Turning to the Past to Envision a Different Future: Family Accountability in Eliaichi Kimaro’s “A Lot Like You”
So I think there is a responsibility, in a sense, to adapt. Not to adapt in a self-sacrificing way or in a foolish way of ignoring completely that you have an identity. But recognizing that even within yourself, the children that you have, the grandchildren that you have … they have a different expectation, they have a different value system, and so think not only in terms of I’m going to do a thing the way my grandfather did it, or going to sing the way my grandfather sang. But maybe also sing knowing that there is this person I have to sing to.
When I saw Eliaichi Kimaro’s documentary A Lot Like You premier at the Seattle International Film Festival this year, one of my first responses to this moving and complex film was to recognize it as a model for a personal and family accountability process. Having just finished reviewing The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities for Bitch magazine, I was interested in seeing more concrete examples of community accountability, which Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha define as “any strategy to address violence, abuse or harm that creates safety, justice, reparations, and healing without relying on police, prisons, childhood protective services, or any other state systems.” A Lot Like You brings to life the complicated, messy, beautiful, and liberatory process of addressing harm and seeking healing within a family context.
To discuss the process of creating her film, I sought out Kimaro, a Seattle filmmaker and activist, and was excited to learn that she too sees her film as capturing the beginning of a family accountability process. The film was originally titled Worlds Apart, and its change to A Lot Like You reflects the journey that Kimaro embarked upon while creating this documentary about her relationship to her father’s side of the family—the Chagga tribe in Tanzania who live on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The first cut of the film emphasized the cultural differences of her family that “spans many different bridges, continents, and worlds,” but the final version emphasizes Kimaro’s discovery of her connection with her Chagga relatives.
After growing up in Tanzania, her father Sadikiel Kimaro earned a scholarship to pursue his Ph.D. in economics in the United States where he met his wife, Young, a student from Korea. He spent the next forty years or so working for the IMF, while his wife worked at the World Bank, and they raised Eliaichi and her brother in a suburb of Washington, DC. After her parents retired to Tanzania, Eliaichi and her partner Tom decided to join them with the intention of filming for nine months, partly because the filmmaker feels only a “hazy connection” to her Tanzanian family in spite of having spent every other summer there as a kid.
Setting out to portray “culture” in Tanzania, they interview members of Kimaro’s family and film different aspects of Chagga life, but often bump into cultural disconnect and miscommunication. In the film’s voiceover narration, Kimaro describes how “everyone around us performed their version of Chagga culture, one they thought I, as a tourist, wanted to see.” The first cut of the film was focused on the filmmaker’s father’s story, but included interviews with her two aunts who describe, in brutal detail, how their marriage rituals involved violence. Her aunts did not know that Kimaro herself was also a survivor of sexual abuse.
When Kimaro and her partner screened Worlds Apart to a Seattle test audience in September 2009, they thought they were just about done with the film they’d been working on for the past seven years. They focused on perfecting details such as the film’s soundtrack and subtitles, yet Kimaro describes “feeling nothing” when she watched the screening. A local filmmaker took her aside and told her that she had made a “nice” film, but if she didn’t step toward her aunts’ stories, then she was doing them a disservice and being complicit in the silence that had kept them quiet about their experiences for most of their lives. He suggested that she ask her parents if they knew how her aunts got married.
The next day, Eliaichi sat down to interview her parents before they flew back to Tanzania. Afterward, she realized that her story could no longer center on her father: “I am Chagga because of him, but my understanding of what it means to be Chagga can get only so far by following his path, and then there’s a fork where his path goes one way, and mine goes the other.” Facing up to male dominance in Chagga culture, Kimaro described “getting real” with what it meant to have Chagga women’s history as part of her history. Although she added only one scene to the film (the conversation with her parents), she rewrote the entire narration to center her own experience. Once she became the center for the film, the narrative revealed her surprising connection to Chagga women, and the changed title, A Lot Like You, reflects the new emphasis.
