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Tracing Her Tanzanian Roots In 'A Lot Like You'

Aug 2, 2012
Originally published on August 3, 2012 10:48 am



You might wonder why a film about the Asian-American experience being featured in the Asian-American International Film Festival that kicked off in New York City last week features a lengthy journey to Tanzania and emotional conversations about issues like force marriage and the rights of women in Africa. That's because, as filmmaker Eliaichi Kimaro shows, the personal histories of many young people these day are not just multiracial and multiethnic, but global, but even then can leave them wondering where they fit in.


ELIAICHI KIMARO: I never felt like I truly belonged with either the Korean community or my African-American friends, and especially not with the Chagga side of my family. Every summer in Tanzania was a reminder that this kinship I bragged about to my American friends existed only in my imagination. My whole goal with this film was to try to understand the cultural roots of my blackness, and maybe, in the process, find that sense of belonging I fantasized about as a kid.

MARTIN: What Eliaichi Kimaro found is the subject of her award-winning documentary, "A Lot Like You." It's part of this year's Asian-American International Film Festival, which wraps up this weekend in New York City, and Eliaichi Kimaro joins us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

KIMARO: Thank you so much, Michel. It's so great to be here.

MARTIN: So just in case people kind of missed what it is that we're talking about, I'm afraid I do need you to recap your very interesting background.

KIMARO: So I am mixed-race, first-generation American. My mother's from Seoul, South Korea, and my dad is from Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, East Africa. And I grew up in the suburbs of D.C., in a very cosmopolitan upbringing. Yeah. I guess that's it.

MARTIN: Well, and your parents are both economists. Your dad worked for the IMF, your mom for the World Bank. You know, your dad was part of that generation of African intellectuals who came to the United States to study, you know, made a career here, married here and eventually went back.


MARTIN: So what made you want to make this film?

KIMARO: I felt the need to go searching on my dad's side, because I was raised with my mom's side of the family in the D.C. area. And what I knew about my Tanzanian side - I mean, I grew up going back there every other summer, but I wasn't really paying attention. I wasn't paying attention as much as I should have been.

And so when I started thinking about having kids, I realized, oh, my gosh. What am I going to tell them about what it means for them to be Chagga? I don't know. I don't have any stories or folklore or songs or dances. I don't understand this culture. I need to understand what it is that I'm going to be passing down, because I don't want that Chagga connection to die out with me.

MARTIN: And just to be clear, that Chagga is the name of your father's tribe in Tanzania.

KIMARO: Yes. That's right.

MARTIN: One of the things that you, you know, point out is that your dad was, you know, the chosen one. I mean, he was...

KIMARO: Right.

MARTIN: of the very few who mastered these very competitive examinations, which gave him the opportunity to have the kind of education he had. But then when your parents moved back to Tanzania, they decided to retire there. When you went back, it had to have been very different from what you'd imagined.

KIMARO: You know, in some ways it was, and in some ways it wasn't. There are some ways in which it feels like time has stood still. And so, you know, we would go and we would see women walking to sell their bananas and their coffee at the market the way they had when my grandmother was going to the market.

But then, you know, what we found when we got back there was that Chagga culture was on the verge of disappearing - at least the way I was thinking of culture. So I started a very earnest and slightly misdirected effort to try to capture and preserve Chagga culture on film, which as we see, kind of, in the film, it doesn't go very well, because I don't really get anything that's very authentic. And it wasn't until I actually sat down and started talking with my family and asking them about their stories, about what they remembered about growing up that I started to actually amass a picture of Chagga culture that actually resonated with me.

MARTIN: We're speaking with director Eliaichi Kimaro about her award-winning documentary, "A Lot Like You." It's being featured at the Asian-American International Film Festival, which is in New York this weekend.

You mentioned rites of passage. This is one of the more painful aspects of the film, I feel, if you don't mind my saying. We need to point out that some of the things that many people will have heard about and written about, about the way women are treated - including female genital mutilation, including, you know, not having a lot of rights to negotiate sexual relationships, even within marriage - are discussed.

