On Mamas

I’ve had the privilege of being the daughter to multiple mothers. My birth mother, of course, who created me, raised me, and encouraged me to chase after my dreams…to leave no stone unturned so to speak. Who also raised 3 other children who are off doing incredible and amazing things as well. I’ve also met Mamas around the world who took me in as one of their own. No language barrier, difference in skin color, nor difference in culture could have prevented these lifelong bonds we created. 

My mother has been the biggest supporter of my travels and adventures, and for that, no day, flowers, nor cards, could express my gratitude. She always inspired me to “go confidently in the direction of my dreams” and to “live the life I have imagined.” I can still distinctly remember coming home during high school to the smell of banana bread–with chocolate chips, of course. Or the galavanting to furniture stores so we could redo my room. Or searching for our elderly pooch who tried to hide under the front porch to escape rain storms. And all of the college visits and note-taking. The home-sick college student turned into a world traveler that was never home for more than two weeks. My mother taught me, and continues to teach me, to work hard, smile, and relax. Mom, if you read this (which I know you will because you always have and always do 🙂 ), Happy Mothers Day–I’m grateful every day that I came from you. Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 3.51.46 PM.png

I also have Mamas in other parts of the world who have opened my eyes, encouraged me, and taught me to love the life presented to me. I immediately think of my host mother in Kenya, taking in this strange bandana-wearing college student who never really wore skirts before and couldn’t tie a khanga to save her life, but was so eager to learn about “Africa”. She was also a mother of twins, so I immediately connected. I remember when I experienced my first adjustment to new foods and could not stomach meals for a day after eating too much pilipili. I had the urge to vomit and to induce this vomiting, my host mother suggested we do jumping jacks and run laps around the small house in the foothills of Meru where all you can see is banana trees for miles and miles. Not only did I start to feel better, but I honestly could not believe this was happening; a woman who had known me for all of a few days took matters into her hands to make sure I was in tip top shape. 

Then, moving to Nairobi and meeting my third mama: the mother of 3 children, 2 of whom are also twins. This woman was fierce and hungry to make change for her community. I remember her discussing ideas of a future project, something she would love to accomplish in her lifetime. The same woman who took me in almost 3 years later when I showed up on her doorstep with a friend from Uganda, visiting Nairobi for the weekend. It was as I never left. My dreads were move developed (my initial visit was the inception of my dreadlocks phase), I was a bit more “educated” and my Swahili was horrible. On our last day in her home, we sat in the living room and prayed with her sisters. I know I could show up at her door tomorrow and have a place to stay and meal to eat. And of course, smiles would be shared by all. 

On to Uganda: even more Mamas. Mama Ali became my mentor for 8 months as I was her Nakato. We would sit on the veranda night after night either in silence or laughing when her husband dropped off the milk and sugar before passing onto wife number 2 or 3’s house for the evening. I dug in her garden and had multiple blisters that ended up callousing over after a few weeks. I slept next to her during a village burial outside under the neighbors trees. My hands became much tougher because of her and her chapati tutorials. Every morning at 6:30, we were around the fire spinning. She taught me to not be afraid of fire and to use my muscles to really churn the posho. She taught me that even if I was full, I could manage to find a pocket to squeeze extra food. She taught me tough love, but she also taught me family is everything. She made me appreciate the live I was given and continue to cherish each and every day. Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 3.48.19 PM

She introduced me to her sister, Mama Bonga. Mama Bonga lived in next district and in an even more rural area than Mama Ali. I spent a few weeks in this dusty place called Namiyangu where nothing but Lusoga was spoken and electricity could only be found in town. Similarly, I stayed by Mama Bonga’s side, watching her, trying to impress her, soaking up her warmth. I remember my final night under all those stars. We grabbed jerricans and started the circle of dancing. The neighbors came over and we hooted and hollered well into the night. I went to bed that night sleeping in my shoes

Moving to Dakar, I had no idea I would meet another mama who would impact my life as my other mamas have. I vividly remember arriving to Dakar and feeling totally out of place and lost as my French was somewhere buried in the attics of my brain. This feeling of confusion slowly disappeared as I grew closer to my host mother, Oumy. After meals, I stayed at the table to listen to her stories. I could understand, but it took me a while before I could respond coherently. I remember her son telling her to let me sleep, yet I could have stayed up all night listening to her. She brought me to her family’s home that overlooks the Corniche and the Atlantic almost every Sunday for big meals and “family time.” Sitting, listening, and enjoying every minute of it. Oumy, like my other mamas, opened my eyes to the world in front of me and pushed me to really make my life happen. She, too, managed to convince me to eat that one more bite, or a plate of fruit, or the lakh she would prepare each Thursday. She also taught me the importance of faith,  the importance of Islam in Senegalese society. She encouraged me to learn and practice my Wolof. Without a doubt, Oumy taught me that the strength of a woman is unmeasurable and I hope to one day be as strong as her. Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 3.41.21 PM

I could go on and on about the mothers–the incredibly beautiful women–who have taken care of me, who have guided me, who have inspired me, and whom I think of each and every day. To all of the mamas: thank you, asante sana, webale eno, merci beaucoup, jerejeff waay, on jaraama buy!

Advertisements

America and the Other: 2017 and the 3 Ps

2017, like any new year, is a year full of the unknown, the never-ending search for answers to questions that unravel each day we wake up and do what we were meant to do—live.

On January 20 2017, our lives as Americans, heck as world citizens, will change as one leader leaves while another man assumes power (I omit using the word leader because I do not feel that Donald Trump has what it takes to “lead”). A leader is someone who has the power to bring others up from the bottom and unite a people. Mr. Trump is more of a divide and conqueror type of guy.

As his inauguration approaches, my overwhelming fear is shadowed by hope. The same hope that reeked through Obama’s initial campaign. The same hope that Michelle Obama left us with; the same hope I experience every day in New York City schools. A hope that Mr. Trump is blind to given his immense power and privilege. And whiteness.

On most occasions, I find myself disgusted when I read the news. I ask: “This is the world we live in?” Then, I am reminded of the work that friends, colleagues, and even myself are doing to become a better informed citizenry.

So, in just a few days, we will have a government filled with men (and women) who do not look like us, come from the same background as us, blind to their own power and privilege and unaware of the concept of positionality.

In order to understand our new POTUS and the status quo of life in America version 2k17, one must begin to understand 3 key concepts:

  1. Power—What is it? How does it work? How do people (in this case, Americans) use and abuse power?
  2. Privilege—What does it mean to be privileged? Am I privileged?
  3. Positionality—How do I see the world based on where I’m standing and where I’m looking from?

For starters, power: power is the control you have (or someone else has) over something (or someone)…in its simplest forms. For instance, in the classroom, I have power over my students; I tell them what is acceptable, and what is not. In the school, the principal has power over me; she decides what works and what doesn’t work and if she needs something, I get it to her fast. In my own society, my parents have power over me, more of a filial piety power and respect, as of course, one must respect their elders. Power is not a static entity; it is always changing depending on who’s in the room, who’s doing the talking, and who’s ultimately benefiting. Obviously, power can be physical—like a drone strike on innocent civilians or a little black boy being shot by police.

Power is also visible verbally. Think of our new POTUS. His hateful rhetoric has done nothing but pitted races/genders/classes against each other. His words even had the capacity to ignite fear in my 7th grade students last year, wondering if they would be able to return to their American lives just because they come from Muslim families. Clearly, Mr. Trump has never studied religion, or the other for that matter, but I won’t turn this into another rant bashing on our new president.

When mentioning the other, I am discussing anyone who is not like me. As Michel Foucault discusses on his work studying power, power produces truth and truth produces discourse. This idea is the reason that Americans fear the othernot so much “we fear what we do not know” but we fear what we are told. In President Obama’s final speech, he stated: “To defend America is to defend the other. We weaken those ties as we define some of us as more American than others.”

Today, and as we should all know, your typical American cannot easily be defined. Human beings from across continents and oceans, have come to this country to make a new life, to fulfill the American Dream and said dream may look different depending on whose dream it is. To many citizens of other countries, America still symbolizes a land of hope and where dreams can come true…so long as you work hard (that’s the spirit of individualism, isn’t it?). Yet, we, white Americans, have a hard time accepting anyone who is not like us.

Power can also come in the form of money (thanks, Marx). Think about class: wherever you fall on the socio-economic ladder depends upon your income, n’est-ce pas? So, your income binds you to a place in society. According to Marx:

“Money, then, appears as this distorting power both against the individual and against the bonds of society, etc., which claim to be entities in themselves. It transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence, and intelligence into idiocy.”

Money makes people foolish, delirious. This is easily visible in our consumer culture: our minds are trained to want more because of our capitalist society. When we have something, we always want more of that thing. Or, when our neighbor has something, we want something better—that’s capitalism for you. Involve the power of advertisements and media messages and you have a pretty powerful reality. Yet in the end, all we have are a bunch of things.

Living in an individualistic society, we do have power in some aspect—how we speak, how we act, how we treat others. Think about your day-to-day activities, think about the words you speak, think about how you interact with loved ones or random people on the street. You are exercising some form of power in these situations, whether you realize it or not.

