Revisiting Intersectionality & Life in the Margins in Development Work

I’ve taken a conscious effort to take a break from this blog for quite some time. While this act was deliberate, apologies are in order. I am sorry.

I invested so much into this blog as a place of escape from what seemed a constant barrage of forced otherness within a community, country, and culture I didn’t think twice to count myself as part of and expected others to do the same without a question.

I went from excitedly describing my intersecting identity stories to relative strangers in search of connection, friendship to a new and deafening silence. It is when we become familiar with the forced censorship of all that we are or all we aim to be that dangerous things happen.

I began to judge others.
I concluded nasty things about the worldviews of others based on the conclusions or statements of finality they made about me.
My patience ran thin.
Second chances didn’t exist.
Relationships broke down.
I had no places where I fully felt home and the places that served as my temporary abodes bode no solutions to my ills.
I desperately wanted to find those like me. I wanted solutions but my brain felt too racked to have any come of any fruition.
I retreated within myself. I commiserated with others that felt similar pains but were similarly lost on solutions to their own problems.

We sat in our misery together but we were alone.

It is in that space of loneliness where idleness and self-doubt become bedfellows. Self-doubt poisons the process to understand the inquiries of all that we are, how we came to be, and all that we can be. Self-doubt and Potential have never been close. It is understandable. Inaction never knew how to accommodate the fire that aimed to keep burning; so she stomped her out.

I don’t want the story of my own fire to ever end that way. So I’ve chosen to understand my own process of ignition as well as the interactions that fan or dampen that flame.

Reconceptualizing identity, the politics around identity, and revisiting intersectionality have helped me heal from some of those burns.

As of late, sadness has hit me strongest when I took all that was happening to me as isolated and uniquely individual.

“Few can relate to what I am going through as a black woman, Canadian national, raised in the States in a Burundian home” I thought.

When I talked to other black women working in development, I felt some sense of coming home. They too, were going through deep frustration with the things they were experiencing in predominantly white, voluntourist settings. In development work, “women of color continue to occupy positions both physically and culturally marginalized within dominant society” as critical race theorist, Kimberle Crenshaw, notes. This familiarity with marginalization was an aspect of this work we hadn’t expected to be so taxing to our already weary souls.

But I didn’t feel full solidarity until I began to diversify the people I turned to for help that were experiencing varied forms of oppression in their experiences abroad. It then became clear that across geographies, experiences of “racism” and sexism, among a range of other “isms”, were not just isolated and individual events but rather social and systemic conflicts. I found strength in sharing experiences.

The issues we experienced occurred within and across our varied racial, gendered, and classed ideas of ourselves. And I believe that the solutions we will create will be as diverse as the group we are; the group of friendship and community that has become my home.

Moving through my experience in Burundi does not have to involve a negotiation of my multiple identities. Nor does it require expecting the Burundians, expats, and all in between I meet to automatically “get” how I identify myself because I am realizing that I can’t hold myself to that same standard for others. In fact, being Burundian for me cannot mean the same thing for another Burundian unless we went through all of the same life experiences and intersecting histories. I can either remain alone and keep dreaming that someone exactly like me exists but what would such an unfulfilling search do for the greater goal of tackling interlocking systems of domination that oppress so many like and unlike me.

In bell hooks’ piece on “Home Place as the Site of Resistance,” I am reminded that the site of intersectional negotiation doesn’t need to be centered within the realms of a single identity such as race, class, gender. Rather, the site for negotiation can occur within the margins, and the language of resistance is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way we choose to live. It is there, within the margins where I will find and learn to resist in solidarity with others. It is there where I will never be alone. It is there where joy and love coexist and will challenge us and the systems we live in to grow.

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Learning to Look Up

I’m finally learning to look people in the eye in Bujumbura. And it’s been one of the most challenging, necessary, and thrilling tasks I’ve pushed myself to do as of late.

With almost every interaction, my inability to speak and only understand Kirundi has confused people to no end. What often hurt the most was when my high expectations for connection with some people seemed to be shot down when they’d say something like “well then, you are NOT Burundian” with some impressive finality. And it takes more energy than I know I have to convince them otherwise in one conversation. But usually I’m so shocked by the negation of my identities that their words silence me and only manifest into emotions by the time I lay my head down to bed.

