By Kymane Fermely

Gonza Kisoro rediscovers her cultural identity and belonging without speaking her family’s native tongues.

Narrated Version of the Story

She’s sitting at the big table, on one of these uncomfortable plastic chairs that seem to be an essential at family gatherings. It’s time for a speech. Oh, how this family loves a good speech. The chair is kind of cold, but the room is warm from people and their stories. From her chair, she can hear anecdotes and laughter bouncing off the walls of the big room made tiny by the family. Between the sounds of conversations and disagreements, she can hear cutlery clinking every time this one uncle slaps the table in what she can read on his face as amusement. Those are the sounds that surround her, only broken by the 45 seconds her mom takes to ask her , “Want more to eat, baby?” Sounds, not words. Sounds, not jokes. Sounds, not stories. Sounds, not feelings. She recognizes the sounds of home, yet she cannot understand them.

In the warmth of family gatherings, Gonza Kisoro is surrounded by a chorus of voices she struggles to comprehend. Kisoro is first-generation Canadian like over half of Toronto’s population (52.9 per cent), according to Statistics Canada. Born in Canada to parents from abroad, she embodies the complexities of cultural identity shaped by migration. Having lived in countries like Saudi Arabia and Singapore, Kisoro grapples with the dual challenges of language and belonging. Yet, she has discovered a profound truth: culture transcends language barriers.

Through her journey, Kisoro has redefined her perception of cultural belonging. She now understands that while language may have once posed obstacles, it’s the shared experiences and familial bonds that truly define her sense of belonging.

Gonza Kisoro tells her story (Kymane Fermely/T·)

She was born to a Ugandan father and Burundian mother in the multicultural landscape of Pickering, Ont., where Statistics Canada identified 14 main ethnic or cultural origins.

For years, language had been a barrier between Kisoro and her family, leaving her feeling like an outsider amidst the familiar cadence of her family’s native tongues. She only speaks English and does not speak or understand Swahili or Kirundi, her parents’ native languages.

Kisoro said she thinks family plays a crucial role in one’s relationship with their culture. “When it comes to culture, I feel like the importance of family comes from having people to rely on. In African culture, it’s very common for people to be close with their grandparents, uncles, cousins etc. Everyone’s always together helping each other out and I feel like I missed out on that because I was constantly away from extended family,” she said.

Kisoro thinks of language as a powerful way to feel connected to her culture and her people.

“When you’re speaking to relatives, you get to know each other in the most simple and also most effective way… It helps you get closer. Having that [language] barrier made it really hard to do that,” she said.

Liliane Kisoro is Kisoro’s mother. Throughout the years, they found they feel the most connected when baking together. She speaks Kirundi, French, English and Swahili. She agrees with her daughter’s sentiment on the role language plays in connecting with family; however, she feels other values can be more significant to feel a sense of belonging and connection.

“Language is indeed very important to connect to one’s culture and family, but not at the same level, as far as family is concerned. If you love, care and nurture, you can still connect with your family with minimal knowledge of language,” she said. 

From age three until her final year of high school, Kisoro and her family lived in Saudi Arabia, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, and Uganda before returning to Pickering, Ont.

Interactive Life Map of Gonza Kisoro. (Kymane Fermely/T·)

During this time, when home was never the same for more than a few years, Kisoro had to focus on learning English to attend the many international schools she went to. This resulted in her “losing” her French, and with that, something she shared with her mom and siblings. 

Kisoro’s mother explained they had minimal contact with people of the same culture. “In her early years, Gonza wasn’t really connected to her culture. The reason being that we lived in different foreign countries,” she said.

Kisoro said she feels most disconnected from her culture and family because of language when she’s at family gatherings.  She jokes about how there are speeches at every family reunion that can last almost 15 minutes. During these times, when someone is telling an anecdote, Kisoro resorts to copying everyone’s reaction in order to fit in. 

“I’m literally standing there and I have to wait for everyone to react and then I’ll react the same way,” she said.

When it comes to French, she remembers some of what she learned in school, but didn’t get to practice it over the years. 

Today, when she is around cousins her age and they socialize together in Swahili or Kirundi, she wishes she did understand. After all, it would be nice to share these moments  with them.

“I’ll be listening to conversations, but then, I’ll have to answer in English, and it’s kind of embarrassing sometimes,” she said.

While living in countries where she was not only an immigrant but one of the few Black people, Kisoro admitted learning any of her native languages was not a big interest. She stood out enough already. It was more of an “older people thing” in her young mind.

Her grandfather, the only grandparent she has left, doesn’t speak any English. She feels there is a certain closeness she can never reach with him.

“I’ve heard stories from my friends about their experiences with their grandparents and kind of like having another set of parents that are cooler. They often share stories from when they were younger and that’s something I missed out on as well,” she said.

Their encounters are bittersweet; though they yearn to communicate, their conversations rely on relatives to bridge the linguistic gap. Motivated by this challenge, Kisoro hopes to relearn French. Recognizing its significance within her family—everyone on her mother’s side speaks it—she sees mastering the language as a means to deepen familial connections and to ensure her future children can fully embrace their heritage.

“I’ll definitely prioritize sharing it with my children, especially knowing how it feels to not be able to understand,” she said. She would also like for her parents to teach them their native languages, so they can truly connect with their family, in ways she didn’t get to.

Over time, Kisoro discovered numerous avenues to foster a sense of connection.

In Uganda, Kisoro experienced a profound reconciliation with a significant aspect of her identity. Surrounded by individuals who mirrored her appearance, she immersed herself in the culture through various means—food, attire, and social interactions. However, it was through music that she truly found a profound connection with others, discovering a whole new dimension of human interaction.

“Although I couldn’t really speak the language, whenever there were parties or gatherings, I knew the songs, and you had to dance to it cause everyone loved to dance,” she said. 

Kisoro describes the butterfly effect her two years in Uganda had on her life.

“If I didn’t go there, I would be a completely different person,” she said.

Today, Kisoro carries the echoes of Uganda and her other past homes with her. Recently reuniting with her extended family after nearly 10 years, she found solace in their presence. Amidst the chatter and laughter, she realized that culture goes beyond words. It’s found in familial bonds and shared moments. In these reunions, she rediscovered her identity’s richness, longing for the embrace of her people. Language may create barriers, but family ties and cultural connections endure, offering alternative paths to connection that transcend words.