Day of the Dead

On October 25, I went to go see the one-act play Day of the Dead by my freshman mentor Robert Con Davis-Undiano. When R.C. told me OU would be producing his work, I knew I had to go.

The play was meant to explain the cultural history behind the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. It also aimed to portray the significance of the holiday to modern-day Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

To accomplish these goals, the play focused on three women, all played by Norma Lilia Ruiz Cruz. The first, Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess of life and death, connected Day of the Dead to its Aztec roots. The second, Catrina, a traditional Day of the Dead figure, brought us to Mexico in the not-so-distant past. Finally, Elena, a Chicana doctor on the U.S.-Mexico border, confronted present-day immigration and border patrol issues while arranging her Day of the Dead altar.

I liked the focus on women and thought the choice to use one actress was brilliant. The play was definitely direct about its intent to teach but enjoyable none the less. Check out a full review by The Norman Transcript here.

Being Honest About Language and Culture Shock

South Africa was amazing. I loved my time there. I saw so many beautiful things and made some great friends. However, I sometimes struggled with language barriers and cultural differencesculture shock.

South Africa has eleven official languages, nine indigenous and two colonial. South Africans speak any one of the eleven languages, one of which is English. English, however, is not many South Africans first language. Those who speak the other ten languages, though, learn English as a second language in order to communicate with each other and participate in state activities like education.

I was warned that this multitude of language might be straining, but my language challenges originated within my exchange program rather than South Africa at large.

I was the only American in the program. This meant I was also the only native English speaker. I gather that this is a common experience for Americans in UP’s exchange program.

In some ways, this gave me an advantage over my peers. It was easier for me to understand professors, read and write assignments, and communicate with locals. Everyone spoke my first language at least to a certain degree.

In other ways, this isolated me. Understandably, no one wants to speak in their second or third language all the time. This meant if I was in an all, say, Dutch-speaking group, they tended to speak only in Dutch. This left me out of the conversation, often confused about plans.

I logically knew that my friends did not do this to hurt me. I knew they enjoyed my company. Yet, situations like this mentally and emotionally wore on me. It made me feel like they didn’t care about me, like I was nothing to them, like I was invisible.

And though my English skills helped me, almost no one I encountered was on my level. School officials and my friends all spoke excellent English, but it was never native American English. I had to exert extra energy to focus on what others said, either because of their accents or their phrasing. I did not have the easy flow of conversation that comes from speaking to someone who has the same first language.

Beyond language, culture played a part, though more minor, in my frustrations. My friends appreciated me as an individual but, especially those from Europe, often made references to unfavorable American stereotypes. My love for peanut butter and Coca-Cola earned me innumerable obesity jokes. My ignorance of Angela Merkel spurred multiple conversations about Americans’ uncultured self-centeredness. I don’t even like Donald Trump, but I hated hearing derogatory comments about him because for them, he represented the United States.

I didn’t have anyone to share these frustrations with, who would understand them on a personal level, and that made them harder to handle. Even worse, I was the only one who had this problem. Everyone else in the program had at least one person from their home country. While my two Mexican friends celebrated Mexico’s Independence Day and Day of the Dead together, I worried about what Thanksgiving would be like as a celebration of one.

It makes me feel unnecessarily guilty, but I went home a few weeks early to spend Thanksgiving with my family. Finals were over, I had no more travel plans, and I was done with culture shock.

I changed my flight without telling anyone except my sister and surprised my family the day before Thanksgiving. It was its own amazing experience.

I want to make it very clear that I loved my time in South Africa. I wouldn’t take it back for the world. I enjoyed being a resource to my friends who wanted to improve their English, and I liked that as the first American many of my friends had personally known, I could project a favorable image of my country.

But my struggles were real, and I want to share them. I received one small warning about these issues, and maybe if I had known more, I could have been better prepared.

How Corruption Undermines Sustainable Development in Africa

For GEOG 1103: Human Geography, I had to attend an outside event related to the class and write a paper about that event. The following is the summary section of my paper.

I attended InFocus Africa’s forum “How Corruption Undermines Sustainable Development in Africa” on October 25, 2018 at 5:30 p.m. in the Main Dining Hall of Headington College on campus. The event began with an African-inspired dinner. Afterward, three speakers presented on the topic. The talks were followed by a question-and-answer segment facilitated by an InFocus Africa member. Unfortunately, I had to leave at 7:30 when the Q-and-A started. 

The first speaker was Dr. Greg A. Graham, an assistant professor in African and African-American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Graham outlined a genealogy of corruption. In the 1990s, a negative view of corruption in Africa was prominent. Development and democracy were seen as positive goals for African states, and corruption impeded those goals. These perceptions of Africa corruption became a justification for government usurpations, as during this time period multiple African military regimes were overthrown by democratic systems. As Dr. Graham pointed out, these ideas and movements came from outside of Africa. 

