What's your background!?

By Alysha Brilla

Photo by Dwayne Larson


Where do I begin?

I wish I could begin at the very beginning, but if I could, I’d probably win the Nobel Peace Prize for solving humanity’s age-old question; “Where do we come from?”.

I can trace the umbilical chord back as far as a few generations on either side of my bloodline. The small answers I’m given equate big affirmations and I’m made to feel a sense of connectedness with the more about my history that I know.

People often ask me “What’s your background?”. Growing up, I knew that ‘culturally’ speaking, generally, my dad was Indian and my mom was ‘white’. So…I’d say “I’m half white, half Indian”. 

It wasn’t until I was 6 or 7 that I realized my father was actually born in Africa. “Oh” I thought “That’s interesting…hmmm…looks like there are many Indians in Africa. I wonder how that happened.”

I can only speculate based on the general history of Indians in Africa, but what I do know is that sometime in the 1800’s, a ship was commissioned by the British to take a large number of Indians from Gujurat (where my Indian ancestry resides) to Tanganyika/Zanzibar (Now Tanzania). Truthfully, most indentured labourers had almost no records kept of their existence (my dads last name was even changed); they became a number to the system and to themselves. Why keep record of such an unglorified existence? They were just…alive. Surviving. The social hierarchy at the time, for all intensive purposes, placed whites at the top, browns in the middle and blacks at the bottom. My dad still tells me about "white only" clubs that existed when he was growing up, many years later.

Chances are they began working on the railroad, or performing other manual labour and began their life in Tanzania. Some returned to India upon completion of their ‘contracts’, while most stayed.

My dad looks pretty Indian. I mean…almost entirely. Except…he has very curly hair. When he was younger, too, it was even tighter and curlier. My mom used to postulate with me when I was younger that he probably had some ‘black blood’ in him. I had no idea. How was I supposed to know? My dad didn’t know much about his history. How was I supposed to?

My sister recently took one of those “ancestry DNA tests” via Fed-Exing her saliva to some Jetsons lab, which through a process of DNA extraction and then isolation/comparison to other samples they have, determines approximately the percentage of ethno-geographical ancestry in different parts of the world.

Given that my sisters and I share DNA (same parents), I can assume that my ancestry is pretty close to theirs. Although technically, there can be slight differences, generally, my genetic lineage is as follows:

83% European/East Indian
13% Sub-Saharan Africa
4% Indigenous American
0% East Asian

I’m almost certain that the indigenous American blood would be from my maternal grandfather, who was adopted and whose biological parents we aren’t yet certain about. He has very dark, black hair and pretty high cheekbones. Perhaps his parent or grandparent was aboriginal Canadian.

The Sub-Saharan African really…affirms something I’ve wondered about and felt for a long time. I felt as though I had a great-great-grandparent who was black African; who one of my Indian ancestors must have married when they came to Africa. So now I wonder…who were they? I’ve spent a bit of time Sherlock-ing my way around my Indian relatives; probing and asking about their African upbringing and ancestors. I do know that my maternal great grandmother only liked to speak Swahili (Tanzania’s main language) and that her best friend was a black African woman. (Which may sound redundant, but for the sake of context, I'll use.)

I could write a book. A book on just how moved I am by human lineage and the notion of ancestry. Since the age of 3, I remember having ‘conversations’ with spirits and have always felt like I’ve been guided by my foremothers and fathers. Their presence, if only a memory from past lives, permeates my thoughts and sentiments daily.

With that, going to Tanzania feels like completing some kind of spiritual circuitry.

I don’t know what to expect; besides amazing music, people and an experience of a lifetime…I mean…I don’t know how much information I will get on that great-great-grandparent. People were pretty hush-hush about intermarriage back then. I hope I will receive some more clues, though.

My first few days will be spent with SASCO/CWEF; an organization that helps educate (mostly) orphaned children in various parts of Tanzania. CWEF sponsors their education from primary all through university. It’s an amazing cause. We held a fundraiser for CWEF in Kitchener in November. I’ll try to document as much as I can the program and the music that will likely happen between myself, the children and the founder (who has a band!).

On the 7th, I’ll be meeting up with Bryan Adkins of Socially responsible Safaris, who will be co-guiding a group with me through the Serengeti and ultimately to Zanzibar for Sauti Za Busara (East Africa’s largest Jazz music festival). It’s going to be incredible, I know it.

My last week in Tanzania will be spent in Dar Es Salaam with my father, visiting the sites of his childhood. Discovering what it was like to grow up there and learning more about the Indian-Tanzania culture which runs through my blood.

I have so many questions…I’m sure I will spend a lifetime finding answers to them and then developing more.

In just a few days I will be leaving London, headed to the land it is thought that all humans originate from. A land I’ve heard my mom and dad tell stories about and has produced some of my favourite music.

I’m going to Tanzania!

My paternal great-grandmother

My individually beautiful parents in Tanzania.




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