When time came for me to leave the overprotective nest that comprises most African children’s upbringing, I realised I had I never learnt how to navigate through life.
I learnt the hard way. In primary school in Kenya, I endured corporal punishment for being a permanent feature on the noisemakers list, mostly owing to my hearty laugh. I was told off for ‘acting like a boy’ and almost exorcised for befriending members of the opposite sex.
In high school, the most important message from teachers and parents was to get the best grades so I could choose any university I wanted to attend, either at home or abroad. Anything short of perfect scores was a disappointment. Never mind that I had a natural, organic, cold-pressed non-GMO affinity for the arts and the written word. In an African household, there is a finite number of careers that are considered ‘real jobs’: doctor, lawyer, engineer, pilot, architect.
I think of my parents’ generation as the survival generation – theirs was do or die, which informed many of their decisions, like where to live and where to educate us.
Dreaming outside those parameters was a precarious feat and if you dared, like my brother did when he suggested his passions lay in becoming a DJ, every arsenal of intervention was employed: the local pastor would be randomly invited for dinner, as if his presence alone was sufficient to expel any hint of a wayward thought – wayward thought representing anything that did not align with your parent’s vision for your life.
I think of my parents’ generation as the survival generation – theirs was do or die, which informed many of their decisions, like where to live and where to educate us. I grew up in Zimmerman off the Thika Superhighway, a congested estate where crime was the order of the day. By night, we fortified our homes with multiple heavy padlocks, praying for morning to come. By dawn we were ready for school, having gotten up before the sun, ready to make the commute to a private primary school in the leafy, lush suburb of Karen, one hour’s drive away from home.
Many people from my parents’ generation barely made it through high school and their parents considered early pregnancy a huge blessing that meant that they had one less mouth to feed and one less person to educate, because their pregnant teenage daughter would from that moment on be considered the ‘problem’ of whoever impregnated her.
My parents, bless them, had one mission: to make sure their children did not grow up in the same poverty they did. It was a laser-sharp hustler’s mentality and in some aspects, it worked. My siblings and I have never wanted for basic necessities and have had the privilege of the best education money could buy. However, this tunnel vision failed to consider that because we grew up in a different environment to our parents, we would require different tools to survive. Switching on survival mode was not enough – we are the generation that would have more options to study and live abroad, away from anything that we have ever known since birth.
This disparity is what culminated in my first few years after migrating to Australia as being a hazy fog of depression. I did not have the language to label what I was feeling and experiencing then. All I knew at the time is that I would sometimes feel like I never wanted to wake up the next day because the simple task of getting out of bed became an irritating inconvenience. Why was I awake when I did not want to be? Simultaneously, any time I tried to express what I felt to my parents, I was dismissed as being ungrateful or too emotional. On a daily basis, I was haunted by feelings of shame at the thought of disappointing my parents when I should be so lucky that they could afford to educate me and expose me to opportunities that they could only ever dream of.
I can’t count how many times I wanted to pack up and leave, go back to where I didn’t stand out because of the colour of my skin or my accent
Here I was in Australia, quite literally my ancestors’ wildest dreams, with the nerve to feel anything except eternal gratitude and euphoria. My only mission was to churn out perfect grades and get the perfect job as the perfect advocate. When enough was enough, I did the one thing that most people who suffer from depression do – I cut almost everyone off, especially my parents. They didn’t understand me and at the time, it seemed they didn’t care about anything other than stellar grades. I can’t count how many times I wanted to pack up and leave, go back to where I didn’t stand out because of the colour of my skin or my accent. To where my knowledge of English would not be questioned with awe; to where I was not required to spell my name out on a daily basis and I would not otherwise need to justify my existence or repeat myself with an artificial Australian accent to avoid standing out.
Being a migrant means being neither here nor there: Perpetually trapped in a merry-go-round of uncertainty and culture shock. Nothing really prepared me for the fact that Australia is so far from anything that was remotely familiar to me. Suddenly, I was propelled into this ‘every man for himself’ culture where I am generally expected to explain where I am originally from and what I am doing in Australia.
Outside work, people socialise in cliques dictated by which faction or footy team they support. “Who do you go for?” was the most terrifying question for me because really, the answer was no one. I did not understand footy, I had never seen anything like it. Likewise, I did not grow up with terms like right-wing, centre left, left of centre etc. to describe my political leanings. Political discussions in Kenya and Africa generally were a very risky topic so it also terrified me to out-rightly declare whose politics I affiliated with.
It is apparent to me now upon reflection that my identity is not an automatic moniker instilled at birth – and it is so much more than my last known address. 2018 marks 11 years since I migrated to Australia. It’s been 11 years since I celebrated my birthday with a black forest cake – the signature birthday cake flavour in Kenya. To echo Jay-Z in his song F.U.T.W., it’s 11 years down the track and sometimes I still feel like a stranger in my own land. Am I talking about Australia or Kenya?
Dorcas Mbugua now works as an Employment and Industrial Lawyer and lives in Melbourne.
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