Once you can acknowledge the power you hold in certain circumstances, or even in your daily life, then you can pinpoint where your privilege comes from. Privilege is realizing the power you have given your identity. The easiest way I can breakdown privilege is to think about class differences. Take the 1%, who own 99% of the wealth in this country. Versus the 99% (aka the rest of us) who own 1% of the wealth. While the lower and middle classes are struggling to find government support for their families, which will be even more obsolete once Obamacare is taken off the docket, the upper classes are benefitting from government bailouts. Not everyone has the pleasure of working for a company that provides amazing health benefits—or health benefits at all—and actually benefit from government programs. Which, not to mention, isn’t the whole purpose of a government to provide for its citizens? All citizens? Not just rich white citizens. Sorry, rant over.

Privilege is even more obvious when thinking of race relations—historically and present day. Although the 1950s and 60s are long gone, the issues Americans face surrounding race are resonant in the every day lives of anyone who isn’t white. Race issues are so engrained in American society that it’s hard to imagine a time when we will all truly be equals. Our own Constitution was written by and for white men—we set ourselves up for this. If you’re still not sure racism exists, think about the prison pipeline and the correlation between young black males and who is boxed up. You can’t say that’s just by chance.

When we recognize our identities, we start to realize where our privilege stems from. With our individualism, we easily place fellow Americans in boxes depending on what they look like, believe, how much money they make, and whichever gender they assume. One’s power and privilege is also based on a combination of labels: white and rich, non-white and poor, white male and rich, white, female, and poor, non-white, male, young, etc.

If you still don’t think you carry any privilege, click here for further reading.

Through the combination of power and privilege, we have positionality. Positionality is how you see the world from a particular vantage point (i.e. your power and privilege). Think about the position you hold in society, in your workplace, in your families. This position influences how you think, how you speak, and how you interact with loved ones, friends, and even strangers. Our postionalities are also enriched by our experiences. Maybe you grew up in an affluent white household and only attended private schools (cough, Betsy DeVos, the new choice for Secretary of Education). This experience does not necessarily provide you with ample expertise in terms of the under-resourced public school experience. In today’s day and age, we need to realize our powers and privileges in order to truly make this country a country of hope and dreams.

More than ever, we, Americans, need to challenge ourselves to discover the other. Read black literature. Study a religion that is not your own. Sit with someone different at the lunch table, in the subway, on the bus. Identities are so rich! We can’t just think of individuals encompassing one identity, but as an ever-changing mixture of identities (see this infographic on the concept of intersectionality).

How can we use power to enact some sort of change for the good? Aside from our e-solidarity of changing Facebook profile pictures, or joining Facebook groups, we need to “show up” as a grey haired Obama told us. We can no longer get hung up on the hope rhetoric and other solidarity buzz words that we find all over social media. We truly do need to “lace up our shoes and do some organizing” (Obama). Although power can be divisive, realizing your own power to do good and enact change can create a better tomorrow, I’m sure of it. I immediately think of the thousands of women (and others) who will take part in various marches on January 20th; this is a prime example of how power can be productive and positive when used in the right way, like the power to organize. We must continue to “show up, dive in, and stay at it.” Our democracy needs not just citizens, but active citizens and we must continue to believe in our abilities to bring about change. And it all begins with acknowledging your own power, privilege, and positionality.

Performing Identities and Gratitude

As humans, we live lives that are a result of our own social constructions and performances. Think about it: How one might act around friends is different than how one might act around elder relatives (or, maybe not…to each is one’s own). In the simplest sense, we are all performers. We perform as wives, as husbands, as sisters, as brothers, as teachers, as any other professions. As Americans. As Americans who don’t truly feel American (whatever that label may mean these days). I would argue that there is not one typical American anymore…which is actually an idea that came out of my grandfather when I visited him over Thanksgiving. With so many peoples and cultures who call this country their home, we can’t truly pinpoint what the 21st century American may look or sound like. That’s what makes this country beautiful; it has so many shapes and sizes filling up our geographic landscape. That’s what makes America great.

Back to performing identities: Who we are is also attributed to the language we use. How we speak about others, about ourselves, and then how we take that language and think about how our lives are constructed based on the language we use. Being able to switch from French to English constantly always makes me feel like I’m performing various identities within a 24 hour cycle. Sometimes, it’s overwhelming. Sometimes, I’m searching for the word in English, but a French word comes out. Sometimes I’m in the middle of explaining something to my students and find myself speaking French to them. Yet, most of the time, it’s so exciting and fulfilling to be able to have these experiences just because of learning a new language. If you don’t speak something other than English, I highly recommend stretching your brain a bit. You won’t regret it.

Since being back stateside, I’ve developed a stronger sense of appreciating. I think this comes from my interaction with Ugandan friends and learning a bit of Lusoga. The word kusima means to appreciate. Dinners were always filled with sing-songy webales (thank yous) and appreciations. Although I lived at Mama Ali’s for 8 months, she taught me a lifetime’s worth of education and most importantly, she taught me the importance of taking life day-by-day. And to always appreciate. Even if your eldest brings home gallons of milk from work 2 hours away: always appreciate. Even if the muzungu decides to dig in the garden until her hands are blistered and sore: always appreciate.

I never truly digested my experience in Uganda as I switched gears to teaching English in Dakar over the course of a weekend. I remember staying at that fancy hotel during my orientation and not sure what to do with myself. Hot water. A bed that could fit 5 people (or more depending on the sleeping arrangements). And even air conditioning. I will never forget the sense of where-in-the-world-am-I that overtook my body for that first weekend.

The first month (maybe more) in a new environment is always a test for your identity. You either break it or make it, so they say. That first month in Dakar tested me mentally and emotionally. I was no longer in my comfort zone with my Ugandan family whom I had just started to get into the groove with and bloop I transplanted across the continent into a culture and language that had me totally lost. To the point where I walked everywhere in the beginning. I constantly questioned my new identity: An English Teacher who had never taught English before. And a “cultural ambassador” of a culture that felt so foreign to me. What in the world was I doing?

And then that’s where performing identities comes back into play. I devoted my time to dusting off the French in my brain attics and learning Wolof to better integrate myself. And eventually learning some Pulaar to better understand my to-be Guinean family. I created my own world because of the new languages and cultural norms I acquired and started to perform.

Although two years may not seem long to many folks, the amount of life I experienced in those two years—in those two countries, in those multiple cultures, in those multiple homes and in those multiple languages—felt like I had been outside of the US for even longer.

This holiday season, I can’t help but think extra hard about the people I met in Uganda and Senegal (and even my little pit stop to Kenya with my dear friend, Phoebe). I remember waking up to Christmas Day in Uganda with Dolly Parton on the radio singing one of her Christmas covers. And Thanksgiving in that big house in Dakar where I YouTubed Christmas music and did my best to make the most of a coastal holiday.

This year, I’m here. In the US. And still trying to figure out what that means. What my life looks like. What identity I’m now performing. And I’ve realized, among many things, how grateful I am for this life I’ve been given.

Amidst recent American political news and my own “where the heck is this country headed” thoughts, one thing remains certain: no election, no bigot, no Islamaphobic, no anyone-who’s-not-white-a-phobic discourse changes my love of this life and my devotion to be a part of some sort of social change, big or small.

I’m grateful for the fact that I have parents who support me in whatever country or adventure I’m on; I’m grateful for my siblings and our closeness no matter what our geographic proximity; I’m grateful for my grandparents who are always eager to hear stories and share some of their own; I’m grateful for the countless aunts and uncles who have watched me grow over the years and have showed their love for me in more ways than I can imagine.

And of course, I’m grateful for the people who have become family along the way; families who opened their doors to the dread-headed smiling girl who could barely speak a lick of their tongues (and who, now, finds any chance I can get to use those acquired languages and cultural norms in my own world here in New York); families who would open their doors to me if I were to just randomly show up.

And I’m grateful for the love I found in that tiny coastal city; the unexpected love that truly taught me (and teaches me daily) how to make the most of this life.

No matter what performance I may be living, no matter which language comes spewing out of my mouth, I will always remain grateful for these experiences…and the experiences to come!

Thoughts while moving: America, let’s talk about whiteness

Since returning to the US, I haven’t been able to gather my thoughts in order to produce some sort of post worth reading. I’ve been searching for new stories to tell, besides an inherent longing of returning to a place that tends to feel more like home than home itself. I’ve had all these ideas pop up—the socio-economic inequalities visible in this city; the picture-perfect examples of gentrification; the amount of immigrants (legal and illegal) seeking work—ideas while moving; though my new form of moving involves the underground and, sometimes, dysfunctional MTA of NYC. Yep, I made the move to a city I thought I’d never move to (or enjoy for that matter).

Yet, I’ve found a home in this city. I’ve found a city full of diversity, culture, life. I’ve been able to maneuver the different city speeds. Find folks who speak languages I understand (besides English). And I’ve been able to do this with my partner by my side as we both acknowledge the weirdness and strangeness of American life. Pretty lucky, I’d say.

Last night, I, along with countless other Americans, could not fall asleep as I continuously and over-anxiously checked the election map on Google. My housemate, pure confidence boasted: “She’ll win handily.” I wanted to believe him. I wanted to believe in the idea that hate would not win. I wanted to believe in a better America. I wanted anyone to win who was not Trump. The whole election itself, in my eyes, has been such an embarrassment and disappointment from the beginning. The amount of money poured in, the amount of hate-speech aired around the world, the lack of concern over our planet. But as I watched folks line up before 6am and then again around 6pm at the school near my apartment, some people even voting for the first time after gaining citizenship, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of happiness that people truly were getting out there to vote. Isn’t that a part of being an active citizen?

