Sewing Our Mouths

mag2
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

The girl behind me speaks French on the phone. There is something about the way she speaks that reminds me of Anna, my Senegalese friend, and I conclude that she too must be from francophone Africa. Raucous laughter and storytelling emanates from the three African-Americans at the back of the Greyhound bus, and I find myself chuckling at their humor.

The driver turns off the light in the bus, and after he makes an announcement in his Spanish accent, everything seems quiet, despite the activities of these diverse people.

I consider calling my Kenyan friends so I can add my Swahili to the ecosystem of languages in the bus. That, and I need a distraction from thinking about trip to see my friend Muthoni. Muthoni is currently embodying the problems that some African students face at competitive American colleges. I recall Anna, who is learning Swahili, saying that in Swahili, when one asks, “How are you?” the only answer is, “Fine.” When I think about it, I realize it is true, even to the extent that a reply could be something like: “Fine, aki I have never been stressed like this.”

I am not in the mood to say that I am fine. I start to relive my visit to Muthoni in my head.

When Muthoni* told me that she was taking a medical leave from school for clinical depression, it distracted me from the problems I was facing keeping up in class myself. She had to leave within the next week, she was told. I excused myself from classes to visit her. I told my teachers that it was a family matter, and it was, because all we have here, 11,000 kilometers from home, is each other. My trip to see her is a story I need to tell — for the sake of the African students who have been through a hard time in school. But I hesitate. Even in my mind, and in the private space afforded by my writing, I hear myself stutter. It reminds me of how in kindergarten our teachers made us hold our first finger and thumb together and make a sewing movement across our mouths so we could pretend to sew our mouths shut.

Sewing your mouth is comfortable. I like it. But liking it means that every time I need to speak up, I do not know how. I do not know how to tell you that last semester Muthoni and I would do our homework together via Skype, and then she just went quiet. I do not know how to tell you for the past few months she could only talk to me if I was not working on any homework, which happens almost never at Yale. I do not know how to tell you that I saw her begin to spiral down when she made jokes about not graduating from college. I do not know how to tell you that I let the demons that resided in her silence be. I knew the refuge that comes with sewing your lips.

**

What happens when you just can’t? What happens on the day that, in the middle of a semester when you are barely keeping up with your classes, you get sick but not enough for a dean’s excuse and you fall behind in your classes? When you are aware that you barely survive your work when it is just a day’s worth, let alone a week’s? When you have been at the bottom of the curve all semester and have no more motivation to convince yourself to work hard? What happens when you know sending an email to your professors will in fact help a little, but you just can’t? What happens when you just can’t?

American students do not have it easy, but they have grown up in a culture that knows how to identify depression. When Muthoni told me that she was having a hard time at school, it broke my heart to hear her blaming herself. “I am just lazy,” she repeated when I tried to explain to her that it is OK to mess up, and that it is all right to have a hard time managing.

At home, people believe, I do not know why, that education in the U.S. is easy. Perhaps it is because of the movies showing college as a partying and drinking fest. I have friends at home who swear non-Kenyans can’t get better grades than they can. Although I came here aware that Yale comprises geniuses, and that I would not be the smartest kid in class, I did not think that I would spend so much more time than everyone else studying and still see no results. One day, as I was walking down from Science Hill after my physics section, I was balancing tears in my eye because everyone had figured the problems out and I, for the hundredth millionth time that semester, felt dumb and un-teachable. My friend, in twisted coincidence, teased me in a text about how I used to teach my physics professor in high school, and I wondered for a moment if I would ever be that confident again.

School in the U.S. is hard. In Nairobi, classes met just once a week. Here, submitting work for each class two or three times a week is demanding. Doing pre-lectures and readings is tasking. Submitting online quiz answers every week, and essays, and assignments… it is all a flurry. Cramming this into 24 hours in a day is already hard enough. You beat yourself up for failing despite having access to tutors and the Writing Center and study sessions. There is little room for slipping. Every time you lose time — those extra minutes at lunch or dinner, that nap on the couch — it comes back to bite you in the ass.

It is unhealthy to demand perfection from yourself but you have no option. You cannot be sent home. You must be hard on myself.

I see lights spelling out “Road Speed. Go slow.” I remember Elizabeth’s words at dinner a month ago: “It is one thing to come from far. It is another thing to be poor. It is the hardest thing to be the two of them combined.”

Elizabeth says these words halfway in tears. It has been two months since the incident but she still is scared to tell. Elizabeth has always been the emotional pillar for a good number of the African freshmen. She has meals with us, and gives us academic advice, and sends us cute emails about what to do to keep warm when Yale starts to ‘get chilly’ (read: freeze up). But as a rule, she, and many other African upperclassmen do not tell us what they are going through when they are having a hard time. This was the first time I was hearing what exactly happened during winter break.

