“I discovered race in America and it fascinated me.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah.
Growing up between Canada and the States, I was always one of two black girls in my classes. Most of my school friends were white and I often quickly discovered that for them I existed in this precarious intersection between being an honourable ambassador of all things “black” that simultaneously didn’t match stereotypes of blackness they had of which no act of my own diplomacy could erase.
Global Health Corps is unique in that “American” fellows are matched with a “national” fellow from your placement country. Things are slightly different with my co-fellow relationship because we are both Burundian, but for all intensive purposes, I am the American fellow.
And the similarities to my experiences as the token black girl in the States parallel strikingly in the expat community here too. In Burundi, my Americanness affords me a ticket into what can feel like a twistedly insular expat development scene.
The day after I got my hair re-braided my hair I prepared myself to go to what I will hereafter refer to as The Expat Club. I’ve been frequently finding myself at Expat Club gatherings where clusters of expats in Burundi get together to reconnect with friends. I admittedly see myself in the eyes of those expats that come together here in our Club wearily in search of the quiet comfort of speaking English after a week of exhaustingly stumbling with French at work. We convene at exquisite homes nestled in the visibly upper echelons of Burundian society and we exchange development buzzwords like someone’s keeping count.
And yet, in their eyes I also saw the reflection of one of two black, Burundian girls in our quaint club that is trying to ignore the comments about how rich her skin is and “just try to have fun.”
I was unsure of why my patience was so thin. It may have had something to do with the taut newness of my microbraids. Or the annoying crick in my neck that begged me to reevaluate the cost-benefit analysis of having my hair braided by two women at the same time.
But ignoring, the strain of being overanalytical and the strain in my neck, I began to enjoy myself.
With awe, I listened to the stories many people had of other times working in Africa, each nursing a local beer or French wine with a savoir faire of Western culture I identified with. I giggled at the repeated shared longings for smoothies and skiing I had never understood.
I scanned the room in search of something until I met eyes with the one other Burundian there as we listened to people talk about Burundian culture and how they wished they had more Burundian friends. She nodded at me and I wondered what about her story had brought her here too.
I softly whispered to a friend that I wish more Burundians had been invited and then tried to forget the nostalgia of being the token black friend in the States and tried to have fun.
At first, I enjoyed the ease and familiarity of reach for the same cultural references that automatically formed friendships for me.
We laughed about the things we missed about home.
“This, like, totally quirky shop near my place in Williamsburg that has THE BEST Chinese food.
I sighed and added, “Chipotle.” Everyone laughed about that which made me happy and we were wrapped by the familiarity of ‘Murica that was so easily within our reach.
Quickly, I became fascinated with one woman seated near me. Her wrists were covered with a number of hand woven goods in various shades of red, green, and black that broadcasted their Africanness with as much of a shout. She spoke with a knowing tone that made me nervous and with a confidence of those that may have never been told she was wrong. Her sentences began with “When I was in Ethiopia,” or “When I was in Tanzania,” “When I was in Mali,” and ended with continental stereotypes about “Africa.” She both intrigued and frustrated me.
I don’t fully understand how but before I asked where she had gotten her jewelry, my Americanness was wrongly mistaken for whiteness in her head as she talked about how she wished “African” men didn’t flirt with her just because she was white and, later, how she wished people could just be on time here.
“My dad and cousins and uncles are African men. I’m sure they simply just think you’re cool.”
“Oh, well, you know what I mean.”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
My mind trailed off as she told me how I was different and in that split second of discomfort, I remembered all of the times being the token black friend in the States turned sour; where otherwise lovely nights, ended with statements like “Oh, but you don’t count.”
I was not American like her. My membership in the Expat Club was different. And I groaned to think we most certainly would meet again.
A few days later, I saw how things could and one day will be. Axel, one of our team’s Burundian fellows told us he would be stopping by with a few friends of his. In a few moments, three cars pulled into the driveway of our fortress and a fabulous entrance of ten cousins, brothers, and sisters waltzed in, amstels, sambusas, and meatballs on hand, and added some more life to our party. It was perfect. We spoke French, some English, struggled through Kirundi, watched as my co-fellow, Joanna, assuredly showed us how to open a bottle of Amstel with her teeth, and shared the unique joys of living here. And, finally, I felt like my two worlds meshed and I belonged.