Then came 4:30 this morning and the inevitable results. It felt like a sharp pain to the chest. I told my husband, him not surprised either. We had talked of scenarios if the hate would triumph. How our life might be directly affected. How trying out this American thing might end up bringing us back to West Africa. And then we began our normal morning routine, as if our lives had not been changed at all. “The sun will rise in the morning,” a solemn Obama stated.

This morning as I write this post on my long commute to East New York, I can’t help but feel disappointed and not surprised. If you think about it, the election is proof of how successful a businessman Trump is—Americans were sold. Especially white Americans.

On the other hand, the results ultimately prove the overall disgust and dissatisfaction with American politics—and the dirty money/decision making involved. It was a way for Americans to take revenge. Who better to change that than someone who never studied politics, or history, or anything other than getting rich.

I can’t lie and tell you I’m not scared; I’m 100% scared. For my friends, for people I don’t even know, for my own life as I work through the immigration system and delve into my own belief system.

It was easy to wake up and feel sad and disappointed. And anger. And disgrace. And disgust. But to what end will those feelings serve? Reading disappointing Facebook posts make me want to join the bandwagon. Now, more than ever, and from my generation more than ever, is the time to act and let our voices be heard. What exactly that action may look like, I’m not quite sure yet. But I think it starts with a conversation. I think it starts within our own families and friend circles. A conversation about privilege and power. A conversation about whiteness. A conversation about race. We need to work on this very big ignorance problem that is facing our country. And was ever-so evident in the 2016 Presidential Election results.

To you, Mr. Trump: I hope you can unite us as you stated last night. However, you’ve done everything in your power to divide us, so it seems to me you have a lot to do in your first 100 days as President. You’ve “dug your own hole,” so to speak. You need to realize that whiteness is a thing and that your mentality toward the other is something to be ashamed of. You’ve spent the past year continuously dividing us and them—them being anyone who is not white. I keep thinking of my 7th grade students who, after a speech made by Trump declaring he would not allow Muslims into the country, showed up to class with so many questions: Will I be able to go back to America? What about my family?

You’ve invoked fear in people—the big bully. I walk around the elementary school where I work and see promises to stop bullying at our school and I wish you would do the same in the real world.

Your hateful rhetoric, whether you want to believe it or not, has impacted millions—and will continue to do so. How can you claim to Make America Great Again when the only greatness you bring involves your business-savvy skills (and even those are questionable). We, the citizens of the US, are not business pawns ready to be sold off. We have our own lives, our own cultures, our own belief systems.We want to live in a country where we don’t feel afraid to practice our religion, to believe what we want to believe, and to live our lives.

For any of you who decided to read and get this far, please educate one another on the power of whiteness and privilege. And power itself. We need to recognize that the typical American does not have a typical definition. Americans come in all shapes in sizes; black, white, red, yellow; Christian, Muslim, Hindi, Atheist; poor, rich, middle class.

And don’t forget the children who are growing up in this hate-speech era. Don’t sugar coat for them the realities of their lives. They, too, need to be aware of the injustices within the country that they call their birthplace. Teach them well. 

Part of me wonders if any of Trump’s ideas/policies would even be able to make it past the Senate. What will the next 4 years in the White House look like? How will America be perceived abroad? Will we now be a country laughed at and the butt of many jokes? As someone who just came back to the land of the free to devote myself to my own country, I can’t help but think I should leave again. But what would that do? I think of my time as a Fulbright and my role of promoting a better understanding of American culture abroad. What does that even look like in 2016-2017?

We need to have hope. With holidays around the corner, we need to bring our families together; we need to acknowledge the fact that our country is going to go through some transformations—whether we like them or not. But, we as Americans have one thing going for us: Our pride in individualism. Be your best American-self. Educate yourself about the peoples and cultures “different” from your own, but who also identify as American. We’re not all the same breed. Be critical of what the media presents to you. Take care of your family and friends. And those that have less than you.

In my final transfer, I felt a disappointed air in the train car. I couldn’t tell if it was because of the early morning commute or the events that have just hit our country. Probably more so the latter. As I sit here and prepare for a day of improving children’s lives in this under-resourced school/community, I listen to the little boy and girl playing school next to me. I try not to worry about the world they’re about to grow up in. I try to find it in me to really make this a good morning.

A glimpse of Guinea and spongy identities

Guinea: No ebola here

I never got around to really diving into my trip to Guinea. A few days before I left Dakar, new cases of Ebola were confirmed and some of my coworkers wondered if I would even make the trip. After an easy hour flight, I landed in the humid hot—and green—land of Guinea. Bocar met me at the airport…slipped a guard some Guinean francs to let him in and wait for me. In a matter of minutes, I met his two elder brothers. We squeezed into the car and made our way onto the busy streets of Conakry. I was sleepy, overly excited, and eager to peer out around me. The sight of trees on our descent made me so eager—and so happy to get out of the urban jungle of Dakar. That evening, I met the whole family, sat next to his mom, and wished I could say something other than the basic Pulaar greetings and Mi weltike buuy! I’m so happy.

We spent the days exploring, as Bocar had not seen his family in about 7 years…leaving Guinea in search of better, more stable work, as the beautiful resource rich country has money that’s virtually worthless and an international perception occupied with Ebola. I brought up the virus in the first car ride and immediately got the sense of it was not something to talk about regularly…that locals themselves feel it’s a big government conspiracy based on money…that they’ve never seen or heard of anyone with the virus in the capital city. Needless to say, I observed and kept my thoughts to myself (especially seeing huge signs relating to Ebola prevention…even hand washing stations outside of petrol stations). Guinea should not be synonymous with ebola. The popular artist, Black M, Guinean-born, but now a habitant of France, returned to his country to send a message to the world:

Je viens d’un endroit où on ne connait pas les dollars, y-yeah
J’ai vu qu’ils ont peur de moi comme si j’étais Ebola, y-yeah

Je suis á l’ouest.

 I come from a place where we do not know the “dollar”

I’ve seen people be afraid as if I were Ebola.

I am the West.

 IMG_7934

We traveled to another region, Kindia, in a cramped taxi that twisted and turned on the windiest road I have ever been on—more turns than some of the roads I’ve been on in California. We climbed and climbed and looking out the windows, you could see endless greenery. No wonder why so much fruit from Senegal comes from Guinea. After about 3 hours in the car, we hopped on motorcycles and road the red dusty roads to Bocar’s uncle’s house. I interacted with one cousin as we walked around the vast hilly land and fetched water at the local borehole. On our way back to the house, we carried so many mangoes—all of which Bocar managed to eat. That night, I ate my first mango stew—boiled mangoes (almost like sweet-potatoes) and a mango sauce. I’ve never tasted something so rich. After, they brought out rice. If I knew rice was coming, I probably wouldn’t have eaten so many mangoes.

IMG_7890

Back in Conakry, I spent the days with the women of the house—Maimouna and Sirbinta—as well as Bocar’s nieces (his older brother was blessed with 3 daughters). Luckily, it was their school holidays, so we spent every waking hour together. The sounds of Pulaar and Sousou filled the air, such sing-songy features to them, such wonderful sounds to wake up to and experience every day. I was immediately called tanté and taught how to make the traditional hauko putti dish—a fishy-rice dish made with cassava leaves. Eventually, I picked up some Pulaar words (yo soda kembo—go buy charcoa) as well as some joking insults thanks to hanging out with kids under 13 years old all day. One of the nieces, Mbuddi (also the name for money because when she was born, she was thought to bring a lot of luck to the family), was the most chaud out of all of the kids—stubborn, but confident and joyful. Bocar would find something to drum on or music to play as the three sisters would come together and dance. When I took out my notebook, they were eager to get their hands on it and teach me—and even practice their French. Bocar’s mother would leave around 6 am every morning to go to the market. You could tell it was a good day when she came back with a smile on her face—sometimes she would even dance. Her French is limited, so we used a lot of hand gestures—one of which I mistook for her going to the market, not praying.

 

And it was instant connection. His family opened their doors to me, a complete stranger, a stranger who doesn’t speak their language, and took me in as one of their own (not to mention fed me extremely well). My last day was filled with a few teary eyed faces and a too fast of a drop-off at the airport when I held on to Bocar’s mother’s hand and thanked her, thanked her so much.

This is what life is about, having these connections with people who don’t speak your language, who don’t come from your world, yet who stick out their hand for you. Hold tight to them.

IMG_8062

 

Humans as sponges

Sometimes I think about identities and how sponge-like they can be. I think about my own identity as an American living here in Dakar, yet I feel less American and more something-other-than-American. Of course, living with different peoples and cultures and speaking different languages, I feel like my identity sponge has shaped into something else—something I feel confident about, something that makes me me. I suppose that can be, theoretically, attributed to the ideas of flows and how by living in particular spaces, we assume particular characteristics from those spaces. I feel grateful to have had the opportunities that I’ve had and faithful that more will come my way, but I also feel more grateful to be on this planet and to be forming my own identity on a planet plentiful with identities.

