Since February, my teammates and I have been preparing to lead the Global Startup Lab in Rwanda. We attended teaching trainings, secured course materials, and poured over numerous applications, in efforts to conduct a successful program. I was especially excited because it was my final graduate school adventure before returning to corporate America. I even viewed it as my last independence romp before entering the “no-going-back” stage of adulthood. Ultimately, I hoped that through this journey, I would have space to reflect on my personal story and the role that identity has played in shaping me.
I was born in Lagos, Nigeria to a middle class Yoruba family; most of my extended family lived close by and I could trace back my lineage multiple generations on that same soil. A couple months before my 4th birthday, I moved to New York City with my family and we settled in the New Jersey suburbs a year later. Though New Jersey is diverse as a whole, it is extremely segregated upon closer inspection – while in school, at events, or running errands, I would look up and find that I was the only person that looked like me. Given my distance from Lagos, I retired my Nigerian and African identities to make space for the singular black identity that was expected of me.
At 18, I moved to big cities for college and work. The sudden anonymity made it possible for me to choose the reasons I stood out. I fell in love with the freedom of city life and have lived in 5 cities and traveled across dozens since. However, I had not yet lived in an African city as an adult, so when presented with the opportunity to live and work in Kigali for the summer, I took it.
I connected through the Netherlands before my flight to Kigali, where I felt wedged between my two worlds. To my right was an American male in his mid-30s, who grew up in the next town from where I grew up. On my left hand side sat a middle-aged Ugandan woman, who is currently based outside of Boston. Throughout that leg of the trip, I floated naturally between conversations with each, finding myself in bits and pieces of their personal stories. Yet, there was a meaningful distance, and each still felt foreign to me. For the remainder of my flight, I leaned back into my seat, flanked by the two cultural experiences.
The first few days in Kigali were filled with both stares and shy glances whenever I spoke in public. I stand out not by my appearance, but by my mannerisms and the company of non-Rwandan MIT students I keep. My fast talking, American slang, and Yankee accent were the source of surprise for some and amusement for others. On the other hand, I cannot help to reflect upon my own African identity, as an African visiting East Africa for the first time. Nigerian ‘Afrobeats’ reigns on the loud speakers, every salon can style my hair, and my name may be foreign, but it is not inconvenient.
While refreshing, it is still strange for me not to feel so alienated. Most of my experience at home in the US is marked by otherness, despite being a native English speaker who grew up in New Jersey. Whereas in Kigali, I am part of a different minority, the expat/tourist contingent and within that minority, I am invisible until I speak and present my American identity. As I explore more of Rwanda, and also East Africa, I am curious to see how these new experiences inform my personal identity and possibly create harmony with my existing self.
Tosin Bosede is a technology professional focused on sustainable innovation and a recent graduate from MIT Sloan’s MBA program. She is spending her summer in Kigali, Rwanda, teaching university students business planning, product management, and personal development as part of a program to help them launch their digital ventures.