The Perpetual Guest: Where Are You From?

“Where are you from?” I always smile to myself when I get this question. Most people expect a clear cut answer, one where Home is a defined, concrete area but that is simply not my truth. Such an expectation comes from the rather static concept of identity we seemed to have developed as a society over time. In an increasingly interconnected world, perhaps it is time we start thinking of our culture and identity in terms balance versus absolute truths. We have to accept a growing reality in the multicultural world that immigration creates: many people no longer identify with just one culture. This gives space for an emerging sector, that of the cultural hybrid. This happens in various degrees and the implication stretch far and wide from the effects on the concept of the nation state to the formation of individual identity.

In the wake of wide spread “globalization” a lot of attention has been given to the immigrant. The conditions in which the african immigrant comes to be are varied. Most of us are familiar with the Africa to the West direction first marked in the seventies, usually composed of economic migrants. You also have those who left for academic purposes on various bursaries and lottery winners. One subset of African immigrants that gets very little attention is the African immigrant with Africa. The dynamics in place for this immigrant are such that he tends to always feel like a guest.

Allow me to give you a brief overview of my upbringing. My parents are originally from Cameroon but I was born and raised in Ivory Coast. The latter is a country that is very welcoming to foreign nationals who make up about twelve percent of the population. While I knew I was Cameroonian (my passport told me so) my main connection to this country was through bedtime stories, food and monthly meetings the Cameroonian community my family belonged to organized.

French is the official language in Ivory Coast and as such my parents thought it natural to send us to a french primary school. I went to Groupe Scolaire Jaqcues Prevert. The parentals then decided to enrol me into The British School of Lomé, Togo. They happen to come from one of two english speaking provinces in Cameroon so we grew up with both languages in our household. Additionally they had ensured that we watched cartoons both in french and english to ensure we had a healthy grasp of both languages. The switch between school systems caused little discomfort. Both schools were international (though populated predominantly by africans of various nations) so I was always surrounded by people of different cultures. In my early years I never really thought of my nationality passed the passport level. Beyond the African cup of nation and the world cup where my nationality was a shining beacon of pride fed by a competitive spirit, being Cameroonian was just another label akin to girl, student, book lover: central to my identity yet not all encompassing. The ghost of my foreignness always loomed over me, not threatening but as a marker of my difference.

My educational environment afforded me a lot of peculiar opportunities. One area that was particularly affected by this multicultural upbringing was my choice of reading material. I have always been an avid reader. Hemingway or Arundhati Roy, if it’s written I’ll read it. It wasn’t until half way through secondary school that I realized I had almost never read anything about an African by an African. I had an english teacher who was very insistent on teaching books that were not in the english literary canon. The first african novel I read was Sembène Ousmane’s “God’s Bits of Wood”. In it, I saw a story that was unfamiliar yet mine. I started becoming more aware of my continent’s history. Over time I was exposed to more material which allowed me to widen my perspective not just on who I am but what it means to be human. My literary and cultural upbringing led me to accept the singularity of the human condition but there was a disconnect between this knowledge and how I saw myself portrayed in relation to others.

Due to the tumultuous history the west has with our continent, a negative light is shed on those who happen to identify with them. I was raised in a way where I saw flaws and merits in both cultural influences. It is inevitable that I would grow up accepting both as part of who I was. I love foutou banana and sauce graine but I wouldn’t pass up a good steak either. The idea that if I accept one I must deny the other needs to be challenged. This our obsession with compartmentalization has lead to a strict binary of the self and the other, the native and the foreigner. My upbringing has lead me to realize that the relationship between the self and the other is much like a mobius strip, one constantly influencing the other, always linked. Our attempts to reconciling both cultures have not yet rising beyond the metaphorical level of slapping an ankara pocket on a denim shirt. It tends to ignore the dynamic nature of culture, placing more importance on the static versus the fluid. Where does an individual such as myself fit in this ORGANized world?

Twenty three years later, I am settled in Canada and about to give up my Cameroonian passport for a Canadian one. I want to know why part of me feels uneasy. I was born an immigrant within my own continent and I cannot help but feel like a guest at times. I consider myself an African at my core but I cannot completely identify with any african nation due to my fragmented upbringing. It is not lost on me that my position is one of privilege. Trying to situate myself in african society does not and should not invalidate the experience of those who do not share the position I was born into. When I go to my own village I am treated as a foreigner because I cannot speak my mother tongue. I think and communicate in languages that are not native to my own and I have been influenced by a myriad of cultures. I am constantly bombarded with conflicting ideas of what it is to be African. If what I am is not a real african then what is?

Over the years my answer to the question “where are you from?” has been varied. Now when asked, I will tell you I am Cameroonian by blood, Ivorian by birth, West African by association and Canadian on paper. Does my perpetual guest status make me any less african or am I simply part of a growing demographic, an as of yet unclassified subset of the afropolitan world?

Originally published on The Naked Convos.