Growing Pains When TIA Moments Get the Best of Me

The most profound lessons Africa has taught me are how resilient a body and soul can potentially be, and that family loyalty can differentiate poverty from hopelessness.  It is common to see a village woman carrying a giant sack of potatoes on her head, which is so heavy that it requires two people to hoist it up for balancing.  Meanwhile, she is toting her toddler on her back and a hand-crafted hoe in her hands.  A common village man can push a bike without gears up hill with firewood stacked as high as the rider.  Of course both of these tasks are performed after digging up potatoes for hours or chopping and de-leafing bushes, respectively.

My grandmother used to resent the fact that getting older entailed outliving most of those who are closest to you.  I can’t imagine going through the same emotional hardships with less life experience, whereas it happens all too often here.  I’ve met many women who have outlived half of their children, not to mention their husbands.  Sometimes it is due to war, and other times it’s just due to lack of access.  Many of my Kenyan peers at work have lost friends and family members from “natural” causes, which is a reality I have never known.  It is typical for an African woman to be physically or sexually abused, along with being female-circumcised.  It baffles me how this is all too common, rarely spoken about, and often not considered wrong; yet these same women are the glue that holds together families.  How do spirits that have endured so much maintain their strength?

Devotion to family is value that is so engrained in the culture.  My upper-middle class African colleagues are expected to support their nieces and nephews, younger siblings, and cousins.  Even my house-lady, who likely makes less than $175 per month, supports her nuclear family along with her relatives that live ‘up country.’  (My American household pays her nearly quadruple what all of our neighbors pay their house-ladies.)  What most amazes me the most is that it is quite common after war for neighbors to raise the orphan children from next-door.  In contrast, in America it is possible that we don’t even know the names of all of the people in the household next-door.  My Eritrean friend affectionately nicknamed his sister ‘Muzungu’ (white person/ foreigner) because she has achieved upper-class in the social strata, but does not share her wealth with their family.  The name seems fitting since I don’t know of any of my American friends (that are not first or second-generation immigrants) who share their paychecks with their families.

Nevertheless, at times the numerous quantities of T.I.A. moments overwhelm my spirit.  T.I.A. stands for This Is Africa, meaning the scenarios that tend to occur in Africa more than other places most often due to the lack of development.  For example, when trying to overcome a bout of homesickness and calling home it is not uncommon for the phone-line to disconnect for no apparent reason.  It’s as though Africa itself interrupts my get-away.

I’m losing the quality that I’ve always defined myself by, which was to assume that people are inherently good.  This has played out in so many ways.  I automatically assume that I am going to be scammed, so I cop an attitude whenever buying anything from a tout.  Black-American women especially, have a notorious reputation for having a negative attitude.  While it was a consistent disposition that I have long questioned, especially since I come from the ‘Chocolate City’ (Washington, DC), I now not only understand it but have adopted it. The bad part is that I too argue that I am justified because in nearly every business transaction, the seller is trying to give me a rate three times the price a Kenyan pays due to my skin color.  I’m sure that Black-American women claim to be justified because there is undeniably still racism throughout America.  When I pride myself in bargaining to half of the price the tout originally suggested, I often discover that I still paid thrice the amount my colleague paid.

I’m imprisoned at night by my fears because I live in the city that has rightfully earned its nick-name, ‘Night-robbery’ in stead of Nairobi.  It still baffles me that I have to take a taxi two blocks away.  It is exhausting always having to be on guard.  Unfortunately the stories of muggings, car-jacking, jumps, and rapes, perpetuate my fears by embodying them.  And then my whole career purpose is to give refugees a second chance to reassemble their lives, yet I’ve discovered that the fraud rate ranges from 50-85% on two of the three types of refugees.  It makes me question if my energy is wisely invested.  I suppose I could think that all of these situations as survival techniques for the desperate.  Nonetheless, the inequity, corruption, and lies still rile me up no matter how mentally and emotionally prepared I ought to be by now.

When I first arrived to Africa, I stayed with a Peruvian woman who has lived in Kenya for more than two decades.  She was the first I asked, and has since given the best answer to the question: Why do you love living in Africa?  She said, “I don’t like life being so perfect and easy.  I like a challenge.”  I’ve never liked fabrics to match perfectly, I feel guilty and undeserving if I have the nicest things, and while others enjoy challenging themselves physically and mentally. I thrive off of challenging myself socially.  I have a sense of pride after I find an alternative way to get things done over the obvious way.  I enjoy trying to get to know people who are so different from me by testing the social norms of what questions I can get away with asking.

Reconciling the fact that this spectrum of emotions derives from the same place is complicated.  My roommate says that he lives in Africa because, “It is where I feel the most alive.”  His happiness, anger, and sadness are so much more poignant on this continent than anywhere else.  It is true to some extent for me as well; I am never numb here.

