Carrying three flags

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.

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5 thoughts on “Carrying three flags

  1. Unapologetic about my life is what I am. The richness of our multiple journeys through life is what makes a melting pop of culture, experience and really who we are. Born in Burundi, raised in Ethiopia, educated in France and the USA. Lived in Canada and other countries in between. I am Burundi through my parents and my constant need to love and feel at home in a Burundi that I constlantly try to love and own not through my parents but because that is where Is the country that could claims my physical being. So thanks for sharing.

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  2. Carmelle dear, you have so well voiced what our children feel without finding your beautiful words to express it. Way to go ma chère! Continue! You’ ve got a talent.

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  3. This story I’m reading for the first time (blaming the writer for not sharing it with me, blaming myself for not knowing she wrote it(:); is written by my daughter Carmelle. And yes, she is right on every count and then more. These are the experiences of our children, the children of immigrants/refugees/diaspora/etc… Those are great stories and it’s important to share them, especially among youths. Thank you Carmelle for sharing (tears in my eyes:-)
    Your mama, Seconde Nimenya, author of Evolving Through Adversity, and other stuff

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  4. This is a true story of some of us. I remember standing in the airport with my then boss who was American. I spoke to an attendant in Kiswahili, replied to my boss in English, and a different person showed up and I spoke French… Shortly after someone else spoke Luganda and I answered without noticing. My boss looked at me puzzled, especially when we arrived in Kigali and I could still communicate. But in Burundi I was asked “Nawe Ur’umurundi??!” In my younger years and in my journeys I held to my passport as the only thing that reminded who I was! …but today it’s just not worth it. I know it even when I am questioned.

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  5. “Unapologetic in my story and unsimplified in my reality”. I love your post and can relate on so many levels. I was born in Burundi, raised in France, did my undergrad in Canada and now working in the US. Feeling like a stranger in all three countries, but sadly also in Burundi.

    Cheers my dear

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