I’m at a point in my life where I am constantly questioning my steps. Is this the road to take? Is this what it means to live? Am I doing this ‘life’ this right? Being in a place and trying to make it a ‘home’ teaches you a lot about yourself—about your values, your goals/dreams, your culture. You learn more about yourself through the lens of others than through your own lens. There are days when I question “who am I” and wonder, what does my culture value?

Sometime I wonder about giving more of the American life a chance. Go home, find a random job, live the “American dream.” Then I think about going to the USA, amidst the current political climate and painful noise coming out of pseudo-leaders’ mouths and find myself to be ever-so-proud to not live in the states and to not live the so called American dream. For some, I’m still pursuing some sort of adventure on this continent—or other exotic description of life in Africa. Of course, I’m in a hip international city that has everything a Westerner could want, but to most back home, Africa is still this exotic unknown land where everyone speaks a different language. And of course, it’s not a continent but a country.

Sometimes, you can fall into so many social media/societal traps. “Your identity is this so you must do this.” As if life is a syllabus and you have to follow the correct steps. Logging onto Facebook, you see proof that people are in love, going to prestigious grad schools, getting married/having babies, or some other momentous event. If it’s not on the interwebs, it’s not official.

And of course, it’s easy to see all of this, to procrastinate and log onto Facebook or Instagram and see what the rest of your “world” is up to and feel like Hmmm, am I doing this life thing right? Then you throw in Linked In and find out what your college friends are doing with their career lives, not sure whether to be proud, jealous, or mad at yourself for not being so accomplished. It’s easy to doubt, to décourager, and question where one is in life while comparing oneself to others. But at the end of the day, and thanks to your own privilege and power, you (in most instances) have the power to decide and carve out which path you want to make. Ignore what others say or think. It’s your life. Make it how you want. Write your own story. Make mistakes, do things your not sure about, and LIVE. Stop thinking so much. Enjoy the solitude, enjoy the craziness. Exist. I remember my senior year astronomy class where, every class, the professor started out with a Thich Nhat Han mantra:

Breathing in I calm myself

Breathing out I smile

Living in the present moment

This is a wonderful moment.

 Yet, we all have our own adventures, we all have our own stories that we’re making…the pages unfold each and every day where we, as humans, try to make sense of one another, of this world, and how we can make different lives come together. And our stories continue. There’s no piece of paper, no visa, no official document that can give you life’s stamp of approval. The point is to live, and to live everything (as the great Rilke put forth).

And that’s one of the reasons I’ve pursued studying Pulaar in my free time. West Africa (and according to some people, Africa in general) is home to the greatest number of Pulaar speaking peoples—with different variations/dialects. By studying a language, another language at that, I’m finding new ways to connect with people. Isn’t that the point of life? To make the most of our human connections and interactions?

Now how can I transfer these ideas in the classroom? I think about my Performance of Living class, probably the class that opened my eyes the widest of my four years at SLU—given the fact that I took it my senior year amidst a mixture of questioning and decision-making. It was centered around the philosophy that the classroom should not be a closed off box—that what we learn in the real world can teach us more than an hour lecture…and that life and experience is more than just grades on a 4 point scale. We, as humans, need to take our experiences and live them, and then learn from them.

I’m surrounded by youth under 18 years old for close to 50 hours a week. I observe them in the classroom, during lunch break, and even on the basketball court/soccer field. I remember being their age, and I remember the stress of school combined with the desire to work hard. I see that in some students now, and in others, I see students waiting for someone to do it for them. Just waiting for life to happen…not realizing that life happens. I’m learning so much each and every day—about myself, about my students, about my environment. This whole year has been one of the most challenging years of my life, mentally and physically. I suppose that’s what every “newbie” teacher says about their first year in the classroom…and it’s taught me to keep on keeping on. Keep climbing.

I had a conversation with an American student who is doing an exchange program here. He’s one of the 12th graders in my AP English class. He has about a month left of his experience and I have had the wonderful opportunity of watching him struggle and grow over the past 10 months. The first few months, he was adjusting to living with younger siblings (he’s an only child). Adjusting to the noise, the busy-ness, coupled with adjusting to a new culture and language. Now, he consistently asks questions, he is critical of his own culture, and he tries to soak up his interactions from students that have lived in more countries than he has traveled to. A few days before taking the AP English Language and Composition exam, he was putting in a lot of time and effort writing practice essays and prepping himself. As much as I, his teacher, want him to do well on his AP exam, I want even more for him to soak up this experience that he has right now—this experience is worth more than a 4 or a 5 on a silly AP test. At the end of our last class, the day before the exam, I told him: Focus more on your time here in Senegal. That’s what you will remember more than staying up late studying for an AP test.

Indeed, the past two/three weeks have been a bit of a zoo in terms of prepping students for AP exams and end of semester exams. Students are trying to balance so much and yet teacher’s are focusing so much on the looming exams—myself included. Some days, I get caught up in that teach-for-the-test mentality…AP exam scores can help students get into good universities, they can help them develop work ethics, they can save their parents money. Then I catch myself and think: That’s not what schools should do. School, education, is supposed to open doors that may seem closed, present students, present youth, with ideas they might not normally be seen on TV, social media, etc. And most importantly, school is meant to open their eyes and allow them to question their surroundings, to question their worlds—a very Western way of thinking. My first year of becoming “Ms. Allison” has consisted of such trying moments in determining my own teaching philosophy: How to get students to live by learning or vice versa, to learn by living.

 

I walked down the steps of the big house with the little cat and peered out the tiny window that looks over the neighbor’s small space. The young girl, the one who will run with me only to her mom’s fruit stand before she stops while I continue, maybe about 12 years old, looked as though she was playing a game by herself. I take a big breath, think about how she should probably be at school, think  well, her teachers are probably striking, sigh, and make my way out the door. Another day awaits.

 

 

Winter and the Other

Winter in Dakar. A few weeks late, but it’s here. A windy and chilly March. Every morning as I wait for the bus, I can’t help but crave a big cup of hot chocolate. And wool socks. And even a warm fire.

Soon enough, the sweatfest will begin again. Must enjoy feeling cold.

There are some days that seem to drag on and then somehow, I look at the calendar and it’s already Friday. It’s already mid-March. Easter break is approaching, a trip planned to Guinea is on the horizon, and the school year will be winding down. Comme d’habitude, there are more questions in my head than answers pertaining to What’s next as I slowly find ways to cope with all of the “unknown.”

I’ve been on a Beyonce and French hip hop kick for the past few months now. Youssoupha has become my favorite artist and my newly acquired Wu Tang sweatshirt doesn’t leave my side (shout out to Method Man). Amidst constant daily reflection, I’ve realized one thing (among others): Identities are not fixed—they go through some sort of osmosis where characteristics/practices/norms are easily absorbed given particular contexts. And these identities that we absorb or reflect categorize us into us and them into them…creating the inevitable sense of the other.

One of my professors posted this article from the Guardian dealing with something I’ve been trying to grapple with ever since returning back to Dakar: the idea of helping others you don’t necessarily identify with given your privilege. Of course, the idea of helping is itself, something that I’m constantly trying to figure out as it deals so much with power and oppression. The writer poses: “After starting out wanting to reduce poverty, aid workers often find themselves living a lifestyle unimaginable back home. Does this cause more harm than good?”

To many locals here in Dakar, Americans are viewed as privileged expats. Hence, we [am I an expat? labels labels and more labels] pay more for taxis, groceries, etc. The Toubab price. Similar to the Mzungu price. In Uganda, my skin color and nationality identified me as someone more prestigious and someone with deeper pockets. Here in Dakar, almost every morning when I head to the bus stop (and really anytime I head to any bus stop), I can count the number of taxis who beep looking for a customer. Meanwhile, taking the public buses is about 1/10th of taxi fare to the same place (I can pay 125/150 CFA on the bus to get from where I live to school while a taxi ride is between 1500-2000 CFA—of course I’m going to take the bus). The students at school laugh when I tell them I take public transportation as they wait for their chauffeurs to come.

Of course, and as I’ve written about multiple times, we must be able to acknowledge where we stand on the privilege spectrum as we all have some sort of privilege based on race, class, and gender. From working with an NGO in rural Uganda, my “humanitarian work” put me in the general category of mzungus (wazungu, in Lusoga) who not only help, but who are considered to be of the upper class—thus joining the other Americans/Europeans who are turned into a little aristocracy and who are believed to have a wider set of knowledge—if it comes out of my mouth, it’s 100% more important. Growing up in a middle to lower class family, I never expected to join any aristocracy and obviously, was intrigued to feel like I had some sort of economic freedom for the first time in my life.

The article is critical of this culture—of aid workers who sometimes have more money in their pockets during the day than locals do in a month, who have house help get their vegetables and groceries for them and who end up becoming the privileged 1%. This brings into question how well, truly how well, these outsiders connect/relate to the population who is the subject of their work. And of course, this gap between the target population and those doing the helping/researching/etc only exacerbates the acknowledgement of the other.

So, how do we get around this? Can we avoid other-ing? With inequality and its various forms, I’m not quite convinced we can overcome categorizing individuals, but we can recognize the injustices that are institutionalized and normalized in our societies. Recently, I discussed with a security guard how here, in Senegal, people can go to school, receive degrees, and then work for a paycheck that is literally next to nothing. Mr. Ba, the man I was talking to, told me how he hasn’t seen his wife and newborn child in close to 5 months as he is here working in Dakar while his wife is back in their village. He was in the Senegalese military and for the past two years, has been posted as a security guard making a very slim salary.