So I began avoiding the stares in what I thought was an effective defense mechanism.

It was not.

Until three weeks ago, the end of my nights in Burundi left me feeling defensive, overanalyzing my interactions, and were beginning to make me an angrier person.

That began to break my heart. It hurts to become a version of yourself you don’t always recognize.

That new version of my self didn’t write as much, didn’t hold enough eye contact with passing bike riders when walking around town with her boyfriend, and felt resentful for not wanting to hold his hand around town for fear of more stares to avoid.

That woman is not me but she is who I have been as of late and I’m trying to change that.

I’m trying to bottle that version of myself and tuck her away into a corner of my heart where I hide memories of all my former selves. I’m trying to be with my whole heart and take in as much of Burundi as it will allow me to absorb.

I’m learning to be stronger and I’m trying to grow.

That has manifested in many ways as of late.

One way has been through love. Orion, said boyfriend, and I started taking Kirundi lessons together. Let me tell you, this guy was MEANT to speak Kirundi and he doesn’t give himself enough credit for the progress he’s making.

During our lessons, I’m internally fighting with myself between my impatience and frustration for struggling with grammar. But when I pull myself out of the mess of my self-analysis, I notice his excitement at the process of learning and mastering a new language. Our instructor, Vianney, seems fascinated to have me as a student because I understand the language he is trying to teach me but I have the hardest time having conversations. I see him notice my frustrations and he endearingly challenges himself to think of new ways to push me to keep trying.

Vianney, our dynamic Kirundi instructor.

Vianney, our dynamic Kirundi instructor. Photo: © Karen Maniraho

When Orion (check out his blog here!) and I walk around and he laughs at some of the truly impressive feats he notices around town, such as the defiance of physics at some of the goods bicycles can transport, I find some motivation to stop being afraid of judgment from my peers. I find motivation to look up and experience my time here more fully.

And when I can’t find the motivation to look at people on my own, I hide behind my camera.

For work, my co-fellow and best friend here, Joanna, and I traveled to parts of Bujumbura Mairie Province for the International Day of the Girl. Our goals were to share the dreams these girls had for themselves and then hold a day for the girls to see a photo exhibit of their stories and see each others aspirations. We also paired them with strong, female role models in the Burundian community so they could see for themselves their dreams were indeed possible.

Joanna as she interviews women of an Ishaka solidarity group. Ishaka (“courage for the future) is a CARE Burundi initiative aiming to empower adolescent girls socially and economically by proving it is possible to generate savings and income from their own resources.

Joanna as she interviews women of an Ishaka solidarity group. Ishaka (“courage for the future) is a CARE Burundi initiative aiming to empower adolescent girls socially and economically by proving it is possible to generate savings and income from their own resources. Photo: © Karen Maniraho

At first, all of the feelings of discomfort I was too familiar with surged forward as soon as I pulled out my camera out (THAT’s a whole other conversation). But as we carried on our interviews, it overwhelmed me to see how much pain and joy came from these girls as they shared parts of their stories with me and excitedly began volunteering for me to take their photos. They were especially excited that I’d be providing a copy to them afterwards.

“You want to give us our photos?” they asked me, in Kirundi.

“Ego…”

The women looked knowingly around to each other and whispered for a while.

“Eh, me first, then!!”

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Photo: © Karen Maniraho

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Some camera shyness pre-interviews. Photo: © Karen Maniraho

And then it didn’t matter so much that our conversation was limited – what mattered was the honour that came with hearing the story of Liliane, who, on the hardest of days, dreams of becoming a car dealer and providing a better future for her young daughter.

Liliane and her daughter. Liliane dreams to one day be financially independent  as a future car dealer.

Liliane and her daughter. Liliane dreams to one day be financially independent as a future car dealer. Photo: © Karen Maniraho

Or from Anita, who beamed with every caress and kiss she gave to her child as she told us how due to her participation in an Ishaka solidarity group, she’s realized the importance of building up her own capital. Ishaka (“courage for the future) is a CARE Burundi initiative aiming to empower adolescent girls socially and economically by proving it is possible to generate savings and income from their own resources.

