How do second-generation young Africans born and/or raised in Europe, in particular British Congolese, view the ‘homeland’, Britain, ‘Africa’ or Europe, in a era of globalisation and post-colonialism/neo-colonialism? How do Congolese youth symbolically ‘locate’ themselves in a British multicultural environment? How do they define themselves in terms of identity and belongings? What connections do they have or create with the Congo or other parts of the world? Through our research (interviews, oral histories and focus groups), group discussions and workshops we explore how our participants talk and perform ‘identity’ and how this relates to particular social or cultural practices. In this research strand we also focus on civic engagement, citizenship, and the impact of exclusion, racism and discrimination in Britain and beyond.
Excerpts from the project’s oral histories and interviews on the theme of identity and belonging:
British Congolese female, 24
[What makes me Congolese] I think for me, it’s to do with culture. I think a lot is to do with traditions. I have internalised a lot of traditions and culture, even tribal ways. And I think it is also language. I think language plays a key part in identity. When you can actually speak your language, a lot of the times we identify ourselves with speaking a language…Personally I just think it’s how you identify yourself […] You know when you have these forms that we’ve got to fill out…it says: ‘What are you? What’s your ethnic background?’ […] Whatever… You tick what you most identify yourself with. So, you might be, you know, Black British but you don’t feel Black British, you feel Black African if that makes sense? I think that it is a personal thing. I think for each individual…And also I was born in the country [Congo]. I wasn’t born in the UK… Whether I like it or not I might be British on paper but, you know, my heritage, my roots, my family, it all lies in Congo.
British Congolese male, 34
To be honest with you I feel like I’m British but with Congolese roots. I feel like my roots are still in Congo but my culture is British, because I’ve been here longer than I’ve been in Congo. With Congo it’s just, like they say, ‘your childhood memories are your fondest or your strongest’, so I still have that longing, I still have that bond with Congo that would never be broken. But at the same time my adult life, learning through love, going through the hardship of life in Britain, so in that sense I feel like my culture is British but my roots is Congo, if that makes sense. British culture to me is, it’s opportunity. I mean if you work hard, if you strive there’s opportunity, you could actually make something of yourself or chase your dreams if I could say that, it’s more, it’s hard to define in words what British culture is to me. To me it’s like Britain is just, the culture is, that sense of opportunity, that sense of you’ve got an opportunity to make something of yourself where I feel like in Congo that’s not, it’s not really that, it’s not really that way, you can be smart in Congo whatever but opportunities are very thin so to me Britain yes, if you ask me the culture of Britain I’ll say the opportunity, the feeling that you get that if you, what you put out you can get out, there’s opportunities basically. I would say [I feel] a lot more prouder to be British in the sense that you’ve got to acknowledge that Britain, growing up here, I’ve had opportunities that I maybe wouldn’t have had back home and I’ve had the chance to have a free education and all these things, all these advantages that maybe I wouldn’t have had back home. The knowledge that I’ve gained, maybe I wouldn’t have gained back home, so in that sense I could say I’m prouder to be British. I’m only saying that because I never had the chance to grow up back home…so Congo to me is more of a distant memory. There’s a bond there, there’s a bond but it’s also a distant memory. Whereas Britain…it’s actually given me the chance to look back at Congo and gain knowledge about Congo and look at Congo in a different perspective. Maybe being back there I wouldn’t have had the chance to grow and see things the way I see things now, so I’d say proud I am British because I’m still here.
French Congolese female, 49, living in London
I left Congo [for France] when I was 4 and I did not return even on holiday, ever once […] So obviously not having someone in your surroundings I could be reminded of my Congolese culture, it was difficult for me to make my identity as such. That’s why I refer to France as my home country rather than Congo. But that was for a short period of time anyway as an adolescent because when I moved to live in the UK then I think I emigrated back to the Congolese community. And then I started kind of starting to be re-educated in terms of what is my original or my birth cultural life in terms of food, clothing and things like that but now I see myself much better a Congolese than a French woman anyway.
British Congolese female, 26
I was born in Congo, there’s nothing else I can say more than that. I was born there. That’s where my parents are from. I actually lived 9 years in Congo, no matter where I go, where I am, who I am, Congo is where I belong, Congo is my home, my homeland. Maybe growing up I didn’t realise how important it is being Congolese, how important it is knowing your history. But now I have realised that and going back to it actually made me think again twice – three times – that’s my homeland no matter how long I’ve been here [in the UK] no matter what I’m doing here but that is my homeland…I need to know where I come from, I can’t be confused. I come from somewhere, especially the fact that I was not born here, I come from somewhere and where I come from I’ve left siblings, I’ve left family and I can’t just forget about it…I just can’t forget that I come from there, I can’t be ashamed of where I come from because then…it’s like you don’t know who you are, why you behave certain way or why your skin colour’s like this… Why you’ve been raised like this, you need to know where you come from…I define myself by: I’m Congolese. British in passport but originally from Congo. African […] I’m just blessed… the fact that I have become British and I have a lot of choice, opportunities, for being British or becoming British. But it’s also important for me to realise who I am, being British, but at the same time I can’t forget my roots, where I come from.
British Congolese male, 28
[Question: What do you feel more proud of: being Congolese or British?] Both. Because being Congolese gives me my culture, which I know and love very much but being British gives me opportunity to give back to my culture. [Question: Where is home for you?] Britain! You know when something has been embedded in you, you now British culture or life or the way of upbringing has been embedded in my life, so it is pretty hard for me to go to Congo and spend like a month there. I will get bored. You know what I’m saying? Unless I’ve been there for years and years and years and years then I’ll say: ‘Ok! This is how everything works!’ but in Congo everything is so hard, everything just takes time. You have to be so patient because I’m trying to do my business there and every piece of paper takes…like… to get even something simple you have to pay somebody! After paying that person you wait for months and you have to keep chasing them up. That’s a different kind of lifestyle but here in the UK everything goes by the law. You promise me at this time you make sure it happens at that time. I can’t really find myself saying ‘Congo is my home’ but maybe if I spend more time there I can start loving it and appreciating it more. But for now London is my hometown! I love it! That is where I have lived for so long…
British Congolese female, 16
I don’t think many people my age will say they are not British… If I was to have a Congolese friend and be like ‘where are you from?’ They’ll be like ‘I’m British but I’m from Congo’. I think that is what it is. I think that people from my mum’s generation compared to my generation they consider themselves more Congolese…born and bred! They have a strong, cultural background of where they are from, rather than my generation.