Returning to your childhood home – my journey

Ishay Govender-Ypma reflects on her returning to your childhood home, the changes that make visiting difficult and the constant pull to return. For Visi Magazine.

Essays Ishay Govender-Ypma-page-001

Each year I return to our family home that rests at the bottom of steep road. The suburb has faded somewhat into decrepitude, similar I suppose, to many other lower middle class South African neighbourhoods. This senescence has, in part, been brought on by a generation of children who have left in search of the plusher districts our parents’ weighty sacrifices have afforded us, and the influx of those who long to own or rent a three or four bedroom house but lack any spare cash for the up-keep. My childhood neighbourhood, generous in its wide views, as the roads shimmy up and down the hills, yet sombre with the accumulated mildew of summer rains and wet-hot humidity, has sagged under the weight of these changes. And yet, my annual homecoming to my only childhood home (apart from the first three years when we lived with my grandparents in their council home in Durban) brings with it a sense that is more than comfort. It is, for all its latent complexities, about belonging.

Visiting our parents at home carries vestiges of the bitter and the sweet. I lean on the words of Pascal Mercier in Night Train to Lisbon: “We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”

I relive this at our whitewashed house with the sunken lounge and my Lilliputian 10 square meter bedroom. Inside the room I am seven with a growing obsession for playing shop by neatly rearranging my shelves (a passing phase, sadly), I am twelve and writing a self-conscious love letter, I am fifteen and dreaming, through angst-ridden poetry (all of it awful) of a different life.

I marvel at the flight of black stairs that leads to our front door. As a child I had considered calling our house triple-storied because of these stairs; I imagined it would make us sound posh. Perhaps the concept remained with me – my own home was built up to include a second floor. (Third storeys in this neighbourhood are frowned upon.)

In the yellowing kitchen that has repaired and up-cycled the same dishwasher and oven for nearly 28 years, my mother prepares an endless feast of favourites. Her movements have slowed, and this strikes me sharply. Still, her curries, pickles and stews are made with exacting care. While we’re working, her laughter tinkles through the open kitchen door. It’s like the sound of a small bell ringing, abundant in joy and embalmed in love. I recall her always laughing heartily at our jokes, even when they were clumsy and punch line-less. Long before I owned my own home, I had deduced from her example that a house with laughter softening it, was one I wanted to come home to.

I also knew I’d like wooden floors in my own house one day. The gleaming parquet floors at home are still pleasingly cool underfoot and used to be perfect for sliding across the passage in socks as we charged after our cat in her boisterous kitten phase. I knew though, from all the effort my mother and our domestic cleaner lavished over polishing and shining it, mine would need to be a breeze to maintain. Bamboo, it turns out, is exactly that.

I sometimes imagine the same childhood, transplanted to the suburb I live in now, 1556 kilometres across the country. Here the roads are broad and flat, with a park one minute away and a family-friendly cyclist’s path. When I was eleven I would sneak up the road on my bicycle, generating a burst of power by pedalling fast from our short concrete driveway. We were forbidden from riding on the roads – there were no sidewalks, the streets bubbled and rose unevenly with umpteen cars hurtling by. We earned our dose of ‘park time’ by walking home from school through an incline mud-path clogged with unfriendly Black Jack thorn bushes, and mulberry trees that we raided for snacks. Mostly though, we played in the tiny garden that my father mowed religiously, and along the driveway, acting out scenes from Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl books and calling our mother for glasses of Nesquik.

It’s taken me many years to realise that there are things in me that I can find again only by going back there.


Ishay Govender-Ypma is a former commercial law attorney and a freelance writer covering people-led stories about culture, travel and food. She tweets and instagrams microstories at whim, and advocates for change for Foodbank SA, Learn to Earn and other social welfare causes. Elected a M&G Top Young South African 2014

  1. Where and when were you born?

I was born in Durban in 1979 – clinging on to the 70s so I reckon I am justified in liking Earth Wind & Fire.

  1. Where do you live and why?

I live in a quiet, old suburb in Cape Town – a visually arresting city that is lagging behind in transformation, and keeps me on my toes.

  1. What is your favourite feature of your home?

The kitchen. It opens up to a library/lounge and is where we spend time with our family and friends. It’s also been very useful for filming and shooting with magazines, a feature I never considered at all when we built it.

  1. What is your most obscure obsession/hobby?

Not obscure in my opinion, but I don’t know many who have a spice library from travels stored in the spare fridge. The entire thing is filled with spice packages and parcels. I think I may have some from eight years ago – speaking of which, it needs a bit of a refresh.

  1. What is the most unbelievable/unlikely thing about you?

I may be soft-spoken but I’m not quiet about the bigger issues. I’m trusting my instincts more and calling out injustice, poor behaviour and plain-old deceit if it would benefit a whole. I’m doing it on my social pages too, at the risk of annoying or offending those who’d rather sit on a fence. I figure if I had to die tomorrow, the one thing that would bring me peace is knowing I tried to influence at least one person to dig deeper. My brother mentioned that my stance has inspired him to speak out against racism at work and with his friends.

  1. What is your life’s biggest accomplishment thus far?

I’ve had some career changes along the way – I’d say it transpired organically. I’ve finally taken up writing seriously, something I’d always loved. It took a long time to work up the courage to do it.

  1. What would you do if you won the lottery?

I’d split my time between travelling and writing non-stop and putting my wallet where my mouth is, in terms of the causes I support, and the many others I wish I had the time/money to back – like Survival International.

  1. What do you do to save electricity in your home?

We have solar panels for the geyser and to heat the pool and we have been in the habit of only using a light or appliance if needed. My stove is gas-operated – now to get a solar-powered laptop battery.

  1. What is your Twitter handle and/or website?

Twitter/Instagram/Vine @IshayGovender. Find me at