(Pic: Reuters)

Being African abroad: Are we a lost generation?

A few weeks ago, I was approached by an elderly Somali man who asked about my ethnicity. I responded that I was Somali. He then began to ask for help in Somali. As he described what he needed, I stood there blank-faced, staring at this man and trying to figure out how to explain to him that I could not understand Somali. I mean, yes I am Somali. But I do not speak the language.

When I finally mustered up the courage to tell him, a wave of frustration appeared on his face. He was dumbfounded. “You do not understand,” he said. “Your language is your passport. Without it, you are just a Somali by appearance and nothing else,”  he protested rather poetically. I realised he made a very valid point. I truly had nothing that separated me from my fellow Canadian peers besides my skin complexion. I could not speak my language and the older I became the more I realised I had picked the ‘westernised’ card over the ‘embracing my ethnicity’ card. It was time I found my roots.

Growing up, I was always the token black kid in most of my classes. I had the darkest skin, the roughest hair. To put it simply, I was always the “sore thumb” in all my class photos. Despite being born and raised in Toronto, I was still subjected to societal segregation due to my appearance. It was nothing drastic, but I was still bullied or stereotyped by my peers and teachers. However, over time, I learned to adapt. Like a turtle, I mastered the ability to live both in water and on land. Or, I should say, I learned to survive at home and outside of my home.

I was taught at school that unlike the United States and their forceful melting pot, Canada embraced all of our various ethnic descendants. Usually, when a teacher would discuss Canada and our ‘tossed salad’ analogy, he/she would make it a fact to point at my direction while enthusiastically claiming I was an example of this wonderful multicultural nation, then ignorantly ascribing me to a random African country of his/her choosing to prove their point. During moments like those I wished that I was not a case study for my social studies class; that I could fit in with the Rebeccas and Ashleys sitting around me. To me, fitting in was entirely different from belonging. I did not feel as though I wanted to belong as I understood that I could never truly belong in this society. Instead, I felt I needed to learn how to adapt mannerisms, so that I would avoid such situations in the future. Being westernised seemed ideal.

My parents made it a point to make sure I acknowledged that I was both Somali and Muslim, as these descriptors became almost entirely interchangeable. However, at school I was just the black kid so these descriptors truly meant nothing to my classmates. As Christian beliefs dominated throughout my schooling life, trying to explain an Islamic holiday or fasting during Ramadan became irritating as my classmates could not fathom why I was not eating during lunchtime. They would ignorantly assume I forgot my lunch – every day for a month. This explanation appeared to be more logical for them to believe, rather than to care to understand that I was fasting for God. The reality was that westernised values collided with my traditional Somali values.

A “double identity” was not easy to achieve. My parents were traditional Somalis living in Toronto; my peers were all Canadians. I spent most of the day with my peers rather than my parents, so as time passed I slowly began leaning towards my Canadian identity rather than my parents’ traditional Somali one. The task of forging an ethnic identity is compounded by opposing demands from the two worlds. At school and with my peers, the more “westernised” I was the easier and more relatable I became. I wouldn’t call my parents ‘hoyo’ (mother) or ‘abo’ (father) in public, I would address them as mom and dad. I would not carry any Somali food in my lunch bag,  I’d take a  peanut butter and jelly sandwich with suitable snacks that I could be able to trade with the other kids during lunchtime.

I highly doubt my parents or parents of other second-generation children would imagine that their kids would be put in a situation where they would have to deal with the clashing of values. As I grew older, I began to witness the extremes: some second generation children began rejecting their culture or even effectively removing themselves from interaction with members of that culture just to avoid the stigmatisation of being associated with their nationality. Others began to develop a heightened sense of ethnic pride, often in reaction to discrimination or hostility from the host society. Either way, both seemed extremely drastic to me.

(Pic: Reuters)
(Pic: Reuters)

The manner in which Somali youths, or even second generation African youths, understand their identity is complex. The majority of second generation Somalis struggle with the notion of identity simply because identity and culture are deeply intertwined – as religion is an identity, and nationality is an identity, and so on. It seems as though rather than incorporating various aspects of both the western culture and our traditional culture, the majority of Somalis seems to have lost the overall Somali culture in their process of attempting to assimilate into society. There are more of us, who are unable to speak the language, or who do not generally uphold our cultural values.

