The good, the not-so-great and the downright awful: lessons learned from ten months working in my home country


Happy New Year lovely readers! 2018 is finally here and I’m feeling motivated, hopeful and excited about the new challenges and opportunities that await me. Overall, 2017 was a decent one for me despite it not ending on the happiest of notes. The past year was my year of learning and one of my biggest learning experiences, came from a return to my country of origin – Zambia – for ten months as a working adult. I’ve been permanently resident in South Africa for over a decade now and early last year I got an offer to do a consultancy in Zambia which I cautiously accepted. When I was initially offered the job I was thrilled to have an exciting work opportunity in women’s rights come my way but I wasn’t exactly elated about the prospect of being in Zambia for close to a year, if I’m honest. The last ten months have been quite the fascinating experience filled with its fair share of ups and downs. I can’t say I had an amazing time in Zed but I will say that it wasn’t as bad as I expected and it was definitely something I needed.


The good….

In retrospect, I look at my time in Zambia as something of a defining moment in my life. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a complicated relationship with my home country, to say the least. I reckon it’s no coincidence that I turned 25 in Zambia, a place that is so distant from yet so close to my identity. But I needed the experience of living there without my immediate family to understand more about myself and who I am. Like many third culture kids (TCKs), I vacillate between having a firm grasp on the cultural mash-up that is my identity and suffering through the occasional identity crisis. However, being back in Zambia for such a long period of time as an adult and experiencing the reverse culture shock that came with it helped me come to even better terms with my identity.

A particularly interesting aspect of my stay in Zambia was that I was experiencing the country without my parents for the first time. Aside from a visit my brother and I made to Lusaka in 2014, all our trips back to Zambia have been taken in the company of dear old mum and dad. The consultancy gig gave me a chance to explore many new places and spaces across Lusaka, spend some time with my extended family and immerse myself in my ancestral culture without the ‘buffer’ of my nuclear family. Nevertheless, I still haven’t quite gotten used to constantly being around my extended family. One of the major consequences of growing up outside my native Zambia is being really close with my immediate family and not knowing my extended family very well. I’m not as close with my relatives as my parents would perhaps like me to be. Not knowing them well is probably the reason why I still tend to see many of them as friendly strangers rather than family and why I usually feel like a visitor around them. Moreover, my sporadic attempts at assimilation – including perusing phrasebooks and dictionaries of some of the local languages and occasionally mixing a few Bemba words and phrases in my speech, in a way proved futile. I don’t really feel it helped bring me any closer to them. Nonetheless, it’s been great getting to know more of my relatives and thus becoming better connected to my family and culture.

Business-wise I feel I’ve evolved after my time in Zambia. Through various networking  events and marketing opportunities, I learnt many worthwhile lessons about the fashion jewellery business, took steps that helped move my business to a new plane and developed a wealth of new ideas as to how I can further grow my small-scale business in the future. I also feel I’ve grown creatively. As a self-taught jewellery-maker I am constantly experimenting and often learn by doing. I’ve come up with a variety of new styles and designs for my jewellery and explored the use of new techniques and media.  I also got to know many brilliant entrepreneurs, creatives and innovators who are doing incredible work in Zambia and abroad. They have further inspired me and shown me an enthralling side of Lusaka I never knew existed.

The main purpose for my stay in Lusaka was, of course, work. After I completed my master’s in human rights, I was determined to get involved in more feminist activism in both my professional and personal life. The consultancy gave me an in to working on women’s rights issues and, importantly, also gave me a chance to meet like-minded individuals with whom I will be collaborating on projects aimed at the advancement of women’s rights in the near future.

the not so great…

Despite my having an active social life and being surrounded by many kind and caring people, I went through intermittent periods of loneliness during my time in Zambia. I also went through the occasional bouts of anxiousness and depression that I sometimes struggle with. I don’t usually get homesick but, ironically, I was just that in a place that is meant to be home. I initially struggled to meet people with whom I really click, my extended family and local friends don’t always understand me and I often found it difficult to adapt to life in Zambia generally. Added to that, early on in my stay, a long-term friendship which developed into a romantic relationship completely fell apart shortly before my return home to South Africa. Focusing on the positive rather than the negative that came out of this experience, I learnt a lot about the importance of self-respect and self-love and will do things a little differently going forward. Moreover, in spite of everything, I did eventually form friendships, got acquainted with some truly remarkable people and shared many wonderful moments with them. I also found that my depressive episodes were fewer and farther between which I believe is down to my coming into my own, having the support of my immediate family and better managing my mental health in general.

and the downright awful…

I attended my very first funeral. Not long before I started work I lost a granny on my mother’s side of whom I was quite fond. Thereafter, more loss followed with the deaths of other relatives with whom I had hopes of getting to know and forging a stronger bond. Over the years, while my parents would sometimes return home to attend funerals of relatives, my brother and I only ever attended one or two memorials. At the news of a relative’s death, especially ones who I knew slightly better, I sometimes felt awkward or even guilty for feeling sad, weirdly enough. I found it strange that I felt such intense grief for people I barely knew. But I came to understand my feelings as my mourning the loss itself as well as mourning the loss of an opportunity to have a closer relationship with that relative. I have never really experienced death in the way I had last year. It was all very new to me but I soldiered on through it. And while I may still often feel like a visitor around my extended family, out of all the loss I was able to get closer to certain family members.


