‘For I am my mother’s daughter, and the drums of Africa still beat in my heart.’ – Mary McLeod Bethune.
I moved to the United Kingdom from Zimbabwe when I was 6 years old. I have a vague recollection of the day me and my brothers arrived in the UK. I remember being in a busy train station, possibly Victoria station, and looking up to see a grey sky. Whenever I revisit that memory, I always have a feeling of dread washing over me. The sky seemed to be reflecting the life to come. Gone were my clear blue skies and blistering heatwaves; I was drenched in rain and sadness.
I did not want to come here, but, as a 6-year-old, I didn’t have much choice. My parents had decided that the state Zimbabwe was in meant it would not be a suitable place to raise their children. The economy was (and still is) in shambles, people were struggling to survive, and jobs were scarce. We had no future there – the UK was our only hope. Nonetheless, sacrifices had to be made and goodbyes said to our family, our friends and our neighbours.
For years my mom would tell me stories about eventually residing back home. My grandparents were there, overseeing a house my mom was having built for us to return to – it took many years to build, but I never lost hope. It wasn’t until my mom told me that the house would be used as a pre-school that my dreams of returning home were shattered. Zimbabwe was no longer my home – I had outgrown it, and it in turn it had forgotten me.
Growing up, my mom made the effort to ensure we never forgot our roots. When she wasn’t at work, she would sometimes blast the CDs she kept of Zimbabwean music – music I’ve recognised from time to time in Nando’s restaurants, which always brings a wave of nostalgia. We have been back to Zimbabwe a few times on family holidays and for me they were opportunities to reconnect with family and feel at home. However, the longer I have lived in the UK, the less Zimbabwe feels like home.
The problem with being a migrant is that you never feel like you belong anywhere. Moving to the UK was somewhat traumatic, especially with me being bullied in primary school for having a thick accent which resulted in me mispronouncing the names of my peers. I specifically remember kids mocking me because I couldn’t pronounce the name ‘Harry’ (I would say ‘Hairy’). Saying it was something I couldn’t avoid, because my class alone had at least two kids in it with that name and so, eventually, I just ended up refusing to talk, became withdrawn and was scared to speak up out of fear of making a mistake – a character trait that to this day I am trying to overcome.
Discrimination is something you cannot fully prepare your child for, but my mother tried to. She forced me to stop speaking our mother tongue Shona, in an attempt to get me to learn English faster and get rid of my accent. Additionally, she would allow me and my brothers to watch as many cartoons as we wanted so that we would learn more English outside of school, since my parents didn’t have time to be taking us to extra-curricular activities. At the time I loved the excess TV. SpongeBob was my favourite show, however looking back it didn’t help that all of the shows we chose to watch were American, as this meant our accents came out very weird and lead to the nightmare that was remembering to use UK spelling and terminology instead of US. Given the US’s influence in Zimbabwe, I would still be using US-English, and therefore I would still be spelling ‘mom’ the way I do now – to the disdain of people who have nothing better to do than correct me about it.
Whilst cartoon lessons in English were effective, they resulted in me losing my proficiency in my native language. Now whenever I do return to Zimbabwe, I am too embarrassed to speak my own mother tongue because my accent no longer correlates to that required to pronounce certain words. There was an instance where I was in a shop trying to ask for help, and the workers there failed to understand what I was saying because I was too afraid to try to say it in Shona.
I resent the fact that I was forced to give up so much to assimilate into a culture which I felt did not want me. I had to stop using the name my family used and go with ‘Diana’, because people refused to learn how to pronounce ‘Mako’. I was too timid to fight them on it, however my younger brother defied them all by refusing to acknowledge anyone who tried to call him ‘David’ instead of ‘Nyasha’, and to this day that is the name everyone, including strangers, uses.
In my secondary school, being one of 3 black people in my whole year, I had a teacher who would always confuse me for the other black girls, despite us looking nothing alike and usually sitting far apart. This same teacher gave me a lecture about how I couldn’t interpret racism within literature because it was ‘okay at the time’ ,so therefore not racist. I remember other instances where I argued with teachers about why black celebrities should be allowed to be proud of their blackness and to celebrate it through their works, but again in these instances I was the only black person arguing in a room full of white people, and I was never listened to.
In school having an afro just wasn’t possible, with microaggressions in the form of people constantly trying to touch my hair, or only wanting to comment on how pretty girls with long blonde hair were. Living in a majority white town made me feel unattractive; my friends who were mainly white would be dating guys who saw blackness as unattractive. Additionally, the media I consumed failed to provide positive representation for black women and girls.
To be considered attractive you had to have a stick figure, and a thin nose and lips – things which I definitely do not have. I have curves, which have only been pushed into the limelight now that white celebrities have decided that they are attractive. I felt unwanted and the moment I went to university and started getting attention from guys, I was confused and suspicious because I had been led to believe for so long that my looks were not attractive to anyone.
Being a migrant is to be stripped of your identity in order to fit into a society which does not see your worth. Please don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to have been raised with access to some of the best education in the world, not worrying about finances and living comfortably. My goal now is to work to ensure that future migrants have better representation in this society, so that they can feel like they are living at home.