Dr. Graham then went on to explain African corruption from an internal perspective. Outsiders see Africa as rife with corruption, as if corruption were embedded in African cultures. Dr. Graham argued that African practices are not corrupt, but rather some can facilitate corruption. He then provided several examples including negotiations and gift giving. He also acknowledged the possible downfalls of ethnic solidarity networks and beliefs in redistributive accumulation, mainly nepotism or similar situations.

Finally, Dr. Graham connected his lecture to sustainable development. He proposed that such movements must be organic; they must stem from the people themselves. This brand of solution would sidestep corrupt government systems, benefiting the majority rather than the few. 

The second speaker was Dr. Andreana C. Prichard, an associate professor of African history in the Honors College at OU. Dr. Prichard focused on the corruption of good intentions into unintended outcomes. She analyzed three case studies involving Western-rooted charities in Africa. The first case involved the American charity More Than Me in Liberia. A scandal broke out upon the realization that a charity executive had been raping girls in his care. The organization did not handle the situation well. Officials dodged questions during interviews and refused to admit any wrongdoing beyond hiring the culprit. They would not acknowledge any problematic institutional systems that might have allowed this abuse of power. 

The second case looked at mission orphanages in Kenya. Dr. Prichard began this part of her presentation by defining orphan as a fluid category. When abolitionist missionaries came to Kenya, they predominantly worked with children, taking in those they defined as orphans. In 1898, famine struck Kenya, and many parents practiced pawnship to survive. This meant they exchanged their children for needed resources. The Kenyans expected the return of their children when they repaid their debt. However, the missionaries perceived this exchange as abandonment and refused to return these “orphaned” children. They had been teaching these children Western culture and feared them backsliding into their Kenyan culture. Therefore, as Dr. Prichard explained, the use of orphan became a mechanism for social control during colonialism. Post-colonialism, a redefining of orphan by aid organizations has created a manufactured orphan crisis, which attracts activism and tourism to Africa.

Dr. Prichard’s third case evaluated an American Christian charity, Upendo Kids, in Kenya. Similar to the first case, a staff member was found guilty of assaulting children in his care. Dr. Prichard wrapped up her talk by connecting these cases. These organizations began with good intentions—to help vulnerable people in Africa. They failed to do so because they did not understand cultural context or pay ample attention to harm caused. 

The third speaker was John Michael Koffi, the author of Refuge-e: The Journey Much Desired. A refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo himself, Mr. Koffi’s presentation asked the question, “Whose perspective?” When one considers corruption, whose perspective is one seeing it from? The refugee, the official, or the outsider? He drew attention to corruption’s morality struggles. For example, refugees often pay to be smuggled across borders. This contributes to corruption, but it is necessary for the refugees’ survival and quality of life. Mr. Koffi complicated this example further by highlighting corruption as a reason for refugees’ situations. He became a refugee because a dictator drained his country of resources for personal gain. Paying smugglers seems a small act in comparison, but it still feeds into the corrupt system. 

Mr. Koffi viewed youth as the ones who promote democracy. Young people’s participation could lead to change, according to Mr. Koffi, but corruption pushes them away from government activity. Mr. Koffi promoted more investment in youth in countries with refugee and corruption problems as a solution. 

The 2018 Neustadt Festival

This year, I attended the Neustadt Festival for the third time. (I missed the one in 2017 because I was in South Africa.) This year’s prize recipient was Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American writer. I was lucky enough to be able to attend Haitian literary and cultural events all three days of the festival, October 9-11.

First, on the evening of October 9, I went to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art for the opening-night celebration. I mingled and ate snacks until Danticat made her remarks before the preview of “Women Like Us,” a Haitian dance.

The next day I attended the roundtable discussion “Edwidge Danticat’s Literary Message” made up by Catherine John Camara (an OU English professor whose class I have taken), Marcia Chatelain, and Florine Démosthène. I thought this panel would provide me with a good overview of Danticat’s work, but it also did an excellent job of framing her writing in a Haitian-American context. They discussed Haitian-American immigration and American perceptions of Haitians and Haitian culture. They analyzed African influences on Haiti and compared diaspora writers to Haitian writers.

The final morning I saw the full performance of “Women Like Us” as well as “ReBIRTH.” I found both dances powerful, especially the latter. I enjoy the performing arts and appreciated the exposure to another culture in that form. Danticat followed these performances with her keynote, ending the festival.

How Narratives Shape Us

On September 24, I attended a high table dinner at Headington College honoring Macarena Hernádez, a journalist and professor. As the audience enjoyed the free food, Hernádez gave a talk, “How Narratives Shape Us.”

She focused on border narratives, three borders in particular: United States/Mexico, Mexico/Guatemala, and Haiti/Dominican Republic. She interspersed her lecture with video examples of her journalistic work pertaining to those borders. You can also see some of this work on her website.

