The Color of My Skin
Cocking one eyebrow to the sky, my friend Neema giggled and said, “No, you aren’t black, you are white bread!” My six-year-old friend, a Hutu-Tutsi girl, grabbed my hand and pulled me to the ground behind the bushes so her mother could not see us. After crumpling to the ground beside her, I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Well if I am white bread, then you are Nutella!” We laughed at the joke between us, knowing that white bread and the chocolate spread was an extremely special treat for us in Bukavu, Zaire (as the country was known when I was living there).
Neema and I were best friends, with only one house in between us, older sisters that bossed us around, and a little brother and sister to be a “mom” for when our moms were busy with their chores, like cooking. We played house together, pounded peanut butter in the kino*, ate ugali and beans with our sticky fingers and chatted in a smattering of Swahili, English and French. I thought I was just like her and she just like me in so many ways. One day, she poked my freckles, giggling and asking me what they were. In my six-year-old mind, we were like sisters, but it was our skin colors that set us apart. We were inseparable friends, that is, until my family evacuated Zaire for the final time when I was eight. We escaped to Nairobi, Kenya, as the Rwandan genocide began 2 miles away from our homes in the border town of Bukavu. My skin color, different from Neema, ultimately provided me the privilege of an earlier evacuation from a war-torn country.
Fast forward ten years. After being born in Zaire and living in Zaire, Kenya and Tanzania for fourteen years, my parents moved us back to the USA, where I was enrolled in a private Christian high school.
At Freedom, I found myself surrounded by other teens that had the same white skin as me. These teens talked about cheerleading, shopping, pop culture and Mr. Holt’s random mannerisms in history class. I looked around, and the only similarity I could find between myself and the other American teens was my white skin. My skin, the part of me that made me different in Africa, now made me blend in, and hid how different my upbringing had been.
There was no one there who I related to until one day, when six new students were enrolled at Freedom in my class—the class of 2004. Thomas, Martin, the brothers, Rachel and Elizabeth, were refugees who had fled Sudan, and were displaced to homes in western Michigan. Over the next three years of high school, we became close friends. My mom tutored each of them in English as a second language, and we would go to watch the boys play soccer for the high school team.
One day, while we were sitting around the lunch table, we were talking about Africa and what we all missed. As we talked, one of my Sudanese friends said, “But Eleeza, you aren’t black.” I laughed and responded, “Yeah, but I’m black under my skin!” We all chuckled, knowing that it was only my skin color that made me blend in with all the other white kids at our mid-western Christian high school, when everything else inside me was African.
Now, 17 years later, you will find me traveling to the black sands of New Zealand, rock climbing in Thailand, eating street dumplings in China, visiting Legoland in Denmark, crutching onto a bus in France, eating injera at a coffee ceremony in Ethiopia, splashing into the Caribbean ocean or getting lost in the stalls of a local market in another country, sporting a large tattoo across my back. The black ink etched into my body, matches two other tattoos on my sisters’ bodies—the outline of Africa. Inside the shape, letters read, “Forever in my heart.” The black ink symbolizes the African TCK that is inside me.
We are still being divided into black and white. As TCKs, we know that our identities are not limited to what we can see with our eyes, but are more often about the relationships we have with each other. Hopefully my tattoo speaks about these stories and these relationships, and maybe one day I’ll get a new one that balances my blended identity and reads —“Made in America. Born in Africa.”
*Kino: a colloquial term for mortar and pestle in Swahili