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African Diaspora Coming-of-Age Personal Essay

Just a Citizen of the World

Image by Martin Abegglen via Flickr

Who am I? Where am I from?

I was born in Geneva, Switzerland, but people sometimes give me the look when I tell them I’m Swiss. I was told many times, “Go back home!” “Go back to Africa!” When I heard that, I kept telling them that I was born in Switzerland and therefore my home was here. But they didn’t seem to get it.

While living in Geneva, I saw the most incredible mixed-raced people (personally, I hate using the word “race,” but didn’t know what else to call it): a Congolese-Korean man, a woman with one parent from Thailand and the other from the Ivory Coast, an Albanian-Nigerian girl…you get the picture. All these individuals were born in Geneva like me. So where are they really from?

My parents were born in the Democratic Republic of Congo—one of the poorest countries in the world, yet the richest country in the world when it comes to natural resources. My grandmother on my mother’s side is half-Congolese, half-Israeli, sp I guess that’s why people are so confused when they look at me. They cannot really tell where I’m from. Anyway, I went to Congo several times to visit my other relatives and to understand my parents’ culture. In Congo, I was also told that I was not from there. Apparently, some people there could tell by looking at me, my mannerisms, and the way I dressed that I was not from there.

I went to high school in France and lived there for about five years, but I got once chased by skinheads who believed I didn’t belong in that country, either. Again, I didn’t get a chance to ask them, but where did they believe I needed to go back to?

I was told many times, “Go back home!” “Go back to Africa!” When I heard that, I kept telling them that I was born in Switzerland and therefore my home was here. But they didn’t seem to get it.

When I first moved to the United States, thanks to a university track-and-field scholarship, I faced very strong culture shock. I could barely speak English, so at first, it was very hard to defend myself when my teammates where joking around with my accent and making fun at any attempt I made to communicate. I know it was all for fun, but at times, I got irritated.

It was interesting, however, for me to see all these black people with no interest in, or attachment to, Africa. I wasn’t used to that. Most of them thought Switzerland was an island in Africa. I couldn’t blame them. It’s mostly due to the system they grew up in. They were never really taught about their own history and how they “truly” landed where they were. At times, I felt really bad for them because they were judged, mistreated, and treated like strangers in their own country, even though they were born there and didn’t know a thing about Africa. It must have been a very uncomfortable. I could relate to them because I was faced with the same situation in Switzerland. The only difference—and not a minor one—is that we (my parents and I) were not brought by force to Switzerland.

I was so grateful to be part of my university track team and to be given the opportunity to get a free education. What I loved about being a student was the sense that we all belonged to the same place, to the same “country.” I respected that a lot about America, and its love for patriotism. It could get dangerous at times, when two rivals schools start fighting (like what happened during my time there), but mostly it was just the pride of belonging to something bigger than yourself. I had never felt this before.

I think my experience and my drive to succeed and somehow to remain in the U.S. allowed me to accomplish great things while there. I remember trying to be one of the smartest kids, grade-wise, as well as one of the fastest. I think I was more successful in the classroom than on the track. Because of what I accomplished in the classroom, and the influence I started to gain on the track, I got asked to be part of one of the most powerful organizations on campus. It was a strange experience, because I could see how a small group of people can basically decide “the faith” of a lot of people.

What I loved about being a student was the sense that we all belonged to the same place, to the same “country.”

Thinking about this today makes me think twice about all these conspiracy theories that the current world is being run by a group of small, powerful, and influential people through their wealth, not leadership. Anyway, during my senior year, I managed to land a job with the most prestigious Big Four firm. It was such an accomplishment for me, but at the same time, it got into the way of my athletic career.

The great thing about working for this company was, again, the sense of belonging that it provided me. It felt sort of continuation of what began when I got to college. At the same time, I did face some big challenges. Here I was, a young adult living by myself, away from family and friends with no solid attachment to the place where I was living. The pace of the Miami and its never-ending thirst for diversion made me go through so many different phases of my own self. I went from spending most weeknights partying to wondering how I could ever fit in this place. As a young black man in corporate America, it was indeed hard to fit in a place where professional athletes and entertainers of all kind ruled. Trying to fit too hard into that environment would put a serious dent in my wallet.

During this stage, I could have easily fallen into all kinds of nonsense. But what helped me the most during challenging times was reminding myself that somebody else was counting on me to succeed and to provide for that. Indeed, I left Switzerland as a young father. I didn’t know what it meant to be a father, since I was still a kid myself at the time. But going through the experience made me a more mature person. Even though I don’t wish on any parent as much time away from their child as I spent away from my daughter, being a father is probably what saved me from much wrongdoing.

At some point, it made sense for me to go back to Europe. I had managed to give another shot to my athletic career and was promised a better economic future if I decided to go back to Switzerland. It was very hard for me to give up everything I had built in the U.S. and start anew in Europe, but I kept telling myself that it was all temporary and that eventually I would return to the States. Despite all the challenges I faced, I believed that I could only truly feel at home in the U.S. This would turn out not to be so true.

Despite all the challenges I faced, I believed that I could only truly feel at home in the U.S. This would turn out not to be so true.

In addition to the places I’ve lived, I’ve also visited many countries: India, the UAE, South Africa, Congo, Tunisia, several countries in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, Turkey, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, the Low Countries, the UK, Canada, the Bahamas, Jamaica….you get the picture. While traveling to all these places, I have been exposed to people of different colors, hair textures, cultures, languages, and this has helped to reinforce my idea that I am just a citizen of the world.

The reality of all the places I have lived and visited is that I do not feel like there is one place I can call home. More specifically, I can’t really say where I’m from. Should I tell people that I am Congolese-Israeli-Swiss? I’m sure that more of my ancestors have mixed backgrounds, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that description alone. I do not really know who I am. African? Black? European? Mixed? Being black or white or whatever else should not define who we are.

This constant quest in trying to define which group we belong to is separating us more and more as people, as human beings. I believe we cannot truly be united and supportive of each other while constantly trying to differentiate and separate ourselves from each other. I think we can appreciate our commonalities, our cultural differences without seeing each other as enemies or as part of different groups.

Looking back, the only time I felt at home regardless on which continent I was, was when I was surrounded by people I enjoyed being around. The place you live in doesn’t make your home; the people who you live and hang out with make you feel at home.

By Cedric Nabe

Cedric Nabe is a true citizen of the world. Born in Geneva, Switzerland, to parents from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he studied in France and the U.S. (Noles for Life). An entrepreneur, IT auditor, and consultant, Cedric aspires to do great things and to inspire many people. He is also the father of one (or two, very soon) and an ex-professional athlete-turned-CrossFit fanatic.