Anita as she cares for her child. Anita is thankful for everything she's learned through Ishaka and hopes she's on her way to becoming a dynamic female entrepreneur.

Anita as she cares for her child. Anita is thankful for everything she’s learned through Ishaka and hopes she’s on her way to becoming a dynamic female entrepreneur. Photo: © Karen Maniraho

Or how much joy comes from the giggling of kids trying to sneak into every young woman’s portrait. Or the bigger bursts of laughter from a surprise shot that makes you forget to focus because of the surprise of your own joy.

I dare you to not smile. Photo: © Karen Maniraho

Faster than I am prepared for, I know these moments will shape me into the woman I imagined I could grow into from being here. And so much of the credit of that change will come from these interactions. It will come from lifting my head up to look someone in the eye and say, I am here to listen and learn. It will come from the great honour of experiencing the rarely heard stories of brilliant people and then, seizing my privilege to do something bigger than me.

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The Token Black Girl

“I discovered race in America and it fascinated me.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah.

Growing up between Canada and the States, I was always one of two black girls in my classes. Most of my school friends were white and I often quickly discovered that for them I existed in this precarious intersection between being an honourable ambassador of all things “black” that simultaneously didn’t match stereotypes of blackness they had of which no act of my own diplomacy could erase.

Global Health Corps is unique in that “American” fellows are matched with a “national” fellow from your placement country. Things are slightly different with my co-fellow relationship because we are both Burundian, but for all intensive purposes, I am the American fellow.

And the similarities to my experiences as the token black girl in the States parallel strikingly in the expat community here too. In Burundi, my Americanness affords me a ticket into what can feel like a twistedly insular expat development scene.

The day after I got my hair re-braided my hair I prepared myself to go to what I will hereafter refer to as The Expat Club. I’ve been frequently finding myself at Expat Club gatherings where clusters of expats in Burundi get together to reconnect with friends. I admittedly see myself in the eyes of those expats that come together here in our Club wearily in search of the quiet comfort of speaking English after a week of exhaustingly stumbling with French at work. We convene at exquisite homes nestled in the visibly upper echelons of Burundian society and we exchange development buzzwords like someone’s keeping count.

And yet, in their eyes I also saw the reflection of one of two black, Burundian girls in our quaint club that is trying to ignore the comments about how rich her skin is and “just try to have fun.”

I was unsure of why my patience was so thin. It may have had something to do with the taut newness of my microbraids. Or the annoying crick in my neck that begged me to reevaluate the cost-benefit analysis of having my hair braided by two women at the same time.

But ignoring, the strain of being overanalytical and the strain in my neck, I began to enjoy myself.

With awe, I listened to the stories many people had of other times working in Africa, each nursing a local beer or French wine with a savoir faire of Western culture I identified with. I giggled at the repeated shared longings for smoothies and skiing I had never understood.

I scanned the room in search of something until I met eyes with the one other Burundian there as we listened to people talk about Burundian culture and how they wished they had more Burundian friends. She nodded at me and I wondered what about her story had brought her here too.

I softly whispered to a friend that I wish more Burundians had been invited and then tried to forget the nostalgia of being the token black friend in the States and tried to have fun.

At first, I enjoyed the ease and familiarity of reach for the same cultural references that automatically formed friendships for me.

We laughed about the things we missed about home.

“Low-fat milk.”

“Tofu.”

“This, like, totally quirky shop near my place in Williamsburg that has THE BEST Chinese food.

I sighed and added, “Chipotle.” Everyone laughed about that which made me happy and we were wrapped by the familiarity of ‘Murica that was so easily within our reach.

Quickly, I became fascinated with one woman seated near me. Her wrists were covered with a number of hand woven goods in various shades of red, green, and black that broadcasted their Africanness with as much of a shout. She spoke with a knowing tone that made me nervous and with a confidence of those that may have never been told she was wrong. Her sentences began with “When I was in Ethiopia,” or “When I was in Tanzania,” “When I was in Mali,” and ended with continental stereotypes about “Africa.” She both intrigued and frustrated me.

