What I've Learned Growing Up In A 'Cultural Mosaic,' Or How I Never Truly Belong

Although I was Somali and Muslim just like everyone else, it seemed as though everything about me screamed “not from here."
Publish date:
August 25, 2014
race, culture, africa, Canada, identity, sense of belonging

In my final year of high school, the history department organized a ten-day class trip to Egypt. For nearly $4,000 it involved all the fun tourist traps the North African country has to offer: a tour of the pyramids, a cruise along the Nile, the chance to experience the history we’d learned so much about.

I didn’t bother asking my parents if I could go because I knew it wouldn’t be possible. They would never allow me to go on a school trip across the world, and it cost almost the same amount of my university tuition they’d be paying the following year.

In actuality, I didn’t want to go to Egypt –- I didn’t really care about history or ten days of organized tourism. As someone who is constantly asked about Africa because of her heritage, my only reason for wanting to go on that trip was to say that I had stepped foot on African soil. Of course, Egypt and Somalia are two very different countries in two different regions of one of the most diverse continents on the planet. But still, it would be nice to finally be able to tell those who ask about my background that, YES! I’ve been to Africa.

Growing up as a second-generation Canadian and an obvious, visible minority, you’re told you’re a part of Canada’s “cultural mosaic.” Unlike our American neighbors, we’re told we are not a melting pot, but rather a country with a myriad of cultures and languages that coexist as one.

It’s a wonderful effort and it sounds great, but it’s never quelled my confusion in regards to my identity. Although I was born and raised in Canada, I’m not seen as fully Canadian. I learned this quickly as a young child when I wore a novelty “I’m Canadian” shirt to school one day. As I was playing in the school yard, my white friend asked me why I was wearing it when clearly, I wasn’t Canadian “like her."

It was the same thing when trying to claim my Somali heritage; I had never been to Africa, let alone Somalia, so how could I say I was Somali?

During July 2013, my father (who works in Nairobi, Kenya, as a consultant) had given me the chance to go with him on his next trip. It wasn’t Somalia, but it wasn’t that far off, so I jumped at the chance to spend time in a country where I wouldn’t be a minority. Although an ethnically diverse city, Kenya would be full of black people, which is something I found comforting. I couldn’t imagine how I’d feel knowing I wouldn’t be the “other,” to know beauty products would be catered to my skin tone and to not have to worry about racism the same way. It was exciting and nerve wracking, I couldn’t sleep our entire journey.

Once we landed in Nairobi, everything around me was refreshingly different. The airport was small and chaotic; the moment we walked past customs, we were in the center of what seemed like hundreds of taxi drivers fighting over passengers. Securing the airport were not for-hire security guards but military police armed with automatic weapons. Despite them carrying the kind of guns I’d only ever seen in video games, they smiled and seemed nice enough. As we drove home, I took note of billboards all modeled with black people, and I felt welcomed.

It didn’t take me long to fall in love with Nairobi, but I also noticed the stark contrast of how I lived compared to others. We were living in an affluent neighborhood with my uncle. We had a driver, and we ate well. It was hard to notice at first as I was staying in our bubble of a neighborhood, but I did notice our driver would lock our doors when we passed certain areas or would close our windows and tell me not to make too much eye contact. As much as I wanted to blend in, people would still notice I was a Western foreigner.

My most bizarre and strange interactions in Nairobi were when white people asked me where I was from. In Canada, it felt like I would be asked that question to establish I was not one of them. But there, it was to create a sort of kinship. They saw me as one of them, another Westerner in crazy Africa. It made me sick -- I wasn’t one of them -- but somehow I was giving off the impression I was their ally.

A few weeks into our trip, my father and uncle had to go to Somalia and although I begged to join them, my dad didn’t feel it was safe at the time. He sent me to Mombasa, a small coastal city by the Indian Ocean to spend time with some distant relatives I had never heard of. He told me they lived in the Old Town populated mostly with Somalis and warned me it would be very different than what I was used to in Nairobi.

“You’re going to stand out a lot and culturally, they’re very traditional. Don’t expect it to be like here,” my father warned me. I checked out the Canadian travel advisory website and read some warnings on terrorist activity and to “exercise a high degree of caution." I was under the impression that none of this mattered to me, because I wasn’t just another dumb Western tourist.

Hours after landing in Mombasa, I knew my father was right. Although I was Somali and Muslim just like everyone else, it seemed as though everything about me screamed “not from here." The dialect of Somali they spoke was difficult to understand and women generally didn’t go outside alone. Everyone in Mombasa I encountered was kind and thoughtful, but it was obvious they saw me as a feeble and naïve Westerner. They assumed being from the West meant I would be easily kidnapped and scammed.

When going out with my cousins, they told me to keep quiet. If the shop keeper heard my North American accent, they would definitely charge them more. Although I enjoyed my time there, I realized I was even more of an outsider than I’d ever been in Canada.

It wasn’t long into my first few months in Kenya that I realized I would never find the homecoming I was expecting. I felt more welcomed and familiar with my surroundings as time went on -- I learned how to haggle at the fruit stand and recognize when someone was being shady. It was great knowing I wouldn’t be the only black person in a room, and I loved the natural beauty of the country. But In the end, it wasn’t home and it never would be. I didn’t identify with the majority of Kenyans and, culturally, I was different.

Being a part of a large diaspora is confusing. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to balance two identities but in the end, I’ve realized it’s perfectly fine to feel like one or the other, both, or neither. I had no choice in where I was born or what country my parents are from and it’s stupid to define myself by these things.

Of course, my heritage and upbringing have shaped my views and experiences, but I’m so much more than just that. I’ve chosen my beliefs, the kind of person I want to be and my values. In the end, I’m fine with not having any strong ties to a country -- it gives me the ability to see the rest of the world with less of a bias and to open myself to more experiences.