Every now and again I will post a guest blog by one of the readers. Anything goes – it is up to the reader to decide what they want to write about. Yes, that is an open invitation. I will draw the line at hypocrits – that is limited to my own views. But this is not about me. This is about Halima.
Halima started commenting on some of my stories because we didn’t agree on everything. But we agree on the most important thing. Our hearts are in Africa. And the blood that runs through our veins are African blood. We are African not because we want to be, but because we are. African makes us who we are. Sometimes she is good to us, but sometimes she is not so good to us. And she leaves a mark. This is the story of Halima. In Halima’s own words…
“I am a 34 year old African born on the continent but moved away when I was 14. I spent my teens in the U.S. and traveling around the world with my family. Spent my early to mid 20’s being a ‘radical’ in Latin American. Late 20’s to early thirties working in non-profit development orgs. I now work in the world of finance and I am a writer as well.”
Often, when lounging around with my older sister Mouna, we talk about our childhood experiences back home in Africa. It’s always about the good times we had before my family moved to the West; our childhood friends, Bata shoes, Telematch, taking the bus all alone when we were six and eight respectively; playing outside unsupervised unlike her American-born children… We remember the cook we had who steamed lettuce thinking it was cabbage, the acerbic househelp, our filthy neighbours in house number nine, sadistic primary school headmistresses…, then talk turns to how lucky we are to have moved away from Africa when we did – when she was fourteen and I twelve; right before we would have been ‘tainted’ by our homeland.
My sister and I, all grown up now, are “done with the idea of one Africa”, which is an odd stance coming from the descendants of a lineage rife with thorough Pan-Africanists. My great-great-great-grandparents on down to my parents were always up to something back home. My forebears founded anti-colonial liberation movements, fought in the Aberdare Range against British soldiers or roamed Ethiopian wastelands warring against the ‘Abyssinian hegemony’. And much more. Before I was ten, I had met three generations of my kin who did horrific time in Britain’s East African concentration camps, more who suffered terror in Oromo liberation wars, some who hid out in caves and dens when things got too bad, another who was raped, tortured and thrown into an open mass grave, only to survive and continue with her liberation struggles. Though my maternal and paternal families didn’t see eye to eye at first (they are from different African nations) and my mother was cast out of hers for marrying my father, in our home, we were safe and life was a democracy.
My parents were ‘Educated Modern Africans’ and our home was filled with all kinds of people; non-Africans my folks had studied with abroad and couples like them who were in intertribal/interethnic marriages. Mouna and I never felt restrained, limited or unintelligent. We knew we were different, but it was never a constraint.
Mouna told me last week how when he was alive, Dad insisted that we should view ourselves as Africans only and never feel the need to belong to a so-called tribe. We only spoke the lingua franca at home and to this day, when my sister and I are speaking, we do so not in Orominya or Kikuyu(though we understand both); we switch between Kiswahili and English, because anything else feels weird.
As children in Africa, we only felt the need to belong to a tribe when visiting either of my grandparents’ homes – mostly because the kids in our extended families laughed at us for being ‘in betweens’. My mother’s family had come around the minute Mouna was born and though my father wasn’t a regular visitor at their home, Mouna and I fully belonged to them and were loved completely. On the flip side, we always felt uneasy at my paternal relatives’ homes; like they held a grudge against us for not being fully ‘theirs’, for being the children of a woman whose roots were so far away, because she was a refugee albeit a second generation one.
After our dad died when I was six, Mom pretty much called it a wrap with them and we were subsumed into her family, though we still spoke only Kiswahili with her and with each other. Some years after my father passed, we moved away to America, and Mouna and I got caught up in Roxanne Chante, Stetsasonic, pink Reebok high-tops and Pro-Style Hair Gel. We had Valley Girl accents for school, our normal accents for our random African friends, Kiswahili at home with Mom and each other, and a comfortable outsider-looking-in identity. We were just tourists here in America. Home was Africa and we would go back there someday. So the first years in America went by peacefully and we were off to university in separate states.
My sister and I both had many friends from all over the continent and belonged to our universities’ respective African students unions. But whereas Mouna’s involvement was cursory and she spent more time with African Americans (she was dating and later married one), my involvement was full force. I was the Secretary of my university’s African Students Union (ASU) and at the time, was caught up with organizing some action or other, inviting speakers, writing letters to free political prisoners, quoting Walter Rodney and plotting our continent’s future with other ‘committed’ friends… generally doing what serious Pan-Africanists do. Though I didn’t see it then, looking back today, it was the only time in my life I hung with a group of Africans I thought were my true brothers and sisters, though whether they viewed me the same way I will never know. In the snowy wilderness of the northeastern United States, for the forty African students at the university, ASU was home. We looked out for each other, shared the same plates, couches and beds and had a common purpose – the upliftment of our continent.
Then we graduated and moved on, and after almost a decade away, I found myself back in Africa, ready to implement all I had learnt in my International Development classes and in the exciting debating sessions I’d had with my uni friends. Immediately after graduation, I’d gotten on the next thing smoking, headed back home to the Africa of my hazy childhood memories, recollections that evoked a nice, warm, comfortable feeling. But of course, in my absence, Africa had grown up, and the rules had changed.
For someone who’d never really thought about it and had been raised by either extremely naïve or extremely intelligent parents, for the first time in my life, in 1995, I finally comprehended that I belonged to a tribe – my father’s – and that they were hated in my home country. My then last name (I have since taken on my mother’s maternal surname to make life easier for myself) was a brand that brought upon me mind-boggling contempt, suspicion and derision. I lost a job because I got into a fighting match with a co-worker who said I belonged to a “tribe of thieves”. A boyfriend and I split up when his Dad made it clear he couldn’t bring “one of those women” home. And the funny thing? I was never fully accepted by my father’s tribal kin since I understood but didn’t speak the language, nor did I identify with the culture I found stifling. So I moved to my mother’s country of origin and hoped to blend in there – at least I ‘looked’ like them and the country really was and is in need of Development, my then specialty.
But you know, her people and the people in power have been having this long drawn-out conflict for centuries (the reason my maternal family moved away in the first place) and I just couldn’t get anything done because I was lumped in with the group of ‘troublemakers’ by virtue of my tribe. Many things transpired in the time I was home again and I eventually called it quits and moved to another hemisphere when I realized that I will never be able to just be me in my country, and that though I will return to my continent to live, it can never be to the place where I was born. I will always be seen as having a mythic tribal identity.
Many, many Africans will never accept that my life and the decisions I make are informed not by a nebulous group mentality or the sense of belonging to a ‘nation’, but by something deeper – my real self – and that this isn’t a ploy, a gimmick or wannabe African buppy intellectual BS. And what’s even more annoying, is that these Africans and arbitrary non-Africans who ‘know’ Africa from The News or a six-month volunteering stint will never comprehend this: that there exist Africans like me who don’t believe in a unified Africa that’s headed to greater heights lump sum. I don’t want to go where it appears so many other Africans are going, with their machetes, tribal hatreds and eyes that see too many communists behind the bushes. I don’t want to go where they are going and that is why I’m done.
I can’t live in a place where we only get along when our rugby team is doing well, or only unite when a racist foreigner has said or done something to one of our countrymen. I can’t live in a place where there is always something negative simmering, where strangers have genuine deep-felt murderous gripes against me, just because I was born into a group that speaks a certain language. It’s just not worth it.