No Place Like "Home": Nostalgia and Attachment in Diaspora Engagement

August 14, 2013
Children play in a water puddle left after a spell of rain in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

A few years ago when Toronto experienced an unusually warm summer, I briefly savoured that distinctive yet heady aroma produced by the first raindrops on parched earth. This mitti ki sondhi khushboo (as it is described in the Hindi language) is a particular smell I associate with the “home” I left behind in India. And it never fails to evoke strong recollections of childhood, of happy times spent with family and friends in New Delhi. It conjures up memories of sudden and spectacular thunderstorms occurring before the monsoon season and rainy days when my brother and I stayed away from school, relishing the hot tea and pakoras (fritters) prepared by my mother. On wet, gloomy days in this Canadian city where I now live, I joyfully recall those times and feel a desire to replicate it here. Nostalgia or that frequent act of remembering the past through familiar sights, sounds, scents and even tastes, connects me to my filial “home”.

The durable relationship of diasporans with “home” is a central motif of the diaspora-development nexus. But what constitutes “home” for the diaspora? Is “home” a place where the diaspora was born or originates from? Is “home” the place where one’s parents or grandparents were born? Is it where one now lives? Does it mean one’s country of birth or residence? Or does it signify the locality or region one came from? Is it a physical space, a geographical space synonymous with the boundaries of the nation-state? Or an imaginary, symbolic space shaped by personal experiences and close relationships within the diaspora? Do diasporans have one home they identify with, two homes (based on birth and settlement) or multiple homes imbued with different meanings? Equally important, what are the effects on diaspora local and transnational engagement of identifications with these real and imagined spaces?

In the traditional understanding of diaspora, the notion of “home” has been synonymous with the diaspora’s country of birth or origin. My previous blog highlighted this aspect where the Zambian diaspora in Ontario emphasized that Zambia was their true “home” or “homeland”. Representatives of other diaspora communities interviewed for the SAMP Diasporas’ Project displayed similar sentiments.[1] Bashir Kassam, former President of the Tanzania Canadian Association (TCA), a network of Tanzanian diaspora in the Greater Toronto Area, spoke pensively about his country of birth: “We love Tanzania. We are patriotic. Tanzania can never be taken out of me because Tanzania is always in my heart.” Born in Sunbawanga in western Tanzania, Bashir immigrated to Canada with his siblings while in his teens and despite living away for a long time, continues to relate strongly to it.

The second interpretation of “home” is that it is a symbolic, partly physical space tied to the place the diaspora leaves behind when they migrate, and constituting their close relatives and friends. It may be argued that this enduring attachment carries the strongest influence on diaspora engagement, demonstrated by the substantial volume of remittances sent to family still living in sending communities.

A still different idea of “home” is tied to the locality of origin and the places where they resided during the formative period of childhood and youth. The slogan of the Tanga Education Support Association (TESA), which has backed numerous education projects for an extended period at the Usagara Secondary School in this northern Tanzanian city, conveys this message:

“My Tanga, I owe you.
TANGA – the place where I grew up and received good education.
TANGA – which gave me a good life and happy memories.
TANGA – I am going to support you”.[2]

The political and cultural histories of some sending areas may crucially influence these transnational ties and delineate the boundaries of these attachments more sharply. Hassan Jaffer, the co-founder of a charitable organization focusing on Zanzibar, indicated that instead of a broader identification with Tanzania, his bond was to this region. Now residing in Toronto with his wife and children, his birth and upbringing was during the colonial period when Zanzibar retained a separate identity. Hassan emigrated shortly after the formation of a unified Tanzania in 1964 incorporated Zanzibar, albeit as a semi-autonomous area. Through Outreach Zanzibar, Hassan and other diasporans have organized health and education projects, the latest of literacy enhancement through the creation of mini-libraries at classrooms of the Unguja Ukuu Primary School using donated books and other reading material.[3]

Zanzibar’s location along major trading routes exposed these islands to many diverse migrations and influences at various times, including a strong Arab presence, all of which helped to forge its distinctive cultural and religious character. The existence of the Zanzibari Canadian Association (ZANCANA), representing the Zanzibari diaspora in the GTA, underscores this unique identity.[4] While the association works largely with the diaspora community in Toronto, many of whom arrived as refugees to escape the post-election violence in 2000, it has donated educational supplies and hospital equipment to Zanzibar.

Some diasporans evoke multiple notions of home. Bilkis Abdelgadar, founder of the Qamer Foundation at St. Catharines, stressed her connections to both her country of birth and settlement: “I have many memories of Tanzania and you cannot forget your home. Canada is now my home but I wanted to help the children there.” For three years, the Foundation raised funds to support a well-building and solar power project in Kitonga Village in western Tanzania. The other activities of this organization have focused on the local community where Bilkis lives, rooted in religious identity and practices.

For others, “home” can be a transnational space linking several different geographical contexts. When Myra Remedios was elected in 2010 as President of the Tanzanite Association, an informal organization of Goan-Tanzanians in the Greater Toronto Area, she decided that the funds collected at their annual event would be donated to “good causes” in three countries: “I wanted to give back to Tanzania, Canada and India because all these three places have molded who I am as a person.” The group had already been raising money annually for a few years to donate to the Mzimbazi orphanage in Dar Es Salaam. Solicited donations by event attendees and surplus funds collected through sales of items were also given to a school in Arusha in northern Tanzania. A smaller part of the proceeds were disbursed to the Toronto-based Sick Kids’ Hospital and for church renovations in Goa in western India.

Using examples from the Tanzanian and Zanzibari diaspora in Ontario, this blog post suggests that the idea of “home” can vary across registers. Attachment and home cannot be conceived in a straightforward, linear fashion for all diasporans, even those who were born in the same country. It is these many ways of imagining “home” as well as attachments to them that influence the distinctive ways in which diasporans engage with spaces they now occupy and where they migrated from.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Sujata Ramachandran is a research associate with SAMP at Queen’s University. Her research interests include SouthSouth migration, diaspora development engagement and migrant integration in receiving countries.