Putting the Half-Stories Back Together Again with Djamil Ninsoo
Written by Felicia Gopi
Sunday October 1, 2023
Djamil Ninsoo, known on Instagram as @douglabwoy_ found himself holding back tears on a visit to the Jamaica Archives and Records Department in Spanish Town, Jamaica.
“I had to stop myself from crying because I didn’t want my tears to mess up the paper.”
It was an emotional moment, one where Djamil, a cultural activist, author, historian and anthropologist, had been searching for in some way. The archives are a place where visitors can find historical artifacts like agreement forms signed by indentured workers, names of those on the immigration passes, thumbprints, and details like the year and the ship their ancestors came on.
Nine years ago, Djamil embarked on a journey to create a family tree to fill in the gaps and reconnect his family starting with his second-great grandfather who came to Jamaica from India. Using a free website to create his family tree he began by filling in the names and birth dates of his parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins. When he found that he had run out of information, that’s when his adventure as a young anthropologist would really begin.
Through conversations with his mom about her uncles, cousins and their children Djamil was able to find out more about his family’s history. Soon he would find himself at the centre of his family, the youngest grandchild on his grandmother’s side and the ultimate point person known for connecting the dots.
“I remember growing up and always hearing ‘your great-grandmother was from India’ and I’d look at my family and be like, ‘there’s no way we were from India’”. Although Djamil had a strong connection to his Jamaican identity he said it took him some time before he was able to make the connection to also being of Indian descent.
He couldn't believe that his great-grandmother, whose name was Alice Nelson, was from India. Noting that her last name had an interesting story behind it, one that quite clearly illustrates the colonialism and history of indentureship in the Caribbean.
“For me it was just getting this deeper understanding of what my identity was, and the different parts that made it up.” Djamil has spent nearly a decade researching his family history and when it came to uncovering his Indian side, it was important for him to do that through a Jamaican lens.
Unearthing historical records and putting the pieces together is not a very easy task. It’s a labour of love that often involves solving mysteries especially where record-keeping may have fallen short. He found that marriage certificates did not list the names of the mothers of their brides and grooms - only the fathers, conversely, birth certificates only listed the father some of the time. This made piecing together his research more challenging and interesting at the same time.
“When I am in Jamaica, I try to go everywhere and see everything.”
Djamil makes it a priority to attend events like weddings and funerals where he says their programs can provide him with vital information. When he can’t attend in person, being that he is based out of the U.S., Djamil relies on people bringing him back photos or programs that can help him get a better idea of who was there and how they are all connected.
One of Djamil’s most interesting findings is the history and development of his surname Ninsoo.
“Shout out to Vinay at [Cutlass Magazine] for what he’s doing with translating surnames so that people will have a deeper understanding of what their names mean.”
Our names are an important part of our identities and they tie us to the crucial moments in history that have a generational impact on our lives today. Djamil echoes this sentiment when he explains that Ninsoo was his second-great grandfather’s first name that then became the last name for his future generations. Of course he describes, like with many families in the diaspora, that their name spans across many family members now, with a few different spellings and variations. A large portion of his family now goes by the anglicized, ‘Nelson’.
Beyond the development of their family name, Djamil was particularly intrigued by connecting more with the Indo-Jamaican part of his culture. He tells a story of being introduced to some relatives in Jamaica where he visited a family home with a small set of graves in the backyard. Those graves belonged to Djamil’s great-grandmother’s brother, his wife and some of his children.
“We sat out there having this conversation about family, and one of them just comes out and gives me a plate of curry chicken and roti, and, in that moment I was like ‘yeah you can’t go to a Ninsoo or Nelson family anything and not get roti.’”
He laughed to himself as he recalled that earlier in the year he penned Do Jamaicans Dream of Dhal Puri? for Story, a short article that depicts roti as the connecting thread across his family taking them back to their Indian roots.
“Here we are at the feet of my great uncle with his children and grandchildren, and you could have given me juice, you could have given me jerk chicken, but for it to have been curry chicken and roti, it was this very beautiful thing.”
“Some of the most interesting things that I’ve found are just how much Indian culture has resonated within my family, whether it be our names, whether it be religious practices, whether it be certain traditions…” Djamil is dedicated to uncovering more about the Indo-Jamaican experience through his research and finds that sharing his findings is the most rewarding part of the entire experience.
During his visit to Jamaica, Djamil saw, for the first time, a photo of one his NaniJi’s brothers. It was the only one of her brothers he had never seen so much as a photo of prior, so the moment was incredibly special. “It’s the last piece of the puzzle, because I look at it now, now I have all of these children of my great-grandmother and I can really see the resemblances in all of them.”
Djamil says that seeing these photos of relatives and noting their resemblances, whether they be parents, grandparents or even uncles or great-aunts provide him and his extended family members with a comfort and connection they may not have even realized they had been missing. He’s heard stories from his grandmother of cousins or uncles, who she had lost touch with before they passed away, without knowing much about what had really happened to them along the way. “My NaniJi would come to me with these half-stories of remembering a cousin, or remembering an uncle, but not knowing what happened, but then [we’re] able to find the answer to that question.”
“To me, as someone who knows all of his first cousins, and when I visit Jamaica, I visit my first cousins, I couldn’t fathom this idea of not seeing or not knowing where your family is or was.”
This really made him want to piece it together for her and for his family.
“I remember when I met my NaniJi’s cousin this last trip [to Jamaica], and he was saying ‘do you know how long it’s been since I’ve seen her?’ and I said ‘it has to have been quite a while, because the last time she saw you she was in her 20s.’ you know, my grandma is in her 80s now, so it’s been a minute.”
Being able to make these connections and reunite with family has made Djamil the go-to-guy in his family and that is something he’s quite proud of. He smiles, “Knowing that when my relatives have a question about family, the default is like, ‘someone text Djamil’ or ‘someone call Djamil’.”
“In an almost poetic way, it kinda flips the stereotype on its head, where you think to learn the family history you have to go to the oldest person in the family - I’m the youngest grandchild.”
Among the younger generation Djamil also finds himself story-telling and sharing information with his cousins about their own grandparents and the likes. Sometimes he knows a lot about their grandparents or parents, at times, more than they might know themselves. When he is able to share that, it brings them closer together.
Djamil plans to share a decade of family history in a few ways. For one, he’s already written a children’s book about his grandmother, Eva, My Nani-Ji. “That book covers the first 20 years of her life, it’s these different vignettes of stories that she’s told me over the course of time.” He also wants to write another book that covers the story of his second-great-grandfather who came from India to Jamaica. “As someone who loves anthropology and history, I just want to show that aspect of the Jamaican diaspora and Jamaican history.” He continues, “also as a way of documenting the story of overcoming, and what that looks like for my family specifically.”
Djamil’s books, his stories and his findings will be a gift to his family and folks around the Caribbean who are searching for meaning in our collective histories. For Djamil, the benefits are simple.
“Honestly for me, it’s this beautiful feeling of being able to reconnect my family, to put those half-stories together, because even some of them have these half-stories, and you’re able to see how they go together.”
About the Author
Felicia is the editor in chief of Story, a newsletter by the Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association. She also works in digital marketing with a background in beauty and fashion. She began volunteering with the Indo-Caribbean Association to contribute directly to her community and to learn from other like-minded individuals.
For more information visit feliciagopi.ca
Story is an Indo-Caribbean newsletter designed to bring Canadian Caribbean culture to the forefront. Explore Indo-Caribbean news, identity, and culture online.