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Thursday, August 8, 2013

From Seattle, with love

What child does not love decorating their home for holidays? I look back on my childhood memories of the weeks leading up to Christmas each year with such fondness. To me, December is caught up in the scent of sugar cookies mingled with the fresh aroma of pine. Even now, a whiff of that magical fragrance combination is enough to put me into a celebratory mood.

Robinson-Seim with her"Bride Boot Camp Instructors" at my wedding in 2007 (Photo: Robinson-Seim)

More than anything else, I look forward to setting up our nativity scene each year. It was an hand-carved piece by a Ghanian artist made out of kapok wood, and the little figures warmed engagingly in my hands as I played with them.

It is somewhat unusual for a person born in the United States to grow up with knowledge of Africa. Most of us learn about Africa through wildlife programs on TV, or pleas for donations to support orphans in remote, desolate areas. I count myself as lucky to have grown up near a community of African Bible translators, who taught me children’s songs in Swahili and gave me beautiful pieces of traditional fabrics to play with.

More importantly, however, these early experiences with the African community in the United States taught me to regard whatever cultural or political differences that separate us as largely insignificant; whatever our differences, they will always be set aside at dinnertime!

Dinnertime. I can’t tell you how enchanted I was, as an American kid accustomed to a steady diet of heavily processed, flavorless frozen meals, to be invited to participate in African mealtimes. I became particularly fond of Ethiopian food as a teenager, working at my first job with a team of Ethiopian women at a nursing home. We would share food together each day at lunch, sitting side by side in the break room, eating from one large plate. 

When my boyfriend asked me to marry him, these wonderful women put me through what they termed “Bride Boot Camp,” teaching me to prepare dishes like Firfir and Kitfo from memory before they agreed that I was ready for marriage and gave my relationship their official stamp of approval. Now, as a mother, I have to smile and think back to those cooking lessons whenever my kids beg for soft, fragrant injera in the late afternoon to tide them over until dinner is ready!

I did not fully appreciate my unique upbringing and early exposure to African cultures until very recently, when I had the opportunity to work for the African Chamber of Commerce of the Pacific Northwest (ACCPNW). The African Chamber of Commerce of the Pacific Northwest is a non-profit organization that seeks to promote bilateral trade between Africa and the Pacific Northwest. 

Working with ACCPNW gave me the opportunity to see Americans from an African perspective. I was shocked by the level of ignorance I encountered among other Americans through my work with the Chamber. People asked me ridiculous questions about life in Africa, and at first I was incensed. I thought that such ignorance, in a technologically advanced area like Seattle, had to be willful. 

Gradually, though, I realized that people were genuinely confused. Where I have always had friends in my life who could help me understand complicated or contradictory information I encountered about Africa through the media, most Americans are not that fortunate. 

Since making that realization, I have been eagerly seeking opportunities to put my friends and neighbors in Washington State in direct contact with Africans, who can tell their stories in their own words. I was thrilled when Jessica invited me to participate in Women & Africa, and sincerely look forward to connecting with women entrepreneurs in Africa as I write for this blog.