Multiple Places to Call Home

In Belonging, Season 3 by Marie-Paul Duwai-Sowa

I know it has been said many times and in many ways that home is not a place but a feeling. It can be characterized as a feeling of comfort, joy, peace, love, or all of the above. However, I had never really put the saying into perspective until I had a unique pandemic experience. We all had one. An experience that somehow strayed from the expected mundane. The reality of being kept within four walls for what felt like an eternity. Yet somehow, we found solace in the unlimited time, whether through a Zoom party, a new hobby, or reigniting an old passion. I was lucky enough to find solace in Sierra Leone, West Africa. The country from which my parents immigrated and where my grandparents still lived, along with extended family and friends. 

It was early March 2019 when my family and I got on the plane and flew to Sierra Leone for a short visit. It had become a tradition to go back at least once a year, but little did we know it wouldn’t be such a “short” visit after all. Our two-week trip was later extended into a six-month stay. As our return ticket date neared, pandemic safety restrictions in Canada tightened, and our flight was subsequently canceled. We weren’t certain of a new date, but knowing the worsening situation worldwide, it seemed more practical to stay put. We had all we needed: delicious food, a beautiful home, and most importantly, each other. We had finally been given the chance to be all together with family, an opportunity we simply couldn’t pass up. So as my educational learning transitioned completely online, I adjusted. I connected to Microsoft Teams meetings at odd hours of the day due to the time difference but still prevailed. Before I knew it, the school year was over. It was officially summer, yet I had already been experiencing the summer weather thanks to the enviable Sierra Leone sun.

When I would sit outside on the balcony, I enjoyed observing my family’s homeland. I enjoyed observing the people. The market woman selling fruits and the schoolchildren recounting the day’s lesson on their way home. The man and his loudspeaker yelling out to advertise his merchandise, and the man and his jukebox playing the hottest tunes. The Muslim calling for prayer and the evening Pentecostal worship were especially remarkable to witness, as Sierra Leone’s religious tolerance is admirable and allows for the peaceful co-existence of multiple religions and traditional religious practices. It was displayed during celebrations such as Eid and Easter when children would share greetings with their neighbors dressed in beautiful outfits. Lastly, and too endearing to be forgotten, the mechanics working in the garage, known as “garage boys,” seemingly busier discussing politics or the exciting plays of the latest Premier League game than fixing cars, but better still, providing comedic relief throughout the day.

Each person I saw felt familiar, like an extension of myself; their skin and features were reflective of mine. The only difference, however, was the articulations of the national lingua franca, Krio, that flowed easily as they spoke. Loud and expressive, I could clearly understand, having heard the language being spoken in my home on long WhatsApp calls and with aunties and uncles at community events. However, I had never had to respond in Krio, so my confidence to speak the language was a bit lacking. In my head, it sounded right, but I would struggle to find the words in conversation. So, to remove any language barriers, I made it a priority to practice the language, choosing to speak Krio most of the time. However, during my quest to improve, I also felt motivated to learn Mende, my tribe’s language. The latter has been a greater challenge, as the words don’t roll off my tongue as easily, yet I am still committed to learning. I want to make an effort to keep my heritage alive and pass on gems like language to future generations.

As the months passed, I noticed that the more I became immersed in the daily culture of the country, the more comfortable I felt. I no longer felt as though I was a ‘JC’ or “just cam” (meaning just came or arrived), the slang used to describe a foreigner. I felt right at home in my new environment, as I was learning to blend in. My grandparents would often joke that I wore my ‘lappa’, a multi-functional piece of cloth, like a traditional Sierra Leonean woman. I would wear it at home often because it was stylish and comfortable. I also enjoyed being able to experiment with it, once even styling it as a dress with the help of a ringlet belt. 

My feeling of comfort was cemented by the multiple events we were able to celebrate together. We celebrated birthdays with days-long celebrations to make the most of our time together, and the best part was being able to introduce traditions we’d started in Canada to Sierra Leone, such as cutting a birthday cake at midnight to ring in the milestone. Introducing these new traditions while incorporating older ancestral ones helped create amazing memories that further contributed to the warm and lively atmosphere our family had created and maintained in our homes.

Although sadly, as they say, all good things must come to an end, and in September of that same year, we were back on a plane to Canada, our other home. When we returned to Canada, I would often reflect on these fond memories, remembering all the fun times we’d spent together, and long to return. Due to this experience, I now feel even more connected to an important part of my identity. 

My Sierra Leonean heritage is reflected now more than ever in the way I carry myself. It is reflected in my hairstyles, head ties, waist beads, multi-colored bracelets, and “Africana” outfits, which I wear regularly. In addition, I also had the chance to showcase them at various school events, such as Culture Day and our annual Diversity Talent and Fashion Show, which always receive such warm compliments. 

I now know that I have multiple places to call home. I feel a great sense of belonging to both Sierra Leone and Canada and truly understand that home is not just what you make it, but most importantly, who you choose to make it with because, without my family, no place would feel like home. 

To my family

My happy place

Those by blood and those by name

The greatest part of me

That I hold dearest

And most treasure

I hold you in my heart, now and forever.