Grappling with identity: In the footsteps of Africa’s ‘nowhere and everywhere children’

A growing number of young Africans are struggling to root themselves; products of their parents moves across borders in search of opportunities.

IN 2007, when Allan-Roy Sekeitto won the opportunity to participate in a continental reality television show, Imagine Africa, its organisers profiled him as a representative of two countries; South Africa and Uganda. He was born in neither.

Sekeitto, now 28, was at the time a medical student in South Africa’s University of Limpopo. He was born in Botswana, where both his parents worked.

Shortly before his second birthday, the family moved to South Africa, where they have lived to-date in the city of Johannesburg. Sekeitto is thus a child of three countries; none of which has fully embraced him. He is a child of everywhere and nowhere.

A practising doctor, his parents hail from Uganda. However, because he only makes occasional trips to the East African nation, he does not speak any local language neither is he sufficiently grounded in the customs of his ancestral home. 

He was born in Botswana but is not a citizen. He has lived in South Africa nearly all of his life and holds the country’s passport, but is many times made to feel like an outsider. In a profile for the Imagine Africa show, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) described him as “a Ugandan based in South Africa”.

Not that easy
However, when asked how he classifies himself given his diverse background, Sekeitto puts down the labels rather philosophically. “I see myself as a Pan-African child. The classification is easy; according to nationality, I am South African. According to birth, I am from Botswana. According to ancestry, I am Ugandan. It is as easy as that.”

Yet, several minutes into the discussion, it is evident that things are not that easy. Every so often, according to Sekeitto, circumstances compel him to revisit the issue of exactly where he belongs.

A week before our interview, for instance, Sekeitto says a patient at the Johannesburg hospital where he works asked, “where are you from? I can tell from your accent that you are from ‘out’.” 

And his response? 

“I started laughing because I have been here since I was one and a half so what [other] accent did I have a chance to get?”

Other times, Sekeitto’s diverse heritage has had more serious consequences. “Legally in South Africa I am not defined as a black person because I only got citizenship in 1996. So I can’t even take all the advantages that come with being a black African in South Africa,” he said.

Missed out on opportunities
His mother, Dr Ikatekit, says her son missed out on several opportunities due to his status. “Allan couldn’t get a bursary like other students because he is a born Tswana [from Botswana]. We had to borrow, get a bank loan, etc., to pay for his education. It was very expensive. [Because of his status] whatever he wants, he has to fight more than everyone else. He doesn’t get it automatically.”

In search of that liberated feeling…(Photo, AFP)

Sekeitto, whose family lives in the upscale Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, has faced most hurdles stoically. However, one encounter at the O. R. Tambo International Airport in 2001 almost got to him. Dr Ikatekit sent him on a maiden solo journey to Uganda but airport authorities arrested him. The crime?

Passport and language

“I was detained at the airport because they said there is no way I can be of age 15, have a South African passport and not speak a local language,” he said.

He was eventually released, but Sekeitto was rattled enough to tell his mother on reaching Uganda that he did not want to return to South Africa. That episode seems to have had a lasting impact on Sekeitto because he has since shaped the view of South Africa as merely “a home of convenience”.

“It is not a nice feeling [to be detained] and, essentially, I think about it: would I want my children to grow up in a similar environment? Is it really necessary? There are very strong negative opinions here which I don’t experience in my ancestral home. There they can say, ‘Ah, you don’t speak Luganda [the local language] but they understand that it is my home. They just take it like that. It is not like here where [not speaking the local languages] is an active point emphasised every day,” he said.

Grappling with identity
Several young adults would identify with him. They are part of a growing phenomenon of Africans who have lived a cross-cultural upbringing on their own continent due to the movement of their parents in search of greener pastures. Sekeitto’s elder sister Claire, who was born in Uganda but lived all her formative years in South Africa, and his younger brother Malvern Lubega, who was born in South Africa, are also grappling with the problem.

When Claire married a Ugandan, she tried to relocate with him to the East African country. But she found it difficult to fit in and has since returned down south. 

The Sekeittos are a microcosm of a growing phenomenon in Africa. Between the 1970s to early 1990s, several professionals left their homelands to escape political uncertainty and civil war, or to work and settle in other African countries that promised better opportunities. They started families and became parents in far-away lands.

Third culture children

Several years later, their offspring have entered adulthood, and are confronted with questions of their identity. These young people, referred in some parts of the world as “nowhere children”, or “third culture kids”, are born in a culture outside that of their parents. Others move through cultures during their formative years and never get the opportunity to root their own cultural identity.

