At school we ate fish and chips, at home we ate pondu and kwanga. I listened to pop music and Congolese rumba. I wore shirts and trousers, and dashikis and liputas. I participated in both cultures; I lived in both places; I had two homes.
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As I got older, I was increasingly asked the question, ‘Where are you from?’ If I replied, ‘London,’ it would often be followed up by, ‘No, but where are you really from?’ This unanswerable question made me realise how I was slowly being pushed out of one home that I had come to know and be comfortable in, and how far away I was from another home that I was forced to leave behind.
The poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo, in her poem ’Diaspora Blues’, writes:
so, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
never enough for both.
I often felt like this, existing somewhere in the in-between; knowing you have left and not sure if you can ever really go back, yet never arriving. It is a feeling that is much more intangible, because you feel like you are moving towards something, but you don’t know if or when you will ever arrive. A split between the person you are and the person you are trying to be; a tearing of your identity right down the middle.
The displacement that leads to placelessness
When you are displaced, you are pulled away from your loved ones, family and relationships, but also from your environment; from the places you live, and work, and shop, and go to school. In my novel ‘No Place to Call Home,’ I wrote:
A city is merely a collection of buildings,
and buildings do not have souls,
so how can home haunt you as though a ghost?
In the new place you arrive, you don’t have the same relationship with the places, the buildings and the people in them. And so you try to build new relationships with the city, the buildings; but every now and then you will be reminded of the old, your old city, the one you once knew; this is where the haunting comes in.
You think about the zandu instead of the market, about the terrain instead of the playground, about Bandal, where you used to play, instead of your local borough. It is as though you are abandoned in a permanent nostalgia; as though there is a hologram of another city in front of you, as you walk through the city you are currently in.
But, just like memory, it slowly fades. This burden, this tension and fraught feeling that occupies displaced people can be a painful mental weight. This is no surprise, as research suggests that depression and anxiety are the most prevalent mental health disorders among refugees and displaced people, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.
On the surface I was able to perform and participate in society, much like everyone else, and do what was expected of me. Beneath all of that, even until now, I felt the push and pull of this placelessness, of having nowhere; nowhere to go, and nowhere that understands you. But how does being forced out on one side and rejected on the other make you feel? For me, it was troubling.