I think I like that sunset better: a young girl looks back on her time in South Africa

By Emma Schneider

I remember walking into my brother’s room with a big smile on my face and in my arms, holding that really worn-out stuffed animal that I had called my best friend since birth. I remember seeing my parents sitting on the small, blue couch in the corner of Steffen’s room. They were both crying. My heart stopped. I used to believe being forced to eat vegetables at dinner time or not being allowed to buy that Barbie doll you’d see in the shops was the worst thing to ever happen to a nine-year-old, but I was wrong; seeing your parents in a state that is not constant happiness is worse. The tears rolled down the sides of their faces, accompanied by these fake smiles trying to make the situation seem better, but as a child, it just confused me more. My brother and I, exchanging confused looks with frowned eyebrows, sat down in front of them.

“Don’t worry, everything is alright,” my mother said, trying to lift the heavy atmosphere that had been swelling up in the room the moment we had stepped into it. She didn’t look us in the eye. She couldn’t, because she knew that the path she was building for us with the following words would potentially destroy us.

“We are getting a divorce.” Only those five little words were needed to make the world come crashing down on me in a split second. It had felt like someone took all the oxygen in one swoop, knotting my throat shut and allowing no air to come through, felt like all of a sudden, every colour of the room faded to black and white, like time stopped. To this day, it is still a sensitive topic that I always try to avoid at all costs, but that is how it all started.

After a failed, prolonged marriage of two more years, of my parents trying to stay together for the sake of the family, the split eventually happened. At this point, I was eleven, trying to figure things out, but each night I would cry myself to sleep, feeling like something was missing in my life. There was this hole inside of me, sitting there, not doing anything but making me feel empty inside, provoking my eyes every night to produce a chain of tears to race down to the corners of my mouth. The trips to the therapist didn’t work for me, and so that’s when my mother spoke the thought of moving to South Africa into the universe. My father had his new girlfriend and my mother had no one. Her family was living on the other side of the world and she wanted to go there to live near them. I am still surprised at how easily I agreed to this change that would transform my life forever. But at that time, I had no idea. The change would change things, and since I didn’t like the way things were, I was okay with it. That is the only explanation I can come up with.

So, the journey started later that year. I had just finished 6th grade and was sitting on the aeroplane to South Africa. My eyes were still red and watery after saying goodbye to my father at the check-in, and even after his face had long disappeared behind the thick concrete walls, the parting didn’t seem to get any better.

“It will get better, you’ll see. Grandma will be waiting at the airport for us,” my mother said, taking my hand, squeezing it and kissing my forehead. I closed my eyes.

After an eleven-hour flight, I finally got to walk out of the aeroplane. My legs were stiff and sore. The warm, humid air hit me like a brick. This is new, I thought to myself, but I liked it.

Grandma picked us up and drove us to her house. I was sitting in the back seat, my head resting on my arms, looking at the palm trees flying by as the car drove up the hill. I remember, without a doubt, how quickly I noticed that I wasn’t in Germany anymore. There were so many new things, things I wasn’t familiar with, like the fact that at every traffic light, people were trying to sell colourful toys to car drivers and their children; bubbles flying across the air and sticking to the car window as we waited for the light to go green.

Here in Africa, time seemed to pass with slow, dragging footsteps each day, accompanied by the sound of the heat, the crackling of the dead grass rubbing against one another, and the constant ringing in your ears if you stand outside for too long. Another change I will remember was the sound of water everywhere, constant drinking, swimming, sweat, and the smell of the humid atmosphere that blocked my lungs. But I had to say, I never minded any of it.

The move was a big challenge for a now 12-year-old starting in an English school. I couldn’t speak any official language properly besides the little bits and pieces I had gathered in Germany, so I was terribly nervous about finding my way in this new world. After some time, however, I turned out to be a quick learner, and in no time, I was able to speak both English and Afrikaans with a mixture of a German and South African accent.

Emma, Marli, Marc and Steffen in front of the glockenspiel on the Marienplatz in Munich.

My family was very religious, meaning on Sundays we went to church. I hated it. This big, old, grey building at the corner of my grandparents’ street was my least favourite place to go. I always had to pretend to be excited so I wouldn’t upset anyone. As a German kid who was used to being forced to go to church only on Christmas, I now had to spend time with God. But sooner or later I realised the impact it had on my life. I got to know God and His ways of showing me life could be beautiful, and I believe that He helped me, guided me onto the right path after going through the most difficult time of my life, and I will forever be grateful.

I was also introduced to new rules, new ways of having to see the world and viewing situations from a new perspective. I gained knowledge and insights into how things worked around the world, and the three years I spent living in South Africa taught me about new cultures and traditions. In my most vital years of development, I now had the new strength of a family that I didn’t know before accompanying me, reassuring me that they will be with me forever. I made friends and have connections to this new part of the world that are to this day part of my journey, and I still have God by my side to make me want to be the best version of myself that I can be.

After three of the most wonderful years of my life, we came to the conclusion that it was time to go back home. It was time to be reunited with my father, whom I had seen about three times over the past years, and to return with this new mindset of how I perceived the world. I would be lying if I said it was easy leaving the warmth of the sun and all the colours of Africa behind. Those bright colours of the yellow grasslands that give you all the warmth you’ve never experienced by just looking at them, or the clear sky ruled by the dazzling sun where not a cloud dared to come in its way. I knew I would have to get used to those summers where the sun shines but when the sunlight hits your skin, it doesn’t really reach you fully, or where the warmth of the sun hides for eight months a year and only smiles around the corner of the constant clouds covering it for the leftover four. However, I knew it was the right time. That hole inside of me, constantly eating me from the inside without me knowing what was missing, had been filled with love, loyalty, knowledge and passion that I had gathered over the years.

I believe this change has been the most important one in my life, to guide me onto the right path of getting to know myself and showing me a whole new perspective of the world. Now, sitting on my porch back here in Germany, I look up at the sky and remember my time back in South Africa. On that side of the world, the sunsets looked different. The colours made you look twice to the sky and soon enough you found your brothers next to you doing the same, heads in your necks, faces towards the triumphing sun. I think I like that sunset better.

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