umaskhenkethe liKHAYA LAM

Nobukho Nqaba


South Africa

Unomgcana or Umaskhenkethe is the Xhosa word for the plastic mesh bag, which is made in China. Unomgcana means 'the one with lines' and Umaskhenkethe means 'the traveler'. In South Africa the bag is more commonly known as China bags, Zimbabwe bags, Khumbulekhaya bags or Mashangaanbag. These bags are ubiquitous and go by many names: the 'Ghana must go home' bag in Nigeria, Bangladeshi bag in the UK, Turkish bag in Germany, Mexican bag in the US and Guyanese Samsonite in the Caribbean. These alienating names reveal something of the anxiety expressed towards the carriers of these bags in the communities they relocate to. These bags have become global symbols of migration - not only across borders but also within countries. They are objects that carry a home and act as a means of survival for one who does not have much.

The bag is a personal reminder of my own migration within South Africa. I have experienced many of the challenges of a migrant and it took me a long time to adjust to life in the places that I have moved to. I grew up surrounded by Unomgcana. I remember when my mother (who worked in Grabouw) would visit our family in the Eastern Cape during the off season. She would bring umphako (treats for the family), which often included a half cooked chicken stuffed with raw onions, lots and lots of apples, and a few items of clothing. During school holidays I would travel to Grabouw and my father would pack my belongings in unomgcana. The bag was an everyday object used by many people travelling from the Eastern Cape to Cape Town. At the Langa bus terminal massive nomgcanas would be packed, with peoples names written onto them to avoid them being lost or mistaken.

This series of photographs reflects on my memories of growing up using the bag. For me it symbolizes a home. I have a love-hate relationship with the bag because for me it is a symbol of struggle - growing up as part of a family with my mother as the breadwinner - we often did not have enough to live on but tried to maintain a stable home. At the same time it reminds me of where I come from and gives me more drive to succeed in life. Unomgcana has always been my companion, throughout my childhood life and journeys. It has been my comfort and my home.

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