As I mentioned, 2017 was my year of learning and I like to think of my experience in Zambia as providing me with a myriad of valuable lessons that touched on many different aspects of my life. Considering the fact that I sometimes feel like a complete stranger in my ‘home’ country, the prospect of living there for so long gave me a lot of anxiety. But I’m very glad that I took up the consultancy as living and working in Lusaka has certainly changed my perspective on life in Zambia and been phenomenal for my personal and professional growth. Significantly, it was instrumental in the further development of my sense of identity.


It’s a love-hate thing: a brief assessment of my half-year living and working in my home country

home sweet home the odyssey online
Photo credit: CIEE

So I’ve been living and working in Zambia, my country of origin, for over 6 months now and…it’s been (slightly) better than I expected. I wouldn’t say that I’m having an absolute blast here but I can’t say I’m completely miserable either. Since I arrived in Zambia to start work, there have been many times when I’ve felt like a complete stranger in what is supposed to be my ‘home.’ But, surprisingly, there have also been rare occasions when I’ve felt like this is exactly where I belong and need to be at this point in my life. It has been quite frustrating trying to navigate this place that I know very well yet don’t know at all and I haven’t quite gotten used to eating nshima (our staple food) every second day. Plus, my anxiety has sometimes threatened to destroy some of the joy I have experienced since being here. However, with each new day that comes I’m adjusting more to life in Lusaka. I haven’t quite gotten over my reverse culture shock but I have come to view living and working here as a unique opportunity to learn more about myself. And a great deal I have learnt so far.

Growing up outside my country of origin and knowing only my immediate family very well, I’ve been largely out of touch with many of my family’s customs, traditional beliefs and cultural practices. I also haven’t really learnt either of my parents’ languages very well. The cultures of each tribal group in Zambia and the Christian religion are embedded in the country’s national identity. When I think about my own cultural (and religious identity) I go blank. I don’t believe I really developed a solid grasp on one. It’s something I’ve grown up without. I’ve gotten used to the stern warnings from my older relatives to learn a Zambian language, eat more traditional foods and immerse myself more in my parents’ cultures lest I lose touch with my cultural identity. I’ve also grown accustomed to the jokes that friends, family and acquaintances have sometimes made about my inability to speak a Zambian language properly. These days I take it in stride, laugh it off and move on. It doesn’t irritate or sadden me as much as it used to.  Having a greater appreciation of how my upbringing has affected my sense of identity has given me great clarity and peace of mind. I won’t be packing my bags to go ku mushi (to the village) any time soon and I doubt very much that I will be sampling mopane worms but I am, and have always been, open to learning as much about my ‘culture(s)’ as possible. So far, the experience of living here without the immediate family has taught me so much about myself as I continue to embark on this path to self-discovery. I accept myself for who I am and what I have become There is no monopoly on what it means to be a Zambian so I should be allowed to proudly label myself as such even though I can’t speak the languages well, aren’t deeply religious or disagree with some traditional norms and practices.

One thing I’ve always found particularly vexing about living in my home country (a self-proclaimed ‘Christian nation’ according to the Preamble of our  Constitution) is the conservative nature of Zambian society as well as the prejudices, patriarchy and misogyny that sometimes comes with it. Of course, women around the world face many hindrances to our being treated equally, in fact, to men and there are many places in the world that are infinitely more overly religious and culturally conservative than Zambia. However, I’m used to being in a slightly more liberal space where I can, to a greater extent than here, express myself freely without facing judgment, condemnation or even violence for something as mundane as wearing (not too short) short shorts or a mini dress on a scorching hot day or openly stating that all people; gay, straight, trans, bisexual, black or white are entitled to be treated with respect and dignity. Now that I’ve lived and worked here for some time, I’m starting to understand Zambian society more and I’ve been able to adapt accordingly so I can still be myself while being respectful of the values held dear by the majority of Zambian people. Also, having a few friends and family who are more liberal or share my childhood experience  and can thus empathize with some of my frustrations has been of a source of great comfort to me.

While I may sometimes have to grapple with feeling stifled by cultural conservatism and getting used to life here, I’ve also been exposed to another side of Zambia that has given me some hope that this place could actually feel like home someday. I’m hoping that, over time, should I decide to settle here indefinitely, I can continue to meet more like-minded people with whom I really click and perhaps carve out a nice little niche for myself in which I can develop my own business(es) and career as well as build a home.

Since I arrived in Zambia, I’ve more often than not had moments where I question my decision to take up work here and at times have felt profoundly homesick even though I haven’t quite been able to figure out exactly what I’m homesick for. Nonetheless, I constantly try to remind myself of the many wonderful things that have happened to me since I came and the opportunities for personal and professional growth that being here has presented to me. I’m in a place that’s so familiar yet so foreign to me which has been thrilling, exhausting, sad, and inspiring, all at the same time. At times, I love it, other times I hate it, but to some extent, I have adjusted to life here and although I don’t think I’ll feel like a proper local by the time my consultancy is over, I’m certainly going to have an even better understanding of who I am and where I could settle down in the future.

Master class: how studying towards a masters helped me discover my identity

In 2016 I accomplished one of my career goals – earning a masters degree in law. While I gained a wealth of knowledge  and practical skills that will no doubt be invaluable to me in my professional endeavours going forward, the life lessons I learned inside and outside the classroom in Pretoria and Kampala have enriched my existence immensely and for me, are the biggest gains from studying towards this degree.