We tend to forget that we are the future of our cultures. We are the ones who will carry forward our language, and our traditions. However, if we are too busy attempting to assimilate into a society that essentially rejects us, who will continue to keep our traditions alive? I would like to think there is hope. We have a chance to change our situation. Rather than suppressing one’s identity, I feel as though it is time we began embracing the variety of identities.

If not now, when will we?

Iman Hassan is a specialised political science student at York University in Toronto, Ontario.


  1. Jan says:

    Very entertaining article, but that’s what culture is. I’m sure a Canadian kid moving to Somalia will probably go through the same process.

    I agree with Peter Macadam here, that you should embrace your new culture but not forget where you come from. Fixating on your country of origin, culture and language will leave you isolated in your new country.

    • New Canadian says:

      You need not embrace a new culture, it devalue your person. You should stand tall and be proud of your African heritage. Attempting to assume a new identity where you are rejected amount to ridiculing yourself.

  2. ilhan says:

    Interesting article that i can relate to. When I moved to Canada i could not speak my mother language and was ashamed not because my parents didn’t teach me, but because i refused to learn it. But once I was in Canada, then i realised how important one’s culture is. I forced myself to learn it and can now speak the language fluently. There’s one particular incident that stands out that i cannot forget. We were at a somali wedding and among the invited guests, there was a number of non somalis. This was in the early 90’s and the community was still new in Toronto. The bride came in wearing a beautiful somali traditional wedding attire escorted by her bride maids who were all wearing traditional bridesmaid attire. Soon after the groom came in (traditionally bride and groom come in separately) and he was also wearing traditional wedding attire and so were his friends. They continued to dance traditional wedding dance with swords and umbrellas everything was colorful and it was just so beautiful. The non somalis were so amazed and had such a wonderful time and voiced their opinions, mainly, why would somalis choose to have a white wedding when they have such a rich culture. yes, we do ask ourselves the same question. We do appreciate the welcome received from the west when we really needed it but that doesn’t mean we should forget where we came from. For example, occasions such as valentine day, thanksgiving day, st patrick’s day etc are all practiced in western countries, but africans do not know what they are and its meaning, yet we still feel obligated to celebrate it or one feels they would be left out if they did not adapt this new culture. When it comes to our children born in western countries, its our obligation to teach them about their culture religion and where their ancestors came from. I remember i would blame my parents for not teaching me my mother language and actually my daughter does blame me now but just like me she refused to learn it. Like she can understand it but answering is a problem. like me again she realises that she needs to learn her language and so this summer she will be going back home to learn the language. Home is always going to be home, no matter where you are born. That home is where your parents come from. My experience is that when the kids go back, initially, its hard for them because of the leisure life that they are used too, but eventually after a week they adjust and actually think there is so much that could do to better the lives of the african people and in return they also gain economically. It is not bad to take the good from other communities and integrate with yours but it is important to teach your children about their culture too. At the end of the day, one is identified by their culture no matter what.

  3. abdullahi says:

    meaningful article, as it reflects the inner feelings of me we all face the same challenge everyday but do we really learn from it ? i think its time to united as African and re-build our continent and we can only do if we believe our self and go for it…

  4. Nocebile M says:

    Excellent story. Blacks in South Africa still facing same challenges in their own country(Africa) for eg an African who unable to speak English or Afrikaans clear in SA is classified as stupid or a fool but an Afrikaans(white) who unable to speak English or Zulu he/she is respect and accommodated as the language is not his/her native or first language.
    We must be proudly Africans and keep our culture and tradition well alive.

    • bob says:

      The stigma you’re referring to is mostly driven by the black population themselves and class based. Those who have access to better schooling will usually school in English or Afrikaans and the haves will judge those who do not, lesser.
      Sadly, your opinion here is indicative of the typically ignorant and there is more than enough evidence, if you ever bothered to look, that kids schooled in a non-African language in South Africa perform far better scholastically than those who learn in their native “home languages” – there are reasons for this, but doesn’t change the precedent or your own lack of understanding and obvious stereotyping.

