I walk down the street in my flowing Ghanaian print dress. I am on my way to my favourite Eritrean café to journal about my swearing-in ceremony. I am sentimental. I want to shout out, and then grin broadly while I tell everyone I meet, “I am a US citizen now.” I smile broadly at some folks. Most of them, white men, stare some place above my eyebrows and don’t acknowledge me. I want to say I am one of you now, but somewhere deep inside I know this can never be true. I have lived in this country long enough to know this isn’t the whole narrative. I continue to walk and smile anyway. A Black woman and her daughter stop me to comment on the African fabric; they make small talk. I contemplate sharing my good news. All of a sudden I’m shy.
Earlier as I sat listening to the many levels of ceremonial rites, I penned a few words on the blank portions of my program. Some are mine, others are what some speakers said, yet others are reflections from what my fellow citizens said:
The theater is packed full with family members and well-wishers seated up above in the mezzanine and the new citizens down in orchestra. I feel I am standing on the edge of making history. Goosebumps take residence on my skin and refuse to move on.
Pictures of the White House, Mt. Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the Washington Monument flash across the screen suspended from the ceiling. In the historic Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland, California, about 2000 people are gathered to celebrate.
These flashing pictures are interspersed with black and white and sepia shots of the millions of immigrants who have rolled through Ellis Island over the centuries. The pictures show them waving mini Star Spangled Banners. Tears fill my eyes despite my resolve not to ruin my rarely made-up-but made-up-for-the-occasion face. That mascara was applied after ten minutes of fretting.
The steady scroll of pictures begins to switch to our own locale. I see the Golden Gate flash across, followed by the Bay Bridge, then the Redwoods and numerous mountainscapes, lush with greenery or red desert dirt. I live here! My heart skips a beat. I dab my tears quickly as they roll down my cheek. I imagine the trail of salt it leaves.
Names of countries flash across the screen. Flags follow. I try to test my knowledge by matching country to flag. Countries whose former citizens are being sworn in. I smile sadly as Ghana and then much later, my red-green-yellow dotted with the black star, appear on the screen. Another tear rolls down. Would this be termed a betrayal? I wonder how many other Ghanaians are in the room. Are they and other citizens feeling pangs of guilt?
As my guilt slinks into the corner, country names are called out and former citizens stand. I discover that of the 111 countries amassing the 1206 immigrants represented in the room, I am the only one standing in for Ghana. Contrary to popular belief Africans aren’t dying to give up their allegiance to their countries. More tears. This time I give up trying to wipe them. I try to smile through my tears satisfied that we have proved them wrong, at least for this event. China, Mexico, and a handful of European countries actually have the highest number of immigrants present. Go figure!
The MC thinks he’s funny, making jokes that get a stilted-clapping response at best.
“No more waiting in lines at ports of entry. Your blue book waves you through and buys you a smile.” Yeah right! I will test this theory when I return from Ghana in the fall.
“Your passport is a valuable document, use it in good faith and protect it. It gives you the freedom to choose your path.” This, I myself know to be true. I couldn’t be an “aimlessly” wandering academic back in my home country; the pressure would have had me conforming by now.
“America is better for all 1206 of you deciding to become citizens.” Really? Do you mean that?
A past immigrant of Asian descent gives the formal address. Ironic that they would pick one of the model minority. She is proud as she says:
“Value family because that is the foundation of this country.” Oh Lord here we go!
“One of the first and most important things to do is to learn English.” I wonder if anyone is chuckling in their heads. This from someone who has obviously mastered the language enough to be given a speaking part. I roll my eyes. I wonder how much of her speech is doctored.
“You are not foreign anymore!” This pronouncement makes me almost guffaw forgetting where I am. We, all of us with our blended accents and difficult-to-pronounce names, will always be foreign.
The ideals we espouse in this here ‘land of the brave’ are tantalizing alright. The packaged U.S we sell to immigrants is attractive. Having lived in this country for 17 years I know living up to these ideals is where the real work is. It’s where we as a people very often fall short.