I expounded on these sentiments in the piece I submitted for the Dean’s Essay Competition for 2016. Every year, the Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria invites students from the LLM in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa class to submit essays in which they reflect on their experiences during the programme. At graduation, a  prize is awarded for the top three essays. I didn’t expect it at all, but I was placed first in the competition.  Considering I was up against two brilliant creative minds, I’m pretty darn chuffed that I managed to scoop first. I thought I’d share the piece below especially as it pertains to the central theme of this blog. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it…



I’ve always believed that there is great value in education, particularly higher education which is a privilege granted only to a lucky few. I don’t value my legal education for the monetary gains or prestige that it can bring but rather, for the skills it has equipped me with to make a career out of ‘making a difference’  as well as the lessons it has taught me about life, love, sexuality, spirituality, relationships, family, careers and human behaviour. 


After roughly two years of seemingly never-ending masters and scholarship applications and taking the time to get some ‘real world’ experience, I was finally set to embark on my 1-year LLM journey. While my real world experience provided  me with a great deal of perspective and insight into where I see myself in the near future, the last ten months have had the most profound impact on me in a way that I could not have possibly imagined.

Never in my life have I experienced anything as academically stimulating, highly demanding and mentally-challenging as this academic programme. I knew doing a masters degree would be tough but I must have taken for granted just how much. After the intensity of the first semester subsided and we made it through relatively unscathed, I had time to reflect on the half-year that was and revisit some of the hobbies I’d neglected in order to get through it. It’s been exceptionally taxing but I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything because it’s helped me reshape my professional and personal goals and understand exactly what I’d like my legacy to be.

Last year, I started two blogs: one on fashion and the other on the theme of identity, but more specifically on how growing up away from my ancestral culture has affected my developing a sense of identity in my teens and early adulthood. I was born in the UK to Zambian parents, I hold a Zambian passport and have spent my formative years between Australia, Swaziland, Zambia and South Africa (where I’ve completed the bulk of my education and have been permanently resident for the past ten years or so).It’s not a particularly novel thing to go through a bit of an identity crisis when you’ve spent a significant portion of your developmental years outside your country of origin but it’s a subject that’s very personal to me and, as I came to discover, something that affects many people across the world. A surprising consequence of my LLM studies is that I’ve once again become hyper-aware of my cultural identity (or lack thereof). In a programme that emphasises acquiring skills and knowledge to improve the human rights situation in one’s ‘home’ country, feeling like I don’t have a home makes for a great opportunity to learn from my classmates but at the same time makes me feel disconnected from my passport country and the African continent generally.

My classmates and I introduced ourselves countless times while attending short courses, lectures and some special events. The introductions have been rather exhausting for the entire class but I came to regard the exercise as a bit of anathema because I was constantly confronted with a question that I do not particularly enjoy answering: ‘where do you come from?’ Initially, I would give my go-to responses: ‘I’m Zambian but I live in South Africa’ or ‘I’m ‘originally’ Zambian’ but five introductory speeches in, I grew tired of adding the qualification to my answer and would simply respond ‘I’m Zambian.’ I would then pray to my creator that I wouldn’t be called upon to educate the class about the political, legal or human rights situation in Zambia of which I had very limited knowledge when I first started the programme. It may seem strange or even comical that a question as simple as ‘any Zambians in the class?’ could make my palms clammy and my heart start racing for fear of being exposed as a ‘fake’ Zambian but it made me incredibly anxious until I decided to steer into the skid and focus on my studies. The wonderful thing about human rights issues is that they affect all people the world over regardless of background, age, race, status, religious affiliation or orientation. Moreover, there are so many different capacities in which every person on the planet can contribute to the advancement of human rights. I believe this is what drew me to the field in the first place, especially being someone who comes from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.


Linked to my identity, for the longest time the ‘feminist’ label bothered me immensely. The programme has, however, led to a change within me and I now wear the badge with great pride. While I’m more inclined to the business and human rights side of things – a passion which the programme helped me nurture through clinic work, a short course and my dissertation – I developed a deep interest in women’s rights advocacy. Two or three years ago, if someone had asked me if I consider myself a feminist I would most likely have said no. Painfully ironic considering I strongly believe in equal rights and opportunities for all people, staunchly advocate women’s empowerment and fiercely defend women’s rights. I’m ashamed to admit that I naively bought into ridiculous feminist stereotypes of the radical, man-hating, bra-burning, perpetual spinsters and felt unworthy to put myself in the same class as distinguished and seemingly elitist Germaine Greer-type feminist scholars and philosophers. But I believe I rejected the label primarily because I used to be uncomfortable with the inherently divisive nature of labelling people. This discomfort also stems from my inability to develop a firm grasp on a linguistic and cultural identity connected to my country of origin.

My opinions on feminism were altered during the thematic week on Gender, particularly when I attended a lecture delivered by Professor Sylvia Tamale. I immediately took a liking to her. It’s incredible how another human being can make such an impression on you at your first-ever meeting but this is the effect Prof. Tamale had on me and part of the reason I chose Makerere University as my second semester destination. As a Zambian woman who has lived amongst a range of different cultural groupings for most of her life but whose parents continually imbued her with some of their cultural values and did not wholly abandon many of their cultures’ practices, I straddle different sides like many African women my age. I try as much as possible to harmonise all facets of my cultural identity but they are often at odds with each other. In some measure, Prof. Tamale’s teaching and writings taught me that I don’t necessarily have to break one down in favour of the other as they are all-encompassing of my identity. I had the privilege of attending her inaugural lecture, Nudity, Protests and the Law, in which she reflected upon the internal moral dilemmas she wrestled with when her friend and colleague Dr. Stella Nyanzi carried out a nude protest earlier this year. Her openness and honesty about fighting to retain her feminist identity in the wake of such a shocking event so close to home and what it said about the objectification and sexualisation of the female form further ignited my new-found passion for feminist activism. 


