I may not be able to speak the language but I’m proud of where I come from

Language is an integral part of any culture and is often seen as one of the strongest identifying factors for any cultural group. Preserving one’s language and culture is, to a degree crucial for preserving the identity of a people.  As the world becomes smaller and more people grow up outside of their country of birth, many children of first-generation immigrants are not being taught their mother tongue. Some contend that is causing the systematic dilution of many of the world’s cultures.

The issue of language as a part of identity is something that a few Hollywood stars have had to contend with. A few years ago, I read an article on the Latino community in the United States of America questioning Jessica Alba’s claim to her Latina heritage because she could not speak Spanish.  The third-generation Mexican-American defiantly responded to the criticism of her Spanish-speaking skills with a barrage of provocative statements. She has been quite outspoken about the fact that she believes it should not be held against her. At the same time, she has always expressed a deep sense of pride in her family history but was never taught to speak Spanish growing up.

Similarly, Naya Rivera, Rosario Dawson and Selena Gomez are also among the many Hollywoood personalities of Latino descent who are not fluent in Spanish.  Some of them observe many of the practices undertaken in their countries of origin and have articulated a desire to speak the language fluently. Like Alba, they feel that whether or not they speak Spanish should not define them as Latinos. The rest of Hollywood and the USA generally sees these celebrities as Latino despite the fact that some Spanish-speakers reject them because they may not consider them to be true representatives of the Hispanic community in the USA. A few of these stars have also voiced a reluctance to speak Spanish in public for fear of ridicule and judgment.

I can to a large extent empathise with the criticism Latinos in Hollywood endure. I’m a second-generation immigrant who never picked up her mother tongue fluently. At times I’ve faced condemnation for claiming that I am a Zambian when asked the question: “where do you come from?” Some people have said I’m not a “proper” African because I can’t speak any indigenous Zambian languages fluently. Personally, I don’t feel that I have to speak any Zambian language to be considered a true Zambian. Due to circumstances beyond my control, it was never to be. I’ve since established that immigrant parents don’t pass on their language to their offspring for a variety of reasons including to help their children fit in to their new environment or to talk about them without them knowing LOL. Whatever the reason, it’s not fair to slate someone for not being able to speak his or her native language.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was born in the United Kingdom to Zambian parents. Although I can’t speak either of my parents’ languages fluently I have a good ear for my mother’s language – Bemba. Trying to speak it has always been a challenge for me so I often respond in English when spoken to in Bemba. My parents have made a number of attempts to teach my brother and I their languages, mum more so than dad. However, they regret not making a more concerted effort to teach us when we were much younger which they regret and I am also slightly saddened by. This is probably related to the fact that I sometimes feel like I don’t truly belong. Generally-speaking, it would be great to be able to speak to my relatives in vernacular just to feel a little closer to them although many of them do speak English anyway.

At present, I’m a little more reluctant to become fluent in Bemba. Whenever I have attempted to speak the language I’ve been met with mockery from some of my friends and relatives. This can be off-putting at times so I understand the hesitancy to publically speak Spanish on the part of celebrities like Selena Gomez. It may not be too late to pick up either Bemba or my father’s language, Lenje, fluently but I see little reason in doing so. As far as my future life plans go, I don’t see myself settling permanently in my country of origin so I don’t believe it’s completely necessary for me to learn it as harsh as that may sound. But this does not mean that I’m not proud of my Zambian heritage. Frankly, I do not believe that learning a Zambian language will make me any more Zambian than speaking English as a first language makes me feel any more British.

Language is something that can be used to shame, exclude and belittle people. Not speaking a language can, but, should not be a barrier to fitting in within your cultural group. It should not give people license to deliberately exclude another person or label them a phoney. Cultural identity encompasses many different aspects. As important as language may be it is not the only defining factor when it comes to culture and within one culture there can exist many variants. In the interests of keeping many of world’s indigenous languages alive perhaps I, and others like me, ought to make more effort to learn our native languages in spite of the scorn we may face. At the same time, if my own parents did not see the merit in preserving their language or did not give it much thought I feel that I should not be expected to want to pick it up fluently. In an age where we are becoming more blended and cross-cultural relationships are increasingly prevalent, the ability to speak the language of your native country shouldn’t play a huge role in determining your identity.

Cultural differences: the theme of identity as explored in the poem Jardin de France

Calme jardin

Grave jardin

Jardin aux yeux baissés au soir

Pour la nuit

Peines et rumeurs

Toutes les angoisses, bruissantes de la Ville

Arrivent jusqu’à moi, glissant sur les toits lisses

Arrivent à la fenêtre

Penchée tamisées par feuilles menues et tendres et pensives

 

Mains blanches

Gestes delicats

Gestes apaisants

 

Mais l’appel du tam-tam

          bondissant,

                   par monts

                             et

                             continents

 

Qui l’apaisera, mon cœur

A l’appel du tam-tam

         bondissant

                  vehément,

                                lancinant?

