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Aminata Tejan-Thomas, Saidu Tejan-Thomas' mother. Image courtesy of Saidu Tejan-Thomas.

In ‘Borders Between Us’ Poet Saidu Tejan-Thomas Embarks on a Journey to Rediscover His Mother's Life

In his new audio essay the Sierra Leonean poet and storyteller shares a deeply personal, yet relatable, tale of familial relationships, sacrifice and forgiveness.

Saidu Tejan-Thomas first began writing poetry while pursuing a public relations degree at the Virginia Commonwealth University. While he soon discovered that PR wasn't the career path for him, he also discovered that poetry and writing were a meaningful outlet for his passion for storytelling. An interest in podcasting and audio work developed soon after. In his newly published audio essay, Borders Between Us, the accomplished poet fuses this talent for spoken word, writing, and auditory storytelling to take listeners on a personal journey of family, migration and forgiveness.

Born in Sierra Leone, Tejan-Thomas moved to Alexandria, Virginia in middle school to live with his mother, who had immigrated there shortly after his birth. This began a process of learning and unlearning his mother's story and the complex intergenerational dynamics that shaped their relationship. In the Borders Between Us, the writer shares detailed memories from his childhood, introspective observations about identity, and an enlightening conversation with his aunt that brings him close to understanding who his mother was as a person. It's a journey that many of us take on a deeply personal level, but one that some might be hesitant to share. Tejan-Thomas, instead, shares his journey openly and honestly.

OkayAfrica recently spoke with Tejan-Thomas about his latest audio work, which he described as "an essay and a poem all in one." Read our conversation below and listen to the Borders Between Us via the public radio platform Transom.org.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

What led you to want to create and share this story?

This year I took a trip to Sierra Leone. It was my first time going to Sierra Leone in 10 years [and I was seeing it] through my adult eyes, so I took a recorder with me. I recorded a bunch of stuff, and I wanted to do this big piece about going back home for the first time in a long time. But, it was too big, and sprawling, and didn't have any focus, so when I got back from my trip, I was going over stuff I had written and I was like, "Damn, this is trash. This is not good." That's what you hear at the top of the show. The top of the episode was me being like, "This is not good."

Then I tried to figure out what it was. What did I really learn from this trip? It turns out I really didn't learn much, but what it did was raise a lot of questions about my mom, and the relationship I had with her. I had gone to visit her grave, so I had some tape of me being at her grave. I reached out to Transom.org, and shared the idea for this story, gave them a bit of background information about me and my mom, and they were immediately onboard. They helped me develop this, and we worked together. The piece is a realization of a thought that I had when I was going into public radio, or podcasting, which was: I want to do that but in my own voice. It took me four and a half years, but I finally got to do it. I'm so grateful for that.

When was the point where you came to understand the sacrifices that your mom made rather than being angry towards her when she didn't seem present?

I think that happened at a very early age. I've always known, and also African parents don't let you forget. They do not let you forget that they walked 50 miles to school every day. They don't let you forget that they brought you to this country. They threaten to send you back multiple times, get your shit together. They don't let you forget that they made sacrifices for you. We know that. I think I resented it, but at the same time, I respected it because I was like, "Damn, they're right. This shit's real. The shit that they do is real." It's those two opposing things that bang up against each other, where you resent the pressure, but you also appreciate it. You also appreciate the mantle that you've been given. You appreciate that responsibility. You're like, "Damn, I want to be the person who helps my family. I want to be the person who gets them out of the struggle." At the same time you secretly resent it. It's that conflict that made it hard for me to ever talk about this thing with my mom, this tough relationship that we had because I both appreciated it, and I resented it.

I knew it for a long time, but the thing about it is that when your parents tell you all the things that they sacrificed for you sometimes it's very vague, and you just fill in the blanks about what they mean when they say that they gave up a lot. You don't exactly know all the things. The moment when I really knew the things and could feel them, was when I talked to my aunt this year for the story. She told me what my mom's life was like before me. My mom and I didn't have a relationship where she told me stuff about herself growing up. I would sometimes hear stuff from her sisters here and there. This was another one of those moments where my aunt just laid out her life for me, and I was like, "Oh damn, she was doing her thing. She was having a whole life. She really took on all that for me and our family." I would say I've always had an idea, but those ideas became more concrete this year.

Aminata Tejan-Thomas, Saidu Tejan-Thomas and Saidu Tejan-Thomas, Jr.Image courtesy of Saidu Tejan-Thomas.

What would you say you learnt about yourself through this process of learning more about your mother? WHat's been most eye-opening?

