Passing for Desi: The Strange Case of Christopher Simpson
Irish Actor Christopher Simpson has made a name for himself staring a disaffected South Asian (Desi) young men in such British films as White Teeth (the adaptation of Zadie Smith’s novel) and most recently Brick Lane (the adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel). But he isn’t South Asian. He’s actually Black, and not in the British sense where Black means everyone who isn’t White, but Black in the sense of being of Sub-Saharan African descent.
Christopher Simpson was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1975. His full name is Christopher Crawford Gatsinzi Simpson. For someone who lives in Ottawa’s African community and so has grown familiar with various African last names Gatsinzi sets off alarm bells. Gatsinzi is a Rwandan name. The most internationally well-known Gatsinzi is Marcel Gatsinzi, an ethnic Hutu who is currently Rwanda’s Minister of Defense. Simpson is actually the son of an Irish father and a Rwandan-Greek mother.
When White Teeth was aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre, a viewer inquired about Christopher’s name as follows:
Dear Masterpiece Theatre,
Why does Christopher Simpson, who played the roles of both Millat and Magid, have a white name?
New York, NY
According to actor Christopher Simpson:
“My name is Christopher Crawford Gatsinzi Simpson. I was born in Dublin to a Rwandan Greek mother and an Irish father. I lived in Dublin until I was six when I moved to London, where I have been ever since. Imagine, if you will, the difficulty I have responding to the question ‘Where are you from?'”
What is a White name anyway?
It’s been impossible to find interviews where Simpson discusses his ethno-cultural background and how this relates to the fact that he has made a career portraying members of an ethno-cultural community he doesn’t belong to (If you know of any interviews like this, please let me know). However, in a 2006 interview with the Irish newspaper The Independent, I was able to learn more about Simpson’s parents. The following are excerpts from this rather amusingly frustrating interview with journalist Donal Lynch :
An innocuous question about what his father was doing in Rwanda when he met his mother is greeted with a theatrical look of horror. “I’m not that comfortable talking about all of that. You want my dad’s CV? You’ll have to ask him yourself. Does that make sense?”
I’m in the middle of trying to explain that it might be interesting for people to also learn a little bit about his background, but he’s still not sure. I don’t really care what his father does but, by now, I am truly intrigued.
I’ve hit upon something interesting. Was his father a gun-smuggler? An arms dealer? A millionaire playboy? Surely this veil of secrecy must be concealing something very exciting indeed.
“OK, he was training to be a teacher,” Chris, sorry Christopher, tells me with a withering look. I try to conceal my disappointment that his father is not James Bond. I can tell this is going to be like pulling teeth.
When I ask him whether he encountered racism while at school in England, he says: “I don’t think any country has a monopoly on racism. My recollection of school is lots of things and for sure, people will look to what is different,” and leaves it at that. I nearly leap for joy when he speaks about visiting Rwanda with his mother as a child, as this represents a quantum leap of frankness compared to the generalities he has been using up to now.
“It is a beautiful country,” he says. “Our mum gave us phrases in Rwandan so we could order things. We were on the hillside, by a brook. It was the first time I had avocado cut from a tree.”
He tells me he was “touched and saddened” by the massacres there.
Did he have relatives who died in the war?
“Inevitably if you have any relatives in Rwanda, you know of people who died.”
What age was his mother when he left Rwanda? He doesn’t know. It must have been difficult for her to cope, knowing the situation in her homeland?
“One has to live one’s life no matter how tragic the circumstances of it are.”
He tells me his mother has since died but doesn’t feel he wants to say how she died. He tosses his hair and stares out the window. More silence.
He has gleefully bored me back into talking about his career and waits out the final few minutes of the interview with a monologue on “the travesty of the colonial and imperial imperative to divide and rule”.
I personally would like to know how Simpson’s mother’s parents met. How many Rwandan Greek mixes could there possibly be?
That said, it doesn’t really surprise me that there were Greeks in Rwanda, there definitely were many in Burundi. I learned this while reading model Esther Kamatari’s memoir. Kamatari is a member of the Burundi Royal Family and Burundi’s Prince Louis Rwagasore was assassinated by a Greek National living in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura, in 1961. But why were there Greeks in Burundi? Here is blogger Douglas Muir historically-based explanation from the blog A Fistful of Euros:
History: the Greeks had been in Alexandria since forever. So, when the British came to build the Suez Canal and politely detach Egypt from the decaying Ottoman Empire, the Greeks were there to ease into place as translators, merchants, vendors and general facilitators to the new colonial overlords. And in the late 19th century, some of them followed the expanding British Empire across East Africa, down the Nile to Sudan and around the Horn of Africa to Kenya.
Now the 19th century British, being British, were of two minds about these Greeks. They were useful, but they were… well… Greek. Not quite the thing, you know.
But the Belgians — who ran the Congo and, after World War One, Rwanda and Burundi as well — were different. They were lazier than the British, and more corrupt, but they were less arrogant and much more willing to allow a hard-working Greek to make an honest franc as a factor, tax farmer, or overseer.
So in Rwanda and Burundi, the Greeks became junior partners to the Belgian colonial masters. In the interwar years, hundreds of them came from all over the Greek diaspora to settle here, trading in coffee and ivory and palm oil, taking jobs in the civil service. By World War Two there were a couple of thousand of them, and they were raising a second generation. They had their own district of the town. They built the big church, right in the middle of Bujumbura, just a little bit smaller than the Catholic cathedral that housed the Belgian bishop. They had settled down in a distant, quiet corner of the world and built a prosperous community. Things looked good.
Then: the long slow colonial withdrawal. Independence. Ethnic tension. A young government playing with the economy, experimenting with socialism, import substitution, export controls. Europeans pushed out of power, not only in politics, but in trade and business. A civil war in the 1970s; economic collapse. Dictatorship. The economy contracted to subsistence agriculture, coffee and tea exports. Another civil war in the 1990s; another collapse.
By the early 21st century most of the Greeks were gone. The community had shrunk from a couple of thousand to perhaps a hundred. Those who remained were second and third generation, and some of them were very prominent in the country’s business community — they owned export businesses, farms, urban land — and they’d managed, one way or another, to come to terms with successive Burundian governments. There aren’t enough to keep the community going much longer; their children are mostly going away to school, and not coming back. Another twenty or thirty years, and they’ll probably be just a memory, a very small footnote to colonial history.
But meanwhile there’s the Greek consulate. And the big Orthodox church, where the few remaining faithful can gather every Sunday morning. It’s closed the other six and a half days a week, but is still kept very clean.
So, most likely, one of Simpson’s grandparents was from Rwanda’s Greek communities.
Homing in on Simpson no job for amateurs by Donal Lynch (2006 interview available online)
The Greeks of Burundi by Douglas Muir (2008 blog post available online)