“Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self. It is best that the garment be loose…like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes.” — James Baldwin
I am from Africa. I am a South African. I am Xhosa.
The Xhosa are a people with deep and historic cultural heritage in South Africa. Our language is as filled with energy and vibrancy as our iconic and beautifully colored clothes and headdresses. To be Xhosa is to be proud of your culture, proud of your community, and proud of your homeland. I myself am proud to be Xhosa. For much of my life, however, this identity has been one of curiosity and intrigue for me.
I was born Thokozani Mirriam Tafeni in a small town called Lady Frere. At 16, my mother was very young when she had me. Apartheid was soon to end when I turned three and we moved from the rural countryside of Transkei to the city of Cape Town. Life as I soon came to know it would be one shared by two very different worlds.
In my new home, my grandmother Genetie took the responsibility of looking after me. She would take me with her away from Nyanga and my mother to work as a maid for a white family in Camps Bay. With a cheerful happiness and a bellowing laugh that I recall so vividly, I would spend my weeks shadowing my grandmother. During the weekends she would take me to the township to visit my mother. In an era of Apartheid I was unaware and unable to comprehend the worlds I navigated with my Grandmother. I do remember how sweet she was to me and how sweet the family she worked for was as well. Traumatically, I also remember witnessing the violence of the township.
At the age of six years old, I lost my grandmother to cancer. It was a difficult loss for me. It seemed at the time like a part of myself was gone. So much of my identity at that age was defined by what she had taught me and how she had raised me. To this day I can’t remember that part of my life when she passed. It is as if I had erased it from memory or blocked it out.
Uncommon for that time, it was arranged that I would be adopted by the family that my grandmother worked for. And they did something truly amazing in raising me as their own. This family, my family, have given me a life I couldn’t have dreamt of. They’ve taught me to reach for my dreams in the face of adversity. They have loved me and have shaped me into the woman I am today. But they have also shown me the freedom and support that only true respect and love can give in allowing me to explore my identity and be who I am. They have shown me what unconditional love is.
I turned 26 the other day and I thought about how I wanted to know more about my culture and what it means to be Xhosa. I thought about all the experiences and people who have helped to shape my identity. I thought about how much I loved them all and I realized I shouldn’t think of my identity as something to hide from or ignore. Being who I am shouldn’t be a hard thing to talk about. It is an important story for me to tell. It is my story.
My cultural heritage and the culture that I was brought up in are both an integral part of what defines me. I am so blessed to be able to wear my own unique robe. It is a robe that showcases the images and symbols of multiple cultures. It is a robe made from the colors and beauty of two worlds. It is a robe of pride. I am the aggregation of the diversity of South Africa and I know the tightly woven threads of my fabric not only make me stronger, they make me who I am.
Dress by: Thoki Tafeni
Shoes by: Zara