It illuminated a few things. I think it taught me about how the situation that me and my mother were in—and maybe a lot of people and their parents are in—are just not our fault. Shit just happens. The way the immigration system was set up was such that I couldn't come be with her here at the same time that she was coming here. My dad couldn't come. We were always separated from each other at different points. It just made clear to me the cost of being separate from your family in order to gain citizenship in America, which is distance. The cost is sacrifice. The cost is feeling like you're never quite close to somebody. The cost is always feeling like you're catching up, or trying to catch up, or trying to make up, or trying to prove something to somebody. You're always trying to close that distance with that person.

Personally, it taught me a lot about my mom. It made her a full person—a full human outside of me. Weirdly enough, it made me appreciate her even more. It put words to her silence. She didn't talk a lot, but talking to her sisters, and people who are talking for her—it [filled in] all those moments where she couldn't say what she wanted to say, or maybe didn't have the right words, or was too tired. It filled in all those blanks, because what happens when you have silence is you just start making shit up in your head. You just start thinking, "Oh, maybe this person doesn't like me. Maybe this person resents me in some way." In actuality it's like, no, they love you. They're just stressed, or they're just tired. They just don't have the right words, and they've never been able to learn the right words because now they've got to go to work. My closest friends, a lot of them have tough relationships with their mothers and fathers. I don't think it's the same case for everybody, but we never know what the fuck's going on with our parents. This allowed me to really look deeper into that, and flesh out some of the reasoning behind why she was being the way she was. That made me feel happier about our relationship.

I also really appreciate that you touched on grief, like with the passing of your parents. You also touched on some of the past trouble you faced while in school. Was that hard for you to revisit that, especially in such an open forum that you're sharing with the world?

I wouldn't say it was hard—it was vulnerable, and any time you're vulnerable you feel like you're putting shit on the line. You're just putting yourself on the line for people to pick apart, and comment, and criticize. I don't think that part will ever get easy. When you put yourself out there it's just going to be there. It's there for people to do with what they will. I made my peace with that because this isn't the first time that I've written something personal about my life. It's hard for me to write any other way, but at least for my personal self it's hard for me to write in a way that's not vulnerable, and not honest, and not fully just exploring as many corners of the thing as possible.

I've done a piece that was very personal before. It was a poem called Play. That was my first introduction into putting myself out there. People still hit me up today about how that piece has helped them. It's just a poem. It's not a regular story. I don't even think I necessarily do it for people to tell me that the piece helped them, or anything like that. I do it because I just feel like I have to. There's just something in me that's like, "There's a story that you have to tell."

"It just made clear to me the cost of being separate from your family in order to gain citizenship in America, which is distance. The cost is sacrifice. The cost is feeling like you're never quite close to somebody."

Something that you said towards the end of the story was "I felt responsible for something." You were talking to your aunt about some of the guilt you felt about your mom. I feel like that's a common feeling amongst immigrant children to just feel guilty all the time for some of the hardships our parents face. Why do you think that we bear that weight a lot of the time?

The responsibility that we feel, comes from our dedication and loyalty to our parents through and through. It's funny because I think even if you have a bad relationship with your parents, at least the African kids, if you came up you would still want to pull up in a Benz for your mom. You would still want to buy her a house. You still want to get her to stop working that nursing home job. You know what I'm saying? There's just this inherent drive within us that we learn pretty young that we are in some ways "the last hope." I think it maybe goes back to this idea of us always having known that our parents have sacrificed, and I think in some way we want to be able to reciprocate that for our parents. We want to be able to give them financial freedom, or material gain—what they gave to us by sacrificing their own personal lives, their home and their future. We know what they've poured into us, and we want to pour it equally back into them.

Can you talk a bit about closure and if you think you've gained it through this process?

Closure is one of those things that if no one had ever mentioned it, I wouldn't consider it. It's that thing that has been introduced. Therefore, it feels like you have to consider it, and you have to figure out whether you need it or not, but I don't think I think too much about closure. I think a lot more about whether or not I'm at peace. Before this piece I didn't feel like I was at peace, and now I do. Now I feel like it's something that I have addressed, and it's a thing I will live with—and will continue to live with—but I don't feel like I'm wrestling with it anymore. It doesn't feel like there's a disturbance in me anymore. It just feels like, "Oh, whatever that disturbance was I faced it. I've addressed it, and now I just feel more peaceful."

***

Listen to Borders Between Us in full on Transom.org.

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Photo by Luxolo Witvoet.

'Journey With Me' Is a Window Into the Ups and Downs of Traveling by Train In South Africa

In his new photo series, South African artist Luxolo Witvoet, speaks to everyday people in Cape Town about their experiences commuting via the city's fragile, yet vital train system.

