As mentioned in our About Us page, I left Ethiopia at age 4 and grew up across the Netherlands and the USA. I remember as a child having some difficulty reconciling the differences between the two cultures I lived on the daily. On the one hand was talak makber, doro wot, Amarigna, etan on a lazy afternoon, buna, buna, and more buna. On the other side was the Dutch, the English, Sinterklaas, Santa Clause, nursery rhymes, and french fries (among other things). In my mind these vastly different worlds blended together seamlessly.
There was no rift where one ended and the other began and I traversed the two worlds with ease blending them into one in my mind. For some reason, though, those non-habesha around me always seemed to trip each time they caught a glimpse into my Habesha world. Questioning looks when they come by and find the house filled with etan smoke, when they see injera for the first time, when my mother gives last minute instructions in a strange tounge. After some time I learned it was best to not allow them into my Habesha world. Initially it was not shame that led me there, but an inability to explain this other side in a way they could understand and value it as much as I did.
After some time shame did creep in – for example after getting tired of smelling like wot each time I left the house. I was never really harassed for being “African” though I vaguely remember the term “African Booty Scratcher” being thrown around. I don’t remember anyone looking down on me as far as I could tell. This, despite the fact that some of my most impressionable years came during the 80s famine which permanently imprinted the fly covered starving child with the distended stomach as the staple image of Ethiopia. Yet, the constant differences between my two worlds gently lapped away at my confidence and sense of belonging – key components of a healthy childhood.
Over time with the maturity that comes with age, after spending time learning about my culture, after getting to befriend age peers with similar backgrounds that shame turned into tolerance, acceptance, and eventually pride. There is no treasure in the world that could get me to change my culture and heritage.
As I think about my future children (God willing there will be at least 2 ) I wonder what their experiences will be like. How do I – a woman who grew up in two worlds help my children equally embrace and value the worlds that will be home for them? What obstacles will they face that I never had to endure as they try to make their place in the world – or as they try to just be another kid in the class?
My sister and I have met many interesting people through this book project and one such person is Ayanna Nahmias. Ayanna is a woman who has traversed many worlds culturally, physically, and spiritually. Here are some pictures of her that she has agreed to share with us:
I recently ran across a blog entry Ayanna wrote about helping her 7 year old son overcome racism and anti-African reactions he experienced while in school. I was touched by his confusion and frustration as that was around the same age that I first began to understand I was different from my peers. I am inspired by the strength and conviction Ayanna and her mother tackle this difficult dillema. She shows that it can be done and done well at that. As a psychologist who has studied immigration and it’s impact on families I can spout out all the shoulds and shouldn’ts in raising a healthy bicultural child. Hell, I do this on a regular basis for the Ethiopian Magazine Dinq and occassionally on the Ethiopian radio show Admas. But inside I am afraid that when it gets to be my turn I will make too many mistakes. My biggest fear is that my lack of “full Ethiopianness” will hinder me from being able to help my child connect to his or her Habeshanet. Will it be the end of the world if my children area bit more American than Ethiopian? No, of course not. I just know I will be a bit sadder if I don’t at least provide the opportunity for them to connect to that side of themselves.