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Zion Decoteau and Chynna Seck: My History Didn’t Start with Slavery

From learning to haggle in the medina to connecting more deeply with history, two New York City high-school students reflect on visiting Africa for the first time.

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Image from Flickr user Antonio Cinotti.

I met Chynna and Zion in the spring of 2015, when they, along with several other high school students from New York City, were preparing for trips to Senegal and Morocco. The students were traveling for a summer fellowship program organized through a partnership between the Foundation for Letters, which provides urban schools with literary-focused enrichment programs, and the International Youth Leadership Institute, an organization whose goal is to nurture young leaders from the African Diaspora. The goals of their summer trips were to grow as writers and scholars, and to experience the cultural exchange and personal growth that comes from travel. Over the course of their travels, the students wrote and wrote, keeping notes on what they saw and experienced. Here, Guernica is pleased to present travel essays that two students developed from their summer journals.

Mostly we read travel narratives from the professionally worldly: journalists and authors who have trotted the globe for years, sampling different cultures and capitals with practiced ease. The reflections from these students show something else—the experience of encountering the wider world for the first time, with excitement and wide-open eyes. Too often worldliness comes at the expense of wonder. So it’s a pleasure to invite readers to share these reflections, and dip into the dizzy—almost overwhelming—feeling of being young, far from home, and ready to learn.

—Rachel Riederer for Guernica

Chynna Seck: In the Motherland of All Lands

After pulling an all‐nighter with my roommates and hauling all of our luggage onto the train, I am extremely exhausted. I am not ready for this long train ride. Stepping inside, I did not expect to see the modern compartment style—it looked surprisingly cozy. After finally getting comfortable. I turn to journaling to keep me busy for the next ten to twelve hours. As we prepared to leave Marrakesh, Morocco, looking out the window brings on a wind of memories that struck me instantly.

By coincidence, in the train I see a man who reminds me of an owner of a store in Fez, Morocco. The store had beautiful traditional Moroccan clothing–djellabas and kaftans in all kinds of colors and patterns. As soon as I walked inside, I was in awe. I immediately focused on an aquamarine dress with intricate gold embroidery. I had always wanted a traditional dress. Somehow, I felt that it would make me seem more cultured, while still embracing and appreciating a side of me that I never really discovered. As I tried the dress on, I felt like a different person. I couldn’t stop looking in the mirror because in a way, I felt like an actual traveler. This dress was like a visual symbol of all the culture and worth of Africa.

The more compliments I received, the more eager I became to buy it. However, the only thing separating the dress and me was the 700 dirhams ($70) price tag. Then, I thought of my older sister Chenelle and how breathtaking she would look in the dress. I took a picture and sent it to her right away. Within minutes she replied and said how much she loved it. Being indecisive, I also sent the picture to my mother, then I began to bargain with the owner. After what seemed like years of convincing, he finally let me take it for 650 dirhams. Because I didn’t have that much with me, I agreed to pay him in full once I got back to the hotel. While we were eating in a traditional Moroccan restaurant, my mother finally replied, saying that I shouldn’t get the dress. I was definitely not expecting that response. But after reflecting, I realized that with the amount I would have spent on this one dress, I could have bought trinkets and mini artifacts for my friends and family. Though I was saddened that I was unable to bring back a traditional dress , I remembered that I took this trip to mature and make responsible (sometimes heartbreaking!) decisions. In other words, I began to adopt a new way of thinking that was based on giving and helping others feel my happiness. Because I was too scared to face the store owner, I begged my friend to return the dress to him. Once we were exiting the medina, I turned to see the owner running behind us. Like any other storeowner in the medina, he came to negotiate lower prices. It took everything in me to reject his offers.

Looking to my left on the train, I see a woman open a container of homemade food that she brought with her. The train fills with wonderful spices and smells. I close my eyes and envisioned the medina. I remember the first time we walked into the busy market—it was like entering a different world. The different hues of colors that varied from a bright fuchsia pink to a beautiful royal blue. Or the wonderful smells that filled the air—the freshly baked bread, the sweet pastries that attracted the many bees, or even the aroma of the many spices, oils, or perfumes that sank into our clothes and lasted for hours. The medina was also where I learned my first Arabic word—la (no). Something that came in handy whenever vendors would passionately/aggressively encourage their goods on me.

