Africa has been a part of my consciousness since I was born. I can remember on day at school where the teacher explained the concept of the United Kingdom, accompanied by a map and four different flags. Or the day I first saw a map of Europe; “and these are all the countries!”. More maps, more flags. But Africa? There was no “and this place is called Africa!” moment accompanied by a point on a map. I just was always aware of this place; one of many vague backdrops in the vast world of My Heritage.
I don’t know why it was so clearly present. Maybe it was via my mother, born and raised in the East of the continent until she was 18, somehow passing on her infant experiences to me. Or maybe my grandparents, parcelling up baby gifts for me that came out from their home Kenya. Maybe my Aunt and Uncle and cousins, sending cards and well wishes from Mauritius; unusual postage stamps on the envelope every birthday. I don’t know. Europe was explained to me; America presented itself, but Africa? Africa was just always present in my life somehow.
It makes no sense, as I have far more claim to Europe, Asia, and America. Africa is the fourth continent on my genial tapestry. I first visited “Africa” aged 14 months, and had gone twice more to different places by the time I was 8. I remember once I asked directly: are we African? My Dad’s reply: “Well, maybe. Not really. I don’t know. Before all that we came here from somewhere else.” There it is, the kernel of the issue. This has always been the weird thing for me; this sort of halfway link to Africa.
It is a claim to Africa that I’m not sure I fully hold. The family ties on both sides to Africa go back quite a few generations. My Mum and her siblings are white, but they were born in Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia: raised moving around sub-Saharan Africa until adulthood and emigration. During my childhood I’d come home discussing class hamsters and party bags and it was always completely alien to my Mum. Her childhood experiences involved deadly scorpions, colourful markets, immense rains that flooded your road. There was a wild “pet” giant tortoise that lived in the mint patch in the garden and nobody could get hold of eggs so my Grandmother learned to cook without. My Mum grew up in Africa, and in many ways, she knows Africa, but she’s not African. But what does she know of here? To be born somewhere, to spend your formative years there: that’s more claim than nothing, right?
On my Dad’s side we find some stronger claim to Africa; the family name, originally found in Morocco and Egypt, authentically African – at least, geographically. And Mauritius, splat in the middle of the Indian Ocean and yet categorised as part of the continent of Africa. My Dad’s right though; because everyone in Mauritius came from somewhere else. Mauritius is part of Africa, but there were no native people: only animals long since killed off by white people. All of us Mauritians are descendants of the mix of people that got left behind: forced Asian labour dredged in by the Brits and African slaves that got left behind by the Europeans. Meanwhile, Kenya itself has 43 tribes, each with a different history, language and cultural practice dating back centuries.
I’m not African, and don’t claim to be, but there are still these many strands of my heritage tied up around the continent. My heritage in Africa, my stake of the claim. It only goes back only 600 years or so. Does it count for anything? One of my new Kenyan friends had a different take on things. We had a long talk about colonisation and independence. Kenya and Mauritius both found independence in the middle of the last century. He told me how all Africans – the ancient natives and the recent transplants – are sharing the same struggles. We all grow in that the long shadow left by colonisation. There are the family histories that just stop and start abruptly, the forced westernisation, the struggle for political stability post independence.
“Your country and mine. It’s the British. They messed up everyone.” The Nairobi railway was built by Indians; forced labour that the British sent in by the droves. Many Indian people lost their lives building that track. After the railway was completed, the Indians were just left in Nairobi by the British, and there’s still an Indian community there today. They probably feel as displaced as we do. I could easily have been the child of Indian descendants in Nairobi instead of the UK. I mean, we’re only talking a couple a generation or two ago. My new Kenyan friend told me about this too. “Those Indians, man. They don’t belong here. But it’s not their fault. The British, you know? They mess everything up.” A common theme.
I arrived in Nairobi with a certain set of vague memories in my head, but I left with questions. It’s a mark of my own enduring privilege that I was able to go and work there (even if only for a few days), the same way my grandparents went to Kenya to work for 40+ years. How easy would it be if you swapped the countries of origin around? And as much as I would never describe myself as “African”, even though geographically, we partially are*, I can’t deny the huge legacy that certain parts of Africa have in my heritage. If the only thing that unites the people of this broad continent is the horrific legacy left by white people, then well, so be it. History has not been gracious to any of us.
Normally I get back from trips and my family are nonplussed. We are fully American and Scottish, but I get back from America and Scotland and my family members are all “okay, sure, cool.” But I got back from Kenya and people were falling over themselves to get in touch; in fact, my Aunty and Grandad were even messaging me whilst I was there. They wanted to know if I’d seen a certain bird; tried a certain food; heard a certain sound. My Mum literally squealed when she saw my photo of a chameleon. “It takes me right back to childhood! They were my favourite of all the animals in the garden. Look at his feet!” Africa is where all their memories lie. America and Scotland; sure, that’s good for passports and surnames, but ultimately, Africa is what they know. And that’s my question: what do I know?
I experience Africa as an outsider; I am a tourist, I am passing through. But I feel the same when I go to certain parts of this country and this is where I spent my formative years. And I am as pissed off and displaced as many of the Kenyans I met. The same anger towards our different, yet intersecting, colonial heritage. I see red when I hear people referring to African countries as Africa, when really they mean a specific place. You wouldn’t say you were going to North America if you were going to New York, so why does Africa get the generalisation? Yes, I’ve done that in this post – but I really mean Africa when I talk about my heritage. I’m not confusing a continent for a country. I mean Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Madagascar. The places where my ancestors and my grandparents and my parents lived and knew. The question is where can I know?
*I’d technically be Mixed White-African-Asian if that existed, but it doesn’t. So I’m “Mixed Other” and we know all about that.