Friday, April 3, 2009

It's Home After All



By Kehinde Togun

I wrote this post on the plane ride on Tuesday. It remains in present tense ...

I’m sitting on the plane on the way back to Washington, DC. After a five hour layover at Amsterdam Airport, I was fully convinced that I would sleep the entire nine hour flight to DC. To my chagrin, this is not the case.

I am sitting in an aisle seat in the middle of the plane with a mother and her two children. I know the family is of African descent but I am unable to place their origin [this is a guessing game I (and I suspect many others) often play]. I’m sitting directly next to the oldest daughter, probably about 12 years old. She seems to have grown up in the States and is probably a precocious young girl. On occasion, she gives her little sister attitude, other times, she’s incredibly helpful and caring to the 4 year-old.

Upon taking my seat at the beginning of the flight, I noticed the 12 year-old had a henna tattoo on her left hand. Ever the inquisitive person, I wonder where the family had just visited – the likely source of the henna tattoo. After several hours sitting together, during which I give her my earphones so she could watch Ugly Betty, I ask her where the tattoo was from. She responds, “We went on vacation in Africa and I got it there.”

Of course, my interlocutor hat is now in full display. “What part of Africa?” I ask. “Sudan” is the response. I smirk and I say, interesting – my favorite word of late. “What part of Sudan?” Khartoum [the capital], she says to me. “Are you Sudanese?” Yea, she responds.

I smile again. This is where our conversation ends and my thought process begins.

On the heels of the International Criminal Court’s indictment of the Sudanese President, Omar al Bashir, amidst the (valid) claims of genocide, and amidst the expulsion of international NGOs at the expense of citizens, Sudan is still home to many. As a student of African politics and development and as individual who works close to the Horn of Africa region, it is often second nature to place Sudan in a box of “places that need to be fixed ASAP.” Although I realize a fix is no where in sight.

Nonetheless, my conversation with my 12-year old neighbor was a reminder that what many in the world see as a place of crisis is indeed where some people go on vacation – to see family, understand their heritage, and get to know their home.

It reminds me of a conversation I’ve had many times regarding inner cities in the United States. Places where we often label as the most dangerous places to live – “the projects” and other drug infested neighborhoods – where we as adults would choose not to walk, are often home to children who have no choice. How else would they get around their neighborhood?

As I end my journey from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania back to Washington DC (via Amsterdam), I am once again conscious of assumptions and labels I and others place on regions. I am challenged to see regions as places with people, rather than as places with situations. I am grateful for the matter-of factness of my 12-year old neighbor.

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