In July, I travelled back to my birth country: Kenya. As I arrived in Nairobi, I couldn’t help but feel fortunate of having the privilege to travel back to see my family again, especially in recent times as people are losing their lives for documents that legitimized their existence on safe land.
About two years ago, I was first introduced to what means to have an identity and to belong when interacting with second-generation members of the Somali diaspora. At the time, everyone had a story to tell from their experiences with the word “home”, whether it meant yearning to see the motherland, understanding the divides within the Somali community or dealing with micro-aggressions as a Somali living in a Western society. I always felt like I didn’t have any experiences that could add to the dialogue.
So this past summer, I went back to the place I have been writing about and thinking about for the past year in hopes to explore the possibility of cementing an “identity”. As I geared up for my trip, I felt the need to emotionally psyche myself to be hyperconscious of my privilege. I was afraid of being “westernized”, a walking endorsement of capitalist ideals and I was apprehensive that this may alienate me from rekindling old relationships. I wanted to feel like I was going “home” but it certainly took a lot of self convincing to internalize this idea.
My first experience in conceptualizing the concept of “home” was with language. Despite having not spoken Kiswahili in eight years, I was able to interact fluently in Kiswahili. As I navigated through most days speaking Swahili, I recalled the term that is used by Somalis as an identification and negation of their kinfolk that reside in Kenya. The word “sijooi” which in Kiswahili translates to “I don’t know” was coined by Somalis to describe to Somalis who resided in Kenya and couldn’t speak Somali.
Contrary to this, I was quite content with my ability to retain the Kiswahili language and the warm reception I would receive from local Kenyans. What was interesting was that most Somali youth I met, often interacted in Kiswahili. Through this observation, it occurred to me how vital it is for the diaspora to make inclusive spaces for Somalis with different experiences and perspectives without placing pressures to be a part of the cultural mobilization of a diaspora. Truth is, some Somali millennials who have known Kenya to be their “home” may not speak Somali and have assimilated to Kenyan culture.
Through my past experiences with the Somali diaspora, it has always seemed like there was a criteria to being a part of groups consisting of members of the diaspora. I would regard myself as “hyphenated”; never really feeling like Kenya was “home” and never having much to say about being “Somali”. In Nairobi, I realized that perceptions of belonging vary and are not bound by ties to ethnic land or ethnicity.
My cousins who were born in Kenya, lived in India for six years and recently moved back to Kenya, felt like they belonged in India. My aunt who lives in a marginalized rural Somali community, yearns for economic security and dreams of having the ability to live comfortably in America. I have cousins who were born in Canada, lived in Malaysia and have felt like they belonged in Malaysia.
Perhaps it’s easier to mobilize a community if they are simply Somali or simply Kenyan. But the faces of diasporas are changing, and experiences are becoming increasingly complex. I personally think that we can’t create homogenized spaces for Somalis, but there needs to be an extension of inclusion that incorporates the different experiences or notions of “belonging” which transcends ethnic and cultural ties. If different experiences aren’t considered, the divide only widens.
Returning to Kenya felt a different. By making less of an effort to “belong” and attempting to explore these concepts objectively, I’ve discovered that my inability to fit into the Somali diaspora is what prompted me to sensationalize the idea of having an “identity” that I am still at odds with.
I don’t know if I can call Nairobi my “home”. Ethnically Somali, I don’t know if I place enough emphasis on identifying as Somali, and I don’t know if this means I can’t be considered as part of a diaspora. But as my family continues to be dispersed around different parts of the world, I wonder whether they too see an importance in belonging to diasporas or asserting their Somali or Kenyan identity anywhere.
This is the beauty of it all, perhaps we can belong anywhere, if we step out of the boundaries of where we are “supposed to be” and “who we are supposed to be”.