On the other hand, you have individuals who did not finish their schooling due to the cost of education and roles within a family. A close friend had to stop his schooling during his teenage years after the passing of his father; as the only boy at home (his older brothers had already left and started working), he had bigger obligations than going to school such as helping out his mother and younger siblings. Eventually, he left his country in search of a better life and means to help his widowed mother. Now, each month, he makes about 100,000 (and that’s if he gets paid regularly as he’s gone 2 months waiting to be paid) and sends a chunk of his paycheck back to his mother. There isn’t really any ladder available for climbing.

Meanwhile, expat populations live quite comfortably as étrangers in a place that is not really their home, but their post with a probable end date in sight. They/we create this imaginary geography based on individual values, needs, and wants in a place that is foreign/exotic/different/other term denoting “otherness”. And on the flipside, we too are viewed as the other—the people who eat too much, eat too early, eat without sharing, want things when we ask for them, ask for things without greeting, and show up 10 minutes early not 1 hour later.

And of course, I constantly ask myself, Where do I fall on this spectrum? I teach, a form of “helping”, I’m an American, and I live quite comfortably. I think about living at Mama Ali’s and how I did as the locals, performing that identity for the 8 months I lived in Kyabirwa—as Nakato Allison, not just Allison. In hindsight, it was merely a short-term experience, that I could just get back on a plane and head back to the USA and live my American life. But that wasn’t my intention at the time. My intention was to discover life and understand others as best as I could, knowing that my positionality, my power, and my privilege were all quite obvious given the color of my skin, my nationality, and my position at the NGO.

Living in another country is a privilege within itself. We are part of the lucky population who have the opportunity to discover another life, another language, and another culture. Our country will always be there for us, but for the moment, we must explore connections with other human beings (even if we don’t speak the same language).

Yet, sometimes this privilege to live in another country is not reciprocal. For instance, my students are in the process of hearing back from universities that they’ve applied to. One girl tells me: “But Ms. Allison, it is so expensive. There is no way I can go. I will just stay here in Dakar and go to a local school.” She’s discouraged by all the read-between-the-lines fine print and skyrocketing costs of American universities. That evening, I was walking with a friend when I recounted a story of someone who obtained his degree and is working a job that can’t even provide him with the moyens (the means) to live somewhat comfortably. He tells me: That’s Africa. You wonder why you should even go to school. How can that mentality be overcome? Of course, and in my opinion, we can thank colonialism for a lot of these institutionalized and normalized problems…

Recently, I participated in the West African International Softball Tournament, aka a very American weekend in Dakar. Since October, I’ve been assisting with our school’s softball team and refining my preteen softball skills. Beginning at 9am and until 6pm, I was either playing or watching softball alongside a majority American crowd (although the champions ended up being the Senegalese team). I haven’t been surrounded by that many Americans in such a long time, and for a few moments, it felt as though I was transplanted back in the US—that that imaginary geography almost seemed real because of how the setting was created. During one of the softball games, I sat at a picnic table with a little girl and her grandmother. Her grandmother had come to visit her son (along with her husband), something they do every year as her son is posted here in Dakar for work. We made small talk and then she started telling me about how her and her husband raised their kids overseas for the majority of their lives. She explained how the first time they traveled back to the US, she felt like an astronaut landing somewhere in the unknown—like she were a martian on a newly undiscovered planet. I thought back to my visit home back in October and how alien-like I felt. (It still baffles me that people pay to work out or do yoga). Imagine someone who has no idea what softball is and if they could have been on the other side of that wall; indeed, it would have been a very alien-like experience.

That same evening, I went to a friend’s house and helped her and her cousins cook faataaya and nems (finger-foods) for a small party her cousin was having. Talk about a 360 of a day—it was like once I left the softball field, I reentered Senegal. The night was filled with the smells of the kitchen, sabar/mbalax music, attayah, and conversations in Wolof. It was perfect. And it reminded me of why I love living here—discovering human interactions, connections, cultures, and the constant learning I have the privilege to experience every single day.

This idea of otherness has even penetrated the walls of my classroom. Even as simple as where students sit—the American program students grouping themselves together while the Senegalese program students do the same in another part of the room. Because they’re different. Because they’re not like us. Again, it’s easier to box ourselves up into our identities that can create groups. In another and more complicated sense, students constantly bring in comments pertaining to the bafoon Donald Trump and the disgusting rhetoric that spills from his mouth. In one sense, he provides my class with the perfect example of how powerful rhetoric is; on the other hand, I find myself to be at a loss of words for how someone can use such destructive language filled with hatred. Whenever I think of the phrase “another world is possible,” I envision a better world: a world where otherness does not dictate mentalities and spiral into conflict. That is not what it means to be human.

 

 

Yesterday, I had a conversation with one of the most incredible female figures in my life. A woman who gives more to others than to herself—who believes that if she can impact someone’s life, then she is content; a woman who has shown me so much about what it means to live and love and to give life and to give love. She has decided to start a vocational school where she can use her knowledge and experience to help individuals who were not so fortunate in terms of receiving the bac (national exam) learn a skill set. She tells me: “You know, if I don’t try it, I’ll never know. I must take a risk. I am sick of being in the office. That tires me. Now, I’m ready to try something new, to give others opportunities.” And she’s right. In order to make some sort of decision, in order to find out about yourself, your strengths, your limits, in order to learn more about others, we have to do just that: take a risk. Not knowing what will happen in the end, but making the plunge. Maybe someday then, we can overcome this idea of boxing ourselves up into us and them.

 

 

 

 

Cozy Coastal Christmas

This morning, I could feel the colder air as I decided to make hot chocolate while peering out the kitchen window to see the bright Senegalese sun shine down on the back patio. Lizards squirm on the grill cover as I open the big window. Seemed a bit weird, making hot cocoa but wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I suppose winter is finally here…or I’m a bit nostalgic for cold northeast winters…

As I type, the not-so-tiny kitten jumps on my lap. In this instant, we are friends, roommates. In a few seconds, she will start to nip at me or get into something she shouldn’t. We’ve figured each other out.

IMG_7357.jpg

I scroll through my Google news feed as my Ugandan music comes through on my iTunes. Every time a familiar song plays through the speakers, I can’t help but smile and think of sitting on Mama Ali’s veranda playing music as we cook, looking at the stars, holding Rahuma, and of course, talking about power with Ali and his big plans. I called them all on Christmas. Ali first, as we shared so many “Iwe! Ndikumissinga eno eno eno!” finding out he is in school in Kampala. And then to Arafat, Zahara, Mama Ali and even Sauya. My oh my, how I miss them all. How Christmas last year was absolutely magical. It was like waking up and peaking at all the presents, just to hear their voices and the excitement and love shared thousands and thousands of miles away. Then, back to thinking about where I am right now and how in the world I got here. I play with the chain around my neck, holding a tiny gift that was given to me, as I twirl it around and around, keep it on when I sleep, shower, run, etc. My oh my, how things can change in the course of a year. Here comes the small cold nose on my inner arm…

Then, I scroll around on Facebook, seeing all of the discontent with the Tamir Rice verdict. I can’t help but feel the uneasiness in my stomach. What is this world becoming? He was a child. No justice was served. His poor mother, father, and family. He didn’t get the chance to live the life he was given. In a matter of seconds, his life was taken. Part of me wants to delete all forms of my social media, to escape all of the bigotry and hatred that comes through on my screen. He was a child.

Last night, I finished Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter. I came across this passage (after her two sons get in an accident while playing soccer):

“The dried blood from the wounds leaves dark and repulsive stains on the ground. Cleaning them up, I think of the identical nature of men: the same red blood irrigating the same organs. These organs, situated in the same places, carry out the same functions. The same remedies cure the same illnesses everywhere under the sun, whether the individual be white or black. Everything unites men. Why, then, do they kill each other in ignoble wars for causes that are futile when compared with the massacre of human lives? So many devastating wars! And yet man takes himself to be a superior being. In what way is his intelligence useful to him? His intelligence begets both good and ill, more often ill than good.”

Man takes himself to be a superior being. By no means is man superior. Man does not know how to love man. This passage is ever so relevant today as human beings deemed as different and the other are treated in ways that make their lives less important than the rest of us. The fact of dichotomizing the world is what is going to continue to drive hate among humans.

Recently, I helped a student write his personal statement where he quotes Malcolm X and uses the concepts of self-education and trust in God as the driving forces of what makes him unique. He discusses how being a Muslim in the 21st century is fearful; yet, he holds strong to his beliefs no matter what slander gets tossed around in the mainstream media. It is one of the most powerful personal statements I have read thus far, yet I too have fear for him. What will college admissions think when they read about a young, black, Muslim boy talking about his faith? He’s already a target. Of course, I don’t want to think like this. I could have easily said: “Hey, maybe you want to write about something else.” But I didn’t. I pulled him aside in class and told him how much I respect him for sticking to his roots, for standing strong, and for not giving in to what people who know absolutely nothing about the Islamic faith think about young boys like him. He writes: “What we see in the media…that is not Islam.” His main goal is to make his parents proud. For sure, he would make any parent proud.