African heads of state can do more. (Photo/AU)

A World Bank report, Diasporas of the South: Situating the African Diaspora in Africa, notes that by 2001, South Africa’s migrant stock was just over one million, with 72 per cent being from Africa. While more recent figures are scarce, the African diaspora in South Africa – one of Africa’s top two economies – has grown considerably.

With communication across Africa getting easier, and businesses expanding beyond borders, many Africans have migrated from their home countries to other places on the continent that offer better life opportunities.

For instance, banks and insurance companies from West African countries such as Nigeria and Togo have spread out into East Africa and beyond, while South Africa’s retailers, telecommunications companies and television firms have tentacles as far as Nigeria and Ghana. In East Africa, Kenya’s commercial banks and supermarket chains have spread their tentacles to nearly every other neighbouring country.

Other African economies are also increasingly becoming attractive to ordinary Africans because conditions in Europe and the United States have since become harder due to the recent global economic meltdown.

Xenophobic fears
One of the results of the movement of Africans to other countries is the fear that they are taking up opportunities meant for locals. This has given birth to xenophobic behaviour, as seen in South Africa in the recent past. In one particularly gruesome incident in 2007, a man was burnt alive, while in other incidents, including early this year, property belonging to immigrants was stolen.

On January 28, 2015, the African Diaspora Forum wrote an open letter to South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, in which it decried the growing xenophobic violence.

“Today, we are deeply worried about the current course of violence across the country and the lack of effective response from the government to deal with xenophobia. The cost of the violence has been estimated to many losses of lives, millions of Rands lost during the looting and thousands of displacements since 2008,” the ADF said in its letter, pleading for stronger government intervention.

In May 2012, the African Union held a Global African Diaspora Summit, coincidentally, the conference was held in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Abandoned to own devices

In their declaration at the end of the summit, African leaders pledged to “cooperate in the political, economic and social areas outlined” between the African Union and entities in regions that have African Diaspora populations.

However, if the declaration made by the African countries is anything to go by, then the AU did not consider ways through which it can support the African Diaspora on the continent. In that sense, the bloc has effectively left the Sekeittos of South Africa, the nowhere children of Africa, to their own devices.

Leticia Agula’s family relocated to South Africa 14 years ago, when she was aged.

On her maiden trip back to Uganda, her country of birth, Agula says she encountered a way of life that she did not know and was not accustomed to.

“Going back, I did sort of feel like people felt like I was not from Uganda even before I had opened my mouth. So I felt a little bit like an outsider. I am very different from a lot of women in Uganda. I had to re-adjust to kneeling [when greeting elders] and the way of dressing,” she said.

Over the years, and thanks to the fact that her parents always prepared Ugandan food, Agula says she eventually adjusted – and now often looks forward to the trips back to Uganda. She is even mulling investing in the East African country as one way of regularly keeping in touch with her roots.

‘Belonging and knowing’
If she has children of her own, Agula says she would want to ensure that they do not lose their Ugandan roots, regardless of which part of the world she will be living in.

“It is very important because it is my background and I would want that for my kids. Having kids with no cultural background or anything is not good. And culture doesn’t necessarily mean you must know how to speak the language 100%. It is just about belonging and knowing where your roots are and appreciating it; that is what I want,” she says.

Those sentiments are shared by the Sekeittos, who are also exploring business and other opportunities in his parents’ country of birth.

The younger Sekeitto, Malvern, an economist, says he is looking for an opportunity “to add value” to Uganda.

“My mother has made it a point that we go to Uganda every year. It helps you appreciate how far you have come. I think there is a great opportunity for me to go back to Uganda and add value,” he says.

‘A whole new level’

Sekeitto says his intention is to keep one foot permanently in Uganda for the sake of the next generation.“Even if it is not from the economic point of view, for me it has to do with heritage,” he says. 

“It is good to tell your kids one day that we have something back home. When your kids ask, ‘Daddy where are we from?’ You can’t tell them we are from Sandton. For me that’s a key thing. The kids must be able to say we are from Uganda and they have an understanding and a grasp of it. That adds a whole new level of character and riches to one’s growth and maturity.”

Other Africans in the Diaspora within the continent may wish to continue to live in their adopted countries. However, until the people in those countries embrace them too, they could become a people of everywhere and nowhere.

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