Later, I wave my mini banner and sing, “O Say Can You See…” The harmony is touching. I reflect on all the journeys that culminate in this theatre. More tears. I think on my own journey and my reticence to make this particular commitment. Have I failed in choosing access? Much later, I walk the streets bordering Piedmont and Emeryville wanting to shout “I do!” to anyone who cares to know. I have bought this package with all its flaws. Now what can I do about it?Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
To My Siblings, In Solidarity
The sun is beating down mercilessly on people who are already toasted varying degrees of brown and shades of black. The skies look like those on the Simpsons TV comedy: cotton-candy blue and white, and as I lay on my back, I can almost picture the credits rolling across the endless screen and hear the familiar tune playing. The sun beats down on my left side yet the gentle breezes from the right slowly caress and ease the heat of this equator sun, making it all worthwhile. The sound of a metal bell reminds me that some people are working even on this holiday. As the sound of the bell grows fainter and shifts to the background, it is replaced by the crowing of a rooster and the barking of dogs. Other sounds have become so much a part of the environment that one has to pay particular attention to be able to decipher what constitutes the cacophony.
Where am I? I’m sure you are dying to know! For Christmas, I gave myself the gift of a second pilgrimage to Haiti, Ayiti, the beautiful land of beautiful people where the great economic divide is as visible as the night and day that marks the passing of time and where suffering, as widespread as it is, never keeps the people from smiling back when you make eye contact. I had to return to Ayiti. It had wrapped its arms around me in May 2002 when I made my first pilgrimage and it had refused to let go. So I honored it, and all who were in it, by returning.
I am sitting on the rooftop, seven floors up, at St Joseph’s Home for Boys, affectionately called “Michael’s” after the director and founder. As I bask in the sunlight thoughts of snow, thousands of light years away, in my memory, I try to absorb all of Ayiti again—yes, I loved Ayiti, just as I loved my homeland, Ghana. I had fallen in love with Ayiti from the minute I exited the plane and had to make my way to the terminal on foot.
As I lie, I absorb all the sounds that are unique only to Ayiti and some of the other developing countries I have been blessed to visit: the sound of the vendors’ bells and voices advertising their wares, roosters crowing (although I am still unable to determine the exact reason since people have been awake since 4:30 am), music blaring out of speakers miles away echoed off the mountain sides, “tap taps” (local bus system) and taxis honking incessantly, engines of cars starting up, a PSA of some sort being run from the back of a pick-up truck with a make-shift megaphone, people calling out to each other in Kreyol, cats and dogs fighting for turf, and intermittent gun shots interspersing this orchestrated piece, poignant reminders of the state of the country.
The sun has dipped behind one of the many mountains that encircle Haiti although a part of the island is still bathed in sunlight and a shadow of light is thrown across the mountain. Sounds of nighttime are slowly replacing those of the day: generators kicking on (electricity is only available for part of the day), the crackling of firewood and the smell that accompanies it, as people prepare the evening meal, rush hour traffic with all its sounds, and radios and televisions blaring loudly.
The flight part of the journey had been uneventful and we had landed finally, after about 15-20 hours in airports (Ohio to Miami to Haiti), on the small farm runway that had cattle and goats grazing on it. About a half hour after landing, and squashed in the small cab of a pick up truck, with luggage competing for space, we were ascending and descending roads that were carved so adeptly out of the mountains. In the darkness, roads pitted with potholes filled with rain, gave the illusion of being smooth terrain until we were jolted out of our seats when our driver landed in one of them. It was pitch black, the kind of dark that threatens to swallow the dim, struggling headlights of the journeying vehicles. We had been driving for over 90 minutes when we had originally been told that the trip was a half hour max. There had to have been something wrong. I was convinced there had to have been rebels on the main highway and that’s why our guide had detoured. Who was to say?
Was my faith tested? You bet it was! I began saying the Rosary in my head and trying to remember any prayers I had memorized in my 20 years of Catholic school education. That having brought no comfort, I took refuge in making my petitions in my native tongue and just free-styling. At this point, I realized how ridiculous I might have seemed to any of my friends and family back home. I had made this trip after reconciling that “if this should be the end then so be it, I was going to Ayiti, come what may!” I smiled as I realized that this initial panic stage was natural when faced with trials. This thought surprisingly calmed me down enough to concentrate my efforts on watching the driver make it round each sharp bend in the two-lane mountain road, the lesser of the two evils. No sooner had I shifted my focus than we were arrived at our destination: the rectory at Plaissance.
