Neither Here Nor There: Perspectives on Identity by the Young Eritrean and Ethiopian Diaspora in America

October 14, 2010

Dr. Mehret Mandefro: A Beautiful Example of “All of Us”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 4:48 pm
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Tonight I found myself with some time alone. My roommate is in Ethiopia and after spending all of last night in the company of two of my closest girlfriends I was feeling a bit alone. I spent the day busying myself paying the bills, cleaning, cooking some wot (you KNOW I was really trying to distract myself when I make a whole pot full for just me…), and suddenly it was night and there wasn’t anything else left to do. God bless Netflix because it provided the perfect distraction. I wanted to find something to watch for maybe a half hour or hour. Enough time to prepare my hair for the night and finish the glass of wine I had been nursing since dinner.

Well, it is now 11:46pm and I should have been in bed with the lights out an hour ago. Why am I still up? I unexpectedly found the documentary “All of Us”  on Netflix and I was completely taken away by the personal and professional story of the young Dr. Mehret Mandefro and the women who shared their struggles of being HIV positive black women in America. In short, this documentary follows the Harvard educated physician as she explores why African American women represent a disproportionate percentage of new HIV cases. She does this by educating the audience about HIV in the U.S. and Ethiopia and by sharing the lives of two of her African American patients.

As I write this let me put a disclaimer on what’s to come. Let me say that everyone, especially African and African American women….hell – all women, should watch this documentary because the role we have been given in society is putting us at higher risk for HIV acquisition. As a mental health professional I was drawn to and taught by Dr. Mandefro’s analysis of the societal circumstances of why this dynamic is playing out. As a social justice advocate I am ignited by the fact that people are not talking about this enough despite years of data showing that this population is at higher risk. However, for the sake of this post I am going to focus on Dr. Mandefro’s presence and open stance. This blog is about the young Ethiopian and Eritrean members of western society and how we are choosing to build an identity for ourselves. I am inspired by how Dr. Mandefro chooses to live her life.

According to the documentary Dr. Mandefro came to the U.S. at a young age. From what I can tell she appears to have followed the script that many of us are given. Do well in school, become a (fill in here: doctor, engineer, etc.), and make your parents proud. So why am I so taken by Dr. Mandefro when she seems like another successful Ethiopian American? Well, she is intelligent, beautiful, and doing very important work but that’s not it. Not to take away from the doctor, but we have plenty of intelligent and beautiful women who are doing very important things in our community. I was taken by Dr. Mandefro because of the ways that she chose to deviate from the Eri/Ethio script that we all could recite in our sleep. The portion she deviates from is the portion that tells us don’t share too much of yourself and your personal life since showing any imperfections takes away from the expected image (read: pure, intelligent, innocent, etc., etc., etc.). Dr. Mandefro instead chooses candor, accessibility, an ability to move between her own professional world and that of her low income African American patients, and an equal embrace of her “privileged” friends as well as her struggling patients. As the documentary unfolded I found Dr. Mandefro engaging and just a joy to observe. In watching her I saw a woman I hope to be like. Unasuming, passionate, who grows from her own mistakes, who is not ashamed to share her mistakes, who values all, and who is trying to do something about a problem that is so huge people expect her contributions to be too small to make an impact. Her response to this last point? “Why not try.”

Something else I appreciate about Dr. Mandefro is that she appears to accept herself imperfections and all. Too many times in our community people are expected to put on an air of perfection. In our community it is dangerous to expose your imperfections because people tend to amplify that so your intentions and accomplishments suddenly are diminished. However, in discussing HIV and black women Dr. Mandefro shares her own personal dating life and the regretted decisions she has made. In doing so she stays true to the whole point of this documentary: that we, all black women, are in the same boat when it comes to risk for HIV infection due to the place and power we are (aren’t?) given in today’s society whether it be in the U.S. or Ethiopia. She could have told this story without sharing her own personal life, but in doing so she makes the problem more relevant to a priveledged educated Ethiopian American woman like myself.

Dr. Mandefro, if you ever happen to see this post I want to say keep up the good work. Keep being true to yourself. Keep sharing your life with us as long as it does not hurt you. You are an inspiration to me and many more. Your candor and transparency are a breath of fresh air and I commend you for your strength. Strength in speaking your convictions, strength in not being ashamed of who you are, and strength to follow the path you feel you have been led to.
As I close – I leave you with some relevant quotes from The Alchemist:

Courage is the quality most essential to understanding the Language of the World.
The Alchemist
The alchemist to Santiago.

“There is only one way to learn,” the alchemist answered. “It’s through action. Everything you need to know you have learned through your journey.”
The Alchemist

People are afraid to pursue their most important dreams, because they feel that they don’t deserve them, or that they’ll be unable to achieve them.
The Alchemist

If someone isn’t what others want them to be, the others become angry. Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.
The Alchemist

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