I now realise that it is incumbent upon me as an African human rights defender from a privileged background to become actively involved in combating the many injustices that myself and my sisters on the continent face daily. Not only will I be doing this in my professional life but in my creative endeavours as well. Blogging is my art and a medium through which I have found my voice. I’ve truly been inspired by our lectures on art and human rights taught  by the quirky Marissa Gutièrrez and those on human rights advocacy by the brilliant Professor Liz Griffin to transform my blogging into a platform for pushing my activist agenda. My fashion blog has already been a platform for me to discuss a variety of subjects including history, race, art, sexuality, culture and feminism to some extent. I have come up with a variety of new pieces and ideas for both of my blogs, stimulated by my LLM studies, for my audience to enjoy, be inspired by and reflect critically on pressing human rights issues. I will continue in this spirit going forward.


It’s a bittersweet moment for me as my long and difficult LLM journey comes to an end but it’s been the most enriching experience, allowing me to forge wonderful friendships, hone important professional skills, travel and learn two new languages. Most importantly, the programme has helped me discover the identity I’ve been searching for since adolescence. I’m no longer afraid to label myself. I’m Zambian, African, feminist, activist, a blogger and significantly, I’m a graduate of the LLM in HRDA programme 2016.


Thanks for reading!


TCKs and transitional trauma: exploring the causes of depression and anxiety in third culture kids

We all go through the occasional bouts of depression. Some people can be depressed for a couple of days, others for serval months or even years at a time. Whether it be as a result of having experienced a death in the family, the loss of a job, mental disorder or a terrible accident that leaves you with both emotional and physical scars, depression is something that affects all people regardless of social status, race, background or age. Ordinarily, anxiety and depression can be linked to a specific incident or event that results in long lasting trauma. But sometimes one may suffer from depression for seemingly no reason at all.

In my research on what it means to be a third culture kid (TCK), I came across a Google search result entitled ‘tck depression’ which piqued my curiosity. This appears to be a popular subject in a great deal of the literature on the third culture kid phenomenon. It seems that the nomadic lifestyle of some TCKs during their childhood can cause mild to severe forms of depression in their late teens and early twenties. I was sceptical at first but after reading further and thinking back to my own experiences, these claims may not be completely unfounded.

Although the word ‘depression’ is used infrequently in many of the testimonies I have read what came through clearly was the fact that there is some unexplained sadness and/or anxiety underlying what could be a very rich experience of growing up in many different locations throughout one’s childhood. However, like most aspects of the TCK lifestyle, there is not, as yet, much scholarly attention given to this subject matter. There are very few formal research findings, precise statistics or in-depth studies on TCK depression but what has been documented is the fact that it is something that is not an uncommon occurrence for many TCKs.

Why are TCKs such a depressed lot?

First, for readers who don’t know what a TCK is, it’s a term referring to someone who has grown up outside their country of origin and develops a third cultural identity which is an amalgamation of their parent’s culture as well as the culture of the new places they reside in. A number of reasons have been advanced as to why TCKs seem to be susceptible to depression. I’ll explore a few below:

• The constant cycle of unacknowledged and unaddressed grief

One of the main suppositions advanced on the issue is that TCKs, particularly ones who moved very often growing up, constantly suffer loss. This mobility often comes with the sacrifice of opportunities to grieve the continual loss of friends, family, homes, schools, pets, hometowns etc. It also doesn’t help to be confronted with the sometimes mammoth task of trying to adapt to a new environment every so often. These compounded losses can eventually culminate in depression in adolescence and early adulthood. As you get older your subconscious forces you to recollect some of the experiences that your childhood mind could not fully comprehend and you become aware of all the ‘normal’ life experiences you missed out on. Such as, the ability to call one particular place in the world your home.

Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that this loss often goes unaddressed by TCKs themselves and their loved ones. The lack of attention given to the experience of TCK depression is primarily because the generic and overt triggers of depressive episodes such as a death in the family or some other traumatic event appear to be absent or not as apparent. The cause of depression in a TCK may not be so obvious unless linked to some other trauma they have experienced in their life. Therefore, the psychological effects of the highly mobile lifestyle of TCKs, which comes with a series of constant and abrupt losses receives very little attention and leads many TCKs to believe that their depression isn’t worth seeking help for.

• The desire for a sense of belonging

Another major source of depression for TCKs is their longing for a strong connection to a particular nation or culture. While most TCKs have the ability to adapt easily to different cultural and social settings and some are capable of developing a sense of identity linked to one particular country, many struggle with getting a solid grasp on their identity. It can sometimes feel as if a part of you is missing, a feeling that is often very hard to shake as you become more conscious of the differences between yourself and others. From my own personal experience, I’ve generally come to terms with the fact that I’m many different things, culturally, and none of them all at the same time but I sometimes feel like something is missing. Not being able to fill this void can be very disheartening and although it’s something that one can learn to live with, it could be source of sadness and despair without one realising it.

