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First steps toward a giant leap: Part 1

One reason I decided to start an after-school program that focuses on supporting students of African background is because I am one of them. Like these students, I have lived in between cultures all of my life and thus profoundly understand their struggles. I hope that our program will not only support students of African roots academically, but also allow them to clearly see the value of their cultural heritage and to realize that they, like me, can overcome significant barriers and achieve remarkable goals in their lives.

I was born in Kinshasa, the capital city of then Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). My father was from Sénégal and my mother from Rwanda. As a child, I spoke Lingala and French and understood Swahili. During the time that I lived in Kinshasa, my father constantly reminded me that I was Senegalese, cautioning me not to copy “Congolese behaviors.” I could never be a Congolese.

At the age of 10, my father sent me to live with an aunt in Sénégal. Here I was in a country where I knew no one, spoke none of the native languages, and did not understand the culture. I could not communicate with my aunt, who spoke only Pulaar and Wolof. I could only express myself with those who understood French, and most of my peers did not. At school, students called me names like “étrangère,” “toubab”, “française,” “immigrée”– all share the same connotation of foreigner. At home, some introduced me as a “Congolese” or “niak,” which again translates to “stranger.” I had to adapt to the Senegalese way of life: its people, its manners, its languages, and its foods. Eventually, I learned Pulaar and Wolof and integrated into Senegalese society. But just as I could not be a Congolese, I was never Senegalese enough.

At the age of 19, I was married and later moved to America to join my husband. Again, I was in a situation where I did not speak the predominant language (English) and was overwhelmed by the cultural differences. In Sénégal, I was always surrounded by family members and neighbors, but in America, I found myself alone in an apartment for hours after my husband left for work. Once again, I had to learn to communicate and interact with a new and diverse population in Philadelphia. In 2003, I started working for an Armenian man as a salesperson in shoe store. By then, I had begun putting sentences together and could execute most of my tasks: greeting customers, getting them particular shoe sizes, and asking them questions like “How can I help you today?”

It wasn’t until 2010 that I returned to school. By then, I was the mother of two with a long to-do list at home. I feared that I would fail in school, given that my English was weak, and I had forgotten almost everything I learned in math. Still, I signed up to take General Education Diploma (GED) classes and simultaneously trained to become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). I went on to earn both my GED and CNA certificates in 2011. I briefly worked as a home health aide, gave birth to my third child in 2012, and enrolled at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) seven months later. Despite my family’s financial hardships, caring for a baby and homeschooling my oldest son for two years while a student at CCP, I excelled in school beyond my imagination — graduating with 4.00 GPA in 2015. Meanwhile, I also wrote for the college’s student newspaper starting in 2013 and have been reporting ever since. Today, I attend one of the best schools in the world: the University of Pennsylvania. As a student of international relations with a minor in English, I have traveled to influential places like the State Department and the Pentagon and have met and interacted with world leaders in various fields. Yet one thing has been clear to me throughout my educational journey: my multicultural perspective adds to the conversation, whether it’s in a classroom or in reporting a story. My misfit cultural background is a blessing, not a curse.

Over the years, many people have said to me that my English is even clearer than that of Americans who were born and raised in the U.S. However, despite living in Philadelphia for 16 years now, I have never been American enough. Often when people meet me, their first question is “Where are you from?” or “I hear an accent. Where is that from?” All of my life I have been stuck in between cultures. I understand how painful, overwhelming, lonely, isolating, confusing, and depressing it can be. However, I also understand the bright side of living in between cultural worlds. Today, to the four languages I already speak, I have added Spanish. I have developed a strong sense of empathy, I know how to build bridges among individuals and groups, I can interact with almost anyone, and my cultural background has opened many doors of opportunity not only for me, but also for my community.

My story is that of someone who has overcome cultural, linguistic, and financial barriers while still finding a way forward in life. My story can be the story of every single child of African background in Philadelphia and beyond. I wish to motivate students of African roots to cherish their cultural heritage by supporting them in increasing their self-awareness. Many students of African heritage need educational and mentorship support; they shouldn’t be left to figure things out alone. As a result, in fall 2017, I am launching African Community Learning Program, an initiative with the purpose of building a community through providing free tutoring and mentorship to students of African background, promoting cultural pride, connecting people with a similar history, and empowering parents to engage in their children’s education. I strongly believe that if students of African roots fully embrace their cultural identity — even in an environment that constantly reduces their rich humanity and mine to the word “poor” — they will become unstoppable leaders who shape their communities and the world.

(Originally Published on Aminata Speaks Blog)

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