I suppose one of the biggest lessons I’ve personally learned from this experience is that I can create a life for myself anywhere.  I can open myself up enough to be able to quickly establish a support group of friends, which is imperative; I can test my stomach enough to try a wide variety of foods in order to discover my favorite eating spots. I can be brave enough to explore sites of the likes I’ve never seen.  If it weren’t for my lofty ambitions, I honestly believe that I could be happy living anywhere.

3rd World Norms

It has come to be that a camel carrying jerry cans of water in front of a Shell Gas Station is normal. Reading a sign outside of a brand new cinema while a scrawny black bull crosses the walkway seems everyday. A barefoot child chasing a ring formed coat-hanger with a stick is an expected site. Watching children hold onto strings that are tied to the handles of colored plastic bags and run to fill the bags with air, like balloons, still makes me grin. A home door made of a stretched out metal trashcan is hardly noticeable. A ’store’ made of sticks the size of my legs that is mostly water-proof, even though there is no mortar or concrete used, is no longer noteworthy. Security guards in front of every single building, even if it is a personal home, is completely necessary. A child excrementing on the street-side directly outside of his home hardly makes me bat an eye. I wonder if I’m presently more comfortable in Africa than America.

The Unique Refugee Claim of Eritreans:
Each ethnicity of refugee applicants that we interview tends to have similar persecution claims. Logically this is because masses are often persecuted for the same reason, their race, religion, political affiliation, ethnicity, or gender.
All of the people I interviewed in Northern Ethiopia were Eritrean. Eritrea is a very small country that used to be part of Ethiopia until a little over a dozen years ago. While Ethiopia prides itself in being the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa that has not been colonized, Eritrea has been colonized several times over, including by Ethiopia depending on who explains the history. The people look the same, eat the same food, share much of the same culture, and speak the same language as in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Eritreans and Ethiopians alike will explain to foreigners that this is a war amongst governments, not amongst people. It is not personal.

The main reasons that people tend to be persecuted in Eritrea are because of: not being of the Orthodox Christian religion, disagreeing with the Government, and due to fleeing. There are brave Protestants, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses who devotedly practice their faith despite the closing of their churches, laws prohibiting these practices, and fellow congregants whom are mysteriously locked away and never heard from again.

If Eritrean citizens refuse to participate in National Service, they will be jailed and tortured indefinitely, and will likely die from the persecution and starvation. After graduating from secondary school, every single citizen, men and women alike, for many years have been required to participate in the National Service. Although the Government claims the Service is for two years (I think), people who enlist never know when they will be legally released. Some of the assignments include: serving as teachers, yet are not paid even half of their salary; cooking, cleaning, and sexually pleasing senior officials and enlisting in the military; and are forced to fight a war in which they don’t believe. The reason many Eritrean citizens don’t agree with the war against Ethiopia is, well in the words of a tipsy UN Peacekeeper General who I met at a barbeque: “Would you want to fight a country that has a massive budget and superior technology in comparison, has US backing, and is vastly larger and overall more powerful than your side?” Duh! Don’t get me wrong; many Eritreans are grateful for the fact that their homeland is recognized as an autonomous country; nevertheless, they are sad to have to give up the futures of their children, and their personal security to their own Government in order to sustain this independence. The Eritrean Government, like the Ethiopian Government, is paranoid to a degree that rivals Aldous Huxley’s Big Brother. Phone calls are tracked. If someone calls from Ethiopia, the phone call is frequently monitored and the recipient can be accused of spying for Ethiopia. If someone is thought to have fled, then the family can be tortured for encouraging the ‘treason.’ All are viewed as spies. Since these young teenagers have fled to avoid National Service or have escaped imprisonment from having violated one of the obscure rules while serving, one of the most dreadful aspects of my job is requiring these same Eritrean males who are of the ages 18-25 to sign the American mandatory document that promises they will report to the American draft if need be.

The most ironic reason for being persecuted in Eritrea is because of having fled their home country and going to the ‘enemy country,’ Ethiopia. In other words, anyone who leaves Eritrea is thought to have gone to Ethiopia and therefore is thought of as a spy for the Ethiopian Government. What was hard for me to understand as an American who comes from a big city is that the local security forces actually do track where family members move. Citizens are not permitted to gather in groups, as the Government is afraid that it is for political reasons to oppose the Government’s policies. I had to wrap my brain around the fact that in most places in the world, people live where their parents and grandparents were raised. They get married, have children, go to school, work, bury their friends, and die all in the same town. After grasping this reality, it is more understandable as to why Government enforcers know the whereabouts of each of their citizens and with whom they associate religiously.

One thing this job has helped me realize is that there is a difference between wars amongst people and wars amongst Governments. When I think of the personal wars, I think of Congolese youth opposition members (who seem like US teenage gangsters) busting down neighbors’ doors, raping every female in the household, and beating to a pulp each of the boys with whom they once played. In the case of Eritrea, the Government has betrayed its citizens, as people are in danger by the system that is supposed to represent and protect them. No one is safe anywhere in that country because if you are on the side of the Government now - if you are ever irrationally determined to be a spy- your life and the life of your family will be over as you know it. I wouldn’t dare speculate which type of war is worse.

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