One day last year, Monica Mutale, her parents, three older sisters, brother-in-law, niece and nephew stood in the middle of their Cole Harbour street, holding hands, posing for a special family portrait. It was the 30th anniversary of her parents’ arrival in Canada. “You look at the circumstances my parents came out of, especially my dad and the poverty he experienced. All he wanted was a better life for his kids. He really looked at us with pure pride.”
Monica’s parents, Elias from Zambia, and Sheena, born in Congo but raised in Zambia, were tired of the political situation at home. Educated by Catholic missionaries, they spoke English so they moved to Canada in 1988 with three little girls. After studying at Acadia University, Elias became pastor at Baptist churches in the Annapolis Valley while Sheena practised social work.
It’s strange to have a place that feels like home, but doesn’t feel like home.
“I know it was tough,” says Monica. “Besides being cold, you’re completely alone. The churches took us in and became our family.” Monica was the only daughter born in Canada. “I always felt they had something special I didn’t have. As a kid I would say they were African-Canadian and I was Canadian-African. I remember attending their citizenship ceremony and just feeling very left out.” Two sisters speak their parents’ native language, Bemba, fluently, while the third understands. “I can barely speak a word,” says Monica. Her parents often organized African cultural events. “We’d look forward to it all year round. You get to share what was inside your house that almost felt like a secret.”
The family moved to Halifax in 1998, as Sheena got a job here. They all remain, except one sister who works in human resources in Ontario. Another sister is a lawyer, while another works at a parent-resource centre.
Following high school, Monica wasn’t sure of her future. “I loved writing and the arts. That’s still my goal, whether fiction or reporting.” She earned her Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of King’s College in 2013. She worked in public relations and communications. Needing a break from her career path, she’s currently a receptionist at a downtown spa. “I’d love to go back to school; I love learning,” she says, adding that public-interest law is a possibility. A committed volunteer, she has led student and community organizations, and is past chair of the African Diaspora Association of the Maritimes. While working there, she helped girls’ sports teams with equipment, communications, and social media. She also continues to assist newly arrived family and friends with their resumés.
Monica has visited Zambia three times. “I feel awkward there. It’s strange to have a place that feels like home, but doesn’t feel like home.” She does enjoy connecting with her cousins, although language restricts communication with her grandmother. Monica was once envious of friends and family born in Zambia, but is now more confident in her identity. “I think the value of who I am has become more clear. I’m starting to see and appreciate the benefits of being born here and raised here.”