My African story stretches across generations and is centuries long. My story is also deeply indebted to many countries and many people. However, it is impossible for you to understand my story without first understanding the complex lives my parents have lived. My African story is, of course, bound up in theirs.
Each of my parents was born in Rwanda, and they each share the story of being displaced from the land of their birth. By 1959, at a time when my parents were still children, each of them was a refugee. In the years before my parents met, they each lived in various countries throughout east and central Africa, sometimes in close proximities but never meeting. Eventually, they met in Uganda. This is where my (family) own African story begins, as that is where my parents were married and where my older sister was born. Due to insecurity there, my parents had to move yet again shortly thereafter, and I was born in Kenya in the summer of 1982.
By the time I turned one year old, my parents were set on creating a new life for themselves, my older sister and me. They wanted to find a place where, finally, they could stay. A place where my sister and I could grow up with stability and opportunities that they never knew. They applied for residence in several countries, and Canada was one of the first to accept them. We settled in the small city of London, Ontario, Canada.
In the early 1980’s, London was a place not unlike most Canadian cities of that era: dominated by white bodies, white cultures and white ways of understanding the world. Growing up in such an environment meant that from a very young age, I was aware of being different from my peers, I was aware of the different set of expectations that regulated my life, and I was aware of being one of the very few Black faces in my city, my school, my group of friends. As I came of age in this environment and grew to understand London as a sort of home for myself, my parents helped me understand that while in Canada, my Blackness, Africanness, and Rwandan blood were all markers of difference, they were also sources of dignity, strength and goodness.
My mother continuously instilled in me a sense that my life, my presence, and my personal integrity were all rooted in a history—a history of Rwandan people who were (and are) full of goodness, complexity, dignity and fortitude.
She understood the myriad of messages and expectations young black boys are asked to wrestle with. That often, the lives of black boys are judged against the numerous stereotypes and perceptions that exist about what the embodiment of blackness should look like. Thankfully, my mother made me understand that it was not my job to live up to anyone’s stereotype or expectation–whether those expectations were positive or negative.
It was my mother who told me that I had every right and the ability to achieve great things, but likewise, I had every right to be average too. No matter what standard the world held me to, my only responsibility was to be my truest, most authentic self, and to be the sort of person who knew how to embody love, care and goodness.
In his own way, my father was and is a living testament to the humility, generosity of spirit, and social consciousness of which my mother spoke. My father founded the first African Association in the city of London, and later, the first Rwandan Associations in all of Canada.
For my father and mother, the need to extend their social and political impact became most intense in 1994, when the Rwandan Genocide began. When the violence erupted, I was only twelve years old, still a child, and mostly unable to reckon with the gruesome implications of that sort of deep unrest. Of the fact that my own extended family was being executed, massacred. My strongest memories of that time are of my parents huddling my sister and I into the van for trips to Canada’s capital city of Ottawa, where our family would participate in demonstrations and rallies, hoping to forge a global political momentum that would compel other nations toward intervention, and Rwanda toward peace.
Unfortunately, it took several months, or perhaps even several years in some instances, for the reality of the Rwandan Genocide to enter mainstream Canadian consciousness. When it did, my interactions with other young people my age began to shift. For the first time in my life, my peers were relating to me not just as a black person, or even as an African, but as a Rwandan. For them, I was someone with a tangible connection to the enormous suffering they heard and saw on television, and, in some ways, they wanted me to make sense of the conflict for them. Of course, as someone who was not even a teenager in April of 1994, the entire scope of the violence was too much for me to wrap my head around, and far, far too much for me to explain to people who were even further estranged from the tragedy than I was.
My classmates and friends knew that I was Rwandan, but before the atrocities of 1994, they had no concept of what being Rwandan meant, or even where the country was. It was impossible for me to fill the gap for them, and perhaps just as hard to fill the gaps in my own understanding as far as what my country had gone through.
The first time I visited Rwanda I was 16 years old. Even though I had never set foot on Rwandan soil before then, when I arrived, I felt an immediate visceral attachment to the country. It goes without saying that Rwanda doesn’t much resemble the modest Ontario city where I grew up. At the same time as my connection to Rwanda was being fortified by this encounter, going back to one’s homeland is always a complicated experience. I understood that there were ways that Rwanda would never fully be my home. I had spent nearly my entire life up to that point in London, Ontario. Despite its flaws and the challenges of growing up there as a black person, London was where my life was — my friends, my school, my home, etc. It was my home.
Nonetheless, I was struck by the beautiful landscape, dotted with faces that resembled my own. It was the first time that my blackness did not exist in contrast to any pervasive whiteness. Every day of my time in Rwanda, it seemed that my connection and literal kinship to the country was affirmed. People who were, for years, only far-away strangers, were now introducing themselves to me as relatives. Nearly all of my family still calls Rwanda home.
So much hinges upon the word ‘home’. This word can mean so many different things. I suppose it is the complexity and importance of ‘home’ that makes it necessary for me to share my story as an African. I belong, rather undeniably, to a hyphenated identity. I am an African-Canadian. Fortunately, It seems that this label is taking on a clearer and more nuanced meaning. I am part of a generation, finally, where people are beginning to associate well-known faces and names to the identity of ‘African-Canadian’. Because of the successes of people like K’naan in music, or Masai Ujiri as an NBA General Manager, the title of African-Canadian no longer raises a question mark in the minds of most Canadians. Canadians are becoming aware of the range of experiences, perspectives, gifts and contributions that African-Canadians embody. For me, this is an exciting development, and one that might have been difficult to fathom when my family arrived in Canada in the early 1980’s.
If, one day, I have my own children, it will be important for me to pass on a sense that they come from a definite history, a definite place, a Rwanda that is living, breathing, and tangible. I will want my children to understand that they come from somewhere. I will want them to know that they are the product of good, dignified people. I will want them to be able to go to Rwanda and see a big part of their history and heritage. I will want them to know that they come from a country that is full of beauty and strength and pride. This is part of the inheritance that my parents have passed to me, and I want the same pride to be instilled, one day, in my children.
As for my own life and relationship to the world: I see myself as belonging not just to Rwanda or Canada, but to the entire planet. As debates about globalism rage across the West, I am one of many people for whom “country” and “home” could never be simple concepts. I can’t help but understand my African story as one bound up in a much larger story of global politics and power. One where some have gotten to stay while others have had to go. One that has created opportunities for some people at the expense of others.
So I hope for peace, freedom, and equality for the whole world. Even as my life and work continue to flourish here in Canada, I don’t want to see power continue to be unjustly concentrated in the West, and I hope I can contribute to Rwanda’s prosperity and peace. I want Rwanda and all of Africa to enjoy the freedom and quality of life they rightly deserve.
In my own small way, I hope to help the world by being an honest picture of the beauty and complexity that our world can create. I hope to live my life honestly and fully, and pass on everything I learn to the generations behind me.
Peace – Shad
Contributing Author – The African Perspective Magazine.