What begins Kimaro’s journey through her family’s cultural history is her desire to pass on a Chagga cultural inheritance to her daughter. But what deepens the story is her realization that she actually wants to shift the next generation’s stance toward family trauma by bringing it to light. Faced with the daunting task of representing her extended Chagga family, her parents, her own sexual abuse, and her aunt’s sexual abuse, Kimaro still manages not to reduce all of Chagga culture to this connecting thread in the film. In fact, one reason this film works as a model for doing accountability work is that Kimaro situates her personal family story within a social, historical, and political context of African decolonization, transnational relations, race, class, and gender politics. The result is a complex and beautiful film that brings the audience along with Kimaro to bear witness to some difficult truths.
Class Matters Among Family
One powerful way Kimaro turns toward the truth is by refusing to simplify the differences between her immediate and extended family. We first get the sense that there are tensions within her father’s family when Kimaro gathers the six siblings together at her father’s house. All the siblings except her father seem uncomfortable, and Kimaro discovers that they rarely get together on their own in spite of living within walking distance of one another. With some bitterness, her Aunt Awonyisa describes how she did just as well in school as Sadikiel, but was not allowed to pursue an education because she was a girl. Directing her comments at the filmmaker’s father, Awonyisa explains, “If God had helped me, I would have been the one to go overseas. And I would travel all over the place. And then you would come, and I would be the one to receive you.”
Sadikiel’s siblings, in their seventies and eighties, have lived in the same place their entire lives, and like all families, have complicated relationships with each other. They also have huge class and culture differences from Sadikiel. In the film Kimaro describes how her aunts, uncles, and neighbors would find her alone in the summer when she was a kid and ask her for money, while insisting that she not tell her parents. Sharing her memory of being on a ski lift with her father as a kid, Kimaro narrates how her father told her that the money they spent that day on skiing was more than his brothers would make in an entire year. As an economist, her father must have always been making that conversion between his life in the United States and his family’s life in Tanzania. While we see images of her parents enjoying their beautiful house and swimming pool they retired to in Tanzania, Kimaro asks, “I wonder if there is a cost to us from my parents’ hard-won success?”
What I appreciate about this question is that it captures both her nuclear family’s class privilege and something that is harder to pinpoint—the loss of culture and disconnection that can accompany class mobility. As Kimaro described to me:
Growing up with that degree of class difference in my family, I didn’t know where to go as a child to make sense of that. My cousins were living in mud huts assembled with cow dung and sticks and no running water or electricity. How do you explain that to folks at school who came back from very different family vacations?
She chose to talk to her peers about going on safari because it was something they could understand. Having that degree of poverty in her family has been shameful for Kimaro at the same time that having privilege has also been shameful. But she points out that the one directive she had with the film was “to sit with the messiness of all of it … to just sit with the messiness of race and class, of the migrant experience and my dad being the lucky one to leave, and what it means to be the beneficiary of that.”
I see this radical honesty and refusal to simplify things as a wonderful model for moving toward a complex understanding of class and family relationships. When we try to explain our family histories, we often find that words and concepts fall short. The activist language of anti-oppression work is helpful in naming privilege and oppression, but it doesn’t always describe some of the spaces in between, including what it means to “pass” from one identity to another with a simultaneous material gain and cultural loss. This sense of loss and the accompanying longing to feel connected to a culture is what propelled Kimaro to make this film.
Bearing Witness to Women’s Stories
In the film’s narration, Kimaro describes how hearing her aunt’s story of not being allowed to pursue an education at the family gathering made her recognize the need to interview the women on their own. While her aunts always seemed closed off to her, she found that when she approached them with curiosity, “they opened up and shared with me more than I was prepared to hear.” She juxtaposes her aunts’ stories of violent marriage rituals with images from her own wedding, where she incorporated a Chagga ritual of sharing beer between the two families. When she asked her Uncle Mkunde who attended her wedding if this ritual reminded him of his own wedding, he didn’t answer. In fact, as she narrates, all of the men remained “tight lipped and unclear about how they got married, but when I spoke with the women on their own … they remembered everything.”
