sThere are so many stories that I want to tell in these memoirs, many that I’ve only alluded to, or told in fragments while framing other narratives. But each week when I sit down to write, I’m inspired by a hook that feels fresh and is on the forefront of my mind. Sometimes that hook will lead me back to a moment in the past that is important to share, and sometimes it won’t. I hope that naturally over the next year I’m able to articulate everything that I set out wanting to. Or, perhaps, responding to my emotions in the moment and letting the writing take me where it wants to go isn’t such a terrible thing. So what’s on my mind today? One man, who I spoke to for about five minutes, almost two weeks ago.
We were leaving a market in Stone Town, the largest city on Unguja Island in the Zanzibar Archipelago, and Alex was with a guy who wanted to sell us all kinds of things. This was our fourth day in Stone Town, so we were pretty accustomed to everything that was on offer and well beyond being receptive to a pitch. While Alex was busy with this man, an elderly man ran up to us. While he was running he dropped a few necklaces out of his brown paper bag, and scowled while he picked them up and put them back in. He seemed unhappy, and unwell, so I felt sympathy for him immediately – though I note sympathy is almost never productive and usually disempowering.
He asked me if I wanted to buy some of the necklaces, and I politely declined in Swahili. Apana, asante. No, thank you. I already have all that I need. He frowned at me and kept pulling different things out of the bag. Did I want postcards instead? A sim card? I told him that I appreciate the offer but I was not looking to purchase anything. He asked me why I would bother to come to his island to simply take things from him and give nothing back. I felt quite confronted. Sir, I respect that you are making a living, but I am just taking a walk. I have all that I need. Why was I here then? I explained that I’d come here for work and was now trying to explore and appreciate the country. He asked me what I did for work, and when I told him, he asked me why I was only interested in supporting other rich people. He said that I probably bought things at home from Chinese and Indian shops, but felt no need to support him or his work. Then he kicked the dirt, frowned at me, and walked away. And it stuck with me. It’s hardly the first time, but I’ve been so acutely aware of inequality and livelihoods lately that I felt like a hypocrite, and perhaps an active part of the problem.
I spent the night in a terrible mood, reading about colonialism in Africa and wondering if buying trinkets would actually help anything. Alex tried to console me, yet I just kept snapping. Should I just buy the stuff? Is it better I give away whatever I have and help someone make a living, even if I don’t want it? I ended up buying a fair few things I didn’t want from other people (including a potentially life-threatening ‘black henna’ tattoo from an elderly lady that turned out to be a toxic chemical), in response to my encounter with this man, and I still don’t necessarily think this is the right response. Why I reacted so strongly I’m not sure, I’ve spent many months living in Sub-Saharan Africa, and yet I never had anyone outright accuse me of refusing to support them in such a modest way. It isn’t like the time my neighbour wanted $150 to fix their imaginary car to go to a fictional funeral – this was just a man in front of me asking for about $1 for something he’d carved with his own hands. And I kept saying no.
This was during our second week Tanzania. I spent the first week working at a conference in Dar es Salaam, before taking a ferry to Zanzibar. I’m incredibly fortunate that my company pays for business class travel on long haul flights – but even more so that if we choose to downgrade to economy, we are able to bring someone along at no added cost. So I brought my husband here on a holiday that has cost us next to nothing, as we have been staying in modest Airbnbs with locals and keeping our costs down. Alex is a full time student this year, and we are living in inner London on only my salary and saving up for our move in December, so trust me when I say we don’t have cash to burn.
To the people on the street, Alex and I aren’t budget travellers who are keen to explore and meet locals while spending as little as possible, we are white so we may as well have sailed in on a private yacht and be staying in a penthouse. Tourism is a major industry in Zanzibar, and everyone needs to make a living, yet being offered the same tours and the same experiences (all out of our budget) continuously, and having nobody believe we actually can’t afford it becomes very tiring.
