Heritage Month brings about feelings of inadequacy difficult to overcome.

Oliver Twist has nothing on me. I have never related more to the image of a little orphaned boy staring through a rain-streaked window into warmth and happiness than on days such as Heritage Day.

Celebrated every year on September 24, Heritage Day marks the day historians believe King Shaka Zulu died and gives South Africans the chance to honour the cultures that were denigrated during apartheid.

This is why this day is so important. The attempt by corporate South Africa to rebrand the day to an inoffensive and homogeneous National Braai Day goes against the very inspiration behind the holiday.

The freedom to celebrate an aspect of culture unique and important to one’s people highlights just how far the country has come. It also illustrates how much more still needs to be done to ensure pride in our African cultures is not stifled by corporations that mask their corporate interests with images of South Africans of all colours, arm in arm over sizzling boerewors coiled on top of a Weber braai.

As important as this day is, how should it be celebrated when you do not feel a connection to the culture you are so grateful to be free to honour?

How can I emphasise the importance of this day, my own Ndebele heritage, and rally against the tradition being ‘braai-washed’ when I do nothing to celebrate and uplift my culture because I know so little of it?

AmaNdebele are already mocked and labelled as “a dying breed” or urban legend. These jokes are not completely unfounded. Based on data collated during the 2011 national census, isiNdebele is the least popular language in South Africa. Only 2,1% of the country’s citizens are first-language speakers of the Nguni language.

IsiNdebele’s similarity to its much more popular linguistic cousin, isiZulu, may be why my parents chose to worsen the problem and raise us as speakers of the latter instead.

My alienation from my culture is a result of an upbringing many suburban black children are familiar with. Having grown up in predominately white neighbourhoods and attended schools where anything more than four black children in one classroom was a novelty, there were very few of my peers I could engage on any subject beyond what had aired the previous day on the Disney Channel.

The nature of suburbia, where nuclear families live alongside each other but are careful and deliberate in their crusade to never interact with one another, is incredibly isolating.

All this, compounded by the problem of living more than 1 000km away from my extended family, meant I never had the opportunity to participate in cultural traditions or rites of passage and learn through the experience. And that is what belonging to a cultural group can feel like – extended family.

A group of people bound together through shared values, history and expressions of these things provides one with a sense of community.

Cultural alienation does not simply manifest itself in feeling awkward at family events, watching little cousins sing every song with the confidence of familiarity. Being detached from my culture makes me feel detached from myself and my ancestors.

I can never be sure whether these feelings of isolation are mere projections of what I think others are thinking, which I then internalised, or a reality that came with moving to black-majority schools where students were sure of themselves and their positions within their cultural groups.

Jabs at my worse-than-juvenile knowledge of isintu sethu (our culture) by cousins and classmates may have stung at school, but for how long can I hold it against them?

What’s worse is that after a certain age and years in school, our parents and background can no longer be blamed for our lack of cultural knowledge. The onus is on us to learn about our history and uphold our cultural values.

Learning about my culture should not be a burden and my lack of knowledge not a point of shame. It should be seen as an opportunity to develop an understanding of oneself without the feeling of inadequacy that has dogged me for years.

FEATURED IMAGE: Sanele Msiza. Photo: Wits Vuvuzela.