by Toni Wallis

I travelled to Portugal, the land of my ancestors. I speak the language but the accent soon gave me away. I am taken to be an immigrant and I sense apprehension in the questions of inquisitive strangers: “How long will you stay in Portugal? Are you here on holiday or do you want to live here?”

I stayed for five months, and made four friends: a Mozambican studying medicine in Lisbon, a guy from Timor-Leste who didn’t seem to have anything to do during the day but was always free to hang out, a Romanian garbage collector who sent money home to his family, and an English-tour guide who moved to Portugal and spent his wages on rent and weed.

For five months, I was an outsider among outsiders. We met at church and became friends out of necessity. We shared our stories and got drunk on cheap wine. We got together a few times a week to soften the hardness of a life lived at the edges. In this group of misfits, I belonged. In this group, each one was an individual with a name – Barbara, Jomé, Dario, Jomi. Alone, we were just immigrants who had come to take someone else’s job, place a burden on social services.

Nothing held me to Portugal and I soon moved on. Germany was my next stop to work as a volunteer. The other volunteers came from the USA, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Germany, Switzerland.

I was the only African. And I was a disappointment. The first words that came out of the Mexican’s mouth were: “Dios mio, we thought you would be black! They said you came from Africa.”

And so began a long year of having to explain my origins to every new disappointed person who had hoped for a black volunteer. In South Africa, I was too white to be acceptable. In Germany, I wasn’t black enough!

Years later, on a backpacking adventure, an Argentinean customs official refused to let me leave Argentina and step onto Brazilian soil. How could a white person with a Portuguese name and who spoke Spanish possibly have a South African passport?

Instead, he showed me into an empty room with a table and two chairs. He took away my passport and said that he needed to search through their database for wanted people and to check my passport for forgery. He had no desire to listen to my explanation that I truly was South African.

Half an hour later he was back. Flanked by another guy, probably his superior.

“Where were you born?” the second man asked me.

“South Africa.”

“Date of birth?” I gave it to him.

“How did you come to be in South Africa?”

“I was born there.”

“This isn’t a joke, you are in serious trouble.”

“Why? I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Why do you speak Spanish so well?”

“I’m a translator,” I answered.

He seemed surprised. “They don’t speak Spanish in Africa.” Actually, they do, I wanted to tell him, in Equatorial Guinea. But that probably wouldn’t help my cause at that particular moment!

And so the questioning went on. He asked about my parents and where they were born. Why they came to South Africa. How long I had lived there. What I was doing in Argentina and the reasons I was crossing into Brazil. The interrogation lasted about 45 minutes, but it seems that I either convinced the customs officials that I was who I said I was, or they just ran out of questions.

They finally let me continue on my journey, but I was reminded once again that I didn’t belong. My skin color was wrong. So were the languages I spoke. Quite simply, my very being was out of context.

I have come to accept that I will probably always be out of context. My name, my skin, my accent and the languages I speak betray me. They betray that my identity is one of incongruity and homelessness in the world. The place that gave birth to me accuses me for the injustice of centuries. The place of my ancestors fears me as just another African immigrant coming to take their jobs, their men, and live off the system. The in-between spaces of the world, themselves once colonized and now free, have no frame of reference to understand me.

After many years of having been a nomad in the world, I find myself at home again. Without delusions now. The nameless faces condemn me, the politicians make me their scapegoat. The ninth or tenth generation white South Africans with whom I should share a cultural heritage shun me. In the midst of all this, a community of people whose very skin embodies a miscellaneous harmony of language, culture, history, and race welcomes me.

The colored people of Cape Town have made me feel at home. They have become my mother and father who include me at their table. They are the precious sisterhood where woundedness is healed and where hearts find a home. They are my brothers who day-by-day erase the pain of a boy who once told me I was too white to belong in his world.

This is where I belong for now. I have found a place in the land of my birth. Perhaps one day I will find the peace to once again call it home.

In the Middle – An International Transposition (Fiction)

Introduction to In the Middle – An International Transposition, edited by Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey

January: Forgetting – Turkey, by Seyit Ali Dastan

February: The Unreal in Real – Armenia, by Armine Asryan

March: Catching Water – Argentina, by Javier Gómez

April: Unwanted – South Africa, by Toni Wallis

May: House with a Stucco Ship – Ukraine, by Gennady Bondarenko

June: A Girl Pedaling up the Road of Life – Cuba, by Marilin Guerrero Casas

July: The Last Day – Poland, by Pawel Awdejuk

August: Through my Hands – Venezuela, by Veronica Cordido

September: Amelia’s Euphemism – Spain, by Jonay Quintero Hernández

October: Until Love Do Us Part – Uruguay, by Alejandra Baccino

November: A Journey to the Edge – Lebanon, by Rayan Harake

December: I Used to Smoke – Russia, by Kate Korneeva

Background – Context

Peripatetic Alterity: A Philosophical Treatise on the Spectrum of Being – Romantics and Pragmatists by Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2019)

La Syncrétion of Polarization and Extremes Transposée, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2019)

The Codex of Uncertainty Transposed, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2018)

L’anthologie of Global Instability Transpuesta, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2017)

From Wahnsinnig to the Loony Bin: German and Russian Stories Transposed to Modern-day America, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2013)

More work by Toni Wallis

Living for Today – Toni Wallis (transposing emblem)

Walls and Resettlement – Toni Wallis (transposing emblem)

Emblems and stories on the international community

Perception by country – Transposing emblems, articles, short stories and reports from around the world


Cover photo: Cape Town, South Africa – Cityscape – Gray Kotze (Shutterstock)

Source: The Codex of Uncertainty Transposed

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.