White lies

According to her

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

Sometimes, I feel like the wrong kind of African. I came to Canada when I was 17. Now, I am a citizen. All the time, I get the question: “have you gone back to Kenya since you left?”

I get it from immigrants and Canadians alike, and each time my answer is the same.


Then, there is a pause of silence, and, with it, the rising need to explain myself. All my explanations are lies.

I say, “It’s too expensive. I want to focus on finishing university and saving up afterwards.” I tell them I am afraid to see just how much my country has changed. The Nairobi of my childhood did not have fancy yoga studios or chains like KFC.

Yes, I am broke, and yes, I hold on to nostalgia with a grip of steel. But the real reason that I haven’t gone back is both more simple and complex. I don’t want to.

Eventually, I will want to go back, right? I won’t die here, in a foreign place, will I?

Nowadays, I brandish my Kenyan identity with the same enthusiasm I employed to hide it in high school.

I tell people “Canadians are too passive-aggressive, too uptight. Kenyans are shameless. If there’s music, we will dance. If we hate you, we will tell it to your face.”

This is both the truth and a nationalist myth of my making. I feel the need to build a country around me in the place of the one I left behind.

Even as I set myself apart from this cold place, these cold people, I struggle not to integrate. I watch the shows everyone is watching. I read the same books.

When I first came to Canada, I was complimented all the time for my English: “you speak so well.”

Nowadays, I never get that kind of compliment. My voice is both an illusion and the truth – both conscious effort and the subconscious, gradual weathering away of who I used to be.

“Nairobi would eat your white asses alive,” I once said to a group of people. I felt out of place with them, backed into a corner.

“I feel like a coon,” I once said to a man I was seeing. “I don’t have black friends. I keep finding myself in these all-white spaces. I feel like I don’t belong anywhere.”

I ranted, and he listened. Then he said, “You know, I also feel like I don’t belong anywhere. As a white guy, I feel like people ...”

“No. You don’t get to draw parallels between our experiences. It’s trite.”

We fought bitterly. I did not cry afterwards. The only thing that makes me cry without fail is the thought of my childhood, that left-behind place where I ran barefoot on the sun-warmed pavement, where I stayed inside on rainy days, reading the same beloved books over and over.

On the phone, my oldest friend will say in greeting, “Ciku, when are you coming back?”

Ciku Gitonga is a writer and a politics major. Her dream in life is to escape authority and be left alone to write.

Published in Volume 78, Number 03 of The Uniter (September 21, 2023)

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