Drawing on their African cultural tradition of storytelling, and expanding on the conversation of multiculturalism and diversity in Canada, Rohene Bouajram and Rowena Mondiwa, Masters students in intercultural and international communication at Royal Roads University teamed up to organize a dialogue on July 2nd, 2014 in Vancouver called The Baobab Project: Exploring Southern African Roots. They shared their reflection on the event with Schema Magazine below:
As immigrants with a strong connection to Southern Africa, our desire was more than just gathering a group of people connected to a region we call ‘home’ – our aspiration was to give voice to a small but growing population in Vancouver. The Baobab Project became a venue to tackle what identity, belonging, and membership to a Southern African diaspora community meant, looked, and felt like.
We wanted to address questions such as: How do we define our identity? How has our time in Vancouver changed who we are? Do we belong and how do we create such belonging? Do we feel connected and part of communities in Vancouver? Throughout the lively discussion, participants and facilitators tackled and discussed the questions while co-creating a visual piece to reflect more introspectively on how life experiences have shaped each of us.
In a country like Canada that takes pride in accepting all individuals regardless of colour, culture, preference or spiritual belief, the question of exclusion remains an important one. Indeed, the most poignant discussions were centered around belonging and how each person at one time or another felt excluded in certain social spaces. Spaces where people felt inclusion brought about feelings of happiness and familiarity, and a connection to family and social groups. On the other hand, there were many stories of exclusion, whether from the beauty industry, academia, small towns, workplaces, or retail stores. However, with the African resilience and spirit of innovation, participants have been able to create their own spaces, and sometimes forge a way into spaces that are generally not welcoming.
A feeling of African pride resonated across the room, a feeling that we bring a rich heritage and valuable experiences to Canada. At the same time, there was much discussion and reflection on how Canada has made instrumental changes in each of us. The deep connection to both Southern Africa and Canada reverberated as facilitators and participants recalled the length of time spent away from and in both regions. From pondering the meaning of each person’s name to sharing the strong African values related to family that cannot be forgotten, it was enlightening for us to see how both Southern African and Canadian identities have become an intertwined sense of being where customs, values, and sense of community-mindedness from both cultures weave their way into individuals’ daily practices.
When asked on how Vancouver has (re)shaped identities, participants admitted to being lost at times but then learning to embrace themselves, and encountering a renewed appreciation for their home culture. Living in Canada helped many “sharpen their identities” as one participant reflected on the integration of their culture, Canada and now their husband’s culture.
Race was brought up on several occasions. For participants who identified as being mixed, it was important for Africa to be viewed as a diverse place without a homogeneous population. Passionate voices were raised when we discussed experiences of being “othered” and “exoticized”, stereotyped and mistrusted. Frustration at not being able to find the applicable make-up shade in the store, for example, and of having to answer questions about animals and poverty in Africa were also commonplace.
When discussing the Southern African diaspora, some commented about the importance of continuing to be connected to home despite the distance. Others either did not know or were unable to relate to the word ‘diaspora.” For some, “diaspora” did not hold any weight in how they defined themselves despite still feeling a connection to Southern Africa. For one participant, diaspora meant being able to connect easily with people from the community, to share culture and tradition, foods and stories, and to not have to explain oneself.
All in all, we felt refreshed and invigorated by this dialogue. We were humbled by how much people had to share and believe that everyone went away with a renewed feeling of what it means to be African and Canadian, to come from a place with a rich, often unacknowledged heritage. This initiative has been a labour of love but having the opportunity to self-reflect and share experiences with each other was priceless. We wanted new voices and experiences to be heard, to compare and contrast experiences, and to reach a deeper understanding of pertinent issues. What we got were rich stories, a lot of laughter, bonding, and reminiscences. Yet, despite all of this, we barely scratched the surface.This often overlooked group has a lot to offer, if only more of our voices were heard. This session clearly demonstrated that more dialogue is needed.
Now the question we need to ask ourselves is: where do we go from here and how can we further this dialogue? How can we let more people feel welcomed and ultimately, how can we use our skills and experiences to enrich the multicultural tapestry in Canada?