Many people tell me that I look like a Luo or a Luyah, which are two of the main ethnic groups in the part of Kenya where I currently live. This has its challenges and benefits.
A few weeks ago, I was looking for a new hairstyle in the supermarket when a woman walked up to me and started to speaking Swahili and I (politely) informed her that I didn't understand what she was saying. Upon hearing this she sucked her teeth, rolled her eyes, and left me standing there in a state of complete confusion. This was not the first time this happened to me, usually, when I tell people that I can't speak Swahili, they normally reply with intense curiosity but sometimes with intense disgust as well. I am happy to say that the latter is rare. After discussing these incidents with some friends I realized that some people genuinely believe that I am pretending not to speak Swahili because, apparently, it hard for some people to understand that a black person like myself who looks so "local" would be incapable of speaking perfect Swahili.
But I only know enough to get me through basic interactions. Which, sometimes, is a great conversation starter. I often tell people to guess when they ask me where I am from (in response to my "exotic" accent). Thier first guess is usually Nigeria, unless I am wearing sneakers then they usually ask; "Are you a black American"?
Now, how do I answer that question? Technically, if I say yes, I would not be lying. I am in fact black and I am an American. But that is not the whole story. How does a girl, born in Togo, raised in Benin and educated and naturalized in the United States answer that question?
Initially, I use to tell people that I am from Togo but then I realized how much leverage being American carries sometimes. So for example, when I go shopping, I try my best not to speak too much lest someone picks up on my accent and starts charging me mazungu (Foreigner synonymous with White) prices. Which are always higher. Being an American in commercial spaces has zero advantages, in my experience. When I am in spaces where I want to be treated with some level of decency, however, I tend to play up my "Americanness" because otherwise I will get trashy service. This is of course not a guarantee but I have noticed that I get much better service in places where people know I am an American, perhaps because they expect a good tip. Since the prices are normally fixed in these spaces, I have nothing to lose from "being American"
At the end of the day, I find it fascinating how I switch identities on account of how I look and how I speak. These identities also allow me to relate to people in different ways but at the end of the day, this ability to switch identities really illustrates how "different" and foreign I am. A difference that I actually appreciate because it allows me to engage with people on my own terms.