Alternative stories – this has been a recurring theme for me in the past few days. After posting an interview with Ann, aka Afrolicious, whose passion lies ultimately in teaching people to listen and to be heard, I wanted to get some thoughts out in keeping with the spirit of this.
I've been ingesting Western culture all my life, despite growing up in Kenya, and starting this blog is just one reaction to that. One attempt to explore a different story. Being that I share my personal observations, experiences and thoughts – the exploration actually explores several different stories, informed by all aspects of my identity:
Natural hair wearer
Idealist … and so on.
These aspects are the lenses through which I see things and react to them. For every different combination you create from those terms, you get a different tale. We human beings are complex and multidimensional. So why does the myth of "normal" exist?
The mainstream is a lie
The other afternoon I met with a leader from Manchester City Council's Culture Team. She'd read something I wrote that struck a chord with her work to engage more people from diverse backgrounds in the creative industries. Indeed, the communications design industry in the UK, to be specific, appears to be dominated by males from white, middle-class backgrounds. An industry that is responsible for shaping our everyday visual landscapes and experiences is informed by such a narrow demographic. It's no wonder that, when it comes to aspiration, it would appear that one size fits all!
Yet, ask any 6 year old what they want to be when they grow up and you get a totally different view …
Stories we tell our selves
For the past few years, I've been routinely doing an exercise that I find very liberating. Writing down the story of my ideal typical day. What happens, where I am, who I'm with, what I'm doing. It is an account of what I presently feel my ideal typical day would consist of. It's not the life I want to lead 5 years from now, 10 years from now, when I'm rich etc. That is, the assumption is there are no barriers, whether they be material or in terms of time. As if by magic, each time I sit down to rewrite my ideal day, I realise just how much closer I am to experiencing what I'd written before. It's as if I have written how my story will unfold. I'm a big believer of the power of agency. I believe that unless we ask (metaphorically and otherwise) for what we want, how will it know we're looking for it? We have to create our realities for ourselves rather than accept other people's, usually shoddy, constructions for us.
But how do we convince young people that all this is within their power? Especially when all evidence would imply otherwise? How do you bring up from deep inside them that 6 year old invincibility? How do you expose the world of possibilities? How do you make available examples and role models? How do you prove the power of pursuing your passion? How do you become an example and role model yourself?*
There are many ways to get to Mombasa
Just as there is no absolute when it comes to identity, neither is there an absolute with aspiration. Yet we convince ourselves daily that some dreams are not viable. The sinister part of it is that we also tell each other this very thing – crab-style!
Perhaps we should be asking kids what they want to do instead. In this context, "be" inspires labels and often these are too restrictive. Now that I have a few decades of life experience under my belt, I know that if what I want to do is heal people, there are many ways to do that. I can be a doctor and achieve that but, I can also be a nutritionist, a yoga teacher, an art therapist, a writer, an inspirational speaker, a teacher and so much more!
Perhaps we should be asking each other what stories we want to tell.
* An excellent read on Racialicious about power imbalances in pop culture – when images (stories) are not controlled by the people represented in them
**A great article from Zen Habits on igniting your passion. I think that the author's message about the importance of the company you keep is such a crucial one!
The title of this post refers to one of the best lessons my primary/elementary school Maths teacher taught me: there are many ways to get to Mombasa (we were in Nairobi). You can take a train or a plane, you could drive or, if truly inspired, you could even walk. You could go via Voi or extend your journey and take a longer indirect route, say via Kisumu! Her point was that there are several approaches you can follow to successfully solve a problem.
Illustration by Lulu Kitololo