Photos by Aline Maia
Ashé Cultural Arts Center: The Ashé Cultural Arts Center emphasizes the art contributions of people of African descent in New Orleans. Its focus is support programs, activities, and creative works. Because of these and others motives, it has become the stage for this photo shoot. After all, Mwende and Denisio are artists: they have been using body, clothes and thoughts to talk about themselves, and to explore fashion and identity in the diaspora. Their pictures are like words in a poetry slam and they inspire others. Ashé – located in Central City – has a motivating vibe in this context: The colors on the walls around the building stand out between the cars in the street. The building is an invite for cultural discovery. This mix has helped to capture the soul and feelings beyond what we can see. In this session, subtle details reveal a piece of Africa in the U.S.A.
FEATURED FASHIONS – The Bombchel Factory: The Bombchel Factory is an African fashion wonderland that produces ethically made, high quality garments for sale in Monrovia, Liberia that was started by Archel Bernard, a Liberian-American whose parents fled civil unrest in the West African country. Our team of expert tailors and excited trainees can produce much more than we can sell locally, so we have set our sights on the rest of the world. This is not an NGO that is here today and gone tomorrow. We know Liberians don’t want handouts. Our trainees will develop a trade and a way to support themselves and their families, and we will create gorgeous, contemporary African fashions for a global market.
Mwende: Man, I’m not sure how Denisio puts up with me. I first suggested writing on this weeks topic like two weeks ago because I was telling her about stuff I was writing in my diary (our friendship is like that of 12 year old girls on a constant sleepover sharing secrets), but then I got apprehensive having to write publicly instead of for my own processing and have just sort of … delayed. I’ve also been just sorta going through it with myself recently (which is why I’m all stone faced in this picture and put the shades on) and if you’ve read the post we did called “Creator” which explores our creative processes , you’ll remember:
My depression is the stubborn gatekeeper for my writing, but its also the only thing that makes me feel better when I’m in the thick of a depressive episode
But here we are, way past deadline that I set (whoops) and I’m just gonna write 😀
Recently I bought my plane ticket to go back to Kenya. Last year, I wanted to go and planned to go back in the summer, but finances and my work/poetry schedule didn’t quite work out that way. This summer though, I think I need to go. The last two months have felt like i’ve been in a daze, just going through the motions everyday without really knowing what the motion is or where its taking me. This disconnect that I’ve felt was very similar to the one I started to feel in college when I totally checked out and ran back to Kenya to reconnect with …. something, anything that I knew was familiar and mine. There’s this weird feeling I’ve been having lately in New Orleans; I think part of it has to do with the feelings of a lot of folks I know from New Orleans whose homes and cultures are being threatened by gentrification (colonization’s little cousin). The other day my friend and I were talking about home and memory and he was talking about losing his memory as spaces in his home city disappeared. I feel similarly sometimes when I think of Kenya and it’s a fading memory. It’s been making me have an intense longing for my own home and community, not because its necessarily been threatened, but because hearing people talk of memory and loss and space has made me realize how intentional I need to be with making my own memories of Kenya now that I am an adult and become my own person outside of my family not just here, but there as well. It’s also made me think a lot about what Kenya actually means to me and how I choose to or am forced to remember it, in bits and pieces, like it is being threatened or taken away from me the longer I stay away. As someone who didn’t choose to come to the states and now can leave, its something that’s been on my mind a lot.
After immigrating to the states, the only things I really knew about Kenya had to do with my family and their homes. For most of my childhood, I was under the impression that all of Kenya was the Kenya I knew based on where my family lived, and of course, the capital Nairobi. Growing up in the states, most people who heard about Kenya would ask about Nairobi, but I would have no idea what to tell them because I hadn’t really actually spent time there growing up in Kenya (I mean they’d also ask about or about starving children and wild animals…both of us I suppose were limited by the Kenya we had been exposed to, but damn y’all, I was a kid with very little agency over what I was exposed to, these were some grown ass people who were asking/are still asking these questions)
I also didn’t really know what to say to folks outside of anecdotal memories and experiences I have in Kenya. Since I was little, I have not really lived there for any long extended period of time, and because I left Kenya young, I’m still not sure to this day how many memories I actually formed and how many have been reconstructed by people’s retellings. My childhood memories of Kenya are like puzzle pieces whose shape kept changing so I never actually know how to connect them or what the real image is supposed to be. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the Kenya in my head as a child was not a reality. As my mom recently reminded me, the Kenya we left, the Kenya that many Kenyans fled in the 1990s was a state under an oppressive and violent dictator (Moi).
