I shook my head as i watched my father give in to his inquisitive urges, “where are you from? Ghana?” he asked the cashier at Carl’s Jr.
“Ivory Coast”, the man replied. He was short, kind-faced, looked to be in his thirties. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Sudan”, my father replied. “Aah, le Soudan…. les Soudanais”.
And just like that, we were sharing our reasons for coming to the United States, our conversation alternating between French and English, giving a bleak bilingual account of politics and society. He moved here five years ago from Mexico City where he worked at the embassy. Before that, he was in France. His voice broke with sadness and longing when he talked about the Ivory Coast, about family, about a beautiful country destroyed by war and greed. My father’s head shook in lament and understanding. Later, in the car, Dad would tell me about Abidjan, a city that was once “Paris de l’Afrique”.
“Abouy, that guy went from working in an embassy to working at a Carl’s Jr!”
“It’s the African story, Sara. Think of how many Sudanese doctors and engineers in this country are driving cabs and working at convenience stores”.
He was right, and it made me think about our own African Story.
My father was the ambassador of Sudan in Tunisia when he decided to leave. The Sudanese government had abetted known Tunisian terrorists and supplied them with diplomatic passports. The Tunisian government caught wind of this and confronted my father. As far as he knew, no such thing had taken place, and so he confidently denied their allegations. But sensing that something was off, he traveled back to Khartoum to investigate. He found out that what he had assumed to be baseless accusations were actually facts; facts that the Sudanese government had failed to mention to him, their main representative and spokesperson in Tunisia. When he confronted the powers that be, they told him “not to worry about it”, that it would be handled.
He returned to Tunisia to try to ease the Tunisian government’s (justified) concerns, explaining that it was a misunderstanding that would be handled. So it was a surprise when some time later the Tunisian government, now furious, returned to my father with the same problem he had promised would be fixed. Again he went back to Sudan, pleaded with them to understand the gravity of the situation, tried to make them see how potentially disastrous and damaging this was to Sudanese-Tunisian relations. His pleas fell on deaf ears.
This was not the first time that the Sudanese government had sandbagged its diplomats, nor would it be the last. But for my father, it was the straw that broke his back: beside his personal frustration at being kept in the dark, he had unwittingly been caught in a lie by the Tunisian government. He was humiliated, and no longer trusted. His credibility as a diplomat was shot, destroyed by the very same people he fought to positively represent.
And so he resigned, and got a job at the UN temporarily filling in for someone on extended leave. We were kids and completely unaware of the instability of our situation when we packed up to move back to New York after 5 years of living in Sudan. I still don’t know how my father kept it together; the disappointment of having to leave his home and career, the uncertainty of his family’s future, all combined with a sickly child in need of heart surgery.
We stayed in New York for two years before my father secured a permanent position at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. His feelings of relief were short lived, quickly replaced by guilt resulting from the bratty whining of his child (me) who was upset to be leaving New York City. Too prepubescent and dumb to see the misery and heartbreak i was putting my parents through, i was determined to make their lives difficult as punishment for making me leave my “home”. They had to endure six years of ungratefulness, of passive rebellion, of bad grades and being a generally lackluster child.
As an adult, I realize the sacrifices my father made to take care of us. More importantly, I realize how blessed we are in how our African Story turned out. I think of the doctors and engineers who are reduced to driving cabs, the foreign servicemen who are reduced to working at fast food restaurants, the droves of Africans across the diaspora who were forced to leave their children and families behind in the hope of being able to provide them with a better life, and i know that i am lucky.
But I am also grateful, because my African story has allowed me to feel a closer connection with other Africans that i might never have felt had my life gone differently. My African Story has made it so that today, as i was writing this, an Eritrean man came up to me, told me of his connection to Sudan, and shared with me his family’s African Story.
An African Story that I am determined to document, here.