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Where am I from? François Tantely

January 29, 2018

 

As an evolutionary biologist at heart, I spent most of my days-in reading on the rise and collapse of ancient societies. Jared Diamond’s work in explaining how different geographies in the late Pleistocene era led to early advantages and disadvantages between the societies we see today had changed everything for me.

 

I’ve chosen to answer the principle (WAYF?) question from an anthropological, social and self-identity viewpoint, starting with the former.

 

 

 

Born in Yaoundé, Cameroon to a Cameroonian father and a Malagasy mother, my mom is from the Merina ethnic group in Madagascar, and a direct descendant of Indonesian-Malay ancestry. Her people, the original Malagasy people, came from the eastern parts of the Borneo Island which is the third-largest island in the world and the largest in Asia. Its situated at the geographic centre of Maritime Southeast Asia, and is, in relation to the major Indonesian islands, located north of Java, west of Sulawesi, and east of Sumatra. Today the island is politically divided among three countries: with Malaysia and Brunei in the north, and Indonesia to the south, of which, approximately 73% of the island is Indonesian territory. Geographers and archaeologists estimate sailors from Borneo at the time to have been amongst the most advanced navigators in the world. From Borneo, they would have needed to cover more than 7,780km to reach Madagascar. An important distance to marvel at when considering that the 14th century European conquests from England to North America covered roughly 5,400km. Which means the sailors of Borneo would have had to cover an astounding 2000km more than the America bound ships from Europe and all of it achieved (although archaeological evidence and radio carbon dates differ) 1500-2000 years ago! So at least five hundred years earlier than the Columbus discovery of the Americas in 1492 (Wowza!). What’s more important to recognize is the Indonesian settlers from Borneo had to repeat this route several times over. Had it been a once-off chance event that their ship had been blown off course, it is unlikely that a single boat-load from Borneo would have sufficed in creating a new society.

 

 

Still on the anthropological bit, my dad is from Douala, Cameroon. A people, who, according to the Joseph Greenberg Niger-Congo hypothesis and an extensive collection of archaeological records, were the first Africans (alongside modern day Nigeria) to spread across the African continent. The popular bantu features we see in most Africans today had derived thus from a widespread settlement across the continent from peoples originating in Cameroon and Nigeria. These popular features widespread across the continent today were not always inherent features of all peoples on the African continent. The black race instead consisted of several distinct groups in the Pleistocene era, much like the white race consists of various types of ‘white’ peoples today i.e Blonde haired blue-eyed Scandinavians hardly resemble the brown-eyed, dark haired Greeks and Italians. The same applies for Arabs of the MENA region-where Saudis and Kuwaitis look different to Iraqis and Algerians whom in turn look vastly different to modern Egyptians. So, contrary to popular belief, not all Africans derive from the same group of the black race. Instead, different groups of ‘black’ peoples existed within the black race just as different groups (and features) continue to exist in other races at present. Had the slanted-eyed, fairer, smaller built Khoisan people of the southern African deserts (another group of the black race) spread first across the continent, or the forest pygmies of central Africa (yet another group of the black race) been first to the buzzer, modern Africans as we know them may have looked completely different today. This, by way of historical findings, necessarily then declares the bantu peoples of Cameroon and Nigeria as the first great conquerors of the continent. Most African languages today have bantu origins and their people bantu features; and I can claim this, amongst other small victories, proudly. A Khoisan-conquest may have resulted in more clicking sounds for various languages across the continent (as is by the way evident amongst some tribes in south eastern Africa). So, my dad is from Cameroon and my mom is from Madagascar. In this regard, and from a historical standpoint, I know where I am from.

 

 

 

Socially, things grew tricky when introducing myself to people at work and at school in the real world. Classmates shot a puzzling look when I spoke for the first time because the accent was ‘worldly but misplaced’ which I later learned was sometimes polite for: lost or don’t belong. When people asked where I was from, I replied Cameroon and Madagascar to avoid a lengthy explanation. I knew my answer but it became a bit of a tongue-twister to verbally spew out the exhaustive timeline at each go. And when the conversation would eventually happen, I breathed in deeply before mechanically reciting the real answer in mind. And it sounds like this ‘Right, born in Cameroon, my dad is from Cameroon and my mom is from Madagascar, but their professional backgrounds quickly led me to a childhood of frequent travel and nomadic school arrangements. I grew up in seven different countries. We left Cameroon when I was two-months old for Madagascar, where I then lived until I was seven. After that it was Kenya for a year, Geneva for half a year, the U.S (New Jersey) for five years where I finished primary and middle school, and Pretoria for four years where I'd finished high school before moving to London-for my bachelor's and master's degree (totalling to an additional five years). After finishing my master’s, I then moved to Malawi where I joined the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) for my first job.’ Bit of a mouthful, really, but often led to interesting conversations, and sometimes, romantic encounters.

 

 

From the self-identity viewpoint, things were difficult. I learned some conversational Spanish along the way and forgot Malagasy (the main language spoken in Madagascar). And this is important because it meant I no longer fit in to Malagasy culture when I visited (every other year).

Physiologically, I took after my Dad’s side. My taller and broader stature, darker complexion, and courser hair separated me from my smaller-framed, fairer, wispy-haired Indonesian-looking relatives. So not only did I forget the language, but I also do not physiologically resemble any of my Malagasy family. With the average male height in Antananarivo at 5’7 (170 cm) and the average female height at a whopping 5’4 (163cm) I towered over most of my countrymen and women at 6’0 (183cm) by the age of sixteen. To them, the smaller statured Indonesian-looking and Asian sounding Malagasy people, I was black. L’Africain. I became the very first ‘African’ member of the family, and, who, by the way, didn’t speak any Malagasy. On my dad’s side, we were never advised to visit Cameroon after I’d left (at the age of two-months). Some aunties alluded this to old family disputes and unsettled inheritance claims, which drove envious family members to exclude and ostracize us for our good fortune. Others said it was because my father didn’t want us to pick up on poor habits from a surrounding poor environment. So, he kept us away from Cameroon (with the occasional threat of sending us back if we ever did poorly in school). My identity became thus what I gained from my new surroundings. A childhood split between Kenya and Geneva, an early adolescence in New Jersey, a late adolescence in Pretoria, a circus of a student life in London, and a young professional life between Malawi and Johannesburg (to date), with a wicked mix and influence of close friends from equally diverse pockets of the world. Deep Sigh, what a life.

 

So, four languages, ten schools, twelve cities and a 'most worldly accent of the organization' superlative award later, Where am I from? Tseko. Un dia, maybe I’ll find out, pero en ce moment, no se. Merci et Misotra tompoko.

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