                                                                                                Léopold Sédar Senghor

 

Translation:

 

Calm garden

Serious garden

Garden with eyes lowered to the evening

For the night

Pain and murmurs

All the anguish, murmuring in the Town

Almost coming to me, sliding on smooth roofs

They arrive at the window

Leaning over, filtered through minute and tender and thoughtful leaves

White hands

Delicate gestures

Appeasing gestures

But the call of the tam-tam

leaping

over mountains

and

continents

Who will appease my heart,

Who has the call of the tam-tam

jumping

          vehemently,

                   throbbing?
I’ve never really been into poetry and it’s extremely rare that I will find a poem interesting, let alone inspiring. However, when I read the poem Jardin de France in Grade 12 French class, it completely changed my take on poetry. It had a very profound effect on me and has since become one of my favourite pieces of writing.

Written by prolific Senegalese writer, poet and politician, the late Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001), Jardin de France is a simple yet engaging poem about identity. To avoid this sounding like a lecture, I won’t go into an in-depth analysis of the poem but rather just discuss why it spoke to me so much.

First, a little bit of background on the man behind Jardin de France. Senegal’s first President lived a long and fascinating life.  Born and raised in Joal near Dakar, Senegal, Senghor was a bright and curious scholar who excelled at the study of language and literature. He won a scholarship to study in Paris, France where he completed his tertiary education in French grammar and literature. It was in Paris where he met his close friend and fellow student, Aimé Césaire. Together they developed and asserted the notion of “négritude” (the idea that black culture needs no validation from any other cultural group. It exists and is valid in its own right). This is essentially what Jardin de France and many of his other literary works are about.  Learn more about Senghor’s remarkable life story and political career at: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/leopold-sedar-senghor.

As I mentioned, Jardin de France is about identity and more specifically about the poet’s newly-acquired double identity. The garden imagery in the first half of the poem gives the reader a sense of the tranquility – albeit marred by anguish and struggle at times – of the poet’s life in France. This is in direct contrast with the second half of the poem which has a decidedly different tone. The metaphor of the “tam-tam” drum introduced in verse 13 represents the poet’s country of origin and is used to demonstrate the restlessness of his heart as well as his ‘Africanness’ bubbling beneath the surface. The last two stanzas are also deliberately structured in such a way as to illustrate the space and freedom of Africa while changing the rhythm of the poem to that of a drum beat. Senghor had been instructed in the ways of the European and had, to some degree, become assimilated into French society, but his heart would always beat African and he longed for the freedom and vibrancy of his continent. The poem is essentially a juxtaposition of the calm image the poet projects to the world as that of a refined gentleman against the tumult he feels within at being away from the motherland.

Jardin de France explores the theme of identity in a simple yet beautifully poignant manner. The poet, though calm on the surface, felt confined and constricted perhaps because he felt he could not truly be himself amongst the Europeans.  His two personalities were at odds with each other which caused him to experience this identity crisis of sorts. This really resonated with me because there are times when I often feel as if I don’t really fit within any cultural grouping. I was born in the United Kingdom to Zambian parents but I didn’t grow up in either place. I am proud of my heritage as it will always be a big part of who I am and I feel a deep spiritual connection to both my country of origin and country of birth. Nevertheless, I also feel it is somewhat unfortunate that I cannot say I have experienced any kind of longing for a place I could call home. I believe this why I was so taken by this poem which is a powerful expression of patriotism and nostalgia.

There is no doubt that having a strong sense of identity means a lot to us as human beings and plays a significant role in shaping many of our desires and goals for the future. Moreover, feeling as if we have lost our sense of self can have some devastating effects on the psyche as this poem so amazingly illustrates. Reading up on Senghor’s background and the notion of négritude also made me appreciate it that much more. I found it to be an insightful  literary work with a simple yet profound message about identity.

Here’s to a new chapter: my very first blog

I recently finished reading Americanah by acclaimed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and it was one of the most inspiring books I have read in a long time. Adichie is a truly phenomenal human being with an exceptional talent for writing and has, I must confess, become my new obsession. But more on that later. I had been toying with the idea of starting my own blog for a while now and had a million and one topic ideas. I have such varying interests ranging from fashion to gaming so settling on one particular subject matter proved to be extremely difficult. Reading Americanah really helped to me give some perspective. This incredible piece of literature gave me the necessary impetus to finally get this project off the ground so here we are.

I decided to write about IDENTITY which is undoubtedly a huge part of being human and soemthing I’ve always been fascinated by. Not only does the need for love and belonging feature on Abraham Maslow’s famed hierarchy of needs but the need for self-actualization can be found at the apex of this hierarchy. I don’t just take his word for it though, I believe wholeheartedly in the significance of defining who you are as a person and the profound impact it has on your present and future. Having been born in Europe to African parents and having had the privilege of travelling to different countries has made me accutely aware of how different my life would have been had I grown up in the ‘motherland’. We’ve been back on the continent for a number of years now but we still live outside our country of origin. We do occasionally visit the extended family there but for me personally, I’ve never really felt like I belonged.

Now that I’m in my 20s I have embarked on this path of self-discovery and for the first time in my life I have finally come to accept myself for me as opposed to trying to be who I think I should be if that makes sense. I’ve adopted a take me or leave me attitude and I’m so much happier for it. I intend for this blog to be a space to share a few experiences and anecdotes on growing up in the African diaspora. Significantly, what I’m looking to get out of the blogging experience is a chance to make some connections and hear from other people with similar experiences. I would also love to know the thoughts of those who may not necessarily relate to or agree with everything I say.

This is the Diaspora Baby – developing a sense of identity when you grow up outside your country of origin.