I enjoyed the dinner for two reasons (beyond the free food). First, Hernádez’s emphasis on the power of story aligned with my own beliefs. Second, she opened my eyes to issues I had never considered. While Americans tend to pay attention to our own border with Latin America, we rarely consider the borders within Latin America, which can be just as contentious, if not more so.

Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair

I also began volunteering at the Native American Languages Collection at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History last semester. I chose the NALC for its connections to diverse literature and Native cultures. I have done a lot of archival work, recording information for the collection database. However, this semester we have been focusing on our biggest community event, the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair.

The fair actually takes place next week—April 1-2—and I urge you to attend if you have any interest in Native languages/cultures. You will see posters, comics, books, and essays on display. You can watch performances, including modern/traditional songs, spoken poetry and prayer, and short plays. We will even be viewing short films made by students. You can visit the ONAYLF website for the schedule.

I will be volunteering all day Monday. Hope to see you then!

My OU Cousins Family

Last semester I decided to rejoin OU Cousins. I hadn’t participated in the group since my freshman year, but I was excited to connect with international students again, especially after being an international student myself in South Africa.

At the matching party, I paired with Jade, who is from France. While there, I ran into fellow GEF Anne Delong, who had matched with Jade’s Belgian roommate Jolien and Rosie from Vietnam. We decided to merge into one OU Cousins family, adding Nelson from Venezuela at the last minute.

This year with OU Cousins has been amazing thanks to this family. We have tried American burgers at McNellie’s and Italian-American dishes at Othello’s and Olive Garden. Jade’s family immigrated to France from Italy so her reactions were priceless. We celebrated both mine and Jade’s birthdays. We went to see Venom at Meacham. They even came to support my monologue during Me Too Monologues.

Jolien returned to Belgium at the end of last semester, but I hope to see the rest of my Cousins at least a couple more times before I graduate!

Mary’s Meals: A Simple Solution to World Hunger

Last semester I joined the OU branch of Mary’s Meals, an international nonprofit that builds and maintains school kitchens in impoverished areas across the globe. Not only does this feed hungry children, it also increases school attendance and retention, helping to break the cycle of poverty. The University of Oklahoma branch funds Tabwa Primary School in Malawi.

I was super excited to discover this organization. Throughout my college career, including in the Global Engagement Fellowship class Becoming Globally Engaged, I have learned about “simple solutions” to international poverty. Of course, poverty is not a simple problem, but actions like those of Mary’s Meals have always struck me as innovative and less intrusive than other forms of aid. Mary’s Meals was a way for me to help the way I wanted to.

Over the course of last semester, I attended general meetings and benefit nights. I also fundraised, aiming to raise $19.50 in one day, the amount it takes to feed one child for a year.

Unfortunately, I will not be participating in Mary’s Meals this semester. I have a large course load, and I joined OU Cousins again (more to come on this). However, if you are interested, I highly suggest you check it out.

Donate to Mary’s Meals at OU | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Implications of Brexit for Ireland

As I studied abroad in Ireland this summer, I thought this event last semester, “Implications of Brexit for Ireland,” with Consul General of Ireland Adrian Farrell sounded like a must-attend. On April 2, I sat against the wall of the conference room, eating my provided sandwich and listening to Consul General Farrell talk about borders and trading.

He explained the importance of the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border during the Brexit transition. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland must have an open border due to past agreements. However, while Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom is Brexiting, the Republic of Ireland will stay in the European Union. This creates a problem for the UK, who wanted less immigration, as their only land border with the EU remains open.

Brexit also worries the Republic of Ireland, as a nation that relies on trade, especially to the UK. Ireland, with its small domestic population, has built its economy primarily on agriculture exports, though it exports other products as well, such as medical technology. With the UK threatening Ireland’s open trading, Ireland’s economy could suffer when Brexit takes full effect.

Puterbaugh Keynote

At noon on March 9, Jenny Erpenbeck, this year’s Puterbaugh Fellow, gave the festival’s keynote speech, “Blind Spots.” This was the only Puterbaugh Festival event I attended this go around, and I must say I chose well.

Erpenbeck, a previous citizen of the German Democratic Republic a.k.a East Germany, spoke about the current refugee crisis. She brilliantly incorporated her own history as a European refugee to highlight the biases against modern refugees, most of whom come from “shithole” countries.

One of Erpenbeck’s main themes throughout her presentation was the value of life. By making a distinction between her and her fellow East Germans and, say, present-day Syrian refugees, the West decides which lives are worth something and which nothing. Modern refugees are often only viewed as asylum-worthy, life-worthy if they have useful skills. Erpenbeck proclaimed that people do not need to be useful to be valuable.

Honestly, this post does not do Erpenbeck justice. Her address was so moving, it brought me to tears. The German writer ended her powerful speech with, “We are from shitholes, too.” The crowd gave her a standing ovation.