KIMARO: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: And when you find out that this is part of the family life, you're not pleased, as you would imagine. And I just want to play a short clip from where you talked about this with your mom and your dad.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What kind of life is that? I mean, it's...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, yeah. Well...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's really horrendous when you look at it as individual human being with feelings, with aspirations. Maybe that girl might have had somebody she really liked, but the whole thing changed because - let's call it what it is - because of the rape.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think it is fundamentally an ethnic thing, a cultural thing that should be understood in the cultural context.

KIMARO: Sitting through that conversation, I wasn't prepared for what they said. I had actually convinced myself that dad didn't know anything about what had happened to the sisters, because I couldn't imagine how a person could know that and have that not sort of have you completely come apart at the seams, for knowing that this was most likely the reality of your sisters. And so I was really struggling in that moment, in that interview.

But there are several moments in the film where we see the characters - and, in this particular case, my mom and my dad - bump up against this moment where you need to make a choice about: What is it that we're going to share with our kids, about who they are and where they come from? And we're at that crossroads in that moment in that conversation, because I'm pretty sure that is the last conversation my dad wanted to have with me, let alone on camera. But you know, it just - he walked right into it and knew that that was going to be the question that I would ask.

And I'm so grateful for his honesty, because I think that it anchors the conversation that we have, even in this country, about gender violence and the war on women. And, you know, you have people who are defending both sides.

MARTIN: Is there any way in which working on this film changed how you see yourself?

KIMARO: It's released me from the secrets that I was carrying for myself. So, like, I share in the film my own experiences of abuse and how that sort of is a connection that I found with my aunts. And it's forced us to have conversations within our family about the choices that I've made in my life and who I am and who we are as a family and how we can continue to grow and support each other as a family.

And so this film has taught me the power of sharing my truth and what that can do to liberate me.

MARTIN: And I don't want our whole conversation about the film to be about abuse, which is one part of the film. I mean, there are some fascinating stories in the film, like particularly the circumstances under which your father came to leave Tanzania. But I was curious about the fact that, here you were, raised in, you know, an educated, middle-class household in D.C., and you talked about the fact that you were molested as a young girl.

KIMARO: Right.

MARTIN: And you didn't tell anybody.

KIMARO: Right.

MARTIN: And your aunts were abused as girls and women within the context of their family life in Tanzania, and they didn't talk about it, either.

KIMARO: It's the power of shame to keep us silent about things, the belief that somehow maybe we brought it on ourselves, just feeling like maybe, if we had tried harder, we could have changed our fate. I don't know.

I was seven when it happened, and so I was under a lot of misconceptions about what exactly I had control over and what I didn't. The reason I didn't tell my family, actually, was because I didn't want - I didn't think my dad would be able to handle it. I wanted to protect him from himself and what he might do if he found out. And so that was why I, personally, kept it to myself.

I can't really speak to my aunts. But I do know that there's a - you know, it's - socially, it's a taboo to talk about it, to bring it up. It's the power of family secrets, you know. And I think those secrets can impact and shape and filter the stories we pass down to the next generation if we're not careful.

MARTIN: What would you like people to draw from the film?

KIMARO: There's something that's very, very powerful and very primal about the desire to connect with people through story, which is why I love the title of our film, "A Lot Like You." I came to see a lot of myself in my aunts when I wasn't expecting to. I came to see a lot of myself in my dad in ways that were surprising to me.

And I think that my favorite slip of the tongue that people have when they talk about our film is they call it "A Lot Like Me." And I think that that is very telling for just the power of story to connect us as human beings, regardless of race or class or gender or ethnicity. So I think that would be what I would want people to take away, is just considering the power of story and what it would take to unpack your own truth.

MARTIN: Eliaichi Kimaro is the director of the award-winning documentary, "A Lot Like You." It's being featured at this year's Asian-American International Film Festival that wraps this weekend in New York City. Eliaichi Kimaro was kind enough to join us from NPR member station WBUR in Boston.

Eli, thank you so much for joining us.

KIMARO: Thank you, Michel. It's been a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.