Plaissance was one of the two reasons I had been itching to return to Ayiti. Located in the northern part of Ayiti, Plaissance for me was the French Riviera with all the mountains dripping with greenery. This was also where my host family lived and I could hardly wait to visit with them and catch up on 3 years worth of news…whew! Oh wait a minute, we can’t do that! The language barrier for me was my biggest struggle. Having had some elementary French in school, I could get by if people spoke French however, the Kreyol in Ayiti, a mixture of French and African languages, bore little resemblance to French. As I vacillated between excitement and disappointment, I began to piece together sentences in my head from the basic Kreyol I knew. Yes, I would tell them this or that, oh wait…how do you say this in Kreyol? I got ready for bed; tomorrow the words that eluded me now might come.
Gwo Jan was the other reason. This was where my other family lived. Two men and a lady! , Ari, Dja, and Carla. These three were my inspiration for some of the work I had gotten involved in since returning from my first trip. They had the arduous task of educating their own people, the people of Ayiti, about the history that lay beneath the brand name sneakers they loved to wear, the struggle with power, and the struggle against systems that was always in motion. They were also responsible for educating any tourists, who dared to enter their village, about the beautiful land of Ayiti and its people. These three, so far as I was concerned, were the heroes whose stories hardly ever got told. They had captured my heart and brain and engaged me in working for the struggle from the first time I had visited and though our communiques were few and far between we carried each other in our hearts and I couldn’t wait to see them again.
I look at the chaos that surrounds me. Sometimes I work well under pressure although this time all order and creativity has eluded me even though my deadline is but 24 hours away. The chaos, the order I strive for, the pressure which produces results, or so they say…all this is nothing compared to the thoughts that take residence in my head all day long as I go about the mundane tasks of my everyday life as one of the numbers in a big corporate institution.
These thoughts are far from related to my job or everyday routine. These thoughts are about the greater good, about service to all people, if I may be allowed to use clichés. My thoughts are with the people I met on my two trips to Ayiti (Haiti), my study abroad project in Morocco, my trips to Ghana, my working vacation in Egypt, my time at the Catholic Worker house in Denver, CO, or more recently and way less expensive, my chat with the unassuming man who everyone mistook for homeless. These are the things that occupy my head as I try to navigate my way through the numerous cubicles, edit letters, make copies, or prepare mail.
In these thoughts the perpetual question burns my innermost parts each time I can scrounge a few minutes to pause and reflect…what am I being called to do…in the long run, what really matters the most?
This question has come to me in various forms, and over the last five years since graduating from college I have processed this question in numerous settings: over dinner with religious discernment groups, in retreats, workshops, service trips, journaling, and mind you, this list is endless. If I have learned anything at all, it’s that, nobody else can tell me what my calling is because this is something that I need to discern for myself.
In journeying through this process of discernment, I have slowly learned more about myself, and my place in the grand scheme of things. I have come to cherish the heritage, the ancestry that makes me who I am today. I have discovered and embraced the similarities, as well as the differences, that make us all children of the Great Being.
It is with such a basic foundation that I returned to Ayiti for the second time. I returned not to donate time or money but to visit with the ones I had met once before, to sit in solidarity with my siblings, to share with each other the gift of our lives, despite the admonishment of family and friends fearing for my safety in Ayiti.
There is a quiet knowing…a sort of “I have arrived” feeling as I sit on my steps and crunch on some cereal. The “ChocoBalls” cereal I chose instead of the name brand one which cost 11/2 times more than this one. I may never get to live as simply in America as I do when I am in Ghana or Haiti but I can carefully consider my choices before making my small everyday decisions. I have been back two days now and I’m still buzzing with the energy and excitement that usually accompanies a return from a service trip where one has been made more aware and one has left with a resolution of some sort.
I’m reminded of my trip leader’s numerous poems that she read to us at prayer time while in Ayiti. One in particular sticks out: “to my brothers and sisters in third world countries” it begins and then it apologizes for the insensitivity on our parts that allows us to spend twenty minutes picking out what sweater or shoe to wear when my sister halfway around the world, is putting on the only piece of clothing or pair of shoes that she owns. This prayer has stayed with me since my very first trip to Ayiti because somehow that is how I manage to stay grounded…to constantly contemplate the faces of the people I know and am now fortunate to call family, in Ayiti. To remember their joy and excitement when they don their Sunday best for church or throw on the same pair of shoes for work day after day. To recall their smiles as they share what little they have with everyone around. To let myself revel in the optimism and conviction of the people as they say “Viva Ayiti”! My family in Plaissance and Gwojan who keep the dream of freedom alive, and continue to live and tell their story despite all attempts to silence them. They are the thoughts that constantly plague me as I go about my routine tasks. They are the constant heat from the equator sun, absent in the dead of winter, yet ever-present in my thoughts as I ponder what the greater good and ultimate calling is.
