Diary of a Durban Dweller
Lonwabo Zimela

Durban Raised Me
“Sikhumbul’ amagwinya, ibunny chow, ebeachfront,” said my mother and I. We were sharing a sleeper couch in my aunt’s Harlem living room in 1987, reminiscing about home. We took turns naming the things we missed: fried dumplings, bunny chow and the beachfront. But mostly, we remembered family. My mother was a member of the African National Congress (Nelson Mandela’s party) and was imprisoned by the South African government for her antiapartheid activism. We had to leave the country shortly after her release. In one moment I was a sprightly 9-year-old girl whose afternoons were easily spent frolicking in the sand and eating ice cream at the Durban beachfront. In another I was classified a refugee and being ridiculed for my dark skin and teeny fro at my Harlem elementary school. The longing for home swaddled my mother and me in a sweltering blanket at the thought of never getting back to Durban, the city that raised me.

My parents lived in KwaMashu, a segregated township just outside of Durban, when I was born. Theirs was the standard “four room” home assigned to Black families by the apartheid government. These tiny square houses had no indoor plumbing and we shared the bathroom with neighbors. My parents, like many in the community, didn’t have much money, but you could never tell from the way we lived our lives. We were rich with joy and laughter. And style. From the way our small homes were decorated to the imported Florsheim shoes that were so popular among my father’s generation, Durban is a study in personal style and flair.

Ten years after leaving Durban for Harlem, my mother jumped at the chance to go back after the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. One summer I paid her a visit. What was meant to be a brief stay lasted six years. I left my apartment in Brooklyn, a boy and college. My barely-lit Brooklyn space paled in comparison to all the culture and beauty of Durban. I later graduated from the city’s University of KwaZulu-Natal. Everything I had wished for as a child on those Harlem nights was alive again, from the food to my family.

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ESSENCE Festival is going to Durban, Nov 8-13. Get Your Tickets!

After graduating from college, I would move away from Durban and eventually find my way back to Brooklyn after marrying my husband. Fast-forward another ten years and my beloved hometown called for me again when we announced that the Essence Festival was going to Durban from November 8 to 13. I can’t wait for the ESSENCE community to fall in love with my hometown’s vibrant culture, amazing beaches and equally gracious residents. You’ll find me buying boiled corn from a street vendor or grilling meat at a shisa nyama stall. American friends who have visited Durban tell me it’s like New Orleans meets Miami. I call it home.