Finding myself in the Congo

Aug. 29, 2004, midnight | By Feza Kikaya | 19 years, 10 months ago

A first-person account of the importance of identity

Being aware of my heritage has never been a problem for me. My ancestors were never slaves; no matter how much stories of the Slave Trade cause me to shudder with disgust, they never truly hit home. My parents have always been able to pass down ancient family traditions and share tales of life as a colonized peoples. However, I never truly understood what it meant to belong to a country of people until I visited my place of heritage, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Prior to my trip, I considered myself both American and Congolese. My parents were born and raised in the Congo, the former Zaire, but my sister and I were born in Boston, Massachusetts, where my parents attended school. Whenever people asked me where I come from I'd quietly utter, "Congo" and hope that people didn't believe I was from a primitive nation. Because my country is known for suffering from the Ebola virus and malaria-carrying mosquitoes, frequent political instability and place in the Third World, I sometimes felt slightly ashamed of where I come from. Do not take the fact that I say "sometimes" lightly, for whenever I felt this way, I immediately regained composure. I believe that the only thing worse than being identified with an at-risk country is not being able to identify with one at all. But there were those times when I did not have a sense of cultural pride. And after visiting the DRC I don't blame myself for feeling that way; the only time I had been to my homeland was ten years ago, so I really did not understand what it mean to be Congolese. My trip this summer changed all that.

When I arrived in Kinshasa, the capital city of DRC, I felt feelings of joy, fear, sadness and admiration all at once. I was happy to finally look, observe and interact with my people, people with whom I shared a history and deep connection. I felt fear, for I do know that some Congolese policemen are aggressive and take advantage of people they can tell are foreign. The fact that I can't speak but a word of Lingala, the main language spoken in the capital city, as well as the fact that my French-speaking skills are very rusty, did not help my case. Luckily for my sister and I our father is a government official in Congo, so we had no problems getting past Customs. While on the road (which in some areas have potholes, so alert driving is a must!) I felt a deep sadness for my people. I saw many young children sitting with their mothers at the market, hoping someone would buy their goods. I saw many kids no more than eight years old carrying their younger brothers or sisters, all probably orphans. I saw many people walking with the little bit of soles left in their shoes. Kinshasa is made up of a lot of sand because many areas do not have roads.

Feelings of awe also crossed my emotions. Many people walking in the streets were balancing very unlevelled baskets on their heads. I felt pride sweep over me as I observed them because my people are not ones to give up--they persevere and do what they can to survive.

After spending a few hours in Kinshasa, I knew I had no intention of leaving in the near future. The city's scenery was first to catch my eye--the adjective "green" holds a whole new meaning when referring to plants in Africa. Despite the country's limited development in terms of roads, modern public transportation and many other aspects of life, the natural vegetation is as refined as ever. The many palm trees give the momentary illusion of being on an island; the vast, large, tall trees remind one of Rafiki's tree in Disney's The Lion King. Congo's abundance in gold, diamonds and colton, the mineral used in cell phones, give the country another form of beauty.

The food in Congo furthers my appreciation for Africa. Every fruit, vegetable, grain or meat tastes nothing but fresh. The cultural food, which includes fufu (a soft substance made of flour and eaten in many African countries), pondu (a green vegetable made of cassava leaves), ndizi (plaintains prepared either fried or boiled), makayabu (a salty fish full of flavor) and ngai-ngai (a tangy-tasting vegetable) are what everyone craves when visiting Congo because the dishes are simply irresistible.

Experiencing the people in Congo enhanced my pride for my heritage. My mom had always told me that Congolese love to dance, dress up and show off. Even before my trip this was made evident to me through my own family members and close family friends. Being there changed my attitude from slight disdain to abundant humor. I laughed at the fact that I could hear music resounding from club walls from Saturday night to Sunday morning, even though I was located on the sixth floor of an apartment building. I found similarities in my own personality and those of the people around me, including my admittedly shameful tendencies to incline towards the superficial.

Although I enjoyed every aspect of the DRC, the most important element I delighted in was sharing a connection with the Congolese people. Throughout my trip I met and visited my relatives on my father's side; only then did I realize what a huge family I belong to. Being with the people that call me their own made me feel priviliged, fulfilled and part of a blessed group of people that are aware of their African heritage.

This very feeling of identity that I experienced is lacked by some people, particularly former slaves of African descent. While in Kinshasa, I felt at home. Not once did I feel like I was trespassing on someone else's soil, not once did I feel like a foreigner. No matter the circumstances, I felt comfortable in my country. Looking back now, I feel sad that millions of people will never fully experience the feeling of belonging that I did during my trip. I have lived in South Africa and have visited Zimbabwe, but not once did I feel at home as much as I did in Congo.

As one of my cousins pointed out, everyone that visits Kinshasa doesn't want to leave, and that is exactly how I felt. My journey was one of the many that I plan to take from now on. A sense of identity and belonging are very important for every individual. There were times when the electricity went out, or the water hardly ran, or the poverty in some areas became overwhelming, but I wouldn't change a thing about my trip or trade my place of ancestry for anywhere else in the world. After all, as the saying goes, there's no place like home.

Tags: print Cultural Connection

Feza Kikaya. Feza Kikaya is finally a SENIOR in the CAP program at Blair. She enjoys driving, hanging out with friends and laughing. Most importantly, Feza is counting down the days to graduation so she can begin a new chapter of her life in college. Her favorite … More »

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