******************************Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
She cussed silently as she felt a splash of water hit the footies that she wore. She had washed her regular house slippers and forgot to dry them so she decided these padded footies would have to do. The splash of water came from the pot of meat that she was prepping to slow-cook.
She had literally been on her feet for sixteen hours, except for an hour in therapy and a few minutes here and there as she commuted from one place to the other. She had done massive amounts of laundry and had stood through that as well. So tonight, the feet made it known that they were tired. “A few more minutes guys, I promise,” she whispered. I really ought to invest in one of those kitchen mats that absorb the shock. She knew her back would ache when she finally lay down to rest tonight. She was certain of it.
Grammie lived close to where her college was, in a subsidized housing community that mostly housed senior citizens and their families. It was off Broadway Street almost close to downtown Columbus, and was right on the bus line so it was real easy to get to since she didn’t have her license yet. Sometimes, she would bring a friend with her and enjoy watching Grammie entertain someone else while she cooked.
“Hi Grammie!” she called to her grandmother from the back door. She had dropped by after classes to have a cooking session with Grammie, or more like to fix her one of the many Ghanaian dishes she loved; they had about five in rotation now.
She would call and ask what to bring and Grammie would say:
“Oh honey, don’t worry yourself, everything you need is right here.”
Sure enough when she arrived Grammie had laid out all the ingredients for the recipe of the day. Grammie had also baked her, her very own spice cake. Of course, she knew she had to share once she arrived at back on campus but she didn’t mind. They brewed up a cup of coffee and sat down to prepare the ingredients. They would catch up on which of Grammie’s neighbors’ children had gotten into trouble that week. Or talk about how Mz. Thelma and Mz. Fanny’s smoking habits seemed to be getting even more out of hand.
“Sometimes, I can just smell it!” she declared, referring to her upstairs neighbor Mz. Fanny.
“Remember when you used to come by the apartment so we would cook?” I miss those days,” Grammie said. Grammie had been confined to wearing an oxygen mask for a year now.
She smiled reminiscing right alongside with her.
“Yeah, I remember.” There were patches in her memory that made her worry; she was glad she could recall this memory on demand.
Encouraged by this recall, she continued:
“Remember me going up to Ms. Fanny’s apartment to say hello and bring her a piece of cake or a bowl of whatever we had cooked that day?”
“Yeah. Fanny would always tell me I had a good grandchild,” Grammie added smiling.
“Mz. Fanny would put hot sauce on everything I took to her.” she said.
“Yeah, that’s Fanny alright!”
Picturing the old apartment that Grammie had brought tears to her eyes. SO much had changed since then. Those were the carefree days of learning to live life in America. She had acquired independence by choosing to live on campus even though home was a mere 30-minute bus ride away. Having lived under her Grandmother’s totalitarian house rules for nineteen years, she was finally unfurling her wings and realizing what freedom truly meant.
Tonight, cooking in her own kitchen had brought these memories rushing back right alongside her flood of tears that seemed to rise out of a deep pain she wasn’t even aware she was holding. Grammie was on a breathing machine, with tubes in her lungs to help her breathe. Tonight when she checked in with her sister, she had said Grammie was getting more and more confused. She had been lately, before the EMS came for her. Her brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen, the doctor said. Tomorrow was a crucial day, they were going to try and switch her to breathing on her own.
“Do you think she will?” She asked her sister, already knowing that answer was ambiguous.
These thoughts overwhelmed her as she cleaned her brand new crock pot. As much as she loved cooking, there were days when she could just stand to throw it all in a pot and not have to mind it half as much. Tonight was such a night.
She felt Grammie’s presence in the room. She burst into tears again smiling as she saw her tears drop into the bubbling liquid. “Cook your heart out honey. That’s my girl! Oh honey, don’t cry, I’m ok, I can cook now.” Grammie seemed to say.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
This is the third piece that was published in the African Women Writing Resistance anthology in August.
