th 2006. There’s also a stamp from February 2009, when I visited Mexico for the one and only time in my life.
Actually, I have two passports. Please don’t mention this to the U.S. Department of State. When I came back from a trip to London in 2004, I mislaid my passport. I couldn’t believe it—I knew I’d had it when I re-entered the country. I spent two weeks turning the house upside down looking for it. It wasn’t just the passport itself but everything that it symbolized that I was searching for. After I had unpacked the same filing cabinet, bookshelves, drawers and closets for the fifth time I had to admit defeat, and I applied for another passport. In due course my new passport arrived, and, with the surety that a couple will fall pregnant once they adopt a baby, my original one turned up in a place I swore I’d looked five times.
Now, if a lost passport is found after you have applied for a new one, you are duty bound to turn in the old one. But here is the thing; I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It simply meant too much to me. Even though it only had two Heathrow stamps in it, that original passport was the encapsulation of all the emotions I felt about having the right to call myself an American. It seemed like a lifetime achievement award.
When I arrived at Dulles International Airport in Washington, with my heart thumping at the base of my throat, I was holding onto a fat envelope that I hadn’t let out of my sight ever since they’d handed it to me at the American consulate in Johannesburg. I’d fantasized about sailing past the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island, as all those storied immigrants had done, and even investigated booking a passage on a cargo ship. Then it began to look as if the first port of call would be Houston, or some such place, and I would have to go through the whole immigration process there. This rather took the glamor out of the idea, so instead I ended up flying into the nation’s capital.
The envelope I was holding was sealed, and, fat as it was, it didn’t seem nearly substantial enough for all the effort that had gone into it. Over months, then weeks, then days, in an ever escalating process, I applied for all the immigration forms, laboriously filled them out, and went through the seemingly never-ending check-list of everything the consulate requires before they will even begin to consider your immigration. The reason my heart was in my mouth was because my South African passport was amongst the myriad forms and documents in my package, and the American nonimmigrant visa on page 15 had been “Cancelled Without Prejudice”. This meant that I had no right to enter the US if they didn’t grant me Permanent Residence right then.
When it was my turn to go through passport control, I blurted out something along the lines of, “I’m immigrating!” As luck would have it, the officer at my point of entry was a well-mannered, fresh-faced young man, with a Marine haircut, who called me “Ma’am” and personally escorted me into the nether regions of Dulles International Airport. In retrospect, I wonder what the people in the queue behind me must have thought. In some back office of the airport I eventually handed over my precious package to another official. He unceremoniously ripped it open and, in an execrable left-handed scrawl, began to sign all my documentation.
Actually, I have three passports. If you get the sequence right, and apply at exactly the right moment in the process, South Africa will allow you to have dual citizenship. America turns a blind eye. When I was on my way to the airport a couple of years ago, I was casually browsing through my South African passport when I noticed—heart dropping moment here—that it had expired. So I had to go in and out of the country on my American passport. Please don’t mention this to the South African passport control. If you have dual citizenship you are obliged to travel in and out of the country on your South African passport. In fact, it’s very confusing because, as you leave South Africa, they want to see your American passport to show that you have a right to get into the country without a visa, so I end up feeling as if I’m playing a complicated game of poker as I go through the various check points.
The new South African passports are green, with watermarks of African flora and fauna on the green-tinted pages. I have also kept my old, blue South African passport (with CANCELLED stamped all over it) for sentimental reasons. On page 16 is the red stamp giving me “lawful admission for permanent residence” to the United States.
It’s a strange fact that no permission, passport or application form was necessary in order to emigrate from Britain in the 19th century. In 1815 the London Missionary Society dispatched a group of missionaries on five ships to South Africa. Amongst them was a couple of young newlyweds; George Barker, aged 26, and his wife, Sarah, who was 25. The tall ships—remember this was around the time that the Napoleonic Wars ended—slowly made their way from England, around the bulge of Africa at the equator, to Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa, arriving there in May 1815, and then on to Algoa Bay, now the city of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. There was no harbor where they finally dropped anchor, and the women had to be carried ashore. As one of them was set down on the beach, she sat there, smoothing out her skirts, and said, “Well, here we are in Africa.” So my mother tells me. George Barker was her great-great-great-great grandfather, and there is a blurred, black and white photograph of him in the Albany Museum in Grahamstown. My mother is very proud of the fact that her ancestors preceded the big wave of English settlers—some 4,000 of them—who arrived in Algoa Bay in 1820, as part of a British government-assisted emigration scheme. George Barker went down to the bay to witness their arrival. Unbeknownst to him, amongst the 1820 Settlers were the maternal ancestors of the man who would marry his great-great-great-great granddaughter.
My mother and father met and married in Grahamstown. My father wasn’t as clear about his ancestry as my mother is about hers, but Krummeck was probably originally a Prussian name, and his paternal ancestors were part of a wave of Germanic immigrants who arrived in the Eastern Cape in the latter part of the 1800s. Beaufort West, where they settled, has a Krummeck Street, and Beaufort became the traditional middle name in the family, including for my father and his siblings. They grew up in what is now the Observatory Museum, which housed the only camera obscura in the southern hemisphere—you know, the precursor to the camera, that Dutch Masters like Vermeer are supposed to have used to achieve their marvelously meticulous detail? It’s a box that allows light in through a hole on one side, and projects an image (upside-down, but in color and with perfect perspective) onto a surface. The Observatory had originally been owned by Henry Carter Galpin, who was an architect, as well as a clock and watchmaker, and an amateur astrologer. By the time the Galpin family sold the premises to my grandfather and his partner, several businesses occupied the ground floor, and the basement and upper floors were divided into apartments and lodgings. It was curious for me to go back to the city on business one time, after my father had died, and visit the house. I tried to feel his presence in the corridors, and to imagine his shrill, childhood voice as he played with his twin sister and their older brother. He used to tell me about their illicit visits upstairs to see the famous camera obscura. I retraced his footsteps, and it was absolutely intriguing to see the upside-down projection of Grahamstown and the surrounding hills.