Luxolo Witvoet is a 25-year-old multidisciplinary artist and photographer from Cape Town. In his latest series "Journey With Me," Witvoet set out to document the stories of South Africans commuting to and from work, school, and job hunting. While simply riding on the train might seem like a mundane, everyday act, the train holds special significance in South African history. "During apartheid, the train was the choice of transport that our forefathers & mothers used to travel long distances from one province or state to the next in search of work and a better tomorrow for their offspring—us," says Witvoet. His connection to the train is a personal one, directly linked to his family lineage. "My nineteen year old late grandmother travelled from her birthplace, Aliwal North to relocate to Cape Town using the train. While in Cape Town, she would eventually find work as a maid and she would meet her husband on the train en route to work," he adds.

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(Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

Chinonye Chukwu Will Direct the First Two Episodes of HBO Max's Upcoming 'Americanah' Series

Here's the latest news surrounding the highly-anticipated limited series, starring Lupita Nyong'o, Uzo Aduba and more.

Nigerian-American director Chinonye Chukwu is set to helm the first two episodes of the upcoming limited series Americanah, starring Lupita Nyong'o.

Chukwu is the award-winning filmmaker, behind the critically-acclaimed film Clemency, which won the 2019 Sundance Grand Jury Prize, making her the first Black woman to win the award.

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5 Women Doing Amazing Things Behind the Scenes in South African Hip-Hop

Behind every successful South African rapper of the last decade is a woman helping to get ish done. Helen Herimbi spoke to a few of them.

South African hip-hop had a great run in the last decade. As we start a new era, it's important to highlight the women who have played a pivotal role in the growth of the genre.

​Thuli Keupilwe

Thuli Keupilwe is the founder of LAWK Communications, an artist booking and representation agency that now works closely with the likes of DJ Maphorisa and Kabza de Small.

But she's not all about the yanos. Thuli has worked with urban music brands like Dreamteam SA and Homecoming Events, but in 2016, she cast her booking agent net wider and started LAWK Communications where she worked with DJs Capital and Sliqe.

The following year, Thuli received a phone call that would force her to level up. "Boom," she exclaims. "February 2017. PJay from B3nchMarQ called me. I was the one that pushed A-Reece to get onto his first Maftown Heights around 2014 and we're all from Pretoria so I'd known them since forever."

B3nchMarQ and A-Reece were gearing up to leave Ambitiouz Entertainment and when she agreed to be their booking agent, Thuli hadn't anticipated how much it would stretch her. Partly because the artists weren't initially permitted to perform their own songs—problematic for an agent who is meant to book them for gigs.

"I didn't see that coming at all," she says. "I was going up against the big guys, people I looked up to. I realized I needed to get a lawyer." Eventually, the artists were legally permitted to gig. "I had one of my biggest years with Reece after that. I am still with him till today."

A-Reece had managed to amass an enviable fan base size mostly from his online and streaming presence. Thuli works closely with him and counts using A-Reece's "Rich" song in a sync deal with the gambling website BET.co.za as a milestone in their partnership. "It was a good check," she chuckles. "And he was being himself and that's the most important thing to me."

Kay Faith

Authenticity has been the drive behind Kay Faith's work. The Cape Town-based engineer, producer and budding vocalist began her career behind the boards during sessions for the likes of Yasiin Bey, Nasty C and E-Jay.

She put out her own EP, In Good Faith, in 2017, and in 2018, she became the first female producer in the world to be featured on Apple Music's New Artist Spotlight.

She has also given us hip-hop bangers like "Slam Dunk" by Da L.E.S and YoungstaCPT. The latter is a frequent collaborator of hers. So much so that when his album 3T won the Best Album category at this year's South African Hip Hop Awards, she felt it was a win for her too. Especially since projects she'd worked on had been nominated and lost before.

Read: Meet The Woman Engineering Your Favorite South African Hip-Hop Releases

"When we started [the song] 'YVR,' I had this emotional feeling that it would be something big for Cape Town," Kay excitedly says. "From recording to mixing to mastering and featuring as a vocalist on 'The Cape of Good Hope' and 'KAAPSTAD NAAIER,' I was behind all of 3T. I even co-produced the 'Pavement Special' intro and the 'Outro' with Chvna.

"We spent 11 months crafting and him trying to get it to be perfect so it was a surreal feeling when we won Album of the Year. I even sent out a tweet saying: 'Can we just take a moment to realize that the South African Hip Hop Album of the Year was entirely engineered by a woman?'"

Kay's upcoming album, Antithesis is slated for a 2020 release. "It's going to be the first album of its kind, I believe," she says. "And I'm really trying to play with that idea of being the antithesis of hip-hop. I am a woman, an Afrikaans kid, in hip-hop. When I walk in, people don't expect me to be an engineer or a hip-hop producer and when I roll out my accolades, then they're like, 'damn, Kay's got game.' That reaction is what this album is about."