Over winter break, Elizabeth was staying at the Omni Hotel, where OISS houses those of us who have no family in the United States. She found out that her father back home was terribly ill, and asked her dean if there was anything he could do to help. He said there was nothing he could do, and pointed out that no one else in the administration could help, either.

As Elizabeth told us this story, many students said that maybe this particular dean was just giving her a hard time. Annette told of how she was stuck with her luggage after everyone had left for summer break because she could not fit her belongings into two boxes. Another person related how financial aid officers had no idea what her financial situation back home was, because they translated her parents’ finances as they would for an American student. And we all agreed that although Freshman Counselors are trained to deal with international students, a lot of students’ problems still fall through the cracks. You learn pretty early on that you need to go to your international peer liaisons, or other upperclassmen from your region, to get tricks on where to get cheap, and I mean really truly cheap, not American-cheap, books. You learn that, although your Freshman Counselors mean well, and many times do a lot to reach out, they may not be able to understand your academic struggle here. Still, another of my friends, Chihera, talked about how supportive her college has been, helping her to cover the cost of air tickets and electronics. My friend at Cornell has pointed out that Yale has the best safety net for African students, in the sense that the African community is active and close knit. And for me, Branford’s Master’s and Dean’s Offices have been amazing about understanding me and making me feel that I am in a space where I can say I am different.

“It is not that they do not give us an extra storage box as international students,” Elizabeth finishes. “It is what not giving us that extra box says about how much they value us.”

**

When I see the students from developing countries at Ivy League universities, I know the admissions counselors chose well. I can tell from these students’ ideas and how good they are at what they do that they are an extraordinary lot. Although many come from sewing-your-mouth cultures, and do not speak of their achievements, I can tell that these people, at their age, have achieved more than many of us are still dreaming of achieving. Why then is there such an alarming number of people who are barely surviving school? I know everyone from everywhere goes through hard times. But I cannot neglect the story of how many people change from a major they love to a major that is easier for them not because their dreams changed but because they just can’t manage it. How many people here complain about being weak students when they were among the best students in the exams they took in their countries? Do they have a chance in America?
I walk into a science class, and I feel like I am working to change misconceptions about the ability of my gender, my race, and my continent to succeed all at once,” Elizabeth jokes, and we laugh, but in the way that you laugh at something you are not sure is funny.

Yale is the most academically challenging institution we have been to. We have to work to find our niches here, and we have to find time to have fun. In addition, the financial frustrations of being here, despite our considerable financial aid, reduce our level of success. A lot of international students have stellar records at Yale, and, when they graduate, stellar prospects for the future. But the struggle that comes between matriculation at Yale and graduation is a story that should be told. It does not make sense to me how many people I have seen struggling, while many people back home would still tell us, “How hard can it be?” I guess that is one other thing we have managed to sew our mouths about.

In the two days that I am with Muthoni, she struggles to secure a loan from her school so she can pay to take classes back home. Many of us cannot afford to pay for classes at our local universities if we take time off. For international students, the loans at some colleges have painful interest. Hoping to pay your loans back while unsure about the possibility of even finishing your education here is bleak. What $1,500 means here and at home in Kenyan shillings is worlds apart. Going home also means dealing with a society that does not consider mental illness a real issue. Perhaps because there are fewer cases of mental illness, the societies back home still have the “remember to smile” solution to clinical depression. In the two nights I was with Muthoni, she did not sleep. It was only proof of what I suspected, because I always found her social networks online whenever I logged on.

**

The sound of a video game startles me from my reverie. A boy is playing a game on his device, and I can hear when he shoots at his opponents. He has a bad cough, and I play my own game, trying to guess which is the sound of the video game and which is the sound of him coughing.

There is snow on either side of the road and I worry for the millionth time that it will not be spring during spring break. Everything is different here. There are seasons here. Heaps of snow lay on either side of the road. I look at it. I recall all the texts I got from people at home asking how beautiful snow must be. I wonder why nobody told us that snow is beautiful when it falls, and it reminds you of children and lovers, but then it gets dirty, and it looks more like life. We have passed New Brighton now, and there is a billboard to my left that says “Keep Dreaming.” I look, but I cannot figure out what they are advertising, and I am grateful.

Tomorrow, Muthoni will text me to tell me: “Guess who I met on the plane?” She will say the name of another amazing young person I know. Muthoni will tell me that this friend is going home for the same reason as she.

* All names in this article have been changed to protect the sources’ privacy.

Comments