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Up Close: 150 Black Women in Canada Share Their Stories

Freedom fighters in Eritrea

This essay was a part of a CBC project highlighting the stories of 150 Black Women in Canada. It launched on Canada Day 2017.


I am named after my grandmother, whom I never got a chance to meet. She lived in a small, rural village in Eritrea, third eldest of 11 children. She was a sweet, humble woman who had the admiration of everyone in that village, according to all those who tell me about growing up with her. She later married my grandfather, Berhe Kidane, a man who shared many of the same endearing qualities as his wife. They went on to have 10 children, my father Ghelle, being second youngest.

My full name is a combination of all three of them: Brnesh Ghelle Berhe, as traditionally children took their father’s first name as their last, but that doesn’t really work with Western naming conventions.  I grew up knowing the history and politics of Eritrea, and, like many kids of the diaspora, awkwardly navigated that sense of pride of where my family is from with the country I grew up in. Somewhere in the middle along a very hazy line is where I felt about my name – in particular, my first name.

I never liked it growing up. Brnesh never sounded “pretty” to a young, naive girl born and raised in the Prairies. I was also painfully shy and hated having to always explain the origins of my name, or be on the receiving end of every warped version of it when I was introduced to someone new. I dreaded attendance in school as I could tell by the teacher’s hesitation that I was next on the list. I eventually got into the habit of acknowledging I was “here” before they had the chance to butcher it, although that rarely stopped their attempts.

As I got older, I wondered if people’s perception of my name in a stack of resumes ever deterred them from calling me back. I would later exhaust myself with side hustles in the hopes of maybe getting a fair shot. I wish I could say my work ethic was solely based on the love of what I do, and it partly is – but I also felt like I had no other choice. That mentality hasn’t left me entirely either, but I’m learning to pace myself.

***

My father’s eyes light up when he gets to talk about his parents; due to political reasons, it’s been at least 40 years since he’s been allowed to go back to Eritrea, so he holds onto memories and stories as close to his chest as he can. He paints vivid pictures as he reminisces about every detail of the people and the landscapes. I’m always in awe of how some of our elders can remember names and stories of family members several generations back, and speak of them like they knew them personally.

Abayey (my grandmother) was well-loved by those who knew her, as was my Abahagoy (my grandfather). My dad remembers when she would wake him and one of his older brothers, Weldemichael, in the middle of the night, around midnight or so, and make them study so they’d be ahead of their classmates. It would be pitch black in the village with only the flicker of their gas lantern lighting the room for them. They would wake up a few hours later to make the long walk back to school, and my father looks back at that time fondly. For anyone who knows my dad, this will make a lot of sense as to why he is the way he is. He’s a man who reads the dictionary for fun, who can speak at length about religion or Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, who can debate politics and social issues like sport. He emphasized the importance of an education to his only daughter, even when it would look like I was deviating a bit. “You need to be twice as good, zya gwaley (my girl)”, he’d affectionately warn me.

My grandparents, in a tiny village in the Horn of Africa, instilled this mentality in him, which led to some career success back home before political unrest forced him out. He would later struggle for a seat at the table once he arrived in Canada years later. Why an education from that part of the world is so hard to recognize here is beyond me, but he is only one of many who encountered that roadblock once they arrived.

It would only be after the one and only time I got to visit Eritrea at 16 with my mother, a woman who exemplifies many of the characteristics that people lovingly remember of my grandmother, that I realized how selfish I had been up until that point. It looked like the whole village came to see gwal Ghelle (Ghelle’s daughter), and it was overwhelming. We all sat around my aunt and uncle’s modest home as the sun went down, sharing stories of the past while cousins and elders asked me what “America” was like. We received light from lanterns no different than the one that lit the room for my father’s late night study sessions as a kid.

My uncle later pulled out two small black and white photos, cracked and fragile, and I handled them delicately as he passed them to me. They were my grandparents, and for the first time I was able to put faces to the names – my name. I stared back at them as I treated those photos like artefacts from a museum – my grandmother, Brnesh, with her netsela (scarf) wrapped around her head, my grandfather, Berhe, with his gabi (blanket) wrapped around his shoulders – and I wanted to apologize to them both. I grew up adjusting and contorting myself to fit Canadians’ varied level of comfort with our name, embarrassed by it because of their struggles with it. It was not fair. While there was nothing I could do about how I felt growing up, I was not going to allow myself to feel that way again.

***

I came back to Canada and immediately rejected any negative reactions to my name, and thought about how it’s perceived in both countries: There, it was like any other name, albeit an older one you don’t hear much anymore. In that little village, it brought back memories of a woman they respected and adored, and subsequently of all the memories they had of that time. My intellect was never questioned at the sight or sound of my name and neither were my abilities; and yet, here in Canada, with all the opportunities afforded to me that my parents never had and my grandparents only dreamed of, it was.

It was enough for a woman to believe I was unqualified for a job on the suspicion that I did not speak English, even though my resume, cover letter, emails, and portfolio reflected quite the opposite. Thanks to another individual at the company with a level head and some sense, I got a call back for an interview and ended up being the most qualified person for the job. This was all brought to my attention long after I got the gig, and it could have all been taken away from me before it even started because of one person’s perception of my name. I have never forgotten that. I have also never forgotten the reaction my parents had when I told them about that experience, expecting the same anger my friends had when I raged on about how stupid the whole thing was. My dad looked at me and simply said, “The same thing happened to me when I first moved here.” I can tell those incidents still bother him as he’s had to defend himself and tell people off one too many times; but with a quiet and stern demeanour, he told me that this was part of the price of living in Canada, and if he let every racist incident get to him he would have had a heart attack years ago. I am far more cynical than my father, but I understood where he was coming from and what he and my mother had to endure when they moved to Canada. There were people who saw their names, their skin, and heard their accents and assumed a whole narrative that was far too simple and inaccurate to paint any one person with. My parents are two of the toughest people I know, with skin both resilient and raw from the exposure of everyone and everything that has tried to stifle them. We can all agree, however, that it should never have been this way, or continue to be this way, and the chip on my shoulder won’t ever let me forget.

***

There are three generations represented in my name and everything that identifies me in Canada. I’m grateful that my great-grandfather, Meshesha, chose to name one of his daughter’s Brnesh. I’m grateful that she was the wonderful woman that everyone remembers. I’m grateful my grandparents had my father and encouraged him to see beyond the stars that populated the sky in their small village in Eritrea. I’m grateful he met my mother and passed down the memory of his own mother to me in that hospital room in Saskatoon. It’s hard to think back to my earlier years as I navigated between what felt like two worlds, and compromised on something that carries so much weight in my family; but getting to see my name on the byline of this essay, an ode to those that came before me, is more than I could have ever thought sitting in classrooms in Edmonton, dreading attendance in the morning.

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