This speech was given as part of the last assembly for the 2015 outgoing class at the African Leadership University at the ALC Campus in Pamplemousses, Mauritius on April 18th, 2019.
Would you believe me if I said that my life is an incredibly mysterious pilgrimage?
When I was in third grade, I realised that the entire class was laughing at me for wearing a different pair of sock in each foot. I had forgotten to change my socks that afternoon after taking off my red boots, no one can see your socks when you are wearing boots. I wore my red boots to go the British Council to learn English, they were apparently “too pretty” for me for school. I attended a public primary school and some of my classmates could barely afford one pair of shoes for the entire year. According to my father, I needed to look like them. At the language center, on the other hand, my classmates spoke about their trips to Spain and Portugal during the break, and about the latest games they requested for. I spent my entire childhood living in parallel worlds, I lived between two Moroccos, where both groups, on the other sides of the spectrum knew about the existence of the other, but rarely attempted to trespass the invisible boundary.
At this point, you might be wondering to which side I belong. I am not sure I have the answer. But I know that I was privileged too. I was born into a house where God lived, or at least that is what it felt like. We never had to lock our door. It was open 24/7. Apparently, the majority of our neighbours had thieves come into their houses. But god lived with us, so it was easy for us to sleep quietly, not worrying who would trespass our door. But to be honest, as a kid, that scared me a bit, because the house was often empty.
It was empty when my 8 years old self would walk back from school, take off the unmatching socks, do homework, make a sandwich and put myself to bed. But see, none of it seemed unnatural to me at the time. My father always whispered to my ears that grace was around me. In arabic, as in English, the word grace رحمة has a feminine connotation. Eventually, my imagination made of grace a lady that watched over me every time I was alone, every time I slept, and every time I felt too small for the house in which we lived in.
I never made a connection between Lady grace and the God who lived with us. The god who lived with us had taken my mother the day I was born. And I was given her name, Amina. I learnt volumes about her through my father’s storytelling and his memories of her, of how they met, how they loved, how they trespassed the visible social class boundaries that separated their two families, and how they conceived me unaware that my presence would require the absence of the source. Both my parents came from a royal lineage in Morocco, my mother from the privileged one, and my father from the unprivileged, but together, they performed resistance.
And as you can imagine, as a child, I was often introduced in family gatherings or schools as the poor little child. I was implicitly given the label of an orphan, a title which I never subscribed to, or heard pronounced around our house. My childhood friends’ mothers used me as an example to motivate their own to do better in school — as if I were incomplete or in need of a blessed touch.
Motherhood to me, was performed by my father, who, even though did not know how to brush my curly hair, attempted a side bun every morning, he bought me books, lots of them and made sure I wrote summaries right after finishing them, a process I never enjoyed. My father himself, only owned one pair of shoes so that I can afford learning English.
English — the language I am using to share my story with you. He believed in my talents, when I said: “Dad, I can sing.” And my father, the man who refused to get married for 19 years, making our extended family silently believe that I have indeed brought misery into his life.
Throughout all my childhood, my mother’s sudden death was never introduced to me as a tragedy, it was not the last silence. It couldn’t be.
Lady grace and god lived with us with us and I talked to them, all the time.
Fast forward, it’s November 2016, I had gotten back to Morocco from Mauritius, fresh, excited and also a bit burnt out. It’s 11am, and I am sitting at my internship at the UN Refugee Agency. My sister calls.
Dad had just had a heart attack, but things will be fine, I just need to you go the hospital right now. She said.
My sister didn’t know that my father had already passed away when she received the call herself.
The act of losing, of seeing your soulmate depart the physical world was one that I couldn’t understand, that I still don’t understand. My father had helped create alternative worlds when I couldn’t change my red boots fast enough when navigating between the different schools I went to. None of those worlds was equivalent to his presence, to his laughter every time I read his mind, and to our occasional coffee dates.
There I was. Unable to do anything in the face of a mysterious event in my pilgrimage. But just as my father refused my mother’s death to be the last silence, I made of god and lady grace my new parents, and I continued. Silent at times, absent-minded in other times.
The following six months were crucial in my grieving process. In June 2017, my grandfather passed away, and a week later my uncle. I was confused, displaced, out of place.
I became foreign in my own body, foreign to my thoughts, a stranger to my own tribes, my families and my friends. I lost joy in everything I used to love: singing, creating, photography, and in being. I couldn’t understand why. I thought I’d never grow out of it.
I will never deny that this is the most profound story that makes who I am. Every day, woven between pain and death as two constant variables in negotiation. But I choose not to use the external labels on me. I do not define myself as an orphan, well according to Malcolm Gladwell, I am an “eminent orphan”. Which means that I am propelled to catapult into life, because I am on my own, I am propelled to invent, create and chart my life. Oh, and not ask for permission to do things!
But I also consider myself as a human being who was introduced to absence, at an early age, and I often wonder if it would have been possible for me to seek to understand the pain of others and want to help, if I had not gone through it myself.
But while loss is part of my skin and my dreams. My story is also woven in the present, today.
The grieving process, despite how rigid it was, has taught me volumes.
Today I am standing before you to share three key learnings.
The first learning: The practice of generous listening.
