That same old question
The truth of the matter is that the easiest response to the question, “Where are you from?” would be Chad, as this is the country of my heritage, despite my only having spent a little over two years in total, in the country.
Despite having been born in Saudi Arabia, raised in Switzerland and Benin, schooled in Chad, Egypt and France and having worked and travelled the seven continents of the world, I still consider myself Chadian.
And proudly so.
A few weeks ago I recently landed in Johannesburg from Washington D.C. and this city is now my new home and I’m excited about this new chapter of my life. For the first time in my life, I feel as though it is time for me to settle down…somewhere…permanently.
This has been a long time coming.
Let’s just say I’m exhausted of leading a very dual life.
On one hand I have an extremely cosmopolitan life that is filled with amazing experiences such as;
swimming with carnivore piranhas’ in the Amazon river,
studying Goya’s superb painting collection in Museo del Prado,
hiking in the breathtaking Andes mountains,
in the search of the lost city of Macchu Picchu,
articulating the subtleties of XV century Arabic calligraphy,
cuddling orphan baby elephants in Kenya,
chatting about the “in” thing during summer vacation in Monaco
or planning my next once-in-a-lifetime trip to climb Ayers Rock in Australia…
All of which is done or expressed in either Gorane-Daza, French, English, Arabic, Spanish or Portuguese…the languages I am fluent in.
On the other hand, my Chadian origins always manage to catch up with me on my various escapades through life. I realize I am not living the typical life expected of a Muslim woman from a conservative family. In spite of the glaring disparities between my current and former lives, I still have very fond memories of my upbringing that involved;
summers spent playing in the intermittent oasis waters,
skimming across the Sahara with a caravan of camels,
learning parts of the holy Qur’an with my religious leader of a grandfather,
collecting dead wood with my cousins to start a fire,
gazelle hunting with my uncles in the endless Savanna’ steppes
and sipping on minted green tea with fresh dates.
Living my fast-paced, international lifestyle has made me more aware than ever of how I belong to my ancient nomadic culture and how through the blood running in my veins, my ancestors continue to live through me. This is when I remember and appreciate my late great grandmother’s teachings of my detailed family tree, a legacy that can be traced back up to a millennium.
Perhaps my nomadic genes explain why, in our modern world, I find myself restless to explore every corner of the planet.
On bad days I feel torn, envious of those who were born and raised in one place, and have strong ties to that place. As much as I feel Chadian, I can also feel, depending on the day: French, Beninese, American, Egyptian, Brazilian or Swiss. Simply put, there are several versions of Salwa in me and those Salwas’, even though they are not all reconcilable, are still intrinsic parts of the one Salwa that I am.
On good days, I feel that I have finally found the tricky balance between my several “me’s”. Sometimes this fragile balance is broken when I am reminded by life of my Chadian roots: when wearing my everyday “tarha” (a head cover that I have been wearing since I am seventeen and that virtually all Muslim Chadian women wear), organizing a henna party for my cousin-to-be’s future wife, shopping for sandalwood incense and other womanhood secrecies with my mother at the central market of N’Djaména or being called insulting names by some fellow Chadian women because I dared to voice my opinion against the custom of early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation (a cause that influenced my becoming a lawyer, to defend the vulnerable).
Being in my mid-twenties, I know how blessed I am to have had all this priceless exposure to the world and the ability to live out a lot of my dreams. In the course of this journey, I am learning everyday to get the most out of my life, accepting who I am with all variations that come along with it.
Ultimately I dream to return to Chad. This is reinforced by the fact that on September 2011, the Newsweek Global Women’s Progress Report published that “the worst place for women in the world” is Chad, which was ranked last out of the 165 countries surveyed. According to the report, “Women have almost no rights and many marriages are arranged when girls are only eleven or twelve”.
The devastating results of this report, and my own personal experience in my home country as a woman, have invigorated my long-standing commitment to work on women’s and girls’ rights. However, that’s a discussion for another day, let me not digress.
For now, I am really looking forward to my life in Johannesburg – maybe this will finally become “home” for me…the definitive one.
Written by: Salwa Saleh