  5. John Wanda says:

    I have my perspective on this. While I understand Iman’s feeling, I also know that it is merely nostalgic trying to be a real African in America (including Canada). Like others have said, it is best trying to understand the culture and ways of your new home, and not pine too much for your parent’s homeland. It was their home, not your home. You can return and visit, you can support it, but it will not be home for you. It will always be your parent’s home. Canada is your home. I say this as a parent who voluntarily emigrated from Africa, love Africa and my country, visit often, and hope to go back one day to settle. But it is not a continent and a country where I wish my children to go back to settle. They would be outsiders in a way you cannot even imagine. Their home is here. My home is there. Similarly, your home is Canada. Your parent’s home is Somalia. If you accept this, you will deal with it better. I mean well when I say this.

    • Mark Z says:

      A lot of 1st generation Canadians are really struggling to fit in and are like you say a lost generation. The sooner their parents allow them to integrate into Canadian ways the better for them. The problem is the parents impose the values and cultures they brought with them from the old country on their children who are then stuck in no man’s land unable to fit in where they should and that is in their country of birth.
      That is very unfair of the parents. Why they came here in the first place is a puzzle. Maybe to escape violence but those who come here voluntarily have no excuse.

  6. Peter Macadam says:

    A very interesting and meaningful article, as it reflects the deep, inner feelings of many expats who move around the global village we now habitate. I’ve always maintained that if you lose your culture, you’ve lost everything, and one sees the dire consequences of this on a daily basis in most western countries that accommodate large numbers of migrants and asylum seekers. The second generation often feel confused about their real identity, but desperately try to fit into their new country and culture. One should always feel proud of your country of origin, regardless of where you end up. Assimilation is one thing, but culture runs deep, so I’m not sure if anyone can really survive losing it. Being a South African and living in New Zealand, I’ve seen the consequences of losing one’s culture, and how it could lead to youngsters going off the rails. My suggestion is to embrace the new society and culture, and to assimilate from it what is good, but never to forget one’s roots, and the meaningfulness of self worth. Do your best to be a good, decent citizen, wherever you end up, and always reflect positively on your heritage, as that is unfortunately what people judge you on. The world would be such a boring place if we were all the same!

    • Sterling Ferguson says:

      @Peter, If you stay out of SA for a long period of time you are voting with your feet and New Zeland has became your home. Many of these people are doing nothing but dreaming about their native country and will not admit N America is a superior place to live.

  7. salah haji says:

    it was a nice article and many outside has been facing same challenges there, it happens once to me when I was a second year student at university I went back to my homeland after a decade and found myself being isolated I took all the trouble to learn the language with all the possible effort and alxamdullilah am now okay with. To them they believe that your language is your identity but things have to be done to change this societal norms.

  8. Adam says:

    Well! I am 100% Somali; speak the language and live with my Somali culture almost everyday. I feel honored to have the opportunity to live through my whole life in Somalia; except the four yeas I am spending in Malaysia as a part of my study. However, I feel sorry for my brother, who wrote this article, for neither speaking the Somali language, not knowing about his culture. It sadness and as I personally consider; it is a tragedy. I might have used the wrong word as others might think; but I believe that is a tragedy. However, I will not only blame on your parents, but I will blame on you too. It would have been acceptable if you said, I don’t speak Somali fluently, but not all. Your language is your identity; and you should learn before it’s too late.

    Many Somalis migrated to America, and Europe. Not they have only left their culture, but apparently their language and religion is also danger. It really pisses me off when I see Somalis living in Western Countries underestimating their Somali identity and proudly saying “We are Americans, or Europeans” whilst America is not proud to have you as their citizens…..

    To conclude my words; if you are a parent, please do teach your kids Somali language, culture and their Islamic religion. If you are a grown man/woman, and you don’t know about your culture, and language; before you start learning anything, learn your language and culture first. Everyone in this world is proud of to speak their language, so do we?

    • saddam says:

      well spoken ma brother in faith am proudly inspired by ur sentiment indeed i share ur sentiments thank u indeed n may God protect u against western culture

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