Belonging and longing for home

Ruth HartleyDisplacement, Exile, Home, Identity, Journey, Migration, Race, Refugee2 Comments

Settlers and the unsettled

I grew up in a settler community of new homes but the land we took was already the home of African peoples. Many of my school friends’ families were Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe who had nowhere else to go and hoped one day to go to Israel. I quote from a friend Paul M who wrote that ‘the Festival of Sukkot is to commemorate the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the Wilderness after leaving Egypt until we came to the Land of Israel.’ He says that ‘the sukkah (an outdoor pavilion roofed with leaves and branches) is a reminder of the temporary dwellings used to protect the wanderers from the elements.’

Where do I belong?

I had been talking with friends about the rupture of Brexit, about citizenship, about our changing homes and what we might claim as our nationality and rightful home so Paul’s post meant much to me.

Forty days and forty years in the wilderness

Have you been lost ‘in the wilderness’? Have you experienced this mythic time when you are searching to find yourself or simply for a way to be – or a way to accept the trials that you must endure? At school, I was taught that the Israelites had to spend forty years wandering as a punishment for denying the one true God. Since then I’ve learned that we all need to make this journey – to the wilderness – or perhaps like Dante to Hell – to learn to understand our place in history and to find where we belong physically and spiritually.


Our roots give us the reason for and the origin of our existence. Rootless suggests a lack of purpose and even untrustworthiness. I am not rootless and yet my roots are in a past country that no longer exists. Roots make one think of growth and trees and branches. As we grow do we branch out into our future – is that our hope? How many people in history have been cut off at the roots – or rooted out of their homes or live in the fear that they may happen?


Nomads are not rootless – the dictionary says they have no permanent home but is that true? Nomads follow their animals from pasture to pasture and these pastures change with the seasons. While they carry tents or create shelters in different places they circle back to return with the weather and the climate. Perhaps their homes are in the sky with the sun and rain as are the lives of their animals? Tragically, climate change is making nomads homeless.


Wanderers are not nomads. The word suggests the purposelessness of a rootless nature but as I wonder and as I wander I think about the nature of human thought and the strange places it takes us. I know two things – I hate to leave my home and I love to feel the freedom of travelling to an unknown destination because I find the journey liberates my mind and thoughts in creative ways.


I have been homeless. I have been afraid. If you are homeless you have no place to live and you have no family around you. Nomads are not homeless. Travellers are leaving home or going home. A home may not have four walls or a roof but a home protects your life and makes living possible. A home gives you an address which means that you can be reached and contacted. A home gives you other people. A home may be as fragile as a spiderweb but it keeps you human. My stepfather threatened to make me homeless and so, for years, did a person I lived with a while back. The threat was always terrifying. I had learned as a young teenager, however, that running away from misery and abuse feels impossible if you have no place to go.


We are temporary. We are limited. Each life is temporary but life does go on even in an altered form. Read Ruth Ozeki’s book A Tale for the Time Being.


I’m from a family of migrants – my family have been migrants for 100s of years. They moved to countries that had no names and no fixed boundaries, or names and boundaries that changed with time. When they needed to or had to, they changed allegiances. Unlike humans, migrant birds do not have to change their nature or give up their freedom.

Now I am an Expatriate again struggling to wear the clothing of another language and culture. I tried and failed in Zimbabwe, in South Africa and in Zambia to learn Shona, Zulu, Afrikaans, Arabic and Chichewa. In England where I speak English, I find myself regarded as an outsider who doesn’t belong or fit into accepted social categories, or sound right. Read Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation to understand what it is to feel wordless.


Police registration as an alien with the Suspect Support

Listed as an alien by the Suspect Staff of the South African Police in Maritzburg I had to regularly report to the police stations in the towns I worked in. I was white – I can’t imagine how awful it must have been to be black and to carry a dompas (dumb pass) in your own country.

Foreigner, Stranger – we have all been one of these at some time or another. How do we treat other people when they are strangers or refugees? My name is well-chosen – Like the biblical Ruth in Keat’s poem, I have stood ‘amid the alien corn’ and ‘been sick for home’.


It is possible to be a refugee from war and political and religious persecution even in your own country. You may even need to seek sanctuary from your own family or from an abusive partner.


Registration card identifying me as white

Another South African word that is now used mostly for walking in the bush. The Great Trek in 1835 was the search for a new homeland where British rule would be unable to liberate the slaves on whom your life depended. Read Andre Brink’s extraordinary book A Chain Of Voices about slavery at this time in South Africa.


This word means ‘circumnavigation’ though now it means not only a sea journey but any journey that goes around until it returns to its start. The earliest périples were around the Mediterranean shores 1000s of years ago and gave us our first rudimentary maps. Think of the stories of Ulysses and Jason and the Argonauts or Theseus and the Minotaur. I do love the idea of travelling and coming home again. I do hate to leave home. Homes need constant care.

Citizen of Nowhere or Citizen of the World

I will always be angry at the way politicians drive their citizens to be jingoists. They don’t do it to keep their citizens safe. They do it to keep them obedient and fearful of ‘others’. The British have been told they can’t be citizens of the world because that is to be citizens of nowhere.  If we aren’t citizens of the world at this time of climate change, we may soon be citizens of nowhere because there will be no habitable world anywhere.

2 Comments on “Belonging and longing for home”

  1. Pam Shurmer-Smith

    I’m totally with you on homelessness and the destructive social/psychological/emotional sense of not belonging anywhere that many of us uprooted people feel. As you suggest, this restlessness isn’t necessarily destructive – being unsettled can make us more sensitive to the plight of others who are told they don’t fit, it also keeps us thinking and striving. Part of why I have difficulty fitting in where I currently am is that most of the people around me seem overly rooted to a bounded place.

  2. Tia Azulay

    Oh, Ruth, how well you express the thoughts and feelings that whirl in my head constantly, day after Brexit day!

    I have always been aware that I am a wanderer, and have seldom felt this to be negative, but I do also know very strongly that reluctance to leave whichever home is my starting point for the next journey. And I also experience that longing for a resolution to the question of “Where do I belong?”, as though it were possible for some set of parameters to give an authoritative answer to that question!

    Overall, however, I embrace and want to defend my identity as a Citizen of the World. If “belonging” depends on joining a community that turns its back on the world around it, that is too high a price to pay for acceptance.

    There is too much at stake, not only for me as an individual, but also for this planet (flora and fauna) and for this world (societies and cultures). As you say, “If we aren’t citizens of the world at this time of climate change, we may soon be citizens of nowhere because there will be no habitable world anywhere.”

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