Ear to the Ground: Kisuule Magala Katende

December 14, 2007

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Many African immigrants in the U.S. are separated from their families back home by thousands of miles. But for those lucky enough to have their families with them, there is a new separation—a separation between generations. Parents may find themselves at odds with their children over food, clothing, discipline, and ultimately, what it means to be “at home”. Ear to the Ground's Kisuule Magala Katende is currently hoping to bring his family to the U.S. from Uganda. But after speaking with other African immigrant families he is wondering if he is ready for what is in store. 

As I work tirelessly to bring my wife and two daughters to the U.S., talk of their coming dominates our phone conversations.

ambi: phone conversation

I find my self wondering how my family dynamics will be altered by the American way of life.

DAUGHTER: Hello, Daddy!

KATENDE: Hey Charlotte! How are you?...

My daughters have already given me notice. To them America is a land of great pleasure.

DAUGHTER: [translation] I want to come to America to see where Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger act their movies. I want to ride bikes.

Sometimes I wonder if it's really such a good idea to bring my children to the U.S.

I work at a hotel in downtown Chicago. One of my friends there is valet parking manager Aziki Koko. He's from Togo. He has advice for African parents bringing their children to the U.S.

KOKO: It's difficult for them to understand how this society works.

Aziki says American culture is a bad influence. He says parents lack control over everything from television to discipline. Aziki thinks its so difficult he decided not to bring his children.

KOKO: For me it's giving too much room for children to do bad things, like showing children how to call police on their parents.

This is something I've heard a lot. Many Africans tell stories about parents getting into trouble with the police for disciplining their children. It probably doesn't happen often. But I did see the police come to my neighbor's home in Englewood. I told this story to my wife. But she thinks it is nonsense.

LYDIA: [Translation] Any child in my home has to abide by my rules. My children are African children. They will not watch every TV channel or go out drinking at age 13. I will ensure order in my house—if it means spanking them.

So maybe we'll have to get a parental control device for the TV. And it sounds like my wife will not allow my daughters to walk around in skimpy American fashions. But can we really stop them from feeling American? I talked to African parents who have brought their children here. I met the Kifle family at their home in the Uptown neighborhood. The Kifles came from Eritrea. Their children Mensa and Bethel have not visited Africa since they were young.

MENSA KIFLE: I think I stayed there for 2 months but I don't remember much at all.

BETHEL KIFLE: I visited Africa when I was 2 yrs but I hope to visit soon.

But both children told me they love Africa.

MENSA KIFLE: To my motherland Africa –that's my number one. I respect it so much.

Their father Gilia says he helps his children learn more about Eritrea.

GILIA KIFLE: We talk a lot about Africa –about Eritrea. Once in a while we watch Eritrean movies together and we talk about our culture.

But the Kifles don't plan to go back to Eritrea anytime soon.

BETHEL KIFLE: If I had a choice I would retire there but I would not go right now.

But me, if the opportunity came, I would go now. I hope to return to Uganda as soon as the political situation changes. There is no question where home is for me. But will my children still think Africa is home after living in the U.S.?

Outside my hotel, I often see Olu waiting for fares in his cab. I saw the Nigerian flag hanging in his window and decided to ask him about African fatherhood.

Olu brought his children to Aurora 15 years ago. He says he got concerned because his child did not know about Africa.

OLU: No children born in America would like to go to Africa. They always have a bad impression. They are taught a bad impression from school.

Olu decided to take drastic action. He forced his 13-year- old boy to go live in Nigeria.

OLU: I want him to know my people, my village, everybody I grew up with. And for him to understand my language he has to go home.

KATENDE: Does he want to come back now, and what do you tell him when he says ‘Dad, I'm tired. I want to come back and watch NBA and football'?

OLU: He always tells me every time I call him, because I call him regularly, he says ‘daddy I want to go home'. And I will reply to him ‘you are home'.

In the salon by my apartment in Englewood Dorothy Akola does braids for her African and African-American clients. Dorothy is from Togo. I often see her child with her on Sundays playing in the salon.

AKOLA: My last baby is born in Chicago, send him back Africa...

Dorothy took her son to Togo when he was 18 months old, and again when he was three. She wants her son to be as comfortable in Togo as in Chicago.

AKOLA: Because I want him to know where he comes from and I want him to know where the father and mother come from.

Dorothy gave me some advice. She says I should make sure my daughters go home to Uganda after living in Chicago.

But I cannot help but wonder what I would do if my daughters were to tell me "Uganda, forget it, America is home." And I'm worried how this might affect my relationship with my wife.

She says if there are better opportunities in the U.S. she would rather have the children stay here.

LYDIA: [translation] I would side with my children. If they can get better life in the U.S. so be it. Or else you may need to abandon me with the children.

So when finally my family settles in the U.S. the tricky journey begins.

For Chicago Public Radio, I'm Kisuule Magala Katende.

KATENDE: Bye bye… I love you… bye