‘You were not raised in Africa.”
“You do not behave or think like an African.”
“Your English and accent are so good, you must have lived in England.”
These are all presumptions that have been made about me in the two decades that I have called Ireland home.
I grew up in Zimbabwe, and my parents were part of the post-independence educated class who wholeheartedly believed in the idea of British meritocracy.
So I was sent off to the most exclusive and private kindergartens and schools. This meant that my upbringing was in minority white spaces in a predominately black African country.
English was my first language and at mealtimes, we used polished silver cutlery. I was surprised when dismayed relatives or visitors asked whether I knew how to use my hands or eat traditional food.
All this meant that when I arrived in Ireland 20 years ago, I found it easy to settle in. I felt there was common ground, due to our countries’ shared British colonial history.
But parenting without family support in a foreign country was something that was not on my radar at all. Today, I am a black African mother raising two Afro-European teenagers who, although born and raised in Ireland, have complex identities which span four continents.
For me, there have been many challenges along the way. The first challenges came during pregnancy. Traditional African culture dictates that when a woman becomes pregnant, she is looked after by the whole community. She is relieved of heavy duties, including meal preparation, which are assigned to other family members or her mother or mother-in-law in the third trimester.
This is a beautiful tradition, and one which I will be following for my own children. Sadly, my own pregnancies in Ireland were characterised by an overwhelming feeling of isolation. There was also trauma, and heart-breaking racism.
Immigrant parents are often paralysed with the fear of losing their employment, so their partners typically do not take time off to help out when their babies are born.
And so I found myself alone in shopping centres after being discharged from the maternity hospital, picking up that one thing I had forgotten. Nothing makes you yearn more for your African culture, where families all pull together to share the burden of a new baby.
Similarly, nothing can prepare you for the experience of being a skilled African migrant who is parenting black children in Ireland.
The need to return to work in order to cover our living expenses forced me to look for best childcare and schools that money could buy. But the danger of putting children in predominately white spaces in an emerging multicultural society is that they will most likely be the only ones, and I have had to wash tear-stained cheeks after shocking racial slurs have been used against my children.
Yes, I’ve heard the argument that there is no racism in Ireland. But it isn’t true. It may not be in your face all the time, but it lurks in schools, the streets, in boardrooms, behind closed doors and online. And it’s at its most vitriolic on social media, which is why my strict African mama side comes out when it comes to social media.
I have done my best to blend the best aspects of African and European cultural values into my own parenting practice and I’ve been careful to preserve our native languages and traditional dress and food.
It’s important for me that my children know their basic history, and understand colonisation, Pan-Africanism, and their parents’ migratory journey. When you are continually asked why you are over here, you really should know the answer.
At times, especially now that my children are teenagers, tension has arisen between my desire to instil pride in their African ancestry and culture, while at the same time teaching them about global black excellence in order to minimise the effects of racialisation.
I may come across as culturally conflicted, however, I learned from an early age how to adapt to the different cultures I have been exposed to. This has positively shaped my parenting and how I am raising my children. What keeps me going and gives me confidence is the twinkle in their eyes. It gives me faith that things might be different with this generation; that my children’s worldview will make then adaptable individuals. By raising my children to be black conscious but inclusive, strong yet empathetic, gentle, patient and kind, and to stand up against injustice, taking parts of their African culture that appeal to them, they will have the tools needed to effect change.
My children once asked me, “Mama do you want us to be like Abla Pokou, Aimé Césaire or Harriet Tubman?” Honestly, if they can embrace the strength of character of all three, I would have fulfilled my calling as a mother.