Her aunts describe how men could do as they pleased with them once they were considered ready for marriage. “The situation was bad, my dear,” Aunt Awonyisa says. Her aunts and a family friend describe how if they struggled against the violence, the men would just gather a larger group to physically overpower them. Aunt Awonyisa describes how her brother colluded in helping a friend of his to rape her. Though she tried to run away after being raped, her brother and father returned her to her new husband. Both aunts describe having to be subservient and obedient to their husbands: “I would work for him; he would abuse me,” Aunt Ndereriosa describes, “and I’d be forced to return to him … and he would continue to abuse me.” The story that unfolds until this point holds only gentle surprises, but her aunt’s stories, whose trauma they embody with physical gestures, come as a shock.
Kimaro believes that her special relation to Chagga culture allowed her aunts to open up to her: “I was insider enough to have access to my aunts, but I was outsider enough not to know any better than to ask questions about how they got married.” Because her Swahili and Kichagga were not good enough for Kimaro to verbally support her aunts, she simply gave them the space to share their stories without interruption. They had no idea that she had been working as a domestic violence counselor over the past ten years. “I’d seen how bearing witness to someone’s suffering can transform their life just as it had for me,” Kimaro narrates in the film. “When I was seven,” she describes matter-of-factly, “I was raped repeatedly by someone who worked in our home. I kept this abuse to myself for many years, and the secret almost destroyed me.” Being able to tell her story allowed her to come to terms with her own feelings of rage, shame, and fear.
Just as we are asked to bear witness to her aunt’s stories along with Kimaro, we are also asked to bear witness to Kimaro’s story of child sexual abuse. At the festival screening, it was incredibly powerful to hear these stories in a packed movie theater because sexual abuse is rarely discussed in public without being sensationalized. When I shared this with her, Kimaro told me that she wished it had been her intention from the start to make this film. I find it amazing that she had the courage to follow the film down this incredibly personal path. She models a process of seeking out, highlighting, and listening to marginalized voices in a family accountability process, as well as a radical willingness to shift her understanding of her family narrative based on those voices.
Both aunts express their gratitude to Kimaro for asking them to share their stories. Aunt Ndereriosa says, “After speaking like this, I feel a burden has been lifted off my heart … I did not know how to unload it and start living.” She claims that God told her the day would come when she could share her story, and Aunt Awonyisa concurs that God was with them that day. While Kimaro doesn’t subscribe to the same notion of a Christian God, she also feels like a larger force was present that day. Her aunts looked like different people after telling their stories because “they gave voice to trauma they had been carrying for their entire lives.”
The Hardest Conversation: Family Accountability
When Kimaro asks her parents whether they knew about how her aunts got married, she finds out that her mom had no idea (until she saw the film), but her dad knew and says, “it was accepted.” He explains that these women’s stories do not indicate that they were assaulted or that they wished to involve the police or courts. It would be missing the point, he insists, to dramatize this aspect of the culture “because this is how the practice of marriage took place there. It wasn’t criminal activity. It wasn’t violence. But it’s a way of getting married.” Kimaro’s mom, on the other hand, argues that women in the Chagga culture were being doubly punished: first by being raped and then by their own families who refuse to let them return home after being raped. Her father responds that “it is fundamentally an ethnic thing, a cultural thing that should be understood in the cultural context.”
Kimaro describes this conversation as “possibly one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had with my parents.” Having convinced herself that her dad didn’t know about this practice, Kimaro was completely taken aback by his explanation. Watching the film, I was also shocked and disturbed by her father’s words. Having just seen the aunts describe their experiences in visceral detail, I didn’t understand how this seemingly sensitive man could possibly say her aunts’ assaults weren’t violent.
Grateful that her mom could be her voice, Kimaro didn’t know how to express her extreme emotions because she had never told her dad about her own abuse. Her mom, on the other hand, was able to disagree with her father in a way that was loving and respectful of her dad’s dignity, while calling out the limits of his purview. Her mom’s support made the conversation tolerable for Kimaro, but it was still incredibly painful. She was surprised that after having lived in the United States with his family for so many years, her father would still “have a hard time reaching for the fact that what happened to the women in his family was actually a legitimate harm that was violent and traumatic.”