Musings of an African Woman: Life in the Land of Opportunity
I. IMMIGRANTS IN A FOREIGN LAND
The leaves on the tree right outside my window gently stir with a wind that only blows about every ten minutes. The air is hot, sticky, and humid. The leaves rustle and move yet no breeze enters my room to ease the stifling heat. The air condition units of the neighbors kick on and drone out the sing-song voice of the man who is having a highly animated conversation next door.
As I gaze out and try to take in my surroundings, I realize how this crowded apartment complex reminds me of the Korle Bu flats back in Ghana, which houses civil servants who work for the government hospital. I think to myself, life in America is just a coated version of life in a so-called “third world” country. True, the thickness of the coating makes it easy to dismiss this theory. People work so hard all day only to retire to this in the evening–a conglomerate cacophonous display of miniscule living quarters! For the amount of money people pay for a place here, they could be living in a 5-bedroom ranch house in some developing country free from all the stresses of life. Sure, some of the finer amenities of life could be missing, but these should be minor inconveniences given the amount of space and peace of mind one would enjoy.
…I have finally gotten my body to understand that lying still, perfectly still, is the fastest way to staying cool and sane.
So, really, what makes this different from an average Akua (insert “Joe” or “Jane”) living in a developing country? Maybe it is the convenience of constant running water here whereas Akua would certainly have to be rationing or walking some few miles to a well or a community pipe. Or the electricity that seems to burn all day long, by which these people in the other apartments are cooling their living spaces. Or could it be the microwave, coffee maker, or George Foreman grill? All seemingly necessary appliances for existence in America yet, I beg to differ! These are all mere trappings of the life we choose to lead in this here “freedom country” to which members of “developing countries,” en masse, escape with hopes of amassing wealth and returning to establish a mini-America in their homelands.
Noble goals, no doubt! But realistically, how many of these people ever end up leaving America to return to their homelands? How many actually achieve that goal of returning home to recreate better versions of the lives they had here in America? I would like to purport…very few! The average immigrant Jane usually ends up caught in the lifestyle of consumerism. With the onslaught of bills, even a trip home to visit aging relatives or bury a dead family member becomes unaffordable, a debt to be added to the credit consolidators list, or for some a risk, the imminent danger of not being able to return because of immigration regulations.
As I write I wonder, whom I am really writing for. Who is my audience? My people, my fellow “developing country” citizens who, like me, have left oftentimes, better living conditions to come to America with the hopes of “finding greener pastures” and “making their fortunes” in this land of opportunity? If this is my audience, do they even care?
Funny, mass amounts of immigrants make up the bulk of the population in America; almost everyone left somewhere to come and “make it” here. Different reasons propelled each ethnic group that migrated here, but the one underlying reason, regardless of which group, seems to be the promise of something better.
In the process of “making it” we all lose important parts of ourselves: an accent, a-difficult-to-pronounce-name, the foods with which our clothing used to reek, the culture that used to emanate from our very beings. We lose these parts of ourselves in an attempt to blend in, become one of the majority. Sadly though, (or would it be fortunately?) for most immigrants, we can never quite complete that process of blending in.
Just when you think you’ve perfected the pronunciation of a word, or got the meaning of some idiomatic expression, some person somewhere comes up to you on the pretense of making conversation and asks, “so where are you from?” or my all time favorite, “what are you?” I love to give people like these hernias because I calmly proceed to say casually “the Midwest, Ohio!” Of course, they don’t get the subtle hint and so they continue to probe: “no, I mean where are you really from?” At this point they are practically beside themselves with frustration at you, oh no, not themselves! They know they are right, you look different, you sounded different just then, you must be different!
That’s when I kick myself for ever leaving my country, where I was not “different,” to “seek greener pastures.” What most people do not realize or refuse to acknowledge is the fact that this country, America, truly only belonged to one group of people, and much like my country, colonized by the British, these original owners were sacked and maltreated. America today is made up of centuries of people from other places; people who looked and sounded different back then when they first arrived, some brought in by force, others driven by the search for a better life, others escaping persecution; these very same reasons continue to bring immigrants in today.
So if we’re going to be so darn fussy, about who is “different” then shouldn’t we all return to our original homelands? But of course, there are quite a few Americans today who cannot trace their ancestry back to their original locations, so where does that leave them? May I suggest: Ambassadors for peace, embracing and extending warm welcomes to all new immigrants?Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 6 so far )