I was born in Swaziland, southern Africa. The fact that I grew up in Greensboro is entirely my mother’s fault, as she’s never been one to shy away from a legit relocation.
Mommy (my siblings and I collectively decided never to graduate to the whole “Mom” thing) was born and raised in South Africa, and became an X-ray technician in a South African hospital during the violently racist apartheid years. One day, she overheard a white Afrikaner nurse say about an injured black child, “Just let him die.”
Although my mother had witnessed and experienced countless examples of the inhumane treatment of blacks in South Africa, this particular encounter was the catalyst that led her to move to the neighboring Swaziland.
She began working in a Swazi hospital, where she met my father. Of course, there’s quite a lot that happened between their meeting and our move across the Atlantic, but I’ll have to save that for another day. For now, just know that with three daughters and a son on the way, my family emigrated from Swaziland to Greensboro. As you may surmise, the move was Mommy’s idea. It was 1985 and I was 4 years old.
The question I’ve received more than any other is, “Why Greensboro?” Few have heard of Swaziland, and even fewer have heard of what I would describe as a motley crew of Swazi-turned-Carolinians. Yeah… that’s definitely us.
I suppose I can understand the curiosity surrounding such a random change in locale, so the question has never exactly bothered me. I’ve just grown keenly aware that it will likely be looming around the mid-point of most conversations.
They tend to go something like this:
Person: Zitty… that’s an interesting name.
Me: Yeah, it’s short for… (yada, yada).
Person: Does it mean something?
Me: It does… (details, details).
Person: Oh, wow. So, where are you from?
Me: Swaziland. My family moved… (blah, blah, blah).
Person: Really? Hmmm (insert contemplative pause). So, why Greensboro?
And there it is.
Since I was never given a detailed response to the question beyond my parents both receiving student visas to attend Greensboro College, I’ve spent my life looking for the answer.
Why am I in Greensboro?!
I’ve been searching for the people and places, moments and experiences that could somehow help to make my life and location feel right. It’s been tricky; but as of late, I’ve been paying attention to life in a bit of a different way. It’s been kind of like letting go of the rigid eight-count in music, closing my eyes and letting myself — instead — feel the beat.
I think that the problem may have been that I’ve spent years relying on labels to make sense of things, and none of the labels (mine or other people’s) have ever quite held all parts of my identity… or theirs for that matter. Maybe experiences are better than labels anyway.
Why Greensboro? Well, because as it turns out, we’re meant for each other.
In Greensboro, I‘ve encountered people who’ll admit that my name strikes them as gobbledygook — and that they totally love it.
In Greensboro, I’ve experienced melting into the most satisfying savasana with a cool lavender- and eucalyptus-infused washcloth draped across my face after an hour of hot yoga.
In Greensboro, I’ve gotten to be a Quaker, Spartan, Belle, Titan and Aggie. In fact, when I finally obtained my US citizenship in 2009 after not having returned to Africa in 24 years, it was a university dance company based in, you guessed it, Greensboro that gave me an opportunity to travel to South Africa through an international dance program. Greensboro friends gave me the experience of walking the same streets my mother traveled when she was a young woman.
Awesome people and breathtaking experiences have a rhythm, and they can be found just about anywhere. They span all kinds of demographics — race, gender, faith traditions, height, hair and cash money. Like members of some random, eclectic jazz band, the people with whom I’ve related most have been those unconfined by labels. They’ve allowed us to be different… and harmonious.
Whether it’s been over dinner or decades, I’ve learned to recognize and appreciate when people see me beyond the label du jour. Yes, I’m black. Yes, I’m a woman. Yes, I’m an immigrant. And I am more. Just last week, I got to enjoy a vegan lunch on Tate Street with a white guy who offered up a Jewish blessing over brown rice and broccoli. And it was dope.
There’s a rhythm to the recognition of another’s humanity, and it feels amazing to find the beat.
Swaziland to Greensboro makes perfect sense to me.
Zithobile “Zitty” Nxumalo is a doctoral student at NC A&T University.