Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Mis-Education of Sarah Rosenbloom

(For Julia) 

"Every man has two educators: that which is given to him, and the other that which he gives himself.  Of the two kinds, the latter is by far the more desirable.  Indeed all that is most worthy in man he must work out and conquer for himself.  It is that which constitutes our real and best nourishment.  What we are merely taught seldom nourishes the mind like that which we teach ourselves." -- Carter G. Woodson 


As I prepare to leave a snowy, cold New York City for the warm, balmy clime of Moshi, Kilimanjaro, I have taken some time to reflect on my life to date and, in particular, the dualities and dichotomies that have presented themselves since the very beginning.

Obviously, the circumstances of my birth -- being biracial and raised with strong ties to both sides of the family as well as exposed to two religions -- has played a key role in forming this double-sided nature of mine.  Neither black nor white (Mom is Jamaican-Chinese and African American, Dad is of Eastern European semitic descent), neither Christian nor Jewish (raised Jewish, attended Hebrew School religiously (haha), had a Bat Mitzvah, but will never be fully recognized as such because Mom is "shiksa"), I struggled to make a place for myself in the world where no place naturally existed.

It was tough going.

As a young child, I had not one but TWO imaginary friends.  (Yes, I am willingly sharing this information in a public forum).  They were twins known as "The Jacky Boys."  My parents remember quite vividly my relationship with these guys, the proverbial angel and devil on my shoulders.  Predictably, one twin was good and one was bad.  And one side of Sarah was naughty and the other nice.  Very naughty and very nice.

Later on, I believe the words "identity crisis" were never more fully realized than in the teenage version of myself.  This played out most deeply in my thoughts about my appearance and I went to absurd lengths to straighten my hair including daily blowouts at the salon before school followed gales of tears if this couldn't be accomplished.  It was as though I wanted to blast away my strange, mixed-up ethnicity along with my big, kinky curls.  Green contact lenses, and various body image issues came next, seemingly in an effort to "whiten" myself.  Midway through high school, I switched lanes and somehow decided being white and Jewish was actually quite uncool and rejected that identity in favor of Funkdoobiest-era blackness ("We real cool" and that type of thing.)  With the advent of hip hop and my own burgeoning interest in slam poetry, I was able to justify a juvenile split from my Jewishness.

Over the course of the 20 or so years since then, my identity has changed in a multitude of unexpected ways, one of which has resulted in my expatriation from my homeland nearly seven years ago.  Upon reflection, it feels as though I have finally found that place I've been seeking out where both sides of myself can peaceably co-exist and neither has to push the other out.  I don't mean that Tanzania is geographically this place, but rather that the work that I am doing now, and the way the Project is set up has allowed me to have the best of both worlds: East and West, developing and developed, village and city, African and American, field and office, flip-flop and stiletto.

As I reflect on my return (T-minus 48hours!), I see the life I've cultivated to this point as remarkably whole as opposed to the divisive way I used to live.  Sure, those who know me (and some of you know me VERY well) know that there will always be some element of "all or nothing" in the way I run my affairs (such is the curse of the OCD perfectionist), but as for the overarching schematics of my persona, they have been strangely blended together in this new me: Sarah Rosenbloom, Founder & Director of The Toa Nafasi Project.  Who woulda thunk I'd have to travel 7,500miles from home to "find myself"??

So, I consider myself doubly lucky to have had the education I have, and I hope to be further educated by the experiences that lie ahead.  I have two homelands, two cultures, two families, and two traditions that I can call my own and, fairly seamlessly, pass between them.  And, even luckier than having these things, I am really super-duper lucky that most of the people in my life have accepted and understood this new situation; that family and friends have remained as constant and supportive as they have is a huge relief.  And a blessing.

The education that I was given was certainly not foolish discourse, that I concede.  Even with my identity crises and all the confusion of my formative years, I was given a pretty good jumpstart, thanks to Mom and Dad.  But what has set me apart today, ON THIS VERY DAY, is the education I have given myself.  Had I never left the West Village back in 2007, had I never left book publishing or the comfort of my five-floor walk-up, I certainly would be nowhere near as informed about the world I live in as I am today.  I would not have this awareness of other people, the experience of living amongst them, and the empathy to try to help them in some small way.

And, while I can give myself the props for getting on the plane that first time, it is actually all the people I met in Tanzania, all the experiences I had (both good and bad; yes, Freddy Lyimo, I am talking about you), and all the work I have done in the past seven years that has edified me.  The Toa Nafasi Project was born out of a need I identified in Msaranga when I first taught there years ago!  And now, it is my raison d'etre!!  It's actually quite remarkable....

At any rate, forgive my self-indulgent post this week and look out for next week's entry from Amsterdam where I'll spend a couple of days before landing in Moshi on Christmas Day.  After a couple weeks of preparation, I'll be back at Msaranga Primary, observing a new set of Standard Ones with Vumi and Mama T, and it'll be all about the kids again and less about me, so....stay tuned!!
THEN: my first night in Moshi, 2007.

NOW: sunday lunch in Msaranga with Angi, 2013.

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