Burundians look at me surprised saying “how can you call yourself Burundian, you are American… Listen to that English you speak”. It’s like my accent announces some sort of privilege, one that has never been my own.
They don’t know that while my feet have traveled between two Americas, my soul got lost somewhere in Burundi. They don’t know that my intersecting identities have always been too complex for Canadians or Americans to digest. They don’t know that when I tried to call myself Canadian, I became the token African. The condescending and simplified praises surrounded me “you’re English is impeccable” “I don’t even hear an accent” “how long have you been a refugee here?” “wow your story is amazing”
I swallow hard, to mask the distance I now feel between myself and this curious inquirer, who assumes one archetypal story for the African experience.
“Well I was raised here, which would explain my accent (not that an accent should dictate language comprehension).” “My parents came as students not refugees.” “Amazing?” All I’ve told you is that I was born in Burundi, but after piecing together bits of history, I can tell you have already sensationalised my story.
The expectations of my experience are all too predictable.
When I first really visited Burundi in 2012, I was surprised that I had to defend and simplify my identities, as I’ve always done so. From family I met for the first time, it hurt for them to not want to really get to know me, because they assumed that I was simply a visitor disconnected from the Burundian experience. And too entwined in an American lifestyle to appreciate anything Burundi had to offer. In haste to cover the potential wounds of anticipated criticism, I sensed a lot of self criticism on the part of my family.
“Wow this place is beautiful.”
“Beautiful? No I’m sure its not as beautiful as America.”
“Why don’t you eat?”
“Sorry I’m still a little jet lagged.”
“No, I’m sure you don’t like this. Can I get you something else?”
My family accommodated and provided me with exclusive comforts. All sweet gestures that silently left me feeling alienated and uncomfortable. I wanted to live the essence of Burundian life, share in similar conversations, but that was not the case. I had to overcompensate a lot and almost silence my experiences in the U.S for people to understand that I AM Burundian. Not a “come from” or a distinguished guest that needed to be protected from all realities of living in Burundi. That’s what I missed out on and want back.
In between Americas, my skin made me foreign. They were not my experiences that mattered, but the fact that my brown skin reminds them I am from elsewhere. However in Burundi, it wasn’t my skin, but my experiences having lived elsewhere that mattered. And once again I felt like I had to defend my place.
It has taken 23yrs to recognise that my story is too complex to be simplified. I am not a singular experience, but a collection of the roads I’ve traveled. Having moved around a number of times, I’ve never really been from here or there. In a way, it has endowed me with freedom to weave the parts of each culture I value. A freedom unbound by culture, unapologetic in my story and unsimplified in my reality.
By Carmelle Nitereka, who lives and works in Georgia, USA.