Finding Community in Toronto

9:25:00 AM BB 0 Comments

To start off what I think will be a long post, I want to disclose that I am a black, Nigerian, immigrant woman who has also lived in Botswana and the US. I don't just happen to be black, etc. I have reflected pretty intensely about all these facets of my identity (and their intersections) and how they contribute to the story of Boma Brown. Devoting my life to anti-racism, decolonization, reproductive justice, etc links back to the above.

Each one is very important: black, Nigerian, immigrant, woman. 

It's fair to say that the words above also define the way I build community, and what I consider to be community. Building community in Victoria is a no-brainer. I have lived there for over 4 years, it's very familiar. 

Toronto is quite different. I'm typically in Toronto twice a year. The constant person in Toronto was my Nigerian-Canadian friend R. She did the community building, she showed me around the city and took me to cool places, we ate good food together, we had conversations that never ended. But, she's in Spain indefinitely so I was definitely worried about Toronto being a very lonely city without her.

Last time I was in Toronto (December 2014), I had a pretty confusing experience. I stayed in the GTA with a very respectful, loving, middle class, white family for about a week. I lived the fancy life the entire time - paid trip to Montreal, I was driven around a lot, I used fancy toilet paper to wipe my butt lol. There was something missing that I just couldn't place a finger on. I remember calling my friend I, who lives in London Ont, 2 days in and telling her I was very overwhelmed. I couldn't place a finger on what it was because everyone was so nice (sure, microaggressions happened) but people were really warm, friendly, and nice. 

I remember feeling like after spending 7 days with a wonderful family, words like home, family, community would come to mind. It didn't. It didn't feel natural to use those words to describe my experience. One night, I couldn't find ripe plantains in the largest "multicultural" grocery store in Woodbridge (Nations?). I asked a black lady in the store where I could get some and she recommended this AfroCaribbean store. I felt so fake as I sat in the car as we drove by Jane & Finch on the way to the store. I was living this fake comfy life. I'd been chilling in a Woodbridge mansion for days and seeing Jane & Finch was such a surreal experience. I drove through thinking of what it's like to be black and poor in Toronto.  

In Victoria, depending on who you ask, Esquimalt has as much 'pretty and charm' as Oak Bay. There's hardly 'pretty and charm' to be observed driving down Jane & Finch. But the reality is that my people are probably in Jane & Finch not in a huge Woodbridge home. I felt so removed from community. I felt very isolated from my people (people in the sense of shared lived experience although I may not actually know them personally). The long commute from Woodbrige to Toronto (where the community I knew exists) didn't help. 

I went to the African grocery store and almost shed tears of joy because I smelt and touched food from my childhood. The foods of my people. Everything from garri to palm oil, dried fish to yam, Malt to Nido milk. In a store so jam packed with people (with only 1 or 2 white people in the room), with very tiny aisles overflowing with imported goods, it felt like home. On the way back, a quick stop at one of the local (but huge and fancy) grocery stores (Longos?), this lady gave some pretty intense evil eye because she didn't have enough room for her shopping cart. To put things in perspective, Longos shopping carts won't even fit in the tiny aisles of the African store. #privilege 

Community feels like home. At home, you know what to do when you're hungry. In African culture, the elders are constantly shoving food down the throat of guests and young adults in general. ALL THE TIME. Community means you find food that is familiar when you walk into the kitchen or when you look in the fridge. I didn't have community. I ate a lot of granola bars. 

August 2015
I decided that this trip to Toronto would be on my own terms. Some of my favorite black people in this country actually live in Toronto. One of my goals was to reconnect with everyone of them. Preferably while eating good food lol. Finding community wasn't a goal. It just happened. 

#TTCsucks. This is the first time when I haven't stayed downtown or been driven around. Having to navigate and wait for transit has not been fun. But it's part of the Toronto experience and I'm glad I'm doing it.

Parliament & Wellesley East
I spent my first few hours in Toronto eating and reconnecting with C, a Zim grandma whom I absolutely love. She was sad that I wasn't gonna spend the night in her place since I had already booked a B n B. My B n B was at Parliament & Wellesley which I was told was a rougher part of town. Toronto seems kinda rough in general (compared to Victoria) so I didn't really understand the aesthetic of 'rough' in Toronto.  In this 'rough' neighborhood, I actually felt really safe and welcome. I'm kinda hard to miss: I'm around 5 ft 10 plus I'm usually wearing 1.5-2 inch heels. I was wearing a huge scarf. 

I had random conversation with a black woman on the street and a man at the bus top. I had a really good conversation with the owner of the corner store on Wellesley & Parliament as I tried to figure out TTC tokens. For dinner, I grabbed takeout at this wonderful Caribbean restaurant called Under the Table. Jasmine rice, curried lentils, gravy, and friend chicken. Yum yum yum. The vibe in that restaurant was so great. The staff were so friendly and chatted me up while I waited for my food.  