One my closest friends here, Seppy, loves the word transcendence. Transcendence to me, means that we have choice, that we have power over that which we can influence.
While the idea of freedom of choice has always puzzled me, I have recently realised that I actually exist at the intersection of three things, freedom, language and connection.
My freedom as a human being began translating in moments when I chose to adopt listening as opposed to talking. It was during a time when I had already lost my voice, I couldn’t conceptualise my feelings. I am sure Jeremy and Michaela can attest to that.
And in the process of practicing listening, unconsciously, I realised that whoever I was listening to didn’t want me to give them a “ I gotcha” moment. My listening needed to be, rather, powered by curiosity. It needed me to let go of any assumptions I had about the person. I needed to know what made the other person alive, human and resilient. In listening, I realised that I can never devalue someone’s pain or benchmark it to mine. Everyone’s pain mattered.
Generous listening taught me life lessons. For instance, as soon as I resumed my internship, two weeks after my father’s death, I was appointed as a data entry clerk. This meant that I had to listen to the stories of refugees, how they fled the war in Syria and Yemen, or how they escaped prosecution for their sexuality in Senegal. It is through them that I learnt about courage and perseverance.
I suddenly began noticing a pattern. Generous listening can be practiced everywhere and at anytime. It only took from me a deliberate and genuine effort to wanting to engage with the other. I listened to Moroccan taxi drivers and about their frustrations with a system that considered us all as second-class citizens. I listened to an ex-drug dealer and his challenging experience in prison. I also listened to my aunt describing her husband’s affairs and how her children dealt with it.
Throughout this process, I also noticed a pattern about myself. I was always anxious wondering what to respond and how to comfort. I realised that none of them wanted me to find a solution to their lives. They shared the heartfelt, and the undesired memories because they trusted me, because they were positioned in an olympia of “who is worth being heard” and they often happened to be at the bottom of the hierarchy of importance.
Generous listening allowed me to understand that there is no such thing as a linear process. My aunt, my friend the ex-drug dealer, the taxi drivers and many others, they didn’t survive, they resisted. And had I not listened, I would have not known. They found alternative ways to exist, they transcended their pain and navigate the systems. And I asked myself, why not me too?
I then started paying attention to manifestation, which is the second key learning.
So at this point I made of Lady grace and God marry each other, and as the careful parents they have become, they started whispering to my heart and my mind as opposed to giving me orders.
They guided my moves. some of us call this intuition. I followed my intuition. I call it the state when your heart just feels really drawn to doing something. I secured funding last semester to do a study abroad in the Netherlands. The study part of it was great. I did my research and attended *hmm hmm* all my classes.
I also met Almy, and she likes to call herself my Dutch mother. Almy was 60 years old, she was my landlord. I lived in a room in her house in a very upmarket neighbourhood. Almy helped me settle, and took care of me when I was sick, when I fell off my bike and when I was ridiculously stressing over unnecessary deadlines.
I was mindful that I hadn’t gone to the Netherlands in vain. That meeting Almy was not a coincidence. That her striking resemblance with my father when she poured me tea, when she prepared us dinner was a manifestation I needed to be aware of. I had a similar experience when during an internship in Senegal, a really hearted boy, Sasha, taught me how to regain confidence, how to speak my mind and brought ambition back into my life. He cared so much about sleep, just like my father, and even helped me fight insomnia by making me a sleep diary to track my sleeping patterns.
These are perhaps just two examples of manifestations that have come about in the past two years. I wish I have time to tell you more, but please feel free to catch me later if you would like to hear more. This is perhaps just to say that whenever we lose something, it does come back in different forms, at different times.
Often, unexpected. But mindfulness is key to understanding all of it.
Finally, the third key learning is learning how to pause.
In my quest of regaining myself, I was sprinting. I made a thousand and one work plans, tried to strategise everything. I literally did not stop. I couldn’t. I felt that I had to prove myself to the world that I was indeed resilient and that I was outstanding.
Today, I look back and I wish I paused. I wish I questioned who was I trying to impress? Who was I trying to prove myself to? Failure wasn’t an option. But what does it mean to fail really? What does it mean to pass courses you barely understand, isn’t that failure in itself?
The systems in which we live in today were not made by us, were not made for us. But I genuinely hope that by practicing generous listening, following our intuition and learning to pause during our different pilgrimages, we can be able to touch the essence of who we are.
To understand the other, beyond the filters, beyond colors and religions.
The bottom line of all this, is that there is no such thing as a linear process. There is no secret. If anything, there is power, there is agency and there is imagination that can help you transcend all that which you do not cherish, the things that aren’t close to your heart.
Today, I am Amina, I am alive, and I am a very confused pilgrim, who is at the beginning a journey of knowledge, justice and equality.
With this in mind, I would like to invite you to keep imposing yourself in the spaces where you matter.
I am alive, and I carry with me the history of my people, the mother I have never met, and the father who raised me to be. I carry you all as well, because each one of you is exceptional. My red boots have transformed into language, because I have learnt how to listen.
Today, I am a listener that is very privileged. I am an elite by virtue of standing here, and so are you. And we can not deny that. But we can change the world together by bridging the gap between those who have everything and those who don’t.
Thank you all for listening.