Hello and welcome to the eighth issue of Place. Have you ever travelled somewhere for the first time and immediately felt like a part of you belonged there? The language, food and movements of a new place can energize a part of you never perceived, framing your heart in fullness. Gloria Kimbulu had long pined for a homeland she never knew, having been born in Spain to Congolese parents and moving to the United States at a young age. However, a trip to Cuba opened up her eyes to a hidden history and helped her find a way home.
At Place, we believe that the experiences, sensations and conversations we have as we move about the world stay with us, stacking up as the years go by, forming who we are and the way we view the world. Do you have a letter to share? Send it to us at email@example.com. If you are interested in writing for Place you can find our inaugural pitch guide here. And be sure to follow us on Instagram @placenewsletter for a daily visual feast. Yours, The Place editorial team.
From Congo to Cuba
As humans, our sense of smell is closely linked with our memories and emotions. We can walk past strangers and catch a whiff of our friend’s cologne or smell food that suddenly takes us back to our childhood home. This is what I thought about as I inhaled and exhaled upon my arrival in La Habana for the first time. The smell of the humid air carried the weight of familiarity.
It may have been my first time in Cuba, but I immediately felt my spirit was no stranger to this island. Maybe because my people are not either.
I am from the Democratic Republic of Congo, but I have never experienced my homeland. My parents immigrated from Congo to my birth country, Spain, when my dad was awarded a scholarship to study Spanish. Spain didn’t live up to its promise, however. While anti-Blackness is everywhere, Spain’s particular brand of racism made it difficult for my parents to create a life for themselves. My dad found it challenging to pursue an academic career, unable to find jobs outside of manual labor and service work. So, in 2000, when he was awarded a teaching assistantship in Boise, Idaho, we moved to the US. A year later we moved to Lincoln, Nebraska for my father to begin his Ph.D.
If you haven’t been to Nebraska, let me tell you a bit about what it feels like on the ground. At the center of the American Midwest, it is very flat and very white -- just five percent of the population is Black. For many, college is the first time they interact with Black people. It’s a far cry from the lush mountains and vibrant diverse cities of the DRC.
Growing up in this isolated environment without my extended family or any Congolese friends, I often wondered about the homeland I felt connected to, but was so far away from. I became deeply invested in learning about Congo. As a child I would go to the public library and look for children’s books about Congo - usually I could find only four or five. In middle school I wrote fictional stories about a Congolese girl named Sifa, which also happens to be my name in Swahili. Sifa went on adventures with her family and friends in Kinshasa. I think I was envisioning the possibilities of what my life might have been like if my parents stayed there.
My relationships with those in Congo did not exist beyond phone calls with family, so traveling through books and writing allowed me to have a quiet dialogue with my ancestry, even when my exceptionally white surroundings made me ashamed of my heritage. As I grew older, I thought that my own relationship with Congo would have to wait until I was able to travel there myself.
But when I was 21, I traveled to Puerto Rico. I ate arroz con habichuelas y tostones and had the time of my life dancing to reggaeton and salsa in La Placita. There was a hazy sense of familiarity that lingered around the food I ate; I felt it in the way my hips and waist fused with the rhythms that I knew were from the African diaspora. On a whim, at the airport gate waiting to board my flight back to Nebraska, I typed into Google: “connection between Congo and Puerto Rico.”
I found out that this history dates back to the 16th century, when Africans from Central Africa were kidnapped and brought to the Americas through the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In fact, the last known enslaved Africans brought to Puerto Rico were an estimated 1,000 Congolese people, mainly children and adolescents, in 1859.
I was astonished. I had thought that all enslaved Africans had been brought to the Americas from West Africa. But in fact, almost half of them came from Central Africa. Central Africans brought their languages, cultures and religions with them to the Western hemisphere – yet these connections were invisibilized through the erasure of Central Africans in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Learning this by happenstance re-affirmed what I already knew: If I wanted to learn more about Black history, I had to seek it out myself.
As a fluent Spanish speaker, I decided that until I could go to Congo, I needed to see more places where large populations of enslaved Africans from the Congo Basin were forcibly taken. Cuba came on my radar after a friend of mine visited, and spent time in Santiago de Cuba, where the Congolese presence is particularly strong. When she came back, she told me she met people who looked like family and how her body felt like it was a part of the land.
But I didn’t realize just how Black Cuba would be until my first morning in La Habana.
I stepped out of my Airbnb in San Leopoldo, a historically Black working-class neighborhood in Centro Habana, I was surrounded by people who looked like me. They were coming and going on the sidewalks, selling food on the street, children walking to school and elders people-watching from their balconies.
In Nebraska, being a Black Congolese woman felt like a burden -- I was smothered by layers of loneliness, assimilation and misogynoir, struggling for air. But in San Leopoldo, the similarity lifted those layers. I felt like finally I was breathing with ease.
The Cubans that I met often asked where I was from. When I told them I lived in the U.S., they responded with, “But your parents are Cuban, right?” When I told people my name, people exclaimed “You must be Cuban! You have a very Cuban name.”
They smiled while telling me about the Glorias in their lives. One stranger was convinced that I was lying about not living in Cuba. When I said I wasn’t Cuban, they said, “Well you are a university student here, right?” I told them I was not. They asked: “Then why do you sound like us?”