• The tension between the parental culture and the new culture

TCKs have a hybrid cultural identity that could be at odds with their parent’s cultural identity. This is particularly acute in instances where a parent puts pressure on his or her child to adhere, without question, to the cultural norms, beliefs and values of their country of origin but the family resides in a slightly more liberal environment. The resultant tension between the new cultural identity and the parental one can elicit two reactions – either pushing further away from the parent culture or pulling closer to it. In any case, the lack of acceptance of their unique cultural identity can make a TCK feel very alone in their struggle to develop their identity. It is also difficult for some parents to empathise with the identity crisis that their TCKs might face. They may not understand why their children don’t accept their cultural values outright or don’t take to learning their language as they hope and may see this as a sign of defiance due to being “influenced” by Western values, as is the case for some TCKs of African descent

Further exacerbating the problem, some parents come from cultures, where candidly expressing yourself or opening up about your feelings is not welcome. Moreover, the stigma attached to mental illness and depression may add to the difficulties of dealing with the problem as many African and apparently some Asian TCKs experience. It may also mean that your parents are more reluctant to acknowledge that you suffer from depression.

Growing up, there were times when I resented my parents for trying to ‘impose’ what I perceived to be repressive cultural values on me or for their failure to make enough effort to teach me their language or about their cultural practices. Although my parents were always willing to try and let my brother and I open up to them about what we were going through, I don’t believe they could ever truly empathise. Sometimes, I deliberately defied them by not learning their language or rejecting their culture as a means of punishing them for the monster they created and failing to be more accepting of the fact that I could never be like them. Now that I’m older and more comfortable with my identity, I don’t blame them for at least trying to pass on some parts of their cultural identity to their children. Plus, getting to know more about them and where they come from has allowed me to get closer to them.

Your ancestral culture will always remain a big part of your identity, even when you’ve grown up outside your country of origin, but it can clash with your own hybrid identity which you develop as you grow. The absence of a support system that enables a TCK to address their identity issues can lead to a very lonely existence which could further result in depression and anxiety.

• The difficulty of establishing meaningful relationships

Another difficulty facing many highly mobile TCKs is establishing genuine and solid friendships with their peers. TCKs often feel closest to those who share their childhood experiences. Therefore, some may struggle to maintain long-term friendships with people who do not necessarily relate to them in same way. Although a TCK may be highly sociable and make friends very easily, their friendships may be superficial or last for short periods of time if they’re constantly on the move. He or she could be surrounded by tons of friends but still feel very much alone in his or her struggle to develop a sense of identity. It may seem as if there is no point in maintaining close friendship ties if moving to a new city or country every so often is always on the cards. Social media has made it a lot easier for TCKs to keep in contact with old childhood friends but this may prevent them from seeking out genuine friendships with new people. Also, video calls, IMs and the like are unfortunately not an adequate substitute for regular face-to-face contact IRL.

It seems rather strange that a person who has had the privilege of growing up in different towns, cities and countries would feel anything remotely close to depression as a result of it. The stigma that attaches to depression in our society may also make it difficult for anyone to truly understand why a person with seemingly no good reason to feel depressed suffers from this mental disorder. Moreover, it can mean that a lot of third culture teens and adults may not feel they have good enough reason to seek help for the anxiousness, prolonged sadness and despair they may feel. Any person who is suffering from depression deserves to be heard without judgment. More attention needs to be directed towards understanding why highly mobile children may experience anxiety and depression in adulthood and discovering the best possible ways to help them help themselves.


  1. Third Culture ‘Depression and TCKs’ (11 July 2015) <;
  2. Nina Sichel ‘The trouble with third culture kids’ (20 June 2014) Morning Zen <;
  3. Carol Lin ‘Dealing with depression as a TCK student’ (14 June 2011) Denizen <;

The Nomadic Child – Cheryl Achieng Okuthe

With the benefit of hindsight, I realise that growing up in multiple cities and countries and thus being exposed to numerous cultures has equipped me with the capacity to thrive in changing circumstances in spite of the negative effects that are often associated with being raised in such a manner. One of the main consequences of constantly having to relocate as a child is not having full control over the events and experiences in your life. As simple as it may appear, learning to cope in an environment that frequently changes is a challenge for a substantial number of people and there are some who spend their entire lives trying to learn how to adjust to that situation.

During my childhood, I can’t ever recall living in one city for more than three years at a time prior to university. My parents, being academics, transferred back and forth between different universities. When I was much younger there was a thrill to the constant movement, it felt like a permanent family vacation or perpetual family adventure. Aside from acquiring the coping skills that enabled me to handle the constant change, I also developed an inherent desire for continuous change. After living in one place for a few months or a couple of years, I found myself yearning for the next adventure. This hunger for constant change is also said to be one of the many things afflicting Generation Y which is as a consequence of the expanding technological age. This generation was and continues to be  exposed to new dynamics, which is exhilarating but has also had an addictive side effect.

There weren’t any residual consequences to this way of life until the last couple of years of my primary schooling when my family and I relocated and I had to leave my first close-knit group of friends. At this point in my life I had begun to establish a homestead so when I was suddenly uprooted from the comfort of finally getting settled, it was quite traumatic.

These events had a huge impact on future social interactions with my peers. I was unwilling to interact with other children and found myself spending more and more time at home with my parents. There were even times when my teachers showed serious concern. From that point on I began to perfect the art of assimilation; a performance of sorts that I used often because I needed to immerse myself in the culture of the new town or community I entered. However, the relationships and friendships I developed with other people were superficial. I felt as though I were playing a role, smiling and showing concern on cue. As a result, I found my capacity to empathise beginning to fade. I had never been given the opportunity to engage with people on a deeper level. A lot of people, in situations they consider stressful, find ways to detach themselves from those situations. This was mine.

