BY MARIJKE NEL
On Sunday, I will step onto a tennis court in Cape Town, South Africa, to represent Canada at the ITF Young Seniors World Tennis Championships. I can't wait to wear the colours and compete as a proud Canadian.
But I am also South African.
I wore the green-and-gold of the Springboks (South African national rugby team) and represented South Africa at the Women's Rugby World Cup in Edmonton in 2006.
At the time, I sang the South African national anthem with deep, patriotic passion and played rugby for my country as if my life depended on it.
Through my participation in that World Cup, I was given the opportunity to come and live and work in Canada.
Now I have been living here for over eight years. I have gained such a deep respect and appreciation for the culture and people of Canada that I wanted to be part of it.
After qualifying to represent the Canadian team at the upcoming Tennis World Championships in Cape Town, I received support from Tennis Canada and Halifax West MP Geoff Regan's office.
My citizenship application was granted to me on Jan. 17, 2017. The citizenship process manages to capture some of the most special aspects of what it is to be Canadian.
The preparation for the test, which includes Canadian history, culture, sport, as well as a good review of government structure, symbols and geography, all contribute to the realization that one is about to take a profound step. The ceremony itself, then, is quite an emotional declaration of allegiance, witnessed by family or friends, which, from that moment, becomes a new part of one's identity.
Although I had known the Canadian national anthem for a long time, I sang it for the first time at the ceremony. I was finally ready to fulfil the obligation it requires, a loyalty to all it means to be Canadian.
In all this, however, my South African identity was not diminished.
I was adopting a new identity in addition to my existing one, not exchanging one for the other.
I realize that for many that come to Canada, it may be different. But although South Africa is still going through a period of turbulence and transition that is frustrating many of its people, I do not want to deny any part of my South African identity.
It is the country of my birth, the one which has had the largest influence in shaping who I am today. The Afrikaans and Zulu languages and cultures are embedded in the very fibres of my being.
I grew up on a farm in a rural area where I had the idyllic kind of childhood about which novels are written. I consider it one of the most beautiful countries in the world and love taking groups of tourists there every year to share with others what makes it so special.
South Africa is so different from Canada that it is easy to recognize I love it for completely different reasons.
I love how safe and regulated Canada is, how incredibly nice the people are, the opportunities that are available to those willing to work, and how patient Canadian drivers are.
But at times I miss the wild, untamable side of Africa. I love how spontaneous and unregulated South Africa is at times, the colours of its diverse cultures (it has 11 official languages!) and the jovial spirit of "ubuntu" — the African concept of everyone being connected to everyone else.
It is by loving people who have extremely different qualities that one might be able to understand how one could love countries in a similar way. You arrive at a point where you are ready to have allegiance to two countries and to allow your identity to be defined, in part, by both.
I am incredibly thankful for the privilege of dual citizenship.
It was for South Africa that I literally bled and broke bones once, on a rugby field in Edmonton — but it will be for Canada that I will take to the tennis court in Cape Town on Sunday (hopefully without breaking any bones).
I went from playing for South Africa in Canada to playing for Canada in South Africa. There is no question of divided loyalties. I will be a South African Canadian, proudly wearing the Maple Leaf.
Marijke Nel, technical director of Tennis Nova Scotia, is Captain of Team Canada (Women's 45) at ITF Young Seniors World Championships in Cape Town, South Africa which begins Sunday. Six-time Nova Scotia Open Women’s singles tennis champion Nel was Flyhalf for the first Springbok Women's Rugby Team to represent South Africa at a World Cup (Edmonton, 2006).