The human body is so much more than a vessel; it is an intricate, delicate and complex system committed to self-preservation. This complex system is composed of cells, the building blocks of all living things that carry out vital functions from producing energy to transporting nutrients. Our cells are able to congregate and produce tissues which in turn form organs and our organ systems. An issue that can arise on a cellular level is that the cells in your body can mutate. Mutations are any changes to DNA and can be caused by a variety of factors. Luckily our bodies have mechanisms in place to ensure these mutated cells do not continue to divide.
Unfortunately, there are times where these mutated cells bypass these checkpoints and continue to divide at exponential rates; these fast-growing and evolving cells are associated with a prevalent illness known as cancer. When our bodies are infected with cancer cells, we are forced to fight. For some, it is the fight of their life. While we seek treatment and pray to be victorious, our body is also fighting with the sole goal of returning to its natural state. This concept of evolution and recovery in the face of adversity is something we can see throughout different life forms, experiences, and in my relationship with my culture. My relationship with my culture can be compared to a healthy body being infected with cancer cells. As with most illnesses, through help and support, this relationship has returned to its original state and continues to thrive.
Around 30 years ago, my parents sacrificed practically everything to come to this country. My mother is the eldest of four brothers and left her native country of Kenya when she was 18 years old after marrying my Somali father. After giving birth to two children in London, England, they settled in Canada for good. Both of them left their families, knew no one, and came to this foreign country. My mother has yet to go back.
When I think back to how I viewed my culture, only one word comes to mind: shame. I was ashamed of my upbringing. I was ashamed of my parents. I was ashamed of what made me Somali, from my looks to the scent of my clothes. Growing up in a diverse city like Toronto, you would expect the schools to emulate this diversity, but that was not the case for any of the schools my parents enrolled me in.
Before entering the school system, I was prideful of my ethnicity. If someone were to ask me where I was from, I would happily say “Somalia.” The cultural cleansing I experienced in the Canadian school system changed me for the decade to come.
Many of the moments of shame were a product of assimilation or my lack of assimilating. I would beg my family to only give me certain foods for lunch, buy me clothes from stores that didn’t cater to my body type, and only speak English when they visited the school. It was as if my cover would be blown. My mission was to conceal my ethnic roots and the shame that followed close by. However, I could only assimilate and “fit in” so much. I was a Black Somali hijabi and stuck out like a sore thumb.
The shame I felt was so deep that I would give myself a nickname for others to call me to disconnect from my ethnicity and religion. When I look back to this period of my life, I feel regret and humiliation, not for my culture but my past self. In my effort to fit in and disconnect from my genetics, I also disconnected from my spirit.
In Somalia, religion and culture are practically inseparable due to their deep connection to each other. Consequently, the hostility I built towards my ancestors managed to evolve into hostility towards my spirituality.
To me, spirituality is a belief that there is something greater than myself that will guide me. By disconnecting from that guide, I felt lost.
The whispers of my thoughts would keep me up at night. In Islam, it is known that there are angels that watch over you when you sleep. I believe these angels would talk to me when all that was left was my body wrapped in a baati and my mind analyzing the day I had. They would whisper for me to return, but to where, I would wonder? I had not physically left anywhere. How can I return if I never left?
I spent many years reflecting, and for the first time in my life, in the eleventh grade, I admitted that I did not like who I had become. I had gone astray- astray not so much from my religion, but from what made me Somali. So even though I could empathize with the sentiments I felt towards my culture, I did not feel justified. All I felt was this burning need to return.
For the following year, I attempted to reconnect with my roots and unlearn the shame and guilt I associated with my ethnicity. I began to make friends with Somali students, and although there were only twenty Black students in my high school, it was to my advantage that many of them were Somali. I developed loving and caring friendships with people who accepted me regardless of the scents of my clothes or the foods in my lunch. I finally felt like I belonged.
The more I stayed connected with my culture, the more I felt a being watching over me. My moral dilemmas subsided, and I did not have to pretend to be one person outside my house and another within. The desperation for this feeling of belonging and peace led me to ask my family to book me a ticket to Kenya, my mother’s native country.
I owed it to my mother to visit the compounds she grew up in; she sacrificed so much for my siblings and me. I needed to see the land she spoke so highly of. I needed to connect with my roots physically.
In the summer of 2017, the same summer I turned eighteen, I visited Kenya. This trip was life-changing. I connected with family that I had never met before. I experienced the root of my cultural practices, like a traditional Somali wedding and not the watered-down version we have in Canada. As a result, I fostered a strong sense of pride in my ethnicity and my family. I took pride in the features that connected me to those that resided in the horn of Africa, I took pride in the delicious foods my family would cook, I took pride in the community that came with being Somali, and I took pride in who I am.
Moving away from the ideas associated with assimilation and reconnecting to my genetic roots was the greatest gift I have ever given myself. The shame I felt towards my culture was my cancer. This cancer stole my internal compass while the fast-growing cells ate away at the little pride I had left; the shame disrupted and inhibited my spiritual growth. Through learning and embracing my culture, I returned to my natural state and overcame the cancerous cells in my body. This is the state my parents would be proud of, the state that I am proud of. My culture is what makes me exceptional and a force to be reckoned with. If you ask me now how I view my culture, one word comes to mind, gratitude.