During one of our research projects (collection of data in the medina), we met three inspiring sisters, one currently in medical school. They expressed their frustration about the Moroccan government, which they said was not providing the necessary funds for medicals students and schools. Unlike the United States, there is no hierarchical system of careers. Therefore, professionals such as doctors aren’t paid much. “We need you to go back to America and let our problem be known”—this is what these sisters asked of us. This event was very important because I became aware of what my program, IYLI’s (International Youth Leadership Institute) mission really meant. “To nurture a new generation of visionary leaders from the African Diaspora who, inspired by their rich African heritage, are committed to leave a legacy in the world” means that we, the current generation (and the ones to follow) must come together and share knowledge to become stronger, powerful, and change the world. By these sisters trusting us with such an important message, I realized that they were committed to make a change, with our help. Without IYLI, these connections and relationships that I formed would be impossible.

Opening my eyes, I saw a mosque outside the train window. Rewinding back to the second day, I thought of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco. This was the day I believe that I became a better person. Being a Catholic, I was shocked to notice how much more religious I felt when walking into another religion’s place of worship. It was such a powerful feeling. I walked around alone because I wanted to experience this moment quietly, on my own. I took many pictures, not wanting to miss any part of this fascinating experience. I became overwhelmed. Suddenly I let out a big sigh. I felt lighter, happier. I resolved not to let anything annoy me, bother me, or anger me, because that day, I realized that none of that mattered. I was in the beautiful country of Morocco, and the motherland of all lands, Africa. I felt unstoppable and absolutely blessed.

“I will never forget reading about the devastating death of Sandra Bland while so far from home. After days of living in what seemed like a traveler’s dream, I was hit with reality.”

With the loud giggles of the small children, I remembered the young girl who would wait outside of our hotel to retrieve any water bottles or snacks that we held. Whenever we would share our food or give her money, her beautiful eyes would instantly light up with gratification and appreciation. Something as simple as a half filled water bottle made her thank us endlessly. In ways, she helped me more than we could ever help her. Her maturity and responsibility at such a young age, helped me appreciate the carefree childhood that I was fortunate to receive. She also helped me change my mentality and become more humble and grounded. This humility helped me witness the many gifts of Africa than any book, documentary, or testimony could.

I snapped out of my daydream. I watched the children create games and laugh without ever getting tired. In some ways, I felt like a child in Morocco. I was constantly learning new things, having a great time. Children tend to see the world in such unique lens, that it’s almost impossible to steer them from what they believe in. However, once we become adults, the image isn’t so clear anymore, and we become tired of the looking through the same old lens. Unfortunately, we are often pressured to view things the same way. Thankfully in Morocco I learned that there’s nothing wrong with always wanting to do things differently, and always being curious while respecting the beliefs and culture of others.

“The program helped me remember that my history didn’t start with slavery. Africa holds thousands of years of powerful civilizations and empires that influences every part of the world today—whether people like to admit it or not.”

One element of the trip I will never forget was reading about the devastating death of Sandra Bland while so far from home. After days of living in what seemed like a traveler’s dream, I was hit with reality. Even in another country it is impossible to escape the injustices that prevail in America. After this I become even more focused on the goal and mission of the trip: to learn about my history in depth. This summer fellowship program helped me remember that my history didn’t start with slavery. Africa holds thousands of years of powerful civilizations and empires that influences every part of the world today—whether people like to admit it or not.

Taking back this knowledge with me to America is extremely necessary to help those of non‐African descent know that Africa isn’t just wildlife and desert—that there’s a strong presence of culturally diverse music, language, and tribal rituals and practices. It is also important to help my fellow people of color wake up and realize that our African heritage is something that we should take pride and honor in. Throughout this journey, I had the unique opportunity to experience and learn about to where I started. I also gained a deeper sense of self, which helped me connect Africa in a spiritual way.

I am now more proud than ever to be black and African and willing to help anyone align their identity with their rich African heritage.

