Serge Kabanda discovers his Rwandan heritage. Born in the Netherlands, and brought up in France and the UK, he finally learns the truth about his ancestry. In part one, he shares his thoughts of why it’s not always easy to answer the question “Where are you from?”.
What’s my heritage?
Where are you from? I thought I knew. Until the day where it all clicked. Suddenly, reality as I had known shattered. I was lost. Where are you from? That wasn’t the question anymore.
“Who are you?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m the French guy, remember?”
Starting secondary school, that’s who I was. After all, I’d gone the entirety of my primary education as that, who I was to question it? I had lived in France, with my French name, French language with the now-sort-of-English accent. Starting at a new school, it didn’t seem as I had anything to worry about; nothing major anyway. After all this time, I could actually speak the language. Having forgotten some French at this point, I spoke a combination of English and French at home. My biggest worries were learning to tie my shoelace and learning how to do my tie correctly. But something was different. I noticed it straight away the moment we all asked to gather together for our first assembly.
Black people! Like… LOADS of them!
Now let me explain… Yes, I know I’m black too. You have to understand that at my primary school when I first started, I was the only black guy in my year group, and by the time I finished, there was only a handful us. Not only black people, there were people of all races from different backgrounds in this school, it was reminiscent of living back in France. I was excited, that’s all. The first year made me little wiser (can be argued), but something was changing. Something just wasn’t right. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t be surprised. I was around that age, after all. You grow up and start to figure out who you are. You go through a trial and error until you reach a point that you’re comfortable with who they are; whoever comes out the other side. Maybe this was the same.
“What started this?”
Being black in school
“Blame the black guys why don’t you?!”
“No. No listen, hear me out…”
Like I said, going to secondary school, I was known as the French guy, which continued throughout secondary school. However, I’d look across and see these guys. Confident and proud.
It’s as if they were saying, “I’m Proud”, “I’m Confident”. Why couldn’t I do the same? Was I not proud? Was I not confident? Or, maybe I was afraid? Even… ashamed perhaps? In many ways they were no different from me, could they all speak the mother tongue of their parents’ country, had they stepped on its land? If so, I’m jealous, if not I was even more envious they could be so proud of where they came from. I wanted to be able to do that, but I couldn’t. Why? Well, that’s one question that I knew the answer to.
Where are you from? I knew the answer, I always did. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to answer the question, I just didn’t want to. Maybe the long soliloquy that I’d give when answering that question was to distract others from the truth. However, 4th March 2005, a film would come out which would open the floodgates to a series of changes. I could no longer hide from what I knew to be true. That film, you ask? Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Academy Award-nominated film featuring the now Marvel affiliated actor Don Cheadle.
The Boy With No Country
All of a sudden, there was no escape. It was in my face, whether it was television, radio or billboards on the side of buildings and of buses. A film which depicts the tragedy that occurred in the country that I’d eventually accept as my heritage.
In ’94, by the time I would reach the age of one, this country had taken the lives of dozens of my family members. Brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, were taken from us before I could form sentences. If it wasn’t for my uncle, who had advised my mother, his sister, against visiting, I too might be a memory. My uncle, along with close to a million lives, was taken from us. Rwanda was taken from us. In our homes, you will see photographs of those who’ve left us too soon. Yes, I was ashamed. I was too young to understand the rich history and culture that preceded it, the resentment I felt caused me to distance myself this country.
I was the boy with no country. As much as I could tell people that I’m Dutch, or French, or even British, my papers always highlighted the same thing. Refugee.
My Rwandan Heritage
Then who was I?
My outlook and position on Rwanda changed after my first trip to Africa. Well, not quite Africa, I was next door in Mauritius. It was my first time outside the UK not named USA, surrounded by an entirely unique culture. This was an experience that really shook up my mentality. It showed that, despite the darkness of one’s history, something precious and beautiful was there. Obviously, at the time, I was probably too young and not cognisant of this, however in hindsight, I can appreciate that moment as a turning point in my life. I was ready to embrace my history, the good, the bad and the ugly, the whole package.
Mauritius taught me that if you look past the surface, you’ll find something that might just surprise you. This experience helped me build the courage to accept my history, my heritage. And so, I can begin learning more about my country. I would question my parents, snoop in on conversations between uncles and aunts, and listen to the stories of my grandparents’ lives and upbringing. Slowly, a mental image was being constructed of what Rwanda was like before it was torn. How they played, learnt and lived. I travelled around the world and learnt about other countries’ cultures. Gradually, I became more accepting of my Rwandan heritage. Furthermore, I was becoming comfortable with it.
Who are you?
Where are you from?
These questions didn’t bother me anymore, but there was still one crucial thing for me to do. I had to walk on the land that my parents, their parents, and their parents walked on. I had to explore Rwandan birthright and see it for myself.
Stepping out that Rwandan airport, I felt awesome. Like a footballing hero bringing home the World Cup. Like a Michael Jackson stepping out on stage doing the moonwalk. There were no crowds to welcome, to them, it’s just a regular day, but that’s how high I felt. It was an experience like no other, it felt like Kanye West’s song Homecoming was playing regularly throughout that week. If I had an ounce of resentment or hatred in my heart, it had vanished by the time I boarded the plane to leave this land. Staying in chalets in the mountains to visiting my uncle’s grave. Visiting family who had piles of straw for beds. Coming face-to-face with a bull. Today, I have a new appreciation for the culture that I was brought up into and how fortunate I was to be in the position that I was in.
Did it matter that I still couldn’t speak the language? Nope though I’m working on it. One day, I’ll return. When that will be? Who knows, but it’ll happen. Someday, I’ll write about the Rwanda in a separately and talk more about some of the things I had discovered.
Take your time
This is a story of how I was once lost, searching for who I was, and how I found out more about my country, ultimately I finding myself and gaining an identity. I’m not the first who has ever wondered who they were, and I certainly won’t be the last. For some, they will discover who they are overnight. For others, it may take decades. Whether it’s sexuality, religion, career, or in my case, nationality, it’s not an easy process. It’s definitely not a walk in the park.
But once you find yourself, it’s the most liberating feeling.
Since this story, tragedy struck in Serge’s family, losing his uncle to cancer. You can find part one on his journey in understanding his Rwandan heritage here. An avid photographer and dancer, he also shares what inspires his art in his “Dance with no fear“.