The Observatory Museum in Grahamstown
You have to wonder at the urge to migrate. It’s one thing if famine or war or persecution cause people uproot themselves; it’s quite another for them to do it by choice. What would make two Presbyterian missionaries in 1815 take a six-week voyage to a foreign country, knowing that they would never return home?
My older sister has returned to live in England five generations later. To understand what a feat this is for her, you have to know something about her. She is dutiful and resourceful, with the quick wit and repartee of our father, but she has always had a physical and emotional frailty about her. She wanted nothing more than to be a wife and mother, and, although she had trained as a nurse, she had no career ambitions. As it turned out, she married a man with unquenchable wanderlust who was too restless to be able to provide a stable home for her and their young family. They moved (or were evicted because he hadn’t paid the rent) so many times that one of her friends quipped that knowing her had been “a moving experience”.
When my sister married a second time she moved with her husband to England, and began the arduous process of acquiring British citizenship and a passport. If possible, they are even stricter about immigration in the UK than they are in the US. My sister has found a measure of stability in England, even though she says that she feels something of an outsider in her adopted home. She has settled very near to Wimbush in Essex—where, as it happens, our ancestor, George Barker, was born. His father, Nathaniel Barker, was a farmer and ran an old forge, and the family owned an alehouse in Wimbush called the White Hart. The pub is still going strong to this day. So, all that activity—George and Sarah sailing out to Africa in 1815, establishing their lives there, spawning five generations that have spread out all over South Africa—and then my sister returns to within a stone’s throw of where it all began. If you wrote a novel about it, it would seem too far-fetched.
The White Hart Inn in Wimbush
One of the ventures of my sister and her first husband took them as far afield as California. For years, my sister had been struggling to fall pregnant, and then, out of the blue, like my lost passport turning up, she did, right there in California. The geographical net of our family was suddenly and surprisingly thrown much wider when my niece was born in America. Within months she was taken back to South Africa, but, throughout the “moving experience” of her childhood, being uprooted from one home to the next, she clung on to the memory of her wonderfully accidental birth, giving her the right to an American passport. When the time came for her to go to college she sent out a deluge of applications to America, and accepted a place in Tennessee.
She married a fellow student there, and has grounded herself in America with a singular stability—in direct contrast to her nomadic childhood. As she works towards a PhD, she home-schools her children with a determination to give them the security she didn’t have. Her commitment to America is entire. Although her accent is still essentially South African, she has a lilting, Southern inflection. She no longer has a South African passport. She is, to all intents and purposes, American.
I never officially met my husband. He just got onto the elevator with his French horn one day when I was on my way to do a radio broadcast for a concert, and he began to make small talk—so that he could hear my voice, he later told me. I had seen him playing in various orchestras around the country, and he had heard me on the radio. By a gradual process of osmosis we each gradually became aware of the other.
It turned out he was an American, who had won an audition for the orchestra of the South African Broadcasting Corporation when he was studying horn in Germany. Knowing next to nothing about the country, but being an adventurous 23 year old, he accepted the three-year contract, with every intention of returning home once the contract was up. But something in Africa had caught at him, and, when he was offered the chance to return, he jumped at it.
He grew up as an “army brat”—his father was in the air-force—and his family moved around all over America. The longest he had lived anywhere was in Philadelphia, where he went to college, and graduated with two music degrees. He knew the chances of finding a position in an American orchestra were slim, and he decided to try his luck in Germany.
But there was more to leaving America than that. He felt a growing disquiet about his country. He disliked the materialism, and felt more and more out of place in the society. In South Africa there was something about the lifestyle that struck a chord in him. He loved the measured way of life, he loved the climate, he respected the dignity of the people—the fact that someone like Nelson Mandela could emerge from 27 years of incarceration with grace and forgiveness. He never condoned apartheid—far from it—but he found the moral judgement that Americans passed on South Africa hypocritical given the fact that they had all but obliterated Native Americans as they expanded the frontier, and their own race relations were so troubled. Living in South Africa, he felt that he could “make a difference”.
When we began to talk about the possibly of living America, we skirted around the issue of marriage for the longest time. Laughing about it afterwards, he said that my vacillating made Elizabeth Bennett’s response to Darcy pale by comparison. But I needed to be absolutely sure, inside myself, that I was not using him as a ticket to America. Before we were married, we visited America—me for the first time—and drove up I-95 from Washington to New York. As we passed by Baltimore he said, “We could do worse”, with no way of knowing that this was where we would end up. The irony, now, is that he longs for South Africa more than I do. It’s for his sake that I’ve kept dual citizenship. As much as I have thrown myself wholeheartedly into the process of becoming American (as much as its possible to be, given that it’s not my birthright), he still hankers after the things that drew him to Africa in the first place.
A passport. It’s just a document, after all. It doesn’t account for all the criss-crossing migrations. It doesn’t justify why an American would feel such an affinity for Africa, or an African would have such an ardent response to America. Why a woman would choose to retrace her ancestors’ steps, yet feel like a foreigner, or why her daughter would feel more grounded in the country of her accidental birth than she ever did in the country she grew up in. It’s something that you come by through birth, chance, luck. And it means the world.