I don’t fully understand how but before I asked where she had gotten her jewelry, my Americanness was wrongly mistaken for whiteness in her head as she talked about how she wished “African” men didn’t flirt with her just because she was white and, later, how she wished people could just be on time here.

“My dad and cousins and uncles are African men. I’m sure they simply just think you’re cool.”

“Oh, well, you know what I mean.”

“I’m afraid I don’t.”

My mind trailed off as she told me how I was different and in that split second of discomfort, I remembered all of the times being the token black friend in the States turned sour; where otherwise lovely nights, ended with statements like “Oh, but you don’t count.”

I was not American like her. My membership in the Expat Club was different. And I groaned to think we most certainly would meet again.

A few days later, I saw how things could and one day will be. Axel, one of our team’s Burundian fellows told us he would be stopping by with a few friends of his. In a few moments, three cars pulled into the driveway of our fortress and a fabulous entrance of ten cousins, brothers, and sisters waltzed in, amstels, sambusas, and meatballs on hand, and added some more life to our party. It was perfect. We spoke French, some English, struggled through Kirundi, watched as my co-fellow, Joanna, assuredly showed us how to open a bottle of Amstel with her teeth, and shared the unique joys of living here. And, finally, I felt like my two worlds meshed and I belonged.

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Umurundikazi Part 1

Exactly a month ago today, I arrived in Burundi to begin my yearlong Global Health Corps Fellowship. The thing about traveling that I love is that you get to witness so much, share so much, and grow so much. But that also means that you are often witnessing so much and growing too quickly to explain. Enter this blog. I want this blog to be a place where I can keep my family and friends updated during my fellowship year and potentially beyond. But more importantly, I want this space to be an open and thoughtful place for debate, reflection, connection, and for finding our own definitions of community because Lord knows I’m trying to figure that out and it’s no fun to do alone.

So, a little bit about myself. I am Burundian. Burundian through and through or Umurundikadzi in Kirundi. I was born in Canada and raised between Canada and the United States. Almost all of my extended family lives right here in this beautiful heart of Africa. Last time I came here was in 2009 but not for very long. I understand Kirundi but don’t speak it. French was my first language but when I learned English I lost a lot of my grammar and vocabulary skills. Today, my French is decent and sometimes surprisingly fluent with a Primus beer on hand. But I’m on my way to speaking French and Kirundi fluently one day soon.

Did you get all of that?

I am a Burundian-Canadian-American woman that understands Kirundi and speaks French. That sentence as of late has been the condensed version of my intersecting identities that I have used minimum five times per day since I’ve arrived here.

To me, all of that makes complete sense.

To many people that I’ve met, it ranges from completely understandable to confusing as all hell.

To some, its complexity negates me from even being Burundian.

And that is frustrating, hurtful, and intriguing all at the same time.

I wish I could say my first night here felt like coming back to a home away from home but to be frank, within a few hours of landing I felt upset- scratch that uncomfortable- scratch that angry- at my identity. The first night I was here I suddenly felt so alone once I finally laid my head down to bed. The sounds were new, the room was new, the loneliness was new, the lack of light polution in my room was new; Burundi was new and that made me so mad. I didn’t expect Burundi to feel like this. I’ve traveled before but this yearning for geographic comfort was completely foreign to me. I missed my family in a way I hadn’t felt before and I desperately wished I spoke Kirundi so I wouldn’t feel like such a Burundian fraud.

People are still trying to figure me out just as I am with them. I’m eventually going to get used to my identity elevator speech and maybe with time it will become briefer and briefer. Eventually, I’ll enjoy people frustratingly deciding between speaking English, French, or Kirundi all within one sentence once they meet me. And eventually, I’ll laugh at what I hear about me when people don’t know I understand Kirundi because they heard me speaking English with my friends.