I’m also not entirely comfortable with being perceived as white – as I’m biracial. I’m African American, and Australian (of British and black Caribbean descent) in equal parts. I have very pale skin, but I also have many distinctively African features like my afro. I also realise that this isn’t a racial issue alone, many black people who clearly look foreign based on how they are dressed get the same harassment I’m sure. But despite my African lineage on both sides, I was raised in the West, I’m an Australian and American citizen, I benefit from essentially all of the ‘perks’ of white privilege, and I have a job that allows me to travel and to enjoy the world (even if I don’t have much disposable income). Do I just need to accept that every time I visit less developed parts of Africa, I’m always going to be perceived as just another rich white person who should be giving their support?
This is the 14th in a series of 52 Memoirs I will be posting weekly until April 2018. Look out for new posts every Wednesday!
Alas - this is the first week I've not posted on a Wednesday! Given the circumstances though, I think you’ll agree that just this once, posting on Thursday morning is acceptable. For the past week, my partner Alex and I have been in Zanzibar. This trip came off the back of my work trip to Dar es Salaam, so it’s been a cheap and easy getaway for us. We’ve been staying in Airbnbs with residents here, and enjoying a taste of local life and a measured dosage of the upscale resort amenities around as well. It’s also the first time I’ve properly taken leave in many months.
I’ve had friends and family remark that I’m ‘always’ on holiday, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I travel semi-regularly, yes, and often I use my annual leave to do it. In April I visited my hometown Perth, Western Australia for just 11 days, which wasn’t purely a holiday as it involved visits to hardware stores and our house to do maintenance for our tenants, and sorting and packing the possessions we have in storage. In May I spent four days in Paris with my best friend, but I worked remotely over Friday and Monday – so really, I just had a weekend away. The following week I left my office on Wednesday and flew to Kyiv in Ukraine, where I spent four days touring the city, visiting tech initiatives and attending meetings, returning Sunday just before midnight and heading back into the office on Monday. Then in the last weekend of May, I flew to Sydney where I attended the EU-Australia Emerging Leaders Forum and helped to develop policy recommendations for the future of the inter-regional relationship.
Indeed - I have a remarkable talent for using all of my ‘time off’ to just do different kinds of work (that I’m often not paid for, but are labors of love). Last time I really had a break like this, we were on our honeymoon in Mauritius in November 2015. That was a remarkably intense year for me in many ways. I had taken on a number of low-or-no-fee refugee cases, as I was registered to practice migration law in Australia. I was co-leading a non-profit organisation and running monthly events with Alex, and coordinating our Board’s activities. I was completing a full-time Honours course load (as an option fourth year of my Bachelor’s degree) and writing a thesis, while doing coursework. Alex and I were planning our October 3rd wedding. We were also planning our indefinite move away from Australia, to follow our honeymoon in November, to New York for my UN internship and then onto London where we would live and work for two years. And – the icing on the cake – I decided I was already so busy that doing a full-time Masters degree at the same time couldn’t make matters any worse, so I enrolled and completed a semester of postgraduate studies too.
After I handed over our non-profit to a new leadership team, submitted my thesis, completed all of my Honours and Masters coursework and tied up all of the other loose ends including preparing for our move, the honeymoon was the first time I could release my breath and just be. We opted for a Club Med getaway to La Plantation d’Albion in Mauritius. It cost us a chunk of our savings, but it was worth it. I didn’t have to make a single decision while we were there - it was a healing tonic for the mind, body and soul. From the airport all of our flights and transfers were handled, our suite had everything we needed, our chef-prepared food, drinks and activities like snorkeling, archery and ball sports were all included. I could just frolic around a warm and summery paradise, stuffing my face with lobster, drinking piña coladas, playing tennis and swimming without thinking about anything else... in theory.
Regrettably, it’s not that easy for me to let go, and I was still thinking about what my next chapter of life would be like and what other planning, research and preparation I could do for the move. Still, for me, it was relaxation like I had probably never experienced. I’ve since vowed not to run myself down like that again, and to take regular breaks to recharge. Here in Zanzibar after months of near-constant work, I’ve been attempting to relax but I haven't entirely let go. I’m still checking work emails and responding to the urgent ones, still planning our December move to the US, still thinking about my ‘next’ projects (and actually set one in motion, setting up a stream of meetings for the next few weeks). But having a little extra breathing room helps to ground me and remind me what I'm passionate about, so while I’m still working, I know I’m doing it out of love, not exasperation.