In my eyes, 2015 was a wake up year. A wake up to realize how unjust and cruel the world actually is, a wake up to how our climate is indeed changing, a wake up to the complexities of ideas like globalization and redefining the “global citizen” title that gets thrown around, a wake up to how powerful our words are. We have a man wanting to represent the United States while using powerful inhumane rhetoric concerning those of the “other”. And the scary part is, he actually has a strong backing. Before breaking for the holidays, I walked into a frantic 7th grade class concerned about their identities as Muslim Americans and if they would be allowed back into the U.S. after Trump’s statements. I thought to myself: “This man has no idea what is coming out of his mouth. And how it is reaching all corners of the world. And creating a fear in kids as young as 12.”

We need a reeducation on power. Not physical power or force. But the power of words. The power of positionality. Our power in relation to others power. My power compared to your power. In order to change the current status quo, we have to step back and look at the systemic nature of the current problems the world faces. Today’s problems, in the U.S. and abroad, are not taken out of context, but are based on tradition and ideas ingrained and normalized in our societies.

I don’t have answers. That, I can tell you for sure. However, I do know that the way humans treat humans is not going to help the sustainability of our planet for future generations. Maybe that’s too idealistic to think about. We’re on this Earth and then we go, and then someone else comes, and then he/she goes. It’s a cycle. Yet, I would argue we are creating a destructive cycle. If we can’t learn how to use our intelligence, we will continue to do more ill than good.

And it all starts within ourselves. Many of us have freedoms and privileges that others do not. We must acknowledge our freedoms and realize that our neighbors may not have the same. We all come from (and construct) different worlds based on our identities, based on our cultures, based on our experiences. In order to bring about any sort of change, we must recognize this fact: Our world is a combination of millions, billions, of mini worlds.

The world I live in right now consists of people from various backgrounds, countries, nationalities, faiths, all placed in one city. And me, well, I’m trying to construct my own little world in this coastal city. Learning how to teach, how to teach well, how to communicate, how to promote understanding and tolerance, how to discover who I am amidst all of this.

 

During my two week holiday break/house sitting escapades, I’ve rediscovered what it means to se reposer, something I’m realizing I’m not very good at. Even the gym teacher asked: “Mais Allison, tu dit que tu va te reposer, mais tu prends le ballon de basket! Toi tu te repose pas!” And he’s right. I somehow cannot find a way to rest and relax as my mind seems like it is constantly trying to solve some sort of problem or find some task to accomplish.

So I’ve resorted to reading and finding meaning. And writing. A lot. I finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah in about 3 days. On to the Mariama Bâ collection I found here. Powerful female writers. Writing in different times, but similar themes. And both giving me something to connect to although I am a white American woman. I’ve realized, as I wind down the last few days of 2015 and begin 2016, I can always find meaning in words. I think back to reading Rilke’s Letter’s to a Young Poet, the compilation that drove (and still drives) my eagerness to understand this world and find answers to my questions.

And I’ve been so inspired to write. To catalogue every little interaction on my days here, saying to myself Oh I must remember to write about this. I even brought my journal to a friend’s house and after eating lunch, I pulled it out to start writing. He asked: “What are you doing?” I said: “I need to write this or I will forget.” He asks if it’s in French, I say not yet. One day, I’ll write for you in French.

IMG_7466

This Christmas was spent a bit different than normal. Of course, I wasn’t in the snowless northeast (it’s been almost 2 years since I’ve been in snow). I woke up in a big house with a tiny cat. Last year, I woke up to kids running around at Mama Ali’s. To Dolly Parton Christmas songs on the Ugandan radio. And to a day of soccer.

This year, I woke up in a big house with a tiny cat. I streamed Christmas songs on my iPhone and started cooking. I told myself: I’m going to make this Christmas thing work out. Managed to make some cakes for the guardians and neighbors (the mama who I buy my vegetables from, continues to call me Abbey…somehow Allison got lost in translation). There are two young girls, her daughters I assume, who have befriended me. They see me get home from school, leave for runs, return from the market. Some days, I find them closing up the vegetable stand and I help carry the buckets up to their compound. They too call me Abbey, as do the little boys who play soccer in the dirt path. On occasion, I come back when the guards are making attayah and save me cup.

On Christmas Eve, I enjoyed yet another wonderful time with my host family as we talked, laughed, sang. Christmas is not about gift giving; it’s about spending time with people you love, family (blood or not), no matter where you are in the world.

I may not have had a Christmas tree, or snow, or radio stations that play the same songs all day, but I did have love. Lots and lots of love. And as I try to grapple with some of the larger problems of the world, I realize that if you have love, if you discover love, you must cling to it; world may seem like a scary place and the mainstream media does a great job of painting the description as just that. However, we can’t forget that there is good in this unjust and cruel world; you just have to do a little digging to discover it.

On to 2016. Maybe a year filled with a bit more hope for the world? As millions of people create their lists of “New Years Resolutions”, maybe we can all work a bit harder to understanding how each individual comes from his/her own story and has his/her own philosophy inspired by family, faith, culture, tradition. And maybe we can find a way to all live together.

IMG_7522Happy New Year to all, near or far!

Change…more than just a profile picture

I’ve been wanting to react to all that I’ve read/watched via social media after the course of the “terrorist” attacks and bombings. I decided to sit on it for a little, to digest what my eyes were seeing, and find a way to craft some sort of post. Here goes nothing.

How does one express solidarity? In high school, I remember wearing orange ribbons for the Virgina Tech shooting. And blue ribbons to commemorate 9/11 anniversaries. We were far from these events, but on those particular days, we showed some sort of togetherness with folks we never met.

It’s been a little over a week since the world went into a media frenzy over the recent attacks happening across the globe. The mainstream media, as always, shined light on some stories (particularly in the Global North) and forgot about the lesser know parts of the world, or maybe, the less-important-yet-more common-to-experience-violence-parts-of-the-world. Now, Facebook pictures are back to their original forms, though a few of my ‘friends’ have kept the red/white/blue filter to show their e-solidarity for Paris.

I, along with others I assume, keep asking myself: What makes one tragedy worth more than another? Can we even measure how tragic a tragedy is? One of my students is working on her personal statement for college. She mentions how we live in a world “controlled by fear, violence and corruption, with little kindness and humanity.” She’s 17. And this is her outlook on the world, no thanks to the help of mainstream media and the boxes we place ourselves in based on race/class/gender. She is applying to a public health program with goals of changing her world, as we all come from our own parts of the world, each of us with our own stories, and  with our intentions of doing some sort of good.

In my world, I have the privilege of writing this piece, as an outsider, as someone who hasn’t gone through what thousands, if not millions, go through every day. Heck, I have the privilege of just sitting here and typing with my laptop keeping my legs warm. Step one: identify your power because we all have some form of it. My whiteness inherently gives me power. My gender decreases my power. My nationality gives me power. Power is ever changing, yet some of us are inherently born with more power than others. And in some way or another, our power divides us into the oppressors and the oppressed–physically, mentally, epistemically.

Thinking in terms of the recent “terrorist” attacks, if something of the sort happens in the Global North and it influences people to change their profile picture in order to show e-solidarity with one another, go for it.  Look at the chaos that led to Facebook rants/posts about whose lives matter more. In reality, we need more than a change in profile picture.

We need a conversation. A conversation about race. A conversation about religion.

Upon my return home to the states last month, I realized the level of ignorance among Americans towards non-Christian believers. Reading news posts about presidential candidates wanting to screen mosques makes me want to vomit. For sure: “We all fear what we do not know.”

I recently read all of Ta-Hisi Coates’ new novel, Between the World and Me, an open letter to his son accounting for the unequal and unjust world we live in-and what his son, a black boy, will have to face because of his identity. His words are ever so relevant in a world where we can’t acknowledge that racism/sexism/classism/any other ism exists. We live in a world where “terrorism” is immediately paired with “Islam” and the “Muslim community.” We live in a world where Black students at universities seek a safe haven due to verbal threats posted online. And where women can’t make their own decisions regarding their bodiesAnd as I’ve seen with my students, a world where hopes and dreams seem ever so unattainable.

I don’t want to live in a world like that. And I’m sure you don’t either. Go ahead, change your profile picture, but realize that that is only a small change. You’ll go back to your favorite photo soon enough. And it’ll be like everything is back to normal, because in your world, it is. If changing a profile picture was a solid form of activism, and we all claim to be active global citizens, then Facebook should have some sort of campaign every day dedicated to the atrocities that go on not in the Global North. If that were the case, Facebook would probably turn into a virtual mourning space as every day the world is faced with some sort of tragic event.

If you want to stand in solidarity with people ever so different from you, educate yourself. We are living in a society that is so normalized to violence in certain parts of the world (Africa/Asia/Middle East) that when we hear of something that sounds so far away, we do nothing but turn to the cover story of bombings in France–because France seems so much closer.

Coates explains: “The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise. The world needs saving precisely because of the actions of these same men and women…” Whiteness is blinding. Privilege and power are blinding. In order to create a better world, we need to acknowledge who we are and the multiple worlds we come from.