When I told Kimaro that it was striking to me that her dad uses the police as a measure of harm, Kimaro explained how his comments made little sense because nobody on the mountain even has a phone, let alone a sense of whom to contact for help in a culture where this practice was normalized. Her dad displays his double perspective by saying it was an “ethnic thing” and then referring to the American criminal justice system to judge this practice. His defensiveness about Chagga culture may also result from having to carry the weight of representing his culture in the face of Western assumptions about how women are treated in Africa. He thought that his daughter was making a film to celebrate Chagga culture, and he couldn’t understand why she would focus on this one aspect. While Kimaro believes that the film captures the “beauty and brutality of Chagga culture,” she also recognizes that that it takes a turn after her aunts’ stories and points out that “you have to be in love with mom and dad, to be rooting for them, for the second half of the film to work.”
Kimaro has reached a place of “spaciousness and compassion” for her dad by recognizing it was most likely the first time he was asked to explain Chagga marriage practices to the last person with whom he wanted to have this conversation. During that conversation, Kimaro kept thinking that her father just didn’t look like himself. After talking with a friend who is an expert in trauma, she realized that she may have been seeing her dad regress to the age when he first learned about this practice as a child. She wonders, “If you know that is true about your sisters and how they got married and how your mother possibly got married, where do you have to go as a human to survive that?” How could her dad live with this knowledge, she wonders, and thrive in his life without losing himself in something to numb the pain?
Hearing Kimaro try to understand her father, I felt my own compassion kick in because it forced me to think about how trauma has affected him as well. While the main targets of this practice were women, the violence affected everyone in the family. Offering a model for doing accountability work, Kimaro puts the survivors’ stories at the center, while considering the effects of the trauma on everyone. Near the end of the film, Kimaro narrates “given the different roads we’ve traveled, we may never see eye to eye on his sister’s stories, but I love [my father].” Watching the film, when I heard the softness and complexity in her tone when she says “love,” I recognized the power of her stretching to hold on to this connection amid emotional disconnection.
Kimaro describes what her aunts demanded of her: they asked, “Now that we’ve shared our stories with you, what are you going to do about it?” Her response was to make this film and decide to tell her father about her own sexual abuse. While she did tell him about her abuse before he saw a copy of the film, they still haven’t had the full conversation because he is back in Tanzania, and she wants to have that conversation in person. She believes the film is forcing her family to have conversations that will only strengthen their bonds. While as viewers, we want to know how it turns out (after one screening, an audience member demanded of Kimaro “tell me how to feel about your father”), that conversation is still in progress, and the film does not offer any tidy resolution. What it does offer is a moment in time where Kimaro is confronting family trauma, while respecting the complexity and humanity of everyone in her family.
Intergenerational Trauma and the Future
In the film Kimaro says:
It’s horrifying to think that abuse this rampant, this brutal, could have been a part of my family’s history without me knowing it. But then maybe I did know because all the seemingly random life choices I made from the time I was seven were paving the way for me to sit down with my aunts in front of the camera twenty-five years later.
In person, she described how she always had a feeling of inevitability about her abuse, which made her realize that she needed to face this history in order not to pass it on to her own children.
The film ends with an image of her aunt holding the filmmaker’s daughter Lucy. According to Kimaro, this image had a lighter emotional weight in the first cut of the film: before they reframed and contextualized her aunts’ stories, it felt “sentimental and cloying.” This film’s evolution demonstrates that moving toward the painful and silenced parts of our histories allows us to envision a different future. Ending with that image, the film asks us to reflect on what is being passed on to the next generation. By making this film, Kimaro is giving her daughter the tools to develop a different relationship to her cultural inheritance.
The tagline for the film, “the truth has no borders” refers to the ripple effect that started after her aunts summoned Kimaro to rise to the occasion. She feared that if she focused on her experience as a queer-identified, mixed-race, first-generation Seattleite, the film would not speak to most people. But she discovered that the opposite was true. Once her personal narrative emerged, everyone involved in making the film, from the composer to the editor, delved into their own family histories and came to a deeper understanding of their identities. This ripple effect continues as the film moves out into the world and our collective consciousness; everyone who sees it has their own response to this truth telling. There’s something about the film that is bigger than any one of us.
“It is calling out the truth in all of us,” Kimaro says. “The story demands of us what my aunts had demanded of me. It compels us all forward.”