As I entered the later stages of my adolescence, maintaining these superficial friendships began to take its toll. Not only was it exhausting, it became irritating. Getting to know new people over and over again also became burdensome. I often thought, ‘what for? I’m going to be leaving soon anyway.’ Never fully being myself soon spawned feelings of resentment, not only towards my parents, but towards myself and other people. I felt isolated and alone despite the fact that this isolation was primarily my own doing.

As I grew older, those around me began to catch on to my ‘façade’ and registered the superficiality of my interactions with them. I soon stopped socialising all together as the aim of the assimilation was rendered obsolete. I found myself experiencing strong feelings of depression or anger. Nevertheless, my isolation led me to develop a sense of self-awareness and independence. Of course, as a teenage girl I experienced the inevitable self-esteem issues but I came to appreciate the strong personality traits and resilience I had developed. Playing a role for most of my young life allowed to me to simply sit back and observe the behaviour of others. I was the Sir Attenborough of sorts in people’s everyday lives. I soon learned to trust my judgment and my instincts.

I’ve often wondered whether a person could still suffer from an identity crisis even though they have a reasonable sense of self-awareness. When I was younger I had difficulty establishing my cultural identity. I had always considered myself Kenyan but the amalgamation of so-called ‘Western practices or beliefs’ with traditional African values had a significant influence in shaping my own cultural identity. This is something that a lot young Africans experience nowadays but since I had a largely Christian upbringing, the conflict that arises between these two cultures has never really impacted me to the extent that it has other African youths. Undoubtedly, this was one of the reasons why my self-awareness, independence and cultural identity were formed very easily.

After the bouts of loneliness I experienced during my adolescence, I found a few people I could relate to within the vast, diverse student population of my university. Finding common experiences amongst some of my fellow students liberated me from my self-imposed isolation. Although I revelled in the feeling of uniqueness, finding people who could relate to me was worth so much more.

Frequently moving from country to country and city to city was extremely stressful and negatively impacted how I chose to interact with people around me. But there were many benefits to having this kind of childhood as well. I experienced a great sense of global identification, developed an appreciation for the different cultures I’ve been exposed to and was able to immerse myself in them without losing grips on my own culture. I have also established a strong awareness of my unique cultural identity which is a great source of pride for me. There is a lot of truth in the saying that you are shaped by the moments and milestones of your life and the same applies to me. There is no denying that my childhood was tremulous but it moulded me into a resilient and well-rounded person. Looking back, I believe that I coped reasonably well despite the ups and downs I went through during my adolescence, the most pivotal period in my life so far. I cannot say that without all the experiences that I have gone through I would be the person I am today.



5 things that parents of third culture kids should understand


The world gets smaller everyday so the likelihood of hearing a variety of different accents in random parts of the world is quite high. This, of course, means that the number of so-called third culture kids (TCKs) has increased dramatically over the last half a century or so. I touched on this briefly in a previous post. According to Dr. Ruth Useem, who coined the term in the 1950s, third culture kids are children and adults (adult TCKs) who are/were raised in a different culture or cultures to their parent culture during the developmental stages of their lives. Consequently, they develop and adopt a third, hybrid culture which is effectively a combination of these constituent cultures.

Extensive research has been done into how such an upbringing impacts on a child psychologically, spiritually and even economically as they transition into adulthood. The pros of growing up a TCK generally outweigh the cons but, in terms of linguistic and cultural identity, the experience can be perplexing and challenging for TCKs and their parents. In some cases, it can be somewhat depressing. As an adult TCK myself, I can strongly identify with the tensions that sometimes arise between TCKs and their parents with regards to issues of identity.

For some parents, feelings of guilt or sadness are common because they lament moving their children all over the world and long for them to appreciate their home culture. On the other hand, there are some parents of TCKs who would prefer to forget their culture completely. Whatever the case may be, there are a few things parents should bear in mind when it comes to raising their TCKs and helping them forge a sense of identity.

  • Home for you cannot be home for us

Some people may still possess strong feelings of loyalty and devotion to their home country when they emigrate. That’s a wonderful thing but it isn’t something that their TCKs can relate to. TCKs spend most of their lives living outside the countries where their parents were raised and may only ever visit briefly for the occasional weddings, funerals, Christmases and holidays. In some cases, family trips back ‘home’ may grow tiresome and feel like a chore due to vast differences in culture and perspective. Despite TCKs being treated like locals by friends and family in their countries of origin many still feel like outsiders. Our parent culture is foreign to us and it’s therefore difficult for us to accept it outright as our own. So as much as our parents would like us to be – or believe us to be – patriots of their home country, the reality is, we’re not. Parents shouldn’t feel hurt or offended if their children do not consider their passport country to be home. One can hardly return to a place that was never really home to begin with.

  • It’s important to know our heritage – even if it doesn’t mean much to you anymore

This is for the parents who would prefer to forget their home country. Knowing where one comes from is essential in shaping one’s identity going forward. Although negative experiences of their home country may be something some immigrant parents wish to share with their trans-culture kids, they should share the positives as well. It’s essential to instil a sense of pride in our heritage without forcibly imposing it on us. It’s quite disheartening to sometimes feel like you don’t really belong anywhere. In contrast to friends who have grown up surrounded by extended family and childhood friends, TCKs do not always have the same experience of intimately knowing grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles or retaining long-term friendships. Learning more about our parents’ origins is a good way for TCKs to better understand our parents and their beliefs and feel more attached to the family.

