“if you do not know where you are going, know from where you come”
This is how my story of ‘returning’ back to my country, Sierra Leone, which in turn began the assessment of my spiritual core begins.
When I entered first year of university at 18, I walked into a new phase of ‘independence’, with a very scattered understanding about my identity. I never quite knew how to respond to questions like, ‘where are you from?’ and ‘how is your English so good?’ To answer those questions, which in retrospect are very racist-inclined, was to open a can of worms that I too, wouldn’t know what to do with. My answer therefore depended on the person and how best I measured our relationship to be. My family are from every corner of the world, the Middle East, Europe, America, East and West Africa and Asia. From everywhere other than Sierra Leone that is. I was heavily disconnected from my extended family and removed from experiences like, “I am going to spend the weekend with my cousins or grandparents”. All I knew for certain was that I was born in Bo. Raised by my maternal grandmother who, although I only spent three years of my life with at a very young age, held a very special place in my heart. To complicate matters even more, my ivory tower university education system had very little space, discursive and physical, for people of colour/ Africans to see and express themselves. Africa in many of my classes was talked about from a largely Eurocentric, removed and researched perspective. Empirical experiences that would interrogate question and offer a more complicated and dynamic representation of Africa and Africans was vastly missing in almost all curriculums. This left me unsettled. I am a Muslim, African, Black, full figured woman and at that time I could only identify as a politicised being, relegated into the periphery of white privilege that, in my opinion at the time, limited my accessibility to all that I required to flourish in North America. I identified with the ‘struggle’ of North Americana ‘black’ and my African heritage meant very little to me; I had never lived on the continent or amongst Africans. I was unsettled.
The opportunity finally came in 2011 when living in Canada was no longer an option for me on a spiritual and emotional level. I was 23 and to put it kindly, somewhat lost. I didn’t quite know what I was fighting for anymore, the ‘black struggle’ did not nourish my sense of self, and ‘black’ and ‘African’ are neither monolithic nor interchangeable I was beginning to understand. Also talking about barriers and pushing for more ‘access’ for ‘Africans’ was feeling pretentious because I was in many ways despite being ‘African’ and ‘woman’ which automatically comes with being privy to some very ignorant comments and experiences, I was still very privileged with little experience of economic, social or political barriers.
I was also very depressed. Emotionally, I was also unsettled.
I landed on May 10th 2011 on the shores of Lungi. It was my birthday and my skin was yellow, soft, scared. I blamed it on the Montreal weather. More importantly I was unsure about my decision. I knew no one other than my mother and my grandmother. I felt like a stranger. What I did know though was I had not returned to Sierra Leone to make change or assume a role as a change maker, I came back home to discover my roots and the core of who I am. I was finally listening to the piece of advice my mother droned on my sisters and I growing up, “if you do not know where you are going, know where you come from.” I needed to know where I came from and how that was going to shape where I was going to go.
What ensued was a year of learning to unlearn to relearn and to fully learn from local knowledge. To soak it all in. To not be anyone less than myself, to be honest with myself and to talk to everyone regardless of age, class, gender, status or position, everyone mattered to me. The most transformative part of the first year was the familiarity that Sierra Leone awoke in me. Nearly everyone I seemed to encounter is a Fatou, knows of a Fatou or has a Fatou in their lives. My name was no longer special in any way shape or form, it was common and I realized I had been pronouncing my name incorrectly my entire life. Ah, the power of language and how it seeps deep into the skin, re-awakening your blood. My last name meant something too; my Fullah and Mandingo heritage was better explained. Krio and learning to read and write krio sparked every sensor within. I became obsessed with plantain, I discovered that I actually really dislike oleleye and I started a love affair with pepahun. I saw myself in the faces of girl children, of young women, of middle aged women, and reflections of who I will be in older women. I saw myself reflected back in the women of my country. I broke down so many times in frustration over systems, tribal barriers, classist oppression, simple things like my car that would suddenly stop working, at injustice that did not have to be this way, at family members who would openly betray and exploit, at friends who truly wanted to hurt me, at our workers who would speak ill of me behind my back even when I gave them anything they requested…I broke down so many times at the years lost in wondering what it meant to be Sierra Leonean. I broke down plenty. I also rose just as quickly with each disappointment and failure and with each rise; I grew stronger, understanding that to abruptly leave Sierra Leone was not ever going to lead to any kind of change, internal or otherwise.
This is what I have come to know of myself and of my country. I am an African woman with the belief that ‘a woman’ has a place and a specific role to play in society, as does a man. I carry within a deep sense of respect for my elders who live in a house and my elders who sleep on the streets. I have come to believe that family is important despite the role they can also play in disintegrating your world, our family stories, triumphs and even sins run in our veins. Family is important. I also know that each woman, rich or less fortunate that I meet is my sister. That despite the run-ins I have had with some women in Sierra Leone, that these are my sisters and collectively we are carrying pain that we do not trust one another to heal. I know that most Sierra Leonean men are also role playing; buying into a specific conception of masculinity and thus their real sense of agency and power is linear and limited. This is reflected in the leadership across every sector. I know that we do not like to talk about our war in a large public way, but in laughter and hushed tones in back corner bars and in the safety of our homes. I know we believe we’ve moved on since the war, but I also know this….we have not. I know we still live in a state of fear and insecurity and that development and progress are propaganda terms the government uses to create a flimsy illusion of change.
The internal, spiritual, emotional collective pulse of Sierra Leone and Sierra Leoneans remains stagnant – rooted in fear. This is the very fear caused by insecurity that permeates across all that we do in public and private spheres. I know that we talk a great deal about ‘change’ and ‘putting the country first’ yet many of us do not adhere to those principles. I also know that there are silent heroes and heroines who have returned to Sierra Leone to make change; they do their work quietly avoiding any kind of recognition for their selfless acts. I know what we like to celebrate; I wish we celebrated who we were more often and more openly. I know Sierra Leone is a beautiful country that hosts broken but insanely gifted and beautiful people.
I returned home to not make change but to discover myself and in that process I have discovered what I am meant to do in life. I re-discovered the principles that are important to me because of where I come from. That I have a responsibility to contribute to restoring the pulse of my country, however small it may be. That the Fatou I meet when I am in Kabala could have been me, that I had to walk around the world only to find my way back to the folds of where I was born, and in turn, to nourish and be nourished in this land that we all so love…or at least want to love. Sierra Leone. I know that I am more of myself today than I ever was. I still do not know where exactly I am going. I do however now have a better sense and appreciation of where I come from.
By Fatou Wurie