The next day, I had a really good lunch and dinner hangout with K and my other friend K. Lunch with K was wonderful. She is a very warm, gorgeous, intelligent, Zambian woman with a huge heart. I've known her from our days living in UVic Residence Halls. We met up close to U of T, which gave me a glimpse of the campus for the first time ever. We talked a lot about Africa and the diaspora., and the concept of home, and what it feels like to live in the diaspora. I love talking about home with black folks who have lived in a few places in their lifetime. Home for us is a complicated word. 

Dinner with K was hilarious as usual. K is one of my best friends whom I met a few years in class. I'd call him smart, ambitious, and motivated. We have similar personalities in many ways, and he definitely gets what it's like to be a young black person navigating life after university in Victoria (and most recently Toronto). I hadn't seen him in a while so we grabbed amazing Mexican food and chatted about life #thestruggleisreal

Community: people who understand your struggle, and will be there for you no matter what

A trip to Toronto doesn't feel complete without vintage shopping on Queen St W - Black Market & Tribal Rhythm. They are two of my favorite stores in the city and it felt so good to go back over a year later to find out that they were still as special as ever. 

Twists in Leslieville
I've spent a lot of my time in C's neigborhood. C's friend, A, is a hairstylist and I asked her to do some twists for me since that's a hairstyle I'd never rocked before. A showed up at Cs place with her friend R. This is such an African thing to do. Back home, most people don't call, you just show up haha. These 3 ladies are hilarious together. A is from Ghana and R is from Botswana. A started twisting my hair just before lunch was ready. There are lots of writings about black hair and why the experience of sitting for 5-12 hours with a group of women while your hair is getting done is such a wonderful bonding experience. All 3 ladies are old enough to be my mom, and have grown kids of their own. A's hands on my hair were so soothing. We watched cable TV together and their immigrant commentary was hilarious. Everything from Daytime Court Shows, and Trash TV (Maury, Steve Wilcos, and Jerry Springer). 

C decided to get day drunk as she cooked. I ate so much throughout the day. I had fish sauce with rice for lunch. Dinner was a cooking experienment between R and C which turned out so delicious - rice, concotion stew, and fried chicken. So freaking good.

The thing about community is that the food doesn't just nourish your body, it really feeds your soul too. This is something ipocs truly understand. Food is community. As the host, it's your responsibility to make food happen. Things like "I'm coming" when C was bringing the food to the table, or "I'm done, thank you" when each person finished their meal and headed to the kitchen. The constant teasing about A's huge appetite. And the chants "everyone on the table must finish their meal" because I take forever to eat. All these things reminded me of my childhood. 

The conversations about home. Kids and family came up a lot. Phone conversations happened in multiple languages. I ate and listened as they talked about racism without calling it racism: "some of these people don't like us". They talked about sexism: "men hold a grudge against us women". They talked about the complexities of healthcare as recent immigrants to Toronto. We talked about family and mortality. We talked about money. The $10 piece of fish that tastes so good but was so expensive. The $4 jar of peanut butter they wished they could splurge on for peanut sauce. How much fun they had the previous night at their expensive outing to the Mandarin to celebrate R's birthday. It was so special they were gonna do it again during Christmas. They talked about being lonely in Toronto, and how living in neighborhoods with lots of car and pedestrian traffic made them feel less lonely because it reminded them that there were people around. They didn't think they would ever visit Victoria because it was so expensive although they were curiious about what it looked like. We talked about the Women's Shelter where they met each other. The shelter came up a lot.  

Hearing about their experiences in the shelter reaffirmed my dedication to spending the rest of my life advocating for women/fem identified folks, specifically immigrants. I've also decided to volunteer at the women's shelter in Victoria. 

It made me happy to see how people with little give so much. I was fed so well, and treated like family. I really felt like these were my people. My Toronto family.

I left the 3 musketeers to hangout with my friend J. I hadn't seen her in over a year. I was excited to hear about her job with a brand name firm. We ended up talking about career woes, being a working black woman, and dating! haha. It was so nice seeing my friend become this professional person, such a contrast from when I met her as a grad student in UVic. 

Black men
Finally, a serious shot out to the Black men in Toronto, reppin on and off Tinder. So. Many. Men. So. Many. Black. Men. So. Many. Pocs. Everywhere. You know it's good, when within w few minutes of chatting, you're already talking about anti-black racism. Yes. 

I find that the black men in Toronto seemed more interesting and so much more confident and open to striking up conversation. Plus, fashion game so strong. I'm not really into the laid back West Coast dude aesthetic so Toronto is so refreshing! And it was nice to know that there is a multitude of black folks making moves in the city and winning in life. Very inspiring.

I have felt so much love the past few days in Toronto! My heart is smiling :) 


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