Eventually, things will make sense. I already came to Burundi with the worries of not feeling Burundian “enough.” But I also arrived here with a deep commitment to reconnect with my identity or at least the parts of it that couldn’t be cultivated within my community of maybe five Burundian families in my quaint land of Pacific Northwest suburbia. I’m tired of not feeling like I know my many, many, MANY cousins beyond small conversations about “how school is going” for them via international phone calls. I’m embarrassed of not having Burundian memories. I’m fed up with the all too familiar gulp of tears that collect in my throat each time I wish I could speak Kirundi on the phone with my grandmother, my nyokuru.

It’s time for me to reconnect with Burundi. Scratch that. It is time to reconnect with one of my many homes.

 

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The Continued Irrelevance of Black Life by Karen Maniraho

After a 15-month trial and a jury deliberation that left many on the edge of their seats, a verdict was finally reached on the Florida killing of Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn. Dunn was charged with four counts of attempted murder and a mistrial was declared on a first-degree murder charge for the death of Davis. 

That verdict hurt. As a compassionate person living in America, it hurt. As someone that believes in justice being served to innocent grieving families, it hurt more. And as a black person living in America, it hurt most. The context and color of a young black male’s skin translated to enough ammunition for a white man to feel disrespected and threatened yet again.

Jordan Davis was a good kid. As was Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo; the list of good black men and women that have died unfortunately goes on and people in the black community know why. It is not enough to boil down these deaths to “Stand Your Ground” laws or gun laws or the useless, circular race reversal imaginations of “if the races had been reversed,” x” would have happened.” Rather, it is clear to us that the justice system is not yet adequately prepared to uphold the value of black life before the law.

No matter how good of a student, friend, man, or citizen, a black person, particularly a black male is, we are reminded that our characters can’t protect us from unfair death. And in death, no matter how much we attempt to canonize our lives, our legacies can’t afford us justice.

I’m tired of expecting disappointment with these cases. I’m tired of it feeling like the victim is the one on trial in these cases. I’m tired of black parents fearing their kids won’t come back home to them because of realities like this. Today would have been Jordan Davis’ 19th birthday; I’m tired of birthdays being missed and replaced by funeral anniversaries. I’m tired of black parents having to restrain talking publicly about how good their sons were until after an unjust verdict is reached concerning their son’s death. I’m tired of watching black parents having to pray for the killers of their children because having faith in the justice system will never be enough.

I am not alone in my pain. Talk to a black male and see how it feels to live while black in America. Ask the black mothers and fathers grieving with the Davis family, how it feels to not be able to fully protect their children from the harm of a country that sees race before character. Ask black youth living in predominantly white communities how it feels when their anger about black deaths is characterized as “dramatic,” “misplaced”, or ” overreactions.”

These high profile, racially charged cases capture the attention of so many Americans largely because it is easy to make up your mind when these events get trivialized as a “good black child” left dead because of a “bad white man” or when they are trivialized as a “loud music trial” or when the story is summed up by hoodies and skittles.

But living while black in America means grappling with the fact that our skin color or the coded perceptions of our identity could be reason enough for our demise and justice will most likely be denied to us. And with each verdict, a great majority of Americans remain with an insufficient vocabulary to discuss the daily and institutional effects of systemic racism that black Americans live and die with every day.

We cannot apologize for the pain of our community and our continued crushed hopes in the justice system. Davis’ case shows us that the justice system is not yet the place to discuss race relations but unfortunately for now, it seems that it’s all we’ve got. In the meantime, we will not remain quiet against injustice. As Ron Davis, the father of the slain Jordan Davis said, “…My son will not be just another day at the office.’ You won’t kill my son and be stoic.” 

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“Chris Bishop was drinking in front of a liquor store when we met. A resident in the local homeless shelter, he told me the following: At the age of 13, Chris killed his father, stabbing him with a knife after a childhood of abuse. He spent the next 18 years in correctional facilities. ‘When he was drunk and mad he would hold me out the apartment window and threaten to drop me to the street, eight floors below. He beat me and my mother all the time. I have been drinking ever since. To forget.’ When I asked how he wanted to be described, his eyes teared up and he said, ‘I am human, like everyone else.’”

See the full story at policymic

“I am Human, like everyone else.”