And because I have TERRIBLE memory of names and there’s a lot of name overlap in my family (So when you say Kalondu you could be mentioning me or like 3 other family members so you gotta say which family you calling to as well lol), I would often confuse stories or cousins much to my own embarrassment at family functions back home (but also in my defense like DAMN! There’s like 100 of us running around the country I can’t keep track lol -_-).
The last time I went to Kenya was in 2012. In many ways, it felt like the first time I had ever been to Kenya because it was the first time I went without with my immediate family and went to do something other than be with my family there. I studied abroad in my junior year of college and after a moment of honesty where I realized so much of my feeling lost at college was the disconnection I started to feel from myself and my culture when I left my parent’s house and the surrounding Kenyan community. I wanted to reconnect to a part of myself that up until that point I hadn’t realized how integral it was to who I was. I realized I needed some sort of personal connection to my birth land outside of family and studying abroad also gave me the opportunity to be in Kenya for an extended period of time (6 months) rather than the usual 1-3 months during the summer. So I applied and was accepted into the program and had a wonderful 6 months discovering myself in my homeland with a supportive group of people who really helped me understand and feel cultural pride.
LMAO YEAH RIGHT! I WENT TO STUDY ABROAD WITH A BUNCH OF WHITE KIDS
It was…alot. I won’t go into the day to day examples of white fuckery that ensued, but slowly but surely, me and the only other POC (a white passing Mexican) just pulled away from the group. Looking back , I clearly should have been more intentional about how I went back to Kenya if my goal was to re-connect with my culture and people (reflecting on mine and the experiences of other folks of color who studied abroad, I’m not so convinced that most study abroad programs, especially those taking people to “developing nations” aren’t inherently problematic both in programming and the participants it draws ie. those who have access to college education, usually meaning white wealthy and generally clueless outside their own contexts). The one thing that was generally positive about having to be around them the whole time was that I was the only one who really knew Swahili so when we went out, I could get away from them by slipping into my native tongue or just stepping away from the group and blending in. This encouraged me to speak more in Swahili because when together we almost exclusively spoke English which made me realize 1. how outdated the Swahili I spoke was (because I only speak to my parents in Swahili! So basically, I sound like a 50 year old women with broken Swahili in an American accent) and 2. how little I actually knew about the language structure (in Kenya you don’t study Swahili in primary school so I just learned it and maintained through speaking) 3. How much my Swahili had slipped since leaving my parents house where I actually had a community of Kenyans who regularly spoke Swahili. There were definitely moments though when I felt very out of place, especially those moments when it was assumed I had grown up there my whole life but because I hadn’t, I didn’t have context for some jokes, politics or everyday events that have happened. Times when I had no idea what anyone around me was saying, but had distinct feelings they were talking about me, and I don’t know if I blame them. I very much am trying to figure out how to move in the world in my identity, and everything I’ve learned here gets flipped on its head when I’m in Kenya. I actually don’t like to go for short periods of time because I feel like just when I’m getting settled into myself there, I am yanked back to the states and it takes me a month to get back into myself here where English tumbles from my mouth more clumsily and slower than usual, people speak too fast, move too fast and are more concerned with you than what I get used when visiting Kenya.
When those in the study abroad program left to go back to the states, I stayed behind for a couple of extra weeks to kick it with my family. I did a lot of reflecting during that period and realized how much anger and frustration I had been holding back during the program. I was processing everything happening externally on a deeply personal level, not as someone trying to learn something about a country, but a person trying to relearn themselves in the country they came from with people who often fetishized the experience and lived existences of my people. From the strangely voyeuristic home stays to the classes we took at the University of Nairobi (but not with other students at the University because we couldn’t mix with the common folks), I realized how much I hated being surrounded, silenced and feeling defeated by whiteness during that study abroad trip and how familiar it felt to my experiences at Tulane. And it wasn’t just me that was impacted by whiteness. Spending that time there, having a lot of conversations and asking questions to folks from Kenya about their ideology and views on the country/world and it reminded me how far the hand of white supremacy reaches. It made me have to unlearn a lot of my own romanticization of Kenya as a ‘homeland’ vastly different than the United States (And of course it is, in very critical foundational ways, but in many ways man, globalization is real). It is also a more conservative and the separation of church and state is very close, so as a Queer woman who is still trying to find God in herself, I am not the best candidate for ‘went to the American and came back and made us proud award’ in certain circles.
