Serge Kabanda shares his problem with the question “Where are you from?”, having never visited his country of origin and having lived in three countries. Then in part two, he shares how he discovered his African heritage.
A Difficult Question
Where are you from? A common question. Everybody gets asked this at some point right. Everybody has an answer, seriously how difficult can be it? But I’ve had it asked to me a tonne of times throughout my life and will likely be asked it many more times. But for me, it’s usually followed by a small intake of breath, quick look away to ponder and then answering.
It’s a simple question really, or so you would think. But what do you tell people when you have no connection to the town of your birth, leaving that country before you learn the ability to sit up on your own? What do you tell somebody when you cannot speak the language of your origin, much less never having set foot on that continent or breathed its air? How do you answer that question when you’ve been in a country long enough to call it your home, but you’re still a foreigner in the eyes of the natives? Turned out asking me where I was from prompts more questions than answers, but I would answer it nonetheless, usually going into a little monologue to make sure I have covered all the bases.
“Understand now? It’s a little complicated”
“So, you’re French then?”
“So… do you eat frogs and snails too?”
So, where are you from?
It’s wasn’t always that difficult, to be honest. I was born in the farmlands of Almelo, Netherlands. My parents arrived from France a month or so before birth, just to return to France a month later. Was Almelo that bad? Apparently, it’s lovely, but you’ll have to check that one out for yourself. After all, it’s difficult to review a place if your primary thoughts are be breastfed, poop, sleep, repeat (probably why I was such a fat baby in the picture I posted earlier). Anyway, I digress, what I was trying to say was that, having not been in the Netherlands for very long, I don’t have any particular attachment to that country. I like their football team, that’s about it really.
So, are you French?
Yes. For the first 6 years of my life, I guess I was. Hard to tell when you don’t have a passport. Only having refugee papers and a birth certificate to use as identification, I do wonder what the reactions my parents got from school administrators when they would present these papers to them at nurseries and schools were. For those 6 years, I was in French school systems, walking French roads; reading, writing and speaking the French language so that I can talk to my (mostly) French friends before going back to my French HLM apartment. (For those wondering what a life in an HLM is like, watch La Haine. Fortunately, at the age of 6, I was pretty oblivious to the sort things going on around me. Life could have been very different otherwise).
Living in an HLM, especially in Angers, you didn’t see many white faces around (not French anyway) and those that you did see would usually belong to social services, firemen, and policemen, generally being called upon for one reason or another. Those who lived around me knew who they were. You are Turkish, you are Algerian, you are Ivorian, you are Polynesian. I could pretty much name the nationality of all the those that would come and play football with us.
Living in a society they felt didn’t do a great deal to help them; their identity was vital to them. If there were too many people for a game of football, it wouldn’t be uncommon to split between teams into Arabs vs Blacks. It would divide pretty evenly also. It was usually a lot of fun, if no fights occurred that is, or a person’s dog would come to chase the younger ones (often my cousins and I) or bite into the ball. Either way, that dog wasn’t going anywhere until it bit into something.
In the summer of August 1999, I left for the bright lights of London. It’s here where answering the question became a little tougher to answer.
Let’s see how I fared.
But… you are still French, right?
Here I was.
I had crossed the Channel, I was in my first house (rented) as a French boy with my French brother with the French name. With names like Serge and Michel, we didn’t really have to explain where we came from, it was reasonably straightforward that the two boys with the French names with their French language spoken in the French accent could only be from one place. Problem was, nobody told me that the children here do not play like “those kids” from the Paris and Angers HLM (my school in Paris had tyres in the playground that we played with)…
So one of my first lunch breaks, we’re playing football, I go for a tackle with a little extra elbow, to the face of a poor soul into the Stinging Nettle. Face first. Oh all the crying, first from the boy with the nettle in his face, then from me as I knew I would be in trouble with both the Ms Hughes (the only French-speaking teacher) and my mum.
Shit, I certainly didn’t want to piss my mum off.
So now I’m banned from playtime for what felt like an eternity. At least I could spend time practising my English. Before you know it, I was having conversations with friends that I still have to this day. Some of my primary friends would later tell me they would try and teach me English, but all I would do was repeat what they said. But for the rest of primary school, I knew who I was.
I was that French kid at school.
So, are you a Hutu or Tutsi?
“Well… That escalated quickly” – You might be asking yourself.
And yes, yes it did, but it did so for me too.
As I got older, I was gradually beginning to understand more about my family’s origin. Not sure when that was. Not sure when it all started to sink in. Nevertheless, a change was beginning to occur. Slowly, I began to identify more as a Rwandan, but a problem arose during this transition.
Are you Rwandan, if previously in your life you’ve identified as French?
What about if you’ve never set foot on African soil?
If you don’t understand its history or even speak its language?
Then it all clicked, and my world as I had known would change forever…
And so this concludes part 1 of the series, part 2 – “Discovering my Rwandan Heritage” – can be found here. If you’ve ever had the same issue with the question, “where are you from?”, reach out to us on social media or via email. We’d love to hear from you.