By Temitope Sowunmi, July 24 2023—
I sat in bed all morning scrolling through Instagram and TikTok, my two favourite time wasters right now on this Gen-Z-pervaded internet. As I scrolled past the memes, annoying podcasts, mini vlogs and countless baby videos — the dominant topic on my For You page was African people and their migration stories. They triggered memories of my own experience being an international student and I began to reflect on an almost 2-year journey of being in the African diaspora.
It all started with the breeze of cold air that violently bit my face when I stepped out of the Ottawa airport door.
If you grew up where I did, in a country with the highest population of Black people in the world, you will not know that you’re Black and that being Black is your first visible identity — until you live outside the continent. Until you see people with different skin colours everywhere you go, until they stare at you like you are the eighth wonder of the world and they pose fake smiles or move away when you walk literally anywhere. You will not realize that you are also African, and so is Fikile from South Africa and Amina from Senegal, both of whom you are supposed to know intimately — you’re from the same “country” after all. Until people begin to think that you cannot afford a plane ticket and that you surprisingly speak good English or that you steal from Walmart for a living and your green passport warrants special searches at airports. When all these happen, it dawns on you that you are no longer the you that lived in an African household as just you, but you are now Black — African You.
The society I grew up in faces many of its own historical struggles brought on by colonization, such as tribalism, currency devaluation and corruption. Being discriminated against because of your skin colour is not only strange but the bottom of the barrel concern for anybody, especially when most of them look like you. I am not suggesting that racism does not exist in Africa, but that many people — like me, never experienced it back home. Of course, we hear stories of racist encounters (because we do have access to the internet in Africa — you know) and we learn about our colonial past. However, you can never completely know the existence of something till you feel it and experience it.
I was too carried away by the cultural shock and the how to not die during winter talks when I moved abroad, to remember that I had now become Black. It wasn’t until my long brown braids became such a fascinating artwork to so many people that I snapped back to a new reality. There were people that wondered how I slept at night, how I took showers and how I used the bathroom. One even thought to tell me that my hair looked so crazy and another was concerned if I frequently caused hazards with my locs in my surroundings. This experience, coupled with many others is the reason I have now involuntarily and unconsciously stamped an invisible tag on my forehead and even in my mind that says, “Alert! Black person approaching.”
A friend of mine once met a Canadian woman who decided to give her a piece of unsolicited advice after their brief conversation. The woman, probably with good intentions, told my friend to make sure to work hard whilst studying here so that she can make enough money to help her mom relocate here as well. This got me thinking about a lot of things. Predominantly, wondering if that is what people here thought of Africans — that we all want to desperately escape from our jungle of a continent, or we have poor, suffering parents waiting excitedly to be brought to foreign countries of paradise. If that is the case, then I have never heard of greater ignorance. If any of them even bothered to consider that if we were all indeed impoverished, how then would some of us international students afford to pay four times the amount local students pay in tuition fees?
Talking about stereotypes attached to Africa, it amuses me that people assume that seeing skyscrapers and using Wi-Fi is new to us when what was in fact new to me was children as young as sixteen working to pay their parents’ bills, people buying phones on credit and living in houses the size of my grandfather’s garage. The issue is not that poor people do not exist on the continent of Africa, but that poor people exist everywhere.
It is that as an African, you relocate to a Western country and you begin to hear things about your continent that make you too stunned to speak. Statements like “children in Africa don’t have food to eat”, as though you do not regularly see unhoused people picking food from the trash on streets in Canada. It is true that Africa has an overwhelming rate of poverty and that our leaders eat and drink corruption. But it is also true that it is the second most populous continent on the globe, so the numbers are obviously higher than other continents. It is true that it is the richest continent in natural resources and has a heavy history of exploitative colonization (in other words, violent theft of resources and much more).
The problem is not only that there are extremely ridiculous stereotypes about Africa and Africans, but also that these stereotypes have been labelled as the only truths that exist about the continent. So much that it has now become as though one cannot write or speak about Africa without sounding absurdly pitiful for the many hardships of its people, or the supposed penury they are considered to all face. The idea of success or beauty in Africa has become unimaginable to some, audacious to many, and delusional to others. And these things affect the way we are often viewed, not first as people but as Black and African, and in many cases, suffering people.
Before travelling to school in a foreign country, I was told the basics — that as an African I have to work harder, but living here has taught me much more. I should expect frequent rejections and should dress more flamboyantly to be taken seriously. I have to speak louder to be heard and understood.
This article is a part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.