African Studies Educator Mona Hakimi Shares How We Extend Beyond Borders and Nationalities in “My Story”

“My Story” is a tradition at ALA that gives a glimpse into the stories that live, breathe and have being in the people in our ALA community. Here, African Studies Faculty member, Ms Mona Hakimi, shares her story.

I want to tell you a love story. It begins in Iran, in the city of Shiraz, where poets are given shrines and people are given gardens. It was here, at Pahlavi University, that Minoo Eshraghi met Farshid Hakimi. Many migrations later, I would call them Maman and Baba. 

Enoch Olinga

But their story has another beginning. This one starts in Uganda, between Soroti and Mbale, where a talented translator, Enoch Olinga, worked for the government. After losing his job, Mr. Olinga moved to Kampala, where he met an Iranian man who introduced him to the Baha’i Faith. This encounter transformed his life and it transformed the lives of my parents, too. 

Both my mum and dad had childhood dreams of moving to the continent. I don’t know why my mum dreamed of moving across the world, but I do know that as a little girl, she used to stay awake into the night, talking to her sister Azar about how they would go.

My father’s childhood was connected to the continent in a different way. When Baba went to school, he was called ‘African,’ taunted for his full lips, darker skin and curly hair. Baba had a theory that he looked different because he had African ancestry. I used to think that this was far-fetched until I learned more about the history of slavery and inter-marriage in Iran.

Maybe Baba did have African ancestry, maybe he didn’t. What mattered is that he had a yearning to be in another place, a place where he wouldn’t be ridiculed for his beautiful brown skin, a place where he might feel like he belonged.

Mr. Olinga visited Shiraz in 1971, where he gave a talk to young Bahais, including my mum and dad. My mum sat next to her sister, Zohreh, who translated his words for her. At some point, Mr. Olinga asked his audience who wanted to move to the continent and my father was the only one who stood up. 

My mum didn’t understand what was happening. She asked Zohreh, “Who is that handsome young man?” After the meeting, my mum approached my dad and told him that they shared this childhood dream. They were drawn to each other because they were drawn to this place and it was this desire to migrate that led to their marriage. 

My parents married in ‘74, migrated in ‘78, and by 1982, they had made a home in Malawi. This is where I was born, but like my father in his country of birth, I didn’t quite belong. Malawi has made me who I am, but I feel like it has rejected me, too. 

Mona is held by her father alongside her mother and older sister

At immigration, I can expect my passport to be held up at me, accusingly or amusedly. At Home Affairs or the police station, I am often asked, “But where are you originally from?” I understand my origins to be Kamuzu Central Hospital, but birthright does not bring belonging. 

When I walk down the street, children sing “Azungu, azungu!” But I am not mzungu. I went to school with azungu. Their names were pronounced easily. Their break boxes were filled with sliced sandwiches and Romany Creams. Their houses were tiled and tidy. Their bodies were thin, like women in Cosmopolitan magazine. This was not me. 

I couldn’t see me anywhere, not even in the summer holidays we spent in Iran. There, I spoke Farsi with an embarrassing accent. I looked local but I sounded foreign. I was always of elsewhere. 

It was only when I started learning more African history that I came to realise we are all of elsewhere. This happened most recently when I was reading a manuscript about music in Malawi. In historicising the people of Malawi, John Lwanda argues, ‘We are all incomers.’ 

Lwanda tells us that before the Maravi made their empire, they “did not find an empty land. They found the Batwa and earlier Bantu settlers.” Although Malawi is characterised as the warm heart of Africa, its ethnic diversity is a result of many years of conquest and colonialism. 

The original Batwa were replaced by the Bantu and now there is a staggering mix of Chewa, Yao, Tumbuka, Nyanja, Lomwe, Tonga, Sena, Ngoni, Ngonde, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, European, Middle Eastern and many more ethnicities. Lwanda says, “no one group can claim to exclusively own the country culturally. That most ethnic groups belong to the Bantu linguistic grouping is…a happy accident of history.”

By an accident of history, we find ourselves with the languages we speak, the territories we claim, the identities we represent. Lwanda affirms that we are all of elsewhere, if we are attentive. 

Mona Hakimi

Even if you identify as indigenous, if you trace your ancestry far back enough, you, too, are made of migrations. Ms. Takondwa* has roots in eSwatini. Mr. Dash* has ancestors in India. Mr. Morake’s* musical mother tongue is spoken in Botswana, South Africa and parts of Zimbabwe. The most intimate aspects of our identities extend beyond borders and nationalities. 

We can add another layer to this idea that we are all of elsewhere. It comes from my very rudimentary understanding of Biology. I confirmed with Dr. Demi* that a female foetus begins its existence with all of its eggs, six million of them. This means that when your grandmother conceived your mother, the egg that made you you was already there. So not only are you from another place, you are also of another time. 

If I apply this idea to my life, I am from Ooromieh in the 1950s – my chromosomes know what it means to live through a coup, to be ruled by a Shah, to bear witness to a revolution and to live with the reality of religious persecution. We are much older and far more resilient than we think. 

I am telling you this story because I want to share the idea that you have an ancient heart. Your cells know what it means to live in a different place, to be part of a different time. You are of elsewhere, too.  

My name is Mona Hakimi, I am from Malawi and Iran, and this is My Story.

*ALA Faculty members