Recently I’ve been talking with my roommate who is also a Black immigrant about some of our immigrant struggles and how it impacts our mental health. In these talks, I am reminded of how much my Africaness/immigrantness affects me on a day to day basis despite the assimilation I feel to this country. When we talk about different cultural constructions of friendships, family, romantic relationship, depression, whiteness, Westerness, globalness and Blackness, I am reminded that to be an immigrant in the diaspora is to always have a home in two places, but only a guest room. The first post we wrote for Noirlinians covered our challenged concepts of home in the diaspora, but I think I struggle even more to recognize my positioning when I return home to Kenya, especially as I’ve grown older and Kenya has become more than just a familial homeland for me. Strangely though, despite the things mentioned above and generally more stressful day to day due to less technology advancement, my mental health seems to also get better over there. And although I was in a depressive bout last time I went to Kenya, I wasn’t as open about it and I’m not sure how open to be about it (I was talking to a friend from Cameroon the other day after some poet friends and I were writing about mental health and the first thing she said was “oh yeah, my parents don’t believe in therapy” and I was again reminded of what it sometimes means to be African). In a lot of ways though, I am going because I want to be in a place I can get away from America and what it makes Americans and those who live here assimilate into as everyday existence.
I know part of the getting better that happens to me there is because I have not actually formed a life there so every time I go its just an extended stay, not really a commitment that would cause any real stress. But aside from that, I know when I’m in the states I crave the feeling of belonging and anononimity that I felt last time I was in Nairobi. I am always being told by Africans not in Africa that I look distinctly Kenyan which must be true because when I’m at home no one pays me any mind until I speak, then I get a look of confusion because of my accent or my blank face when someone speaks anything other than Swahili to me or speaks in machine gun rhythm.
On another level though, I think its the little things – like turning on the TV and everyone in the commercials and TV shows (except some of the news programs) being Black or POC – the opposite of microagressions (micropacivity?), that bring me down little by little without me noticing in the same way micro aggressions build you up and up as a Black person in the states. There’s a James Baldwin quote that I can’t quite quote but it talks about how white folks in the US suffer, but not because they are white in the way Black folks here suffer because they are Black. In Kenya, while I know that on a macro level, Africans are suffering specifically because of being African in the legacy of colonialism in a way non-Africans on the continent are not, there is still something a micro level to living in a Black nation with a Black leader (no matter how much a puppet) which makes Blackness not the same burden or consideration it is in the states (though there is definitely a sort of caste system in Kenya : whites —> Indians —> indigenous Kenyans). Also, because its not as “developed” its simply not as stressful to be there in the ways it is here.
Not having regular access to high speed internet for two months will probably extend my life span for 5 years. And I won’t be working…I’m going there to write. Hopefully I’ll come back with something I can publish 🙂 Then ima come back looking like
is from the Bomchel Factory in Liberia, a company committed to ethically made clothing by employing Liberians with fair wages and skill training. Top is a hand me down from a friend. I live in crop tops!
In honor of Mwender’s getting to travel back to her homeland (yay!!!!!!) I’ve decided to dedicate my post to the memories I have of Liberia. It has been 28 years since I’ve set foot in my mother’s homeland, and I am not sure when I will be able to return, but my time there is something that crosses my mind often.
I’ve heard it said that the memories of a young child cannot be trusted. I’m not sure where that declaration was proposed to me though I suspect it was in some long forgotten psychology course in undergrad. It was explained that often times, one’s childhood memories are often just your mind visualizing anecdotes told by older family members. So perhaps the vivid 16-bit High Color recollections I have of Liberia are in fact not real, yet everything in me fights against even typing that sentence because I know in my heart that they are as real as the dark room I am writing this in, even if they are inaccurate.