Since the Apple iOS9 software update, which includes the flags of all the countries of the world in its emoji keyboard, I have seen several social media account bios and Whatsapp display names proudly sporting the flags of the users’ countries of origin. In the case of my fellow TCKs, two or three flags have been put on display at a time. This just goes to show that many of us are quite proud to make known that we are cultural chameleons and take pride in the constituents of our cultural identity.

  • Don’t feel bad about raising us in another country. We often admire you for it and are grateful to you in the long run

TCKs spend a significant amount of time away from extended family and are constantly leaving friends behind. We feel closest to our immediate family with whom we share many momentous life experiences in different locations. It’s something many of us are grateful for because it has made us more open-minded and willing to embrace many people of different backgrounds. The example our parents have set for us by stepping out of their comfort zones and travelling abroad for work or study has instilled in us a thirst to know more about, and explore, the world.

We’ve had to give up friends, family, schools and childhood homes as we’ve followed you across the globe but it’s been the most amazing learning experience. As much as being the new kid at school sucks, you’ve helped us get through it all.

  • We’re not in a hurry to assimilate to our ancestral culture

We’ve grown accustomed to either a nomadic lifestyle or an entirely different culture to your own. TCKs may sometimes regard their parents’ views, cultural practices and traditions as antiquated, irrational or unnecessary so we may find it difficult to accept their culture. We may also feel no desire to settle in our country of origin. This is the case for a number of reasons.

First, we’re not often given a proper opportunity to learn much about our parent culture in the time when we’re trying to assimilate to a new one. Learning more about the parent culture takes a back seat to the need to fit in and feel like a part of the society we actually live in.

Second, learning a language also comes with its own challenges and issues. In an article I read last year, the author documented his experiences of trying to teach Hebrew (his mother’s language) to his young daughter. Through this exercise, he came to realise his daughter showed very little interest in learning the language because he only ever spoke to her in Hebrew when he was giving her commands or scolding her. She thus came to associate the language with discipline and negative emotions. A number of TCKs have had the experience of our parents reprimanding us while speaking their mother tongue. That, amongst other things, can cause us to drift further away from our parent culture. Plus, when you’re learning a language that doesn’t have a bearing on making new friends or your future career plans, it doesn’t seem worthwhile.

Last, many parents expect their children to readily accept their cultural practices without question simply because that’s what their people do. It is essential that parents endeavour to explain these practices and traditions as much as possible. With a few competing cultures to deal with, a TCK’s third culture takes precedence and if a parent of a TCK has any hope of their child accepting theirs, they need to properly explain why things are the way they are. A TCK is very unlikely to want to take these on and preserve their ancestral culture without understanding the purpose of these practices.

  • Our peers may not always understand our unique circumstances. We don’t need that from our parents as well.

For a lot of trans-culture kids, identity cannot necessarily be linked to one specific geographical location. TCKs may feel we don’t belong to our parent culture because we seem to be on a completely different wavelength. But, at the same time, we also feel misunderstood by our peers. I’ve always been most comfortable around my fellow TCKs with whom I share the same quirky traits and experiences.  Parents should be prepared for their TCKs to, at times, be very different to how they might have hoped. They should also try as much as possible to accept their children for who they are in spite of the fact that they may not speak their mother tongue or feel compelled to observe the traditions of their ancestral culture. That’s not to say that parents should totally give up on helping their children familiarise themselves with the many great aspects of their culture. On the contrary, this is encouraged. However, we also need to feel heard. It can’t be easy for a parent to have something they care about so deeply being lost on their children but parents should be wary of forcing this upon their TCKs.

I’m not a parent and I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to raise a child but being an adult third culture kid, I have an acute understanding of the struggles a lot of TCKs go through in forging an identity. While this is difficult for a child to have deal with, it can be just as challenging for their parent who has also given up friends, family and some aspects of their own cultural identity while adapting to life outside their native country. It is thus essential for parents and their TCKs to find common ground. TCKs need parental guidance and support in order to figure out exactly where they belong in today’s world, especially when it seems that no one understands them.