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Trayvon Martin & Black Males in America by Karen Maniraho

trayvon-martinRacism is most certainly not dead. I hope that this statement is absorbed as undeniably obvious as the country begins to get acquainted with the utterly painful and regretful shooting and death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. It is also without a doubt that the country is currently finding itself in a moment of reflection. Floridians, Americans, and the international community are being vividly reminded of how differently individuals move through this world and how our lives can literally be threatened and ended by markers of perceived or presented race, gender, and class status. It has been comforting to see people everywhere empathizing with Trayvon’s family by speaking their minds. For too long, black families have been burying their loved ones, fighting against injustice, and all the while also teaching their kids to tread softly and not attract suspicion to law enforcement officials. People all over the world have mobilized and stood in solidarity with Martin’s family, just as they did with Troy Davis’ family just six months ago. But just as we chanted “I am Troy Davis” and just as Trayvon’s mother thanked the crowd of the Million Hoodie March with her phrase “our son is your son,” one thing remains clear: I, as a black female, will never be a black male or will claim to know what that is like in the context of an American criminal justice system. With that positionality stated though, I and many others sympathize and will fight for justice along with a family reeling from the sudden loss of their baby; Trayvon’s story as a black male fits into a larger racialized history in this country that disproportionately shifts the way black people, particularly black males, live their lives. But as someone who is deeply distraught by the systemic violence that affects black males everyday in the form of racial profiling, I as well as anyone else in the world, need to take this moment to change the institutions that put bright, young, black men at risk everyday.

At the University of Washington, student leaders from the Ethnic Cultural Center, the student government, and from the local community mobilized against the UW Police Department’s proposition to relocate their new police department across the street from a location many students of color call their “home away from home” on a predominantly white campus. Three thousand miles away from Florida, students feared that the police’s proposed relocation would result in more cases of racial profiling for students of color and would result in an even more strained relationship with police officers and students that are increasingly associating police figures with men such as Sanford Chief of Police Bill Lee. Pleas for a different location were eloquently said and openly heard by the UW Police Chief and today UW students find themselves more comfortable in speaking their minds against injustices in our backyard and literally a stone’s throw away from our “homes.”

Young people worldwide are trying to poke holes into a glass ceiling of the  criminal justice system. Millions of people, including the likes of Reverend Al Sharpton and Congressional Black Caucus Chair Emanuel Cleaver, are asking themselves, how could a man who claimed to be part of a community neighbourhood watch group kill a man in cold blood because he looked suspicious? People are asking, how could a man not be arrested or charged after admitting to shooting this man? And what is the validity of a self-defense statement against a child who was not armed in any way and was in fact running for his life before being fatally confronted by Zimmerman? What is Zimmerman standing his ground against? A threatening bag of Skittles? A dangerous hoodie? A frighteningly unopened bottle of iced tea? We’ve listened to Zimmerman’s call, we’ve wept at Trayvon’s desperate pleas for help, we’ve waited for justice; So many questions and so few arrests…

Undeniably, George Zimmerman needs to be arrested and convicted for the hate crime of killing an unarmed, 17-year old boy. Skittles and iced tea do not, under any law, count as arms, the National Rifle Association can surely agree with that. I do not think a self-defense statement will stand as justification for the senseless killing of this young teen. Many are claiming that if the racial roles between Zimmerman and Martin had been reversed, the lack of arrest in this case would not be playing out as it is today. However, this is acting upon absurd and simplified assumptions that

  1. Zimmerman is indeed white.
  2. Hate crimes can only be committed by white people.
  3. Black masculinity is naturally associated with criminal or suspicious behaviours.

These are the underlying assumptions that are being carried out in the discourses of this case and these are the assumptions that need to be challenged. The criminal system needs to be reevaluated and reanalyzed in ways that explain how not only a man such as Zimmerman can be allowed to roam the streets without an arrest as of today but also to explain the disproportionately continued relationships black men have run into with law enforcement officials nationwide. Mothers, fathers, students, community members, EVERYONE all over the world is asking for at least this much. And we do not need another black male being wrongfully killed to begin this necessary process.

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