I don’t remember much prior to arriving at my grandmother’s house in Monrovia. I was four, and I knew that we were going for my mother’s father’s funeral. Later on in adulthood, it was revealed to me that my mother also wanted to leave my father and so what was meant to be two weeks stretched out months and months. I can’t recall the plane ride there, which would have been the longest plane ride I’d taken but knowing younger precocious me I was probably very excited and full of questions. I had recently learned how to rhyme words so I can imagine myself writing a poem about the impending adventure of maybe about airplane food. I think I remember getting a small plane pin from a flight attendant.
While the journey remains fuzzy, the ride to my mother’s childhood home is sharp. It was nighttime but I remember exiting the airport and the heat hitting my small body like one thick humid wall. It was hard to catch my breath. This place smelled different. Like acrid burning trash and delicious food and sweet flowers mixing and alternating in my nose. I think I may have cried. A man I did not know but who was offered up to me as “Uncle Something or Other” piled our suitcases in the trunk and atop the car and ushered us quickly into the vehicle. I couldn’t see much out the window but I remember noting how different the roads were here, bumpy and full of potholes. Uncle Something or Other drove fast and I remember my mother fussing at him to slow down. I think this is the first time I rode in a car without a child seat and something about that felt dangerous and great.
Even in all my excitement I eventually fell asleep because that is what I always do in car rides longer than 15 minutes, even to this day. My next memory is of my mother waking me up and excitedly telling me “We’re here! This is it! Look!” In the darkness I remember seeing a huge black iron gate and behind it the biggest house I had ever seen. Big enough to rival any house on Saint Charles Ave. A large white house with green trim and two large balconies. I remember looking at the sky once we stepped out of the car and seeing the silhouette of unfamiliar trees.
When people casually ask me what I remember about Liberia, I tend to tell them the “romantic” memories. The first time I ate cacao fruit and how surprisingly sweet it was, like a fruity gel around smooth seeds that faintly tasted of chocolate. Watching my aunt who was a pastry chef decorate wedding cakes and sneaking out her bagged icings from the fridge to eat as a snack. My grandmother braiding my hair in the parlor and making me bedtime snacks, Warmed Nido with sugar and buttered bread. The adventures I’d have with my neighborhood friends Tita or Marjuon or my cousin Bloh. The funny little lizards, black with orange spots that were everywhere and would frustrate my grandmother as they would somehow always find their way inside of the house. The first time I kissed a girl, Tita.
And then there are the memories, that are just….real. Memories that served as lessons and stuck with me all these years. Though these are the memories that are less often shared, they are the ones that mean the most to me because they helped form my consciousness and made me hyper aware of my privilege as a spoiled american kid. Like the first time I saw a goat killed and made the connection between the farm animals I loved to pet and the food we ate. Not that I hadn’t seen a dead animal before, my father was an avid hunter and emptied deer carcasses were a common sighting in our shed back in Colorado. Yet and still, I had never made the connection between a live animal and dead meat. The domestic workers (typically called houseboys or housegirls in Liberia which I hate because: colonialism) charged with preparing the goat tried everything to get me to go into the house and not watch. The one I was closer with, Jon (he was probably no older than 14) tried to bribe me with promises of candy and television. He even promised to take me to the beach if I would just go inside and not watch. But me in all my stubbornness refused. He finally gave up. He told me to sit and not make any noise. Jon and Opah made the goat lie down on the ground while Opah held its legs. Jon stroked its belly to calm it down. He brought the knife to its throat and in one graceful stroke it was done. It sounded like a baby screaming then stopping abruptly. I think I was in shock for a few moments and then the floodgates opened. Jon escorted me to the house and explained to my grandmother what had happened. My grandmother kept asking me “But why did you want to see it? Why would you watch that?”. I didn’t have an answer. I can’t even offer one now. That night we had goat stew and I remember my tears falling into my plate as I ate. To this day I am grateful for being able to learn and appreciate where my food came from and the effort it took to prepare it.