Why the question: “Where do you come from?” makes me uncomfortable

As I’ve gotten older, some family members have been prompting me to “pick a side”. As in, decide whether or not to denounce my Zambian nationality to take up citizenship elsewhere. Perhaps it’s time I gave serious thought to where it is in the world I would like to settle down. Previously, I figured I’d get a job or do a master’s degree and see where life takes me from there. The thing is; I don’t feel completely attached to any one place and I don’t believe I ever will be. Being born in one country to parents from another and having resided in various countries has caused me to experience a bit of an identity crisis like many other so-called “third culture kids” (read more: TCK World) I’ve often struggled with figuring out where it is that I feel I belong. This issue relates to my sense of cultural identity. 
Recently, I’ve been reading up on what it means to other people, in similar circumstances to mine, to grow up without any concrete sense of identity and came across the notion of being a third culture kid (TCK). This essentially entails having three cultures – your ancestral culture (that of your country of origin), your adopted culture from the country you are raised in and a new hybrid culture which is the amalgamation of the former two cultures. I came across a variety of compelling stories. Some people felt they closely identified with one particular culture in adulthood or always felt connected to the country they grew up in. On the other hand, I read a few cases of people who still felt that they didn’t belong but developed a cultural identity encompassing the best aspects of each culture they are connected to. I can relate to the anxieties that many TCKs face regarding issues of identity as well as the many wonderful things that come with this complex existence.
The common thread I discovered with the stories I read, was restlessness on the part of TCKs in that they have the inherent desire to travel and explore the world as well as a fear of being stuck in one place. Furthermore, many are and feel they would be able to acclimatize easily to a new environment. This seems to be why many of us feel like we don’t belong anywhere but generally feel comfortable anywhere we go.
I was born in London, United Kingdom but hold a Zambian passport and am a South African permanent resident. Being asked where I come from is not always something I enjoy. If I simply say I’m Zambian what sometimes follows is either a greeting in a Zambian language or questions like: “how do you say…?” or “where about in Zambia exactly?” so I often have to qualify the statement with: “…but I was born in the UK and live in SA.” I do this to account for my lack of fluency in a Zambian language and lack of knowledge about certain aspects of life in Zambia. Saying I’m from the UK isn’t technically correct despite being born there and I don’t feel like a South African at all. Thus, simply saying I’m Zambian is the most fitting option although it also doesn’t always feel right to me.
I have met several people who, once they become aware of the fact that I was born in Europe, believe I should ditch my Zambian nationality for UK citizenship. It never really occurred to me to be a priority to change my citizenship but it may prove useful as far as my future plans go. I missed an opportunity to visit Britain a few years ago and would relish a chance to see the place where my life began. However, changing my nationality isn’t that simple and I want a very compelling reason to take such a drastic step. Long story short, under UK immigration law I could not have acquired British citizenship automatically at the time my birth. I may however have the option of staying on in the UK to acquire permanent residence status should I enter the country legally. Zambia also doesn’t allow for dual citizenship so it’s pretty much all or nothing. I’m currently weighing up my options so we’ll see what happens.
I can’t say I’ve ever had a particularly strong desire to live in England simply because I have never experienced life there. But there are a lot of things I love about the place culturally-speaking and acquiring British citizen or permanent residency would to some extent validate my anglophilia. I’m obsessed with British television particularly comedy and game shows, I’m fascinated by British history and I’m a massive fan of Arsenal FC (the more superior of the London clubs and the natural choice for someone born in London ;)). I’ve also received a few compliments over my impressions of various British accents lol. This hardly makes me British though.
I am a Zambian national regardless of the fact that I am not fluent in either of my parents’ languages and spent most of my life outside the country. I’ve been there many times for the usual weddings, Christmases and general family visits. My brother and I also lived and went to school there for a several months in 2002. I’ve quite enjoyed trips to the “motherland” and love a lot of things about the place. As much as I am often treated like a resident I don’t always feel like one and I’m not sure if I could ever get there. There are a fair number of Zambian cultural practices my immediate family observe but I don’t see myself wanting to practice some of them in the future. As I got older, I hoped I would feel closer to this part of my heritage but I find myself drifting away. I am very proud of where I come from and would love to get closer to my extended family but have never really felt like I belonged there. I haven’t seriously considered denouncing my Zambian nationality until a few of my relatives kept jokingly pressing me for a decision. The idea of it seems so final to me but my doubts could be a sign that I really need to apply my mind to it further.
The family and I moved to South Africa just over a decade ago and to a large extent it feels like home. Before that, we were in Australia and Swaziland for about six and two years respectively. Having lived in SA for so long many people assume that I would feel like I’m a proper South African by now but the truth is, I don’t. I recall one time in 2007 when my classmates where excitedly discussing the events of the previous night when South Africa lifted the William Webb Ellis trophy for the Rugby World Cup. It was their first win since 1995. Perhaps they noticed that I hadn’t contributed much to their fervent conversation on the issue because they asked me about my thoughts on the win. Besides the fact that I have zero interest in rugby, I just didn’t see the big deal. I simply responded that I had not watched the game and, to my slight amusement, they reacted as if I had said something blasphemous. It’s not that I wasn’t happy for them and the country but personally I just couldn’t empathise. To me, it didn’t mean that much.
It’s not that I hate living here in South Africa. Quite the contrary, it’s a great place to be and I’ve very much grown accustomed to the South African way of life. It’s a beautiful country, I’ve made some incredible friends who I consider family and I admire the strong traditions and cultures of this diverse nation. The only language I speak is Afrikaans which I am proficient in because I learnt it in high school. Otherwise, I have very elementary knowledge of Zulu and Xhosa. Nevertheless, I don’t feel like I’ve become fully assimilated compared to some of my foreign-born friends living here in spite of the fact that I spent most of my formative years here. I certainly wouldn’t mind settling down here in the long term and it would be quite convenient for the purpose of visiting the extended family. I just don’t feel like I could adopt the South African culture as my own.

I’ve only recently started to seriously reflect upon the confusion I’ve had growing up regarding my cultural identity. It isn’t necessarily depressing but the intense love and devotion some people have for one place – be it a school, town or country – is something I’ve always wanted to experience yet never have. It’s not a huge loss though because I am very grateful for my upbringing and the brilliant cultural experiences I have had as a result. This crisis of identity or rather, mix-up of identity made me realise that I may never find a place in the world that I feel is home for me but that’s ok. It simply means that home is where I choose to make it. My restlessness may never cease but, from the three countries I am connected to, I have developed a cultural identity that is unique and precious to me. Changing my nationality doesn’t have any bearing on that fact. It’s one of the things that make me interesting and I embrace it wholeheartedly. It’s also great knowing I’m not the only third culture kid out there who goes through this. I see myself as a citizen of the world – feeling at home everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I don’t need to pick a side because I think I occupy a pretty great space in the middle.