With all of this going on, I’ve realised the commitment to write this blog every single Wednesday is also a form of work I impose on myself. It’s a labour of love, but sometimes I do need to relax my grip on myself. So last night, as I was curled up under a fan and mosquito net wincing from the pain of my sunburn and trying to meditate, I decided that I didn’t have to deliver on my self-imposed deadline and would allow myself to relax for once. It didn’t quite work, as the sunburn and anti-malarial combination hasn’t been letting me sleep through the night – but I tried. And that’s another step in the right direction.
This is the twelfth in a series of 52 Memoirs I will be posting weekly until April 2018. Look out for new posts every Wednesday!
As I type this I am in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, working at a mobile technology event with exciting and disruptive start-ups and organisations working to create social impact. Today, I also graduate in absentia from my Master of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development degree, with a specialisation in humanitarian action. I started this degree in July 2015, and have completed it entirely online while working full-time.
I have had a non-traditional and non-linear tertiary education experience. To make a long story very short, when I was 20 and halfway through my second year of my undergraduate degree, my Mum was diagnosed with stage four melanoma. At that point in time I lived with her, as she raised me alone with my Nanna who by then was in an aged care home with dementia. With my Mum unable to work, we had no household income. I had been working part-time throughout my study, but without hesitating realised that I needed to step up and earn a full-time income. I had retail and reception experience, so I applied for a very low-level admin role at a refugee legal charity, and managed to get the job. It was a full time position that was low paid, but I had benefits and a stable income to support our household.
For most people, that would be the end of their study – at least for a while. That is completely reasonable, as not everyone can study full-time and work full-time simultaneously. I’m fortunate that I can. I don’t want to pretend it was wildly difficult for me. It wasn’t. I’m beyond lucky that I can both read and write at a very high level with relative ease. This is the first time I became acutely aware of this elitism in higher education: there is a growing expectation that anyone who wants to be successful should achieve high levels of education, yet tertiary education privileges a very niche skill set. I didn’t have to work as hard as other people to gain my degrees because of my inherent literary abilities – abilities I am not comfortable pretending that I worked very hard to earn. Many people I love and respect have had a much more stressful and difficult time achieving an education because these skills don’t come naturally to them. Should we be privileging literacy above almost all other skill sets? I don’t personally think so, though I am completely aware of the irony of this because I wouldn’t be anywhere in life right now if the tertiary system wasn’t wired to privilege my specific type of intellect.
While working full-time for that legal charity, I was able to gain permission from my University to enrol in online units with other high-quality institutions in Australia, and I completed my degree at exactly the same time I otherwise would have. An expected bonus arising from a personal tragedy: I ended up also having a few years of work experience in a social justice organisation. After I completed my Bachelors degree, I then completed an intensive six-month full-time qualification in Australian Migration Law and Practice, and began assisting refugees with their migration cases myself. When I realised how easily studying at night and in my weekend time came to me, I realised I didn’t have to stop working in order to achieve high grades and keep studying. Since I enrolled in that first online unit, I haven’t stopped.
The Australian National University (ANU) ranks as a top 20 global university, and the best in Australia. In international development, they rank top 10 in the world. But this would be meaningless to me if they weren’t truly forward-thinking and innovative. They allow a number of their degrees to be completed fully online. This is rare for an ‘elite’ insitution. They understand that not everyone learns in the same way, and they allow different means of participating. I can’t explain how much gratitude and appreciation I have for the ANU as an institution – without their flexible policies, I wouldn’t have a Masters degree today.
Financing education is also an area of the system that is broken. As an Australian citizen I have access to a low-interest loan system. I’ve never had to pay for this study up front. As I put a four-year Bachelor’s degree, a Graduate Certificate and a Masters degree onto this loan account, I’m sitting with some hefty debt. But I’m fortunate that the Australian government doesn’t expect you to make repayments until you are working and earning over a certain amount – so now that I am, I should be able to pay off the entire balance within five years.
As someone who is half American, I feel grateful all the time that I didn’t have to grow up there. In America, I would have been 100% expected to attend campus. I wouldn’t have been able to gain my work experience while studying. If I hadn’t received a scholarship or financial aid, I’d have to get a loan for my high tuition fees and pay ridiculous interest rates. In development study, Stanford sits just below ANU. So for a comparable education, I’d be in three times more debt.
