I am in a situation that I have been in too many times before, and as is usually the case with things you’ve tolerated for way too long, I’m finding it incredibly difficult to contain myself. But you can’t be rude to an African elder, so I just smile and nod politely as yet again, I am being told that as a Congolese person, I should really learn how to speak Lingala as well as the Swahili my family speaks “because it is very important”. A conversation that sadly mirrors so many I’ve had before.
A lot of Congolese people nurture this false idea that if you don’t speak Lingala, you’re not really Congolese. This view is despite the fact that in the Democratic Republic of Congo more than 200 languages are spoken, only 4 hold the status of national languages, and French is considered the official language. In light of such extensive linguistic richness, this commonly shared belief has no validity at all. What irritates me about these wide spread sentiments is that they completely disregard my identity and personal history. I do understand some Lingala, as it is the most frequently used language in music and most of TV shows. But we are a huge country and I simply don’t come from a region where Lingala is spoken. So how can it be imposed on me as “very important” when it simply doesn’t pertain to my own identity?
I suspect this happens because people tend to categorize others and assign ready-made identities to them. This is a problem I’ve had to deal with too often as an “Afropean”. With the recent resurgence of racism in Europe, it seems like every person who descends from immigrants has to constantly prove that they are ‘really’ European. By renouncing anything related to our various heritages, we seek to reassure people that we are fully Europeanized and do not pose a threat to European culture.
This is problematic. When you want me to edit myself to your standards for the sake of simplified rapport, what does that say about the value you attach to my identity and culture in comparison to yours? You may see me as a minority, but my identity is nevertheless inherently precious. I can’t disavow who I am simply because someone decides that they don’t want to bother dealing with the details that make me unique.
I say that identities are not to be scrutinized or quality controlled. You shouldn’t have to try to squeeze yourself into criteria that are not relevant to you, but fit into other people’s expectations.The beauty of respect demands that you understand and embrace the fact that cultural identities are complex. They go beyond the short descriptives that we assign to flags. They are personal and rich, they attest of a non-quantifiable inheritance received from the people who have brought us this far, and that inevitably influences us. Once you realize that you won’t assign people to your ready-made boxes, but instead you let them tell their own story, and assert their own identity.
I may not fit your stereotypical view of a Congolese, and yet I am Congolese. Not a “genetic” Belgian and yet I am Belgian. I have two homelands and shouldn’t be forced to choose one. Both of these places have carved me to be the person I am today. It is seemingly an intricate weaving to some, but instead of trying to unravel the threads that you prefer, how about appreciating the whole tapestry?
Feature Image “Galaxy” provided by Laylie Frazier, contact artist for prints.