Amidst a conversation discussing the events in Paris, where the consensus was that no one in the world is secure, one of the French teachers gets up and says “Damay julli,” or, I’m praying. Him, along with another teacher, grabbed their prayer rugs and went to one corridor as students walked by. Some stared, others realized that this is a normal thing…you can be walking on the sidewalks next to Senegalese who are praying. After the events in Paris, I started my AP Comparative Politics class a little differently by writing “terrorism” on the board and left markers out for students to comment/define/write their opinions as I sat there quietly. After about 30/40 minutes, we had a board filled with words, definitions, feelings, statements. One of them put: “Terrorism doesn’t have a culture or religion.” When I asked my students if these events relate to them, one of the boys said, “I’m indifferent.” Another girl responded: “This is my religion. This is my culture.” I could see the frustration/disgust/hope in her eyes. Of course, these students are not directly affected. However, neither am I. As a white American who doesn’t identify with a particular religion, I don’t have much to contribute when it comes to talking about organized faith (other than my own beliefs based on my own experiences, upbringings, readings, etc).

As part of the same class, students are asked to do reaction papers connecting current events with class themes. After the events in Paris (and, maybe more so, in my opinion, the backlash of “whose lives matter more” in terms of events that get media attention and events that do not), several students wrote provocative papers. They felt like although they are not living in countries where being a Muslim makes you an immediate target, they feel that it is their faith that is being targeted and all for the wrong reasons.

I’ve been trying to grapple with the notion of oppressor versus oppressed and the many forms this dichotomy takes…it can be applied to media, to reality, to the notion of helping, etc etc. I think about the most obvious example, NGOs, where so many organizations promote themselves based on helping and providing sustainable solutions. Yet, I can’t help but be critical. Since when, throughout history, did the white race truly provide a sustainable solution to any global problem? We saved backwards peoples? We promoted catching up with the West in terms of development? We had all the answers to end poverty? I read about what potential presidential nominees say about the “other” and I can’t help but feel like the 17 year old girl in my English class living in a hopeless humanless world.

A friend shared this recent article from BBC discussing the writer’s inability to write a “African” story because “Africa” is much more complex than the common person may imagine. The journalist hits the nail on the head, not just about talking about “Africa” but about storytelling in general. That’s why I write, to share some sort of insight on stories I’m discovering. But of course, I’m only hitting the surface as the world is filled with countless individuals, peoples, cultures, and their stories.

I can barely tell stories about Senegal, my home right now. I’ve also been trying to figure out my own identity here. I don’t see myself as an “expat” but that’s what I am classified as. Joining the other Americans living here because of Embassy postings or other international work. Aren’t I technically considered an immigrant–defined as a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country? My students ask me how long I plan to stay. I don’t have an answer for them. In reality, I’m just an American teaching in Senegal, with American/Senegalese/Congolese/Ugandan/Rwandan/Italian students and trying to find what it means to live this life.

This trip has no script. I shouldn’t even call it a trip. I took a dive. I turned down an incredible opportunity for an opportunity I wasn’t expecting. I took a risk for love. Preparing for my future, whatever that means. Learning what it means to live and love here in this coastal city. And cherishing every single day.

And yet, I’ve discovered I’m helping in a way that means more than just oppressor vs oppressed. I’m giving students motivation and hope—that they can achieve their dreams, that they can get in to university programs, that the world is more than what the mainstream media makes it out to be, that their faith shouldn’t be something that holds them back. I’m using my power as someone who had the opportunity to go through four years of school and somehow come out okay (minus all of the debt) to ignite curiosity in students who speak multiple languages, have lived in various parts of the world, are dedicated to their studies and are determined to have some sort of impact on whatever world they come from no matter how ugly the world may seem to be.

 

 

Coming Home: Allison-iii, Oliwa?

I keep getting these flashes of memories ever since I landed stateside. So many Wait did I really do that? and Was that a dream? moments. It hit me that I never really digested my 8 month stint in rural Uganda when I arrived to Dakar. I immediately dove into my Fulbright fellowship–into teaching English and learning about the English community in Dakar. My initial thoughts were surrounded by desire to return to Kyabirwa and the river…the quietness, lack of cars, cleaner air. And then that all transformed into Hey this place is pretty cool and Wow I remember my French and Sure I’ll take another ataayah. 9 months later and I’m ready to go back to Dakar.

I’ve had a lot of (needed) alone time over the course of the past few weeks. I’ve never really needed my own space and have been content sharing space with others, but I forgot how much I like my me time. At Mama Ali’s, there was always someone around–Rahuma, Francis, Jeannette–all the little kids who I’d much rather play with then sit in my room. Even my trips to the river after work for some ‘quiet time’ turned into giggle fests and pure joy. Then in Dakar, in a city, I never really found my river time, but I did befriend many people who I consider family. Runs along the Corniche, up the hill by the monument, those days are my river days–the breeze from the Atlantic pushing me and pushing me to go.

My body has also been moving so much; it’s as if I haven’t been in one place since I left Dakar. Landing in New York, flying out to California, then making my way back to New York, I’ve had my fair share of airport people-watching experiences. Maybe one of the most bizarre reentry experiences is just that…people watching in airports. Somewhat delirious and not sure whether I should eat breakfast, lunch or dinner, mixed with listening to other people’s conversations (in English) and sitting idly as other humans (though somewhat machine-like) pass by and make their way from gate to gate is an overwhelming experience. Flying over Albany and seeing the oranges/greens/reds/browns of the trees beneath me with the sun poking through the clouds couldn’t have been a better homecoming. Walking out the doors of the Albany airport and waiting on the sidewalk to see the dusty old Blazer pull up to the curb and my old man get out added to my joy of being home.

So here I am, home. Well, I am the place where I was born and grew up. The place that holds so many fond memories—of exploring in the woods, ice skating next door, shoveling snow off the driveway so I could practice my free throws. My favorite runs are in this place. The windy and hilly roads, dogs not on leashes, no cars in sight. The place that keeps the rest of my ‘stuff.’ One of the first things I did was clean out my room. Bags of clothes. Oddball ‘things.’ I’ve just lived out of a backpack for the past year and half and I was totally content. I had all that I needed. I felt disgusted to own so much unnecessary stuff. So, I said goodbye to it. I’ve even been able to roadbike–60 degree weather in November? I’ll take it! I forgot how much biking clears my head. And on a warm fall day, it really doesn’t get much better.

Making the rounds and seeing relatives has been more than wonderful. Spending quality time with family, after living with multiple families around the world, is something I cherish. Even if it means watching my brothers fish (and catch nothing at all) or driving with my sister in a van too big for her or anyone really or beating my dad in a Scrabble match or gallivanting with my mom, I’ve enjoyed just ‘being’ with everyone. I’ve been able to have so many fruitful conversations and equally as many frustrating conversations. My first weekend back, I sat with my grandparents as my grandfather was on rapid-fire asking question after question. I loved it. “So, what do you eat over there?” “Do you have television?” “What do you do for fun?” “So you like it there?” I could talk about my experiences all day. To some of my family, I’m “helping” Africans. To others, I live in “Africa,” not realizing that Africa is not a country. And not realizing that Uganda is a 8+ hour plane ride from Senegal. And that I’m now living in a city, not a village. Through showing pictures and recounting stories, I try to breakdown the stereotypes and misconceptions. I hope I’ve managed to do just that, though I know it’s a slow process (and one that the mainstream media doesn’t really make much better).

Since being ‘home,’ I’ve had many moments where my response to certain statements and actions is merely an “Hm.” For instance, the amount of money one spends on ‘organic’ groceries from a Whole Foods. Or paying for a gym membership. Or wondering why there isn’t a better public transportation system. Or gaping at the amount of food someone is served—I think eating around the bowl has trained my body for portion control. Or why you don’t invite someone to eat with you or welcome them back from sleeping or ask if their day was spent in peace.

One of my relatives asked me how it feels to be back. Of course, the obvious “Yeah it’s great” or “It’s been awhile, huh” or “Just how I left it” responses typically roll off the tongue. But this time I said: “I don’t feel American.” Then, the quietness rolled in.

I didn’t really mean it. I mean, I’ve always had a hard time readjusting to ‘life’ here. When I returned from my study abroad semester in Kenya and my dad insisted on cutting the grass, I bugged out and yelled how stupid it is to spend money on gas to put in lawn mowers to cut grass (it still seems pretty stupid). Meanwhile, the “lawn” and aesthetic appearance is something my relatives prided themselves on—just being able to own land is something to be proud of. Even my 94 year old great uncle prides himself on the land he purchased (42 acres for $7000…a fortune); the same land he hoped to divide among the grandkids.

But this time, this ‘visit’ home, I felt an even stronger sense of not feeling ‘home.’ Yes, I am physically home, yes, this will always be home, but my brain and thought processes are not like those here. I even told my sister that I felt like a foreigner in my own country. I felt disconnected to what America is. People pay money to do yoga? And to do it while sweating? What is this place? And Americans’ obsessions with dogs. I let my sister’s dog sleep in my bed and woke up in the middle of the morning thinking, “What am I doing? This is a dog!” Through observing daily life here, I tend to become immediately frustrated and desire to leave and then I immediately tell myself ndank ndank; slowly slowy. Mpola Mpola.

