by Debbie Camara
Being a child born of parents from two ends of the continent, a West African father (Guinean) and Southern African mother (Zambian) has its perks and quirks. For one, growing up in a multicultural environment exposed me to a wider variety of cuisine, music, languages and cultural tendencies than my peers would have heard of. In the beginning it was fun- I liked being the girl in the group that knew a bit more than my peers about different peoples. My friends would often ask me questions about almost anything, including cultures I had no idea about. This ignited a curiosity that made me research a little more about different cultures and peoples. So while my friends spent time reading Cinderella and Rapunzel, I usually had my nose buried in some 500-page book that talked extensively about different peoples and ways of life. Truth be told, I didn’t even understand half of what I read, I must have been in grade 4 or 5. Nonetheless it was a lot of fun and I’d spend hours each daydreaming about these strange people in strange lands, and couldn’t wait for the day I’d be old enough to travel and explore, meet all these people I’d read about, and experience their ways of life.
As I grew a little older, I began to notice that while I boasted knowledge of so many peoples and places, I really had no cultural knowledge I could call my own. The little knowledge I had about my father was not sufficient for me to call it mine. Worse still, I could not even speak his mother tongue. My mother’s culture was also practically non-existent in our home. So when my peers attended ‘moye’, a traditional initiation ceremony that introduced young girls to womanhood, I was not a part of it, and after they graduated from it, they did not need my cultural trivia but instead had something more solid, something of their own. Because I was not privy to these sacred traditions, they treated me like an outsider and ‘not really a woman’. I was no longer one of them.
It was at this point that I truly felt that I did not belong. I was Zambian by birth, but could I truly claim to be Zambian when I lacked the knowledge and necessary traditions to be recognised and accepted by my peers as such? Oh well, it did not matter, I thought. At least I had my Dad’s, albeit shaky, cultural leanings. So you can’t imagine the shock I felt, the first time I heard the word ‘tabushi’ or ‘baya’, derogatory words that meant outsider, someone born of a West African father and non-West African mother. This meant, essentially, that I could not claim to be Guinean, and even if I did, I would be a second class one, not an original. One cannot begin to understand the confusion I felt- if I was neither Zambian nor Guinean, what was I? This confusion would linger on for a really long time. And although I had friends and family of both ‘genuine’ Zambian and Guinean descent who obviously saw me for who I was (whatever that was) and accepted me unconditionally, I did not accept myself because I did not know who I was, not really. This state of confusion and non-acceptance of self, lasted from my early teens to about my early twenties, when yet again I found myself in another strange land where I’d gone for my tertiary education.
Zanzibar is a predominantly Muslim state and being Muslim, that should have made it easy for me to fit in. Nonetheless, the cultural shock was overwhelming! One thing was sure though, I did not try to fit in or identify myself with any particular group (Zanzibar is a very multicultural place and my university was multinational). For the first time in my whole life I knew who I was, I was a foreigner. Nothing made me happier than knowing exactly who I was at that moment. They (Tanzanians) did not care about either of my parents’ origins. I was simply a foreigner and both they and I were content with that. I did not have to prove to people that I belonged with anyone, I just had to be myself and they would accept me for who I was. And they did. I realised that through all these years that I suffered an identity crisis, I was in the process of creating a new being, not someone that my mom’s family could identify with, or my dad’s. In all that confusion I had sifted through all the cultural leanings I’d been exposed to from an early age, through books, contacts with people and even what I saw on the TV to become what I’d become, a multicultural African child.
Moving away from my country of birth, being away from home and my usual surroundings opened up my eyes and gave me the confidence to be nothing but myself, to be who I was as an individual, and most importantly, to accept myself. I realised that with self-realisation and acceptance, I did not need anyone’s approval to be an original this or genuine that. In fact, because I had identified and accepted myself, everyone readily accepted me with no questions. Five years after my stay in that “foreign country” which had become a home away from home, I came back to Zambia, and it too felt like home. For the first time I did not need to be identified by a cultural label, I had defined who I was, and with that knowledge and confidence, I came back and fit right in. After all, people only treat us the way we project ourselves to be treated…. I came back, spiced with all the goodness of different African cultures. It was impossible for me to be Zambian or Guinean alone, I was one thing and everything all at once….an African child, a cocktail, of mixed blessings and encounters.
Image: Knife edge bridge near Victoria Falls.
Attribution: By Someone35 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons