A Difficult Question

Me at 4 months old. Yes, 4 months. No really, that’s me… Stop laughing!


Before I start I would like to thank everybody for their support of this project, we have had some incredibly talented people come forward to tell their stories and I’m honoured to be able to share their stories in this blog. My last post can be post here (Top 5 Moments of 2015). Now back to regularly scheduled story… 

This is the first official story of the series, and thought that there would be no better way to kick things off than by releasing a story from my own memory vault. This is a 2 part story due the size of the story and I want to be able to go in depth as I visit my memory bank. This story is one close to my heart, a part I have previously tried to escape from but have since embraced. It’s my heritage.

“Where are you from?”

“It’s complicated…”Where are you from. A common question. Everybody gets asked this at some point right. Everybody has an answer, seriously how difficult can be it. Like everybody else, I’ve had it asked to me a tonne of times throughout my life and will likely be asked it many more times. To me, it’s usually followed by a small intake of breath, quick look away to ponder and then giving an answer.

It’s a simple question really, or so you would think. But what do you tell people when you have no connection to the town of your birth, leaving that country before you learn the ability to sit up on your own? What do you tell somebody when you cannot speak the language of your origin, much less never having set foot on that continent or breathed its air? How do you answer that question when you’ve been in a country long enough to call it your home but you’re still a foreigner in the eyes of the natives? Turned out asking me where I was from prompts more questions than answers, but I would answer it nonetheless, usually going into a little monologue to make sure I have covered all the bases.

“Understand now? It’s a little complicated”
“So you’re French then?”
“Kinda…”
“So… do you eat frogs and snails too?”
(Sigh)

Life in the cités HLM‘s of France
It’s wasn’t always that difficult to be honest. I was born in the farmlands of Almelo, Netherlands, where my parents arrived from France a month or so prior to birth, to then return to France a month or so later. Was Almelo that bad? Apparently it’s quite nice actually, but you’ll have to check that one out for yourself, difficult to review a place when your main thoughts are be breastfed, poop, sleep, repeat (probably why I’m such a fat baby in the picture I posted earlier). Anyway, I digress, what I was trying to say was that, having not been in the Netherlands for very long, I don’t have any particular attachment to that country. I like their football team, that’s about it really.

So… Are you french?

Yes. For the first 6 years of my life, I guess I was. Hard to tell when you don’t have a passport, only having refugee papers and a birth certificate to use as identification, I do wonder what were the reactions my parents got from school administrators when they would present these papers to them at nurseries and schools. For those 6 years, I was in French school systems, walking the French roads; reading, writing and speaking the French language so that I can speak to my (mostly) French friends before going back to my French HLM apartments. (For those wondering what a life in a HLM is like, watch La Haine, fortunately at the age of 6 I was pretty oblivious to the sort things going on around me. Life would have been very different otherwise).
Scene from La Haine? Nope this is New Year’s Eve two days after I left
Living in a HLM, especially in Angers where some of my family live as did I for short period (still visit frequently), you didn’t see many white faces around (not French anyway) and those that you did see would usually belong to: social services, firemen, and policemen, usually being called upon for one reason or another. To those that lived around me, everybody knew who they were. You are Turkish, you are Algerian, you are Ivorian , you are Polynesian. I could that pretty much name the nationality of all the those that would come and play football with us. From a society they felt didn’t do a great deal to help them, there identity was important to them. If there were too many people for a game of football, it wouldn’t be uncommon to split between teams into Arabs vs Blacks. It would split pretty even too and it was normally a lot of fun, if no fights occurred that is, or a person’s dog would come to chase the younger ones (usually myself and my cousins) or bite into the ball, either way that dog wasn’t going anywhere until it bit into something.
But we’ve come a long way since the dog days
In the summer August 1999, I left for the UK where the bright lights of London would be welcome us. It’s here where answering the question became a little tougher to answer. Let’s see how I fared…

But you are still French, right?

Here I was, I had crossed the Channel, I was in my first house (rented), as a French boy with my French brother (who I wish was rented sometimes) with the French name. With names like Serge and Michel (love you really), we didn’t really have to explain to anybody where we came from, it was fairly straight forward that the two boys with the French names with their French language spoken in the French accent could only be from one place. Problem was, nobody told me that the children here do not play like “those kids” from the Paris and Angers HLM (my school in Paris had tyres in the playground that we played with)… So one of my first lunch breaks, we’re playing football, I go for tackle with a little extra elbow, to the face of a poor soul into the Stinging Nettle. Face first. Oh all the crying, first from the boy with the nettle in the face, then from me as I knew I would be in trouble with both the Ms Hughes (the only French speaking teacher) and my mum. Sh*t, I certainly didn’t want to piss my mum off.
So I was banned from playtime for 2 weeks but what felt like an eternity. At least I could spend time more learning and practicing my English and before you know it, I was having conversations with friends that I still have today. Some of my primary friends would later tell me they used to try and teach me English but all I would do is repeat what they said to no avail. But for the rest of primary school, I knew who I was.
I was that French kid at school.
17 years later and still loving life in the capital

Are you a Hutu or Tutsi?

“Well… That escalated quickly” – You might be asking yourself

And yes, yes it did, but it do so for me too. As I got older, I was gradually beginning to understand more about my family’s origin. Not sure when that was. Not sure when it all began to sink in. Nevertheless, a change was starting to occur within me. Slowly, I started to identify more as a Rwandan but a problem arose during this transition. Are you Rwandan, if previously in your life you had been identifying yourself as French? Are you Rwandan if you’ve never set foot on African soil? Are you Rwandan, if you don’t understand its history or even speak its language?
Then it all clicked, and my world as I had known would change forever…
I’m coming home, coming home, tell the world I’m coming home…

And this concludes Part I of the series, Part II is called Lost and Found, which comes out next week on the 17th January 2015.

I would be very interested to know what you all thought, whether any of you yourself have ever had a crisis of identity. From nationality and beyond, I would love to hear from you. If you want to Join the Collaboration and share your story, feel free to contact us here. Follow The Artistic Collaboration on social media for news and updates on all our projects.
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