Here, there seems to be a sense of urgency. Maybe that’s just me, but here, people always seem to be doing something; I should say, people are always distracted by something. A TV, a cellphone. No one is ever just being. They’re too busy working. And working. And working. And worrying. And of course, time is of the essence. Time is relative. 2 o’clock can mean 2:30, maybe even 3. If you’re at lunch with someone, don’t just wolf down your meal and leave. Save room for dessert.

I talked with an old friend about the myth of the American dream. In my short time here thus far, I have witnessed so many friends and family working working working. Slaves to mortgages. Stressed by deadlines. I think to myself, “I could not live here. I could not live in a place where I couldn’t be 100% happy.” Maybe it’s still too soon to read too much into my thoughts. Maybe spending more time ‘home’ will alter my way of thinking. One thing is for sure, you have to be happy in order to really live.

Amidst grappling with my own thought process, I can’t help but feel grateful. Grateful for the family I was born into. Grateful for my parents. I’ve been gone for 18 months, but being here, it feels like I never left. Just grew a little older and my dreads grew a little longer. Grateful for all the mamas and tatas I’ve met along the way. Grateful for the brothers and sisters and friends and mugandas and mukwanos. Almost every night, I think about Mama Ali. I’m sure my whole family knows her by now because of how much I talk about her. I think about the day when I will see her again and the day I will be able to give her the biggest hug and tell her how much I love her. I can’t wait for that day.

And I think about the amazing individuals whose paths crossed mine in Dakar. The amount of experience I’ve gained thanks to the guidance of others—Americans, Senegalese, Guinean, you name it—I am at a total loss of words. And this is only the beginning.

A few days ago, a relative asked: “So what program are you doing now?” Well, there’s no more government grant. No more 9 month stint here and bippity boppity boop I’m home for good. I’m only living and discovering what it means to live.

Here’s to being home:

After 18 months, we're back together
After 18 months, we’re back together
IMG_7181
Halloween’s finest pumpkin carvings
Fishy fishy
Fishy fishy

Stories of Summer: Sun, rain, and mutton

In a recent TedTalk, Author Taiye Selasi attempts to tackle the complicated concept of identity. Her talk focuses on identities and location, entitled “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local.” She states: “Where I’m from comes from wherever I go” and when talking about returning to Ghana, she responds: “I go back to Ghana, but I can’t go back to Ghana. We can never go back to a place the same way we left it.

I’m beginning my last week as a Fulbright ETA. But more than that, I will soon be heading home to a place I haven’t been since May of 2014…a time that feels like eons again, although it’s not so long ago in reality. I think it feels like eons because of everything I’ve experienced over the past year and half and all of my own personal growth and maturity. Needless to say, I’m bundled up in a mixture of emotions as I (mentally) prepare myself to return home. Yet, as Selasi describes, it’s our experiences that identify us. I am born an American, but my thought and mindset are influenced by other non-American experiences and interactions. I, too, feel like I can go home, but I can never really go home. Home, in this sense, being the open spaces of Duanesburg—the greenery, the lack of cars, the rolling hills.

And with these endless experiences that shape how we perceive who we are and the world around us, we also carry stories. For sure, my storybook is bursting from its binding as I continue my collection while also embarking on discovering mon avenir. As I wind down my ETA fellowship, I can’t help but mention only a few ‘stories.’

Back to school, back to school

And with that, summer time in Dakar has (almost) come to an end—though it’s only getting hotter. The majority of the private schools are back in action amidst the short break for Tabaski (more on that soon). I started teaching 7th grade English and a few other high school classes and have found myself to be loving it. Kids come from all over the world besides the U.S. and Senegal and have such a variety of backgrounds and experiences (even getting to speak a little Swahili with some Congolese students). It’s been fun getting into the content of the classes, getting to know the students, and adjusting to school life. Not to mention, the other teachers are wonderful and have welcomed me with open arms. I sat with the librarian, a former Peace Corps Volunteer, and shared photos and stories of my time in Uganda as she recounted stories from her early days in Senegal. For the most part, I speak French with the majority of the other teachers, though my AP English counterpart insists on speaking Wolof to me so I can get better (which is totally fine with me)!

The school has multiple sites within Dakar and I juggle my time at three of them. There’s even room to do mini workshops and presentations with other teachers where I hope to disseminate my ideas pertaining to reality pedagogy and how to integrate some of the concepts into the classroom. Slowly slowly.

Dafay sàcc

After school, I take the car-rapide home. 75 CFA (on most days) and a tight squeezed beautifully painted bus with baby shoes hanging from the ceiling for good luck and protection and I’m all set. Most days, especially during Ramadan, the rides are somewhat quiet and peaceful aside from the boy collecting transport money and passengers making sure they get the right change back. And during the short ride, I commence my ‘thoughts while moving’—a habit I had every day on the boda bodas in Uganda where I think about everything under the sun and get the most inspiration for writing, telling myself Oh I have to remember to write about that and then (typically) forgetting. One day last week, along one of the stops on the VDN, a woman raised her voice. She started speaking loud and fast and immediately, you could tell something was wrong. Then, another man got off and the rest of the car continued to yell things after him—insults I assume (haven’t covered those in my Wolof classes yet). I asked the man next to me what exactly happened. The man who got off was attempting to steal from the woman, ‘pick-pocketing,’ he said. The unsuccessful thief descended from the car, but the conversation had only just begun. One thing to note…this was Friday afternoon, right before the Friday prayer so folks were in a rush to get to the mosque. After, another man began recounting a story of a student he knew who had a similar situation happen to him. All eyes were on him as my typical commute turned into storytime session, something that doesn’t really happen so often. I almost missed my hop-off spot.

IMG_5711 IMG_5712

Tabaski

When the doorbell rang around 10 am on another calm and warm Saturday morning here in Dakar, I opened it to find my host dad just standing there. I asked if he needed help with something and he said: “Well, kind of. I have the sheep.”

Flash forward two weeks and two muttons later, I think I’ve eaten enough meat to satisfy my meat intake for the rest of my time here. Tabaski eve and morning consisted of a lot of prep, similar to Thanksgiving. The day before the holiday, I accompanied my host mom to the local market to get potatoes, garlic, onions and other essentials for the day. That night, we stayed up peeling the garlic and chopping the onions only to wake up the next morning and prepare prepare prepare. That same day (Tabaski eve), we had a bit of a mutton crisis. The second mutton that was brought home collapsed and was unable to stand up, clearly very sick and on the verge of dying. Sophie and I stared at it from inside. She told me: “Maybe it’s just pregnant.” I started cracking up while Sokhna, the maid, asked me what she said and I re-explained. We both started laughing, mostly at Sophie’s innocence—you could clearly tell the sheep was a male. Thus, we had two options: kill it now or bring it back to the seller. My host dad loaded up his car with the overly bloated sheep and an hour later, came back with a lively little guy. “Heureusement, ses yeux sont ouverts!” My host mom exclaimed as we took a peak at our new housemate.

During the morning hours of Tabaski, you could walk on the streets and find men with knives—ready to slaughter your muttons for you. And that is exactly what we did. My host mom found two men, brought them to the house, and within the hour, they had slaughtered, skinned, and left. About $30 later and two basins of meat, we were almost ready to eat. I gripped the meat as my host mom chopped it into smaller pieces as we divided some into bags for meat during the week, bags for neighbors (as is customary that you give pieces to neighbors/those who do not have a lot), and bags for family members. Meat on meat on meat. Hands covered in blood and meat slime, I couldn’t stop but think how incredible this moment was—to be here right now, to celebrate this holiday, to be a part of this wonderful family.

And boy did we eat. And boy was it delicious, to the point where I can’t look at the leftover meat in the fridge without feeling a little sick.

A brief note on eating…

Inviting others to eat with you is customary here. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, if someone enters your place of eating, you must tell them to join you (i.e. kaay ndekki). The fact that this is even a part of the language tells a lot about culture here…I can’t think of anything in Swahili or Lusoga where you invite others to eat with you. Even in the U.S., we have our individual plates/preferences and sure, we may offer a bite of something to someone, but we could never say “Come breakfast/lunch/dinner with me.” The notion of sharing is something other cultures could learn a lot from. Sharing and giving to others. It’s beautiful.

 

Petit à petit

One of my favorite things will always be listening to Oumy. She has given me so much guidance about life, motherhood, and even marriage. Her recently married niece stopped over with her husband to present him to her belle-famille (in laws). After, Oumy was telling me about another niece who is about 32 and not married yet, probably because she is too “picky.” She told me of a story of a wedding party we all attended and how one of the servers was madly in love with her niece, but her niece gave him zero attention because he was a server. Oumy told me that’s not important. If you love someone, it doesn’t matter what he or she does. Maybe they can jump the ladder to something else, but it doesn’t mean you turn them down. You get to know the person, maybe you fall in love, and then you start your life together. Of course, it’s not as prescribed as it may seem as we all discover, one way or another, whom it is we decide to spend our life with. You do things little by little, “petit à petit” she tells me.

When I first arrived to Dakar, I imagined my time here would come and go and I’d move on. Clearly, my head was not in the right place as my initial idea of Senegal as a “pit stop” has completely transformed. I feel like my time in this part of the African continent is only beginning and I’m eager to improve my French (as that opens the door for more West African discovery) and get to a higher level of Wolof. Without a doubt, this continent is absolutely massive and the amount of peoples, cultures, traditions, languages are endless. Grateful is an understatement for how I feel each day here.