Channing Russell, Medill, Immigrant Connect

“What type of crazy animals did you see?!” I excitedly ask Colleen one night at the dinner table.

“Animals?” she replies rather confusedly.

“ I don’t do that. I don’t like animals!”

“What do you mean? There are so many animals in South Africa! Lions, pythons…”

Pietermaritzburg, South Africa (Photo credit: Britannica)

“Aht, I hate snakes!”, she quickly retorts.  “I don’t see those kinds of animals, Channing. Pietermaritzburg is like a regular city.”

Colleen Marlowe immigrated to America from Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, in 2005 to work as an au pair in Maryland. She worked for a couple of families in the Northeast before starting as my younger sister’s caretaker in August of 2008.

Colleen spoke Zulu, a Southern Bantu language that is most prominently spoken in Southern Africa. In South Africa alone, there are over 10 million native Zulu speakers.

The language fascinates me – complete with clicks and trills – and is nothing like English. Colleen speaks a mix of Zulu and English rather often when she talks to her other South African peers. It sounds random to me, with English words thrown into the middle of long Zulu stretches. I try to parse a grammatical pattern from her speech, but it’s no use.

Colleen picks my sister and me up from school and drives me to my extracurricular activities as my parents both work until the evening. During our time together, we become very close, and I become increasingly  curious about the nature of her life back home.

The innocence of childhood is something to be cherished. That odd way where one is sheltered from the harsh complexities of the world. These include the systems and pervasive ideas that shape our experiences. Naturally, understanding these systems comes with life experiences, education and exposure, all of which I was very lucky to have growing up.

Being a current student at Northwestern University is surely a sign that my education didn’t fail me. I thoroughly believe that my exposure to different facets of life – culture, music, travel – were even more important to shaping me as an individual.

Being a young African-American male, the cultural norms that I’ve experienced have been extremely American-centric. After all, my great-grandparents were born and raised in the deep-south, ultimately pushing my grandparents to move northward to the New York City metro area. All of my family history has been contained in America. Colleen Marlowe was the diaspora – the global black experience that I wasn’t aware of.

Growing up black American, if you aren’t fortunate enough to travel to Africa, you hear about it as if it’s an abstract concept rather than a concrete place. After all, I was many generations removed. Colleen made Africa much more real to me.

“That’s so boring, snakes are so cool,” I say rather disappointedly.

“We do have dragons, though.”  she says. I look at her perplexed, maybe even offended that she would think I’m gullible to believe that dragons are real. She goes on to explain how the dragons would whip up ferocious storms across South Africa.

“No way that’s real,” I say in as stern a tone as an 11-year-old can muster.

“It absolutely is!” she replies.

I never bothered to look it up or fact check, yet this conversation lingered in my head for years. I made it clear that I doubted her dragon story, but this conversation made her home that much more real to me in the moment. In that moment I rationalized that there was nothing mystical or abstract about South Africa. It was a place with its own unique cultures and stories. It also had cities and apartments and people who wanted nothing to do with animals that we hear so much about in pop culture.

Looking back on it, I cringe at my ignorance and long for my innocence. Despite my shortcomings, Colleen helps me understand – while in a small way – about the real Africa.