I came out of a tough situation on top, but it was a consequence of many different types of privilege that lined up to make my unique pathway possible. So I accept the pride of finally having completed my degree today, but with a grain of salt for all of the other people who are disadvantaged by a rigid global system that privileges a small number of people.
This is the eleventh in a series of 52 Memoirs I will be posting weekly until April 2018. Look out for new posts every Wednesday!
At this point in my journey, I feel it is important to reflect on this project as a whole, as it’s been uniquely challenging to write a short memoir every single week. But first you may wonder how this whole 52 Memoirs thing even started, since I realise I’ve never actually shared that information.
This project wasn’t thoroughly planned out or considered for months, weeks, or even days. One morning, I decided it would be a good thing to do, and by the end of that day I’d launched the blog. That’s how I am – impulsive, decisive, and committed. If I start a project, I launch with an end-date or exit-goal in mind from step one. If an idea seems good enough, I run with it. It maybe isn’t always the best approach, but I’m learning to accept it as one of my unique strengths. I’m not someone who sits around waiting for a moment to be handed to me, I create one. I don’t ponder actions for a long time, I just take them. I dive in, adapt and learn on the go, and it means I live with purpose and impact nearly all of the time – even if sometimes it’s risky or physically and emotionally draining.
But why did I have the idea in the first place? Well, it comes down to the power of storytelling. I find it incredibly powerful to connect with other people’s stories. Stories that I can empathise with to one extent or another. Those stories mean more to me than I can explain. Conversely, whenever I’m not able to connect a part of my identity – something I’m perhaps struggling with – to a story, I feel the cold ache that comes with feeling like you’re all alone.
After I did my TEDx talk, and shared a relatively small part of myself in a public platform, a large number of people have reached out to me. They mostly thanked me for opening up because they found meaning or inspiration in my words. To be honest that was quite surprising because I didn’t think my talk was a particularly intimate revelation – but it was still very much an honest part of myself and I’m so humbled and grateful that people could connect with it.
I haven’t yet gone into what it was like to grow up biracial in a very white part of Australia, to be declared a child genius then struggle with a fear of inadequacy and unfulfilled potential over a lifetime, to care for a parent with stage four cancer, to carry the shadow of a horrifyingly abusive father around with me – but I will tell each of these stories, when the right week comes along.
Telling these stories helps me to live unashamedly and occupy my own identity and my own space, which I think is incredibly important for anyone to do. Storytelling can also displace power, and there are a few issues I want to unpack and narratives I want to reclaim. But most importantly – I want these stories to be out in the public arena so that other people who have maybe lived similar lives in these small and specific ways will realise they aren’t alone, like I too often believe I am.
The impacts on my writing have so far been tremendous, and it’s only been eleven weeks. I have tried to master a kind of tactfulness when approaching certain topics, but it is incredibly hard to tell my own stories without dragging in the stories of other people who have not always done the best things by me, but who I don’t want to hurt all the same. So far I’m proud of the way I’ve managed to tell the truth without exposing or upsetting those people, and it’s a skill I only hope to improve upon throughout this journey.
I’ve received some great feedback so far, but as I approach the three-month mark and publish Memoir 12 of 52 next week, it would be great to get more of a sense of what’s working and what isn’t. It doesn’t mean I’m going to just flat out agree with you, but it’s crucial to understand what audiences like and don’t like, so please hit me with your comments! Emails are always welcome, it doesn’t matter if we’ve never spoken or if you just stumbled. I mean it, I’m open, so if you’re reading this please say hi.
I’ll see you next Wednesday, when I plan to tackle the topic of elitism in higher education to celebrate the day I graduate from my Masters degree! Get ready for me to crack this issue wide open, building on a lot of what was discussed in Memoir #2: Why I Decided Not To Do A PhD.
This is the eleventh in a series of 52 Memoirs I will be posting weekly until April 2018. Look out for new posts every Wednesday!
My name is Keeya-Lee Ayre, but I go by just Keeya if the context is casual. I'm American-born, Australian-raised, and living in Atlanta after a 2 year stint in London. I work in the humanitarian innovation / tech / social impact space. You can follow me on twitter here!