In the underground tunnels of Montreal I start becoming an African. I join other sandaled tropical brethren as we roam the belly of the city, there where it is warm and heated, where buskers play rhythms that awake the taste of nostalgia in our mouth. Where the sun doesn’t reach us, but the heat doesn’t leak out. It is the winter of discoveries. It is colder in Montreal than Siberia. Snot freezes. It is possible for it to be too cold to snow. If you leave the house with wet hair, your locks can snap off like a dry twig.
And like other shivering Africans, I discover that downtown Montreal is connected by a sprawling of tunnels, so when the city grows icy tentacles, us Africans descend beneath, emerging only at our destination, rarely venturing beyond its radius. Except of course when Angelique Kidjo comes to town. I miss home. I need to feel home. Benin will do. I can’t find anyone to come with me, so I bundle myself up and head to the wrong end of St. Laurent. It is -40 degrees Celcius, and it looks like God pressed the fast forward button on the city. Everyone moves quickly, dashing into heated shops every few blocks to warm up, before continuing their journey. Only their eyes are visible. I know I am moving because objects keep getting closer, but I can’t feel my legs. I enter the club, peel off my layers, my body tingling as it adjusts to the temperature, and I sit down. There are fifty other people in this club. For Angelique Kidjo. I feel ashamed. I must show her how she is loved. And I do. We do. She whips us up into a frenzy of movement, dancing on chairs, tables, falling into each other’s arms. For the first time in months, I feel hot.
My new friends introduce me as their African friend. I am from Africa. Ergo I must be African. It sounds odd. At home, in my community, the term African is often a crude non-derogatory reference to mean black. It has never occurred to me that I am an African. My British Prep Schooling has determinedly erased any possible idea of an African identity in me. I have not had a single lesson on African or even Kenyan history, literature or geography. Instead I sang ‘Hip Hip Hoorah for the Jolly Good Fellows’ after a Rounders match, before we settled down to cucumber sandwiches. This is criminal. It is unacceptable for a child to be educated in a country and be taught nothing about that country. I don’t care what the educational system is. So when my Canadian friends ask me to take them to an African restaurant, I have no idea what to order. Ethiopian Restaurants save me from shame.
Even in this cold white city, I feel less African than the West Africans. They are so loudly African. Everything about them yells African. Their accents, their clothes, their music, their mannerisms. Us Kenyans are much more discretely African. I feel a little like an imposter. As if I should apologise to my Canadian friends for not being African enough. I don’t really even count as the token African. Maybe the token ethnic person.
But the cold binds us together, us Africans from the East and West. The university sets up a room for us. They warn us about the depressive effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder, aptly named SAD. Something to do with not getting the light that our bodies are used to down at the equator. We are to visit this room every morning and sit under these alien-esque lamps. The room gives me that desperate feeling I get from Casinos. And it is still cold. I discover a more elegant solution. Granted, the receptionist looks at me a little strangely when she hands over the bright orange goggles. Perhaps she doesn’t see many people my skin colour frequenting the tanning salon. I strip off my clothes, put on the crinkly paper underwear, lie down and lower the lid of the tanning bed over my body. And I feel it. Warmth right into my bones. For the first time in months. With my eyes closed, I imagine that I am at the beach in Mombasa, ignoring the beach boys and sipping on Madafu. My family never quite understand why I seem to come home from winter with a full body tan.
During the day, I join other Africans at our African Development Class, rolling our eyes at the saviour complex that is stinking up the lecture hall, unaware of our own that seeps out like a silent fart. We Nkt! over a new awareness we have of white privilege, for now, we remain ignorant of our privilege. At night I seek comfort in the dodgy African club where I am guaranteed they will play Magic System’s Premier Gaou at least once in the night. My brown Kenyan ass shakes to lingala. I feel home. I go every week, until one day a fight breaks out, and jagged beer bottles fly across the smoky room oblivious to who they hit. That night I crawl out of the club on my hands and knees, avoiding what looks like blood on the dance floor.
I can’t find any Kenyans to be Kenyan with. So I will be African with the Africans.
Then I go back home. I stop being an African. I go back to being a Kenyan. I behave like a Nairobian.
Years later in a shop in Mumbai, the greasy attendant refers to me as an African, and it throws me off. I had forgotten that I am. His words remain with me as I sit in traffic watching young couples huddle by the ocean, their silhouettes in the smoggy haze betraying a physical intimacy that I am surprised to see in public in India. The streets look oddly familiar. As if you could be in Kisumu, where when you cast your eyes above the first floor, the buildings still have a certain colonial patina that has yet to be painted over by mobile phone branding. My sister remarks that so much of the greenery reminds her of Nairobi. We wonder what traces our forefathers have left of themselves in the landscaping of Kenya. I remember my grandfather telling me about how the Jambura or Zambrau trees can only be found along the railway line, where Indian workers and traders planted them to remind them of home. He tells us this story as he buys Jambura by the bucket load, marinating them in a sprinkling of salt, and delighting in the sweet tart flesh of this purple berry.
As the sun sets in Mumbai, we wander out on to the crowded beach. On the other end of the Ocean lies Kenya. I wonder what it must have been like for my forefathers getting on the dhows that would take them to a foreign land. In a time when the world was still unfamiliar. When they had no idea what life would be like where they were going. What would the houses be like. What language did the people speak. What did they eat. Back, when google did not exist. What did my ancestors carry in the bags that they clasped close to their bodies as they boarded the boats for the journey that would last months. Did they think they would ever see India again? I sometimes forget they were economic migrants, looking for a better life for themselves and their children. And so it makes sense that when they arrived in this new land, they tried their best to re-create the sense of home they left. They were not interested in being Kenyan. Or African. They were just Indians in Kenya simply looking to lead a better life.
And so I imagine my forefathers would be rather amused by this discovery of mine. That I am an African.
I also think they would have gotten a kick out of the fact that Chanyado has been nominated for Best New Blog in this year’s Kenyan Blog Awards. There are only two days left to vote, so if you haven’t already, please do vote here, and spread the word. You don’t have to be Kenyan to vote. Of course I would be utterly delighted if you voted for Chanyado. It would be nice to win.