The assumption that I was Cuban flattered me; the imposter syndrome I often felt when speaking Spanish disappeared. But it was bigger than that — it also made me feel like I belonged. In my everyday life living in Nebraska, I am so used to being asked where I am from, that it was strange, even comforting, to only be asked after I revealed that this place was not my home.
I found home in the arms of the salsa teacher during a lesson. She was a radiant Black Cuban woman whose body moved as though the song playing on her laptop was composed just for her. I analyzed her footwork intently, determined to get the bottom half of my body to look like hers.
“Mira arriba. Mírame en los ojos,” she said as she lifted my chin with her fingers so that our eyes locked. As we danced, the delight that moved throughout my body formed a permanent smile. In Nebraska I could not find any salsa classes taught by Black people - I felt deep gratitude being able to learn the dance while being held by one of my own.
After the class, I walked through a park and heard the word “malembe” being repeated by the singer in a salsa song playing from someone’s speakers. Malembe, means “slow down” in Lingala, a Congolese language. It was a delightful surprise — who would’ve thought that the first time I would hear Lingala music in a public space would be in Cuba?
I found out later that enslaved Africans from the Congo Basin (with some estimates putting the proportion of slaves of Congo origins at 32 percent) influenced the music style of changüí, a rhythmically complex music with syncopated beats, a combination of African drums and Spanish guitar, and son Cubano, characterized by the twangy chords of the tres, African percussion and call-and-response vocals that come from Bantu traditions.
Congolese rumba is in turn derived from the sounds of son Cubano. Congolese music migrated to Cuba through the slave trade and came back during the 1940s through the radio waves of Radio Congo Belge, introducing Congolese people in Kinshasa to Afro-Cuban groups like Los Guaracheros de Oriente and Septeto Habanero. Because of this, there are many Congolese rumba songs in Spanish, despite the language not being officially spoken in the country.
I grew up listening and dancing to rumba - there were Cuban influences in my life before I even knew Cuba existed.
Later that evening, I found myself cooking and eating dinner in Guanabacoa with two Afro-Cuban women: Malena, a guide for Beyond Roots, an Afro-Cuban cultural organization, and Surama, known as “La Reina de la Cocina,” by her friends and family. Together in Surama’s kitchen, the three of us prepared dinner together with Cuban music playing in the background.
“Ahora, vamos a hacer sofrito,” said Surama.
“It smells like my mom’s food,” I said while onions, garlic, bell peppers and tomatoes partnered with oil and danced in a saucepan. For a brief moment, I was transported to my mom’s kitchen.
In between bites of arroz con vegetales, plantain and quimbombo, we had sips of rum, dance breaks, and deep laughter, while the three of us discussed the similarities between Congolese and Afro-Cuban cuisine. While Congolese people don’t use the word sofrito, the same ingredients are used for the base of many of our dishes. Rice and beans, plantains, yucca and cod fish are all foods I love, and are commonly eaten in both Congo and Cuba.
Surama and Malena made me feel at home. There is nothing like the intimacy that is birthed from cooking and eating with people, intimacy that transcends the violence our people have experienced. While I went to Cuba to celebrate my birth, I know now that the connection I was feeling was in the context of culture built out of necessity. Creating a place of their own helped the enslaved maintain their spirit.
For the last part of my trip I left San Leopoldo and headed to Cayo Hueso, another neighborhood in Centro Habana. It is famous for its cultural landmarks such as Callejon de Hamel, an alley where people meet every Sunday to celebrate Afro-Cuban culture through live music and dancing.
At this celebration, I met up with two Black Cubans, an acquaintance from San Leopoldo, along with his friend. When I told the friend I was Congolese, his face lit up as he said, “Tú y yo somos los mismos.”
You and I are the same.
Through daily interactions such as my insightful conversations, eating at paladars, and listening to the waves of El Malecon, Cuba filled my heart with love. Leaving had me drowning in post-travel blues. I had become so used to the warmth of Cuba, both from the sun and the people. I missed being in community with Black people and experiencing music and laughter on a daily basis. Back in Nebraska, I experienced silence and loneliness in a way I hadn’t before, and I found myself depressed for a long time after my return.
Though I can’t go back to Cuba for the foreseeable future, I’m taking a page from my childhood self, whose curiosity sparked this journey so long ago. I’m devouring books such as Reyita: The Life of a Black Cuban Woman in the Twentieth Century and iVenceremos?: The Erotics of Black Self-making in Cuba, having Cubaton dance parties in my living room, drinking Goya’s jugo de guayaba and planning a longer trip to Cuba to study music, plant medicine, and Palo, an Afro-Cuban religion rooted in Kongo practices.
For most of my life, I have been in the midst of an identity crisis. I’m a Spanish-born Congolese person who has never been to Congo and cannot speak Congolese languages such as Swahili or Lingala but can speak Spanish. I used to think that I would only be able to truly understand the concept of home until I visited Congo. But my travels to Puerto Rico and Cuba have helped me understand that while home can be about where we live, it’s so much more than a place. Home is about connection. Home can be felt, experienced, created, and changed. Going to Cuba felt like coming home.
Te extraño Cuba. Tú y yo somos los mismos.
-Gloria Kimbulu is a Black Congolese writer and cultural and community worker. She is passionate about connecting with others through food, travel, healing and storytelling. You can connect with her at https://linktr.ee/gkimbulu.
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