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I’m hosting a baby shower for my friend Alek, Agotich’s mother. Invited guests include fellow members of the Refugee Education Fund and a mix of American and Sudanese women. We didn’t have much lead time for the shower, and it was hard for Alek to gather everyone’s addresses. So she gave me a list of her friends’ and relatives’ names and phone numbers instead.

Whoo boy! I called a few of the women I know and have met first. Easy! Then I got to the women I don’t know at all, many of whom have not been here long themselves and are not yet proficient in English. That’s where it got more challenging. After stumbling around on a few calls, I began to realize that it was best to describe Alek not as Alek Ajak, but as Kwai Kwai’s (Gabriel’s first and last name) wife, Akech Kwai’s (Gabriel’s middle and last name, which he often goes by so he has a different first and last name) wife, or, in a pinch, Agotich’s mama.

I can’t remember if I’ve ever posted about this or not, but in Dinka culture a woman is known by name of her first child once she becomes a mother. Thus, my friend Agok is “Aciek Mama”, Alek is “Agotich Mama” and I am “Simon Mama”, or would be were I Dinka. I learned about this while helping Alek take out a set of extensions this winter.

Anyway, some of the women understand enough to write down my name, number, and address. Others ask me to call back when their husbands will be home. And then there was the most unlikely impasse of all:

“I’m calling about Alek Ajak. You know her?”

“Alek? Ajak? Who?”

“Kwai Kwai’s wife? “


“Akech Kwai’s wife?”


“Agotich’s mama?”

Nothing. Then:

“Wait! Do you mean Gabriel’s wife?”


“Yes! Gabriel!”

And so we continued.

Then yesterday, I took Alek and Agotich for one of Alek’s regular prenatal exams. Owing to the fact that the very beautiful lobby had no reading material or TV and that the wait was Godot-like, I had the chance to get to know the life stories of many fellow Louisvillians. There was the very fair woman with the rash, who commented about how beautiful Alek was once Alek got called back into the examining room. There was the nurse with her four-year-old boy who was nervous about getting his shots. There was the no-nonsense mother of five who told her brood in no uncertain terms that they better sit quietly and not disturb anyone. And there was the very cute and very bored 10-year-old African American girl whose opening conversational gambit was, “Are you her mother!?”

The fact of the girl’s race and my choice of language to describe it are important and intentional for this story. Having discussed Agotich’s age, whether she was falling asleep, the girl’s school, how long she’d been wearing glasses and so on, the girl looked at me and said:

“She doesn’t look like she’s from here. Is she Mexican or Indian or something?”

I was dumbstruck. I mean, given this country’s primary racial story, how can anyone born and bred in the US not recognize as African someone with Agotich’s features? It’s not like Agotich is San or North-African. Nor did the girl confuse her with someone from, say, Melanesia or New Guinea. I can’t decide if this level of racial oblivious is a sign of the decay of our educational system or a hopeful sign that the next generation really is color blind!

I’m hoping for the latter, but I have my doubts…

One Response to “Adventures in Cross Cultural Communications”

  1. Amanda says:

    It worked that way in Mauritania too. Selika, my mom, was “Umm Mohammed Makhmoud.”

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