When people start to celebrate “decorative gourd season” in late autumn, I roll my eyes. In my family, we have always had a decorative gourd called a calabash. Made from a dried and hollowed-out calabash plant, these gourds have served everything from wine to beer to porridge for Kenyan families like mine. Because they feed and comfort, they hold a special place in the household; if you break one, prepare to be disowned. We got ours from a raffle at a Kenyan event in Toronto.
While home is an intangible quality that you cannot pack into a suitcase when you are uprooting your whole life, my parents had to have this item. For them, this was a way to get hold of something that reminded them of where they come from.
I came to this country when I was young enough to remember, so I always knew that I was not “from” Canada. I had another heritage and identity, another family and home. These gourds have always anchored me to a whole other history and identity in which to ground my blackness.
According to the commonly accepted definition, a third-culture kid is someone who was raised in a culture outside that of their parents for a significant portion of time. In my experience, one of the ways this has worked is that I have a very long and rotating list of answers to the question “Where are you from?” (I would like to use the answer “my mother’s uterus,” but people are so sensitive.)
The term third-culture kid has its origins in centring whiteness. It was used originally to describe the behaviours and perspectives of children of American diplomats. It has since evolved into an apt way to find a sense of place when home is a question with many answers. The culture I’ve developed is both unique to me and one that I share with other people who are officially “from” Canada, but are “of” Africa.
As a kid, Black History Month always felt like it was for “them” — other black people with roots in the Americas, whom I was not. The “official” Africa, the kind I learned about in Canadian schools, had little to do with my particular world. It was rarely the Africa I know. The Africa I know is of ugali na mayaye (thick flour porridge and eggs); of mothers and aunts drinking chai while fathers and uncles drank pombe (beer); of this one time no one was watching and I ate a whole bag of salt; of another time my brother and cousin wore women’s shoes and rode bikes in the street that led up to our house, or of cacophonous, chaotic Nairobi. It was not the Africa that surrounded me in community events, family barbecues and nights of dancing. That other Africa lacked specificity and warmth. It was Disney’s anesthetized wilderness, and never what I know to be home.
As a kid, I’d make up fun stories of what Africa was like. I would put together things that were true with things that were outright lies, and watch people accept both as gospel. If you believed monkeys stole my bread, then you also believed I had a pet giraffe. If you believe my family walked across Kenya to get to the airport, then you believed I was named after Queen Victoria because they named the lake after her. (For the record: true, lie, lie, true-ish.) Absent any real information and context, Africa is a non-place and thus any story about it can be reasonably true.
I didn’t realize how much this frustrated me until years later. I thought I read books about African princesses and girls because I liked those stories. I focused on black histories — the Harlem renaissance, the Civil War, the many women who led the civil rights and African independence movements — because I thought they were cool stories. As an adult, I see now that I was starving for representation. While black history taught about people who looked like me, it usually didn’t include communities like mine. The lessons I learned about my people ended up being ones that I taught myself.
In her “Formation” music video released earlier this month, Beyoncé said my blackness is valid and beautiful in all its complexity. I didn’t know how much I needed to hear that. I saw her celebrating the joys and tragedies of black southern American womanhood, and I heard that my Africaness is a part of blackness and yet a whole world unto itself. It’s one thing to say Black is Beautiful among ourselves, but it’s another thing to see the idea rack up millions of views and endless conversation.
There’s a type of white person who can rattle off his or her heritage like it’s a Nigella Lawson recipe: one-quarter Scottish, three-fifths French, chopped olives and one cup Portuguese, with a dash of Italian seasoning. I’m sort of jealous. It’s a partitioning of their whiteness that I cannot (and really, will not) do to my blackness. I am 100 per cent Kenyan: my forehead, nose and eyes saturate the faces of the Kisii highlands. I am also 100 per cent black, because I lotion my skin, spend days doing my hair, and love how loud we can get. I can’t pull the two things apart. I wish people would stop asking me to.
I love them separately yet equally. As one.
Vicky Mochama is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She writes Not Sorry, a weekly humour newsletter.
May we have a moment of your time?
Our public funding only covers some of the cost of producing high-quality, balanced content. We depend on the generosity of people who believe we all should have access to accurate, fair journalism. Caring people just like you!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.