Zion Decoteau: Stepping into History

After our stay in Rabat, I.Y.L.I. made a short two-day trip to Fes. The ride to the city was beautiful. We embarked on our journey by bus. We drove on a narrow roadway through the picturesque Moroccan countryside, winding through vast valleys that looked like something out of a range rover commercial. The green trees against the tan color of the hills and valleys set the scenery for our journey to Fes.

The next day we visited the Volubilis, the ruins of an ancient capital under the Roman Empire. Stepping out of the bus onto the premises the atmosphere was hot, but the sun was buried behind pale clouds. Looking out into the Volubilis, it was amazing to think about how much history had occurred here.

What was it like living there in those days? What did they see? How did they build all of these intricate arches and patterns without modern technology? How did the remains of their ancient civilization last so long?

“This year in school I had taken global history and had learned so much about the Roman Empire’s reign over the Mediterranean region of the world; it felt surreal realizing to actually be standing in that place.”

What would it have been like to exist in their time period? I took dozens of pictures to make sure I captured this memory, the feeling of standing in a place that I had read only about from the typed pages of a textbook. This year in school I had taken global history and had learned so much about the Roman Empire’s reign over the Mediterranean region of the world; it felt surreal realizing to actually be standing in that place. So few students—or even people in general—get the opportunity to visit places like this, most people will only get to read about them in their history textbooks. I got that opportunity and I am ever grateful. I will never forget the Volubilis.

After our all to short stay in Fes, where I had grown attached to the swimming pool, we made a long journey via commuter rail to Marrakesh. The seven-hour train ride took us through the Moroccan countryside where we saw new scenery: From vast bright green farmland to dry dirty tan deserts to white capped mountains and deep blue coastlines, Morocco showed us a little of everything.

That ride took us from morning til mid-afternoon—then we arrived in Marrakesh, and to severe desert heat. The city was very westernized. From Zara to H&M, McDonald’s to Adidas, it was a taste of America and Western Europe. The town of Marrakech was different as well—the architecture consists of mostly old style buildings painted usually in tan, or brownish colors, with elaborate geometric patterns painted on the inside. After a mix-up in finding the location of the hotel, we arrived, exhausted and doused in sweat. Yet I noticed that the locals seemed untouched by the heat. Multiple days on end the daytime temps exceeded 110 degrees, even hitting 113 one day, yet at night the temperature falls to a mere 67 degrees!

A frequent destination we made while in Marrakesh was the medina. Every city we visited in Morocco had a medina, a large shopping area where you can get anything from natural herbs, to furs, scarves, rugs, food, clothes and everything else. The medina was an exceptional location to be immersed in Moroccan culture. From the smells of pastries and native foods to the rushing by of cars, bikes and motorcycles, the medina is a miniature Times Square, always busy. A key component of shopping in the medina is bargaining. You will find yourself talking down a price from 80 dirhams ($8) to 40 dirhams ($4). The key is persistence and a willingness to argue and negotiate with shopkeepers. Shop keepers often asked “are you crazy?” when trying to work down a price to a certain level, but in turn will give into your prices if you leave the store and walk away. I learned that there is a limit to how low they will go, but it all just depends on negotiation skills.

The medina also had a wide array of restaurants. Just like the restaurants you’ll find all around the country, each establishment had a portrait of the King displayed in some corner of the establishment. The square right outside the medina is active and filled with night life: With shopping carts, street vendors, snake charmers and the stench of horse droppings with an array of horse drawn carriages, the medina was an active site to see. In such a busy place, it is very easy to get lost, or simply be a victim of crime. In the square outside the medina we even had a young boy of no more than 7 years of age pull a small knife on us—I know right!? The medina square was definitely a memorable place to visit.

Chynna Seck is a sixteen-year-old junior at the Notre Dame School of Manhattan. Her favorite types of novels are autobiographies and memoirs such as The Color of Water. She considers herself more of a “science person” and had planned on studying and majoring in Biology in college. Thanks to her Summer Writing Program experience, she is now considering minoring in English or creative writing.

Zion Decoteau is a student in Brooklyn, NY. He served as the International Youth Leadership Institute spokesperson from 2014 to 2015. With that organization he was able to participate in a summer youth study trip to Morocco & Spain. Besides his work with the organization, he has been involved in several public speaking engagements, such as his church and radio.

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