by Shalan Govender
[ABOVE: Shalan Govender. Me filling up on caffeine before wildly scavenging through shelves of clothing shops to look for something that expresses my individuality.]
It should come as a surprise to anyone who knows me that growing up I did not have an environment that was progressive or accommodating. On the contrary, the place I received a primary “education” was regressive and exclusive.
But, having such an upbringing - despite being strikingly different from the person I am - has ultimately formed me.
I grew up in Pietermaritzburg, a small South African town commonly known for it’s proximity to a much more exciting settlement - Durban.
My upbringing was filled with tribulation; I was aggressively bullied in primary school by both the “educators” and pupils and deprived of almost all opportunities as the “school” enthusiastically engaged in nepotism.
Furthermore, the institution only recognized talent in sciences and mathematics as being talent worth developing and shining a light on.
This was a time of intense isolation and I had a choice to make: give up the conflict within myself and the outside world and conform to the standards that the people around me set, or devise coping mechanisms. Thankfully, I chose the latter.
I invested in drowning myself in my key interest - arts and culture. Through this investment I realised who I was - an oddball, an activist, a writer, a proudly Indian man and consumer and creator of art.
I managed to embrace this identity and showcase it to the rest of the world.
The strength to be visibly myself came from watching my older sister being unapologetically herself. And, with constant reassurance from her, I was able to come out of my damaged shell and move forward. Even though that movement was at snail’s pace.
“You just gotta keep going, dude," she would say encouragingly.
[ABOVE: The George to my Fred, my sister Meshalini Govender and I (note how even at three I’m rocking a Harry Potter T-shirt, when I say I’ve been a fan since day one - I mean it).]
Moving forward was difficult as all around me were reminders of a painful past which, consequently, consumed much of my present. My nights were riddled with nightmares and panic attacks that came as often as blinking resulted in me becoming a completely different person. Above all else, I feared that I was simply not enough.
The hauntings placed intense pressure on me to prove to everyone that I was not who the primary institution folk assumed or said I was - I am who I say I am.
But… this anxiety did good for no one, especially myself. I had not moved at all.
I had tried to flee others’ hateful opinions and words. It was only once I spent much time growing and moving out of my stifling hometown was I able to say I am who I am meant to be.
And, if people don’t like me that’s okay, because I am utterly obsessed with myself.
It’s been a long, tiresome and painful journey getting to where I am today. And, while my journey has been hard and conspicuously different from others’; it is MY journey and I choose where the road goes and ends.
Moral of the story: Being someone who has had to fight for their identity and has had to spend much time discovering and developing that identity, I am committed to helping others do the same by starting a conversation on what it means to be human when your way of being, appearances, and realities are hindered by inhumanity.