Then there is the time my friend Tita and I found a small bird in the yard with a broken wing. It was blue and yellow and lay on the ground helplessly fluttering about. I immediately went into nurse mode and we made a splint for our patient with a small scrap of cloth and a stick. We foolishly fed the bird some rice. A few hours later the little bird died. I informed Tita that we would have a funeral and trotted off to the house to find a shoe box and some more cloth. When I returned to the yard Tita was gone. I smelled smoke and followed its trail to the back of the house where I saw Tita standing in front of the coal pot (a sort of outdoor stove/ grill). Next to her feet were the colorful feathers of the bird, in the coal pot was our deceased patient, naked and roasting. Tita smiled, ripped off a tiny drumstick and offered it to me. I think I screamed and started crying and told a very confused Tita that I never wanted to see her again. That night my mom and I had our first talk about privilege and why it was cruel for me to chastise my friend when she did nothing wrong. My mom explained that Tita did not live in a house like ours and did not have a refrigerator full of food like we did. She then explained that most people in this country didn’t have refrigerators full of food, especially people from our tribe and other tribes. She told me that this was not a place where people buried what appeared to be perfectly good food. In the way that you can explain an impending civil war to a child she explained that this was a difficult time for people in this country and that as much fun as I was having I needed to be aware of that and be kind to others. She taught me what the word compassionate meant. Some days later or maybe the following day I remember my mother taking me to Tita’s house, which I had never been to. The walls were made of mud and the corrugated roof was a rusty red. My mother had me apologize to Tita and we hugged. She wasn’t even remotely upset with me and I remember that making me feel ashamed for how silly I acted. I felt a part of me changing and somehow I think I knew that this would be something I would remember for a long time. I was right.
The final memory I have to offer is one which I still don’t completely understand. We were at the waterside market buying periwinkle, tiny snails (which we call “kiss me”) and some fruits. As we are preparing to walk back home a strange man suddenly appears next to us. He was painfully thin and old, his skin like weathered paper bags. His large freeformed locs blocked the sun. He was holding a large cinder block and smiled a toothless grin at me. While still smiling he lifted the cinderblock above our heads as though it were made of paper. I have no description for what he smelled like other than to say that if insanity had a scent, then he reeked of it. My mother turned to me and in what played out like slow motion scene in a movie she grabbed me in her arms at the exact moment the man bought down the concrete cinder block. She dashed across the street with me slung on her hip. We watched the man from the other side, laughing and pointing at me. This was the second time my mother saved a life in Liberia, the first was my father’s eight years before. My parents lived in Liberia during the coup of ’81 and as they were leaving their home one day to check up on my mother’s family, a stray bullet grazed my father’s face, missing his head, just as he turned to answer my mother who asked if he had the keys. The bullet ricocheted off of a pie tin hanging in the kitchen and dropped to the floor. She picked it up and fainted, the first and only time she passed out.
Though I resided there for only a moment, Liberia is a place I attribute to helping form a lot of who I am today. It was a beautiful, strange, difficult, hot place in a lot of the way I find New Orleans to be. When I lived there it was a country on the brink of a 14 year bloody civil war. I can remember seeing men in green uniforms with guns everywhere and smelling smoke constantly. I can remember even in my child’s mind knowing that something big was about to happen. Years later in high school I received a letter from one of my childhood friends Marjuon with a photo of her enclosed. Tita went missing during the war and was never heard from, as were a few of the neighborhood kids and classmates I used to play with. I think about her often. I think of Liberia often. At the beginning of this post I mentioned that childhood memories are shoddy at best. Out of curiosity I called my mother after writing this to compare memories of events, including many I didn’t share here such as visiting a woman with a beautiful lavish house and a pet crocodile, and the time I got very sick and had to drink some weird powdered form of pedialite for weeks. She told me all of my memories were quite accurate and that she wasn’t that surprised. Part of why she wanted to take me to Liberia was for the culture she had been trying in vain to imprint on me by herself in Colorado to stick. She welcomed the culture shock because she wanted me to know where I came from despite of the country I was born to. And I am happy to report that we decided to plan a trip to Liberia together either by the end of this year or early next year. I asked her if she thought after nearly 30 years if it would feel the same. “No, Nothing stay’s the same,” she said. “But it will feel like home.”