Phindi Matroshe

For Phindi Matroshe, the outside reaction to her work is not the most important thing. Phindi is a publicist and talent manager who owns At Handle, a PR and social marketing solutions firm. She was there before Nadia Nakai became a Reebok or Courvoisier ambassador and before she had sold-out ranges with Sportscene's Redbat.

She was also there when Nadia bagged a Best Female pyramid at the 2019 South African Hip Hop Awards. And she was right beside her when she scooped awards at AFRIMA 2019 for Best Artist, Duo or Group in African Hip Hop as well as Best Female Artiste: Southern Africa.

"Winning awards was never the mission," Phindi confesses. "Honestly, we have never done things to try and get awards. Nadia truly loves what she does and it feels great when that is acknowledged and someone pats us on the back for work we've done. I really love and respect what I do and don't see it as a job."

Having handled publicity for the likes of JR, Tumi Masemola (of Gang of Instrumentals), Shane Eagle, Major League DJs and more, Phindi pivoted to managing Nadia. She says: "Seeing the things we talk about come to life or when we're in the boardrooms signing those deals, those are personal milestones for me."

​Ninel Musson

Ninel Musson has been brokering some of hip-hop's biggest deals for over a decade. She co-owns Vth Season, a boutique full-service entertainment marketing agency with Raphael Benza.

A former party promoter and publisher of the wonted.co.za website, Ninel helped start a record label wing of Vth Season where AKA was their first signee. Together, they turned AKA into a mainstream success that the artist could bank on when he started the now defunct BEAM Group independent record label with Prince Nyembe in 2016.

Recently, Ninel and Benza, together with the Sony Music team, presented AKA with diamond and platinum plaques for several songs at a surprise dinner. "The music we went on to create became some of the best-selling records of all time in South Africa," Ninel says matter-of-factly. "When we started with him, the major labels said SA hip-hop would never go this far. We said we believed it would and then we did."

​Sibu Mabena

Cassper Nyovest seems to make it a point to work with women. In addition to Cassper's sisters running his Family Tree store, several Fill Up dates have seen PR maven, Sheila Afari at the helm. And while it's clear that the Fill Up series was always the brainchild of Cassper and his longtime friend and business partner, T-Lee Moiloa, bringing it to fruition has also included the skills and power of women behind the scenes. Women like Sibu Mabena, a multi-hyphenate creative entrepreneur who owns the Duma Collective.

"The day I landed back home from the EMAs, I went straight to The Dome," she remembers. "I said: 'yo, T-Lee, give me a job. I want to work on this thing.' He was like: 'bra, there's nothing for you to do.'" Sibu stuck around at the Dome, watching the production come together when a lightbulb went on in her head.

Read: Sibu Mabena Works Behind The Scenes in South African Hip-Hop, And She's Kicking Ass

"I thought: 'Cassper has 11 outfit changes. Who is helping him with those?' So Gareth Hadden from Formative, who was building the stage, said they needed someone to help with those changes. I forced myself into the Dome, and the next year I pitched to T-Lee to run the stage at Orlando Stadium. The following year was Fill Up FNB Stadium and there, I got a bigger job to run the talent operations. That's how we started doing the Fill Up Intern Search."

In the next decade of Mzansi hip hop, Sibu has her heart set on parties with a purpose. "All the things I have learnt along the way have led me to contribute to AKA's Fees For All Mega Concert," she shares. "I'm not coming on as just a creative or event organiser or marketer. It's demanding all of me. We're all tapping into a more philanthropic and less commercial role than we usually have so the pressure is that much greater."

There are plenty more women who've got game. From Lerato Lefafa, who has been a part of the team that brought us the SAHHAs and Back to the City to Bianca Naidoo who is a big part of Riky Rick's triumphant trajectory to women like Spokenpriestess, Caron Williams, Azizzar The Pristine Queen, Loot Love and way more who have, in the last decade, used their media platforms to lift up Mzansi hip-hop. In the next decade, women will still be a huge part of hip hop. It'll be interesting to see where that contribution takes the movement next.

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Photo courtesy of CSA Global.

In Conversation with Congolese NBA Player Emmanuel Mudiay: 'I want more African players in the NBA.'

The Utah Jazz player talks about being African in the NBA, supporting basketball in the DRC and how 'everybody knows about Burna Boy'.

Inspired by his basketball-playing older brothers, by second grade, Emmanuel Mudiay already knew that he wanted to play in the American National Basketball Association. Then in 2001 his family, fleeing the war in Democratic Republic of Congo, sought asylum in the United States.

In America, Mudiay saw basketball as a way for him to improve his situation. After impressive high school and college careers, he moved to China to play pro ball. Picked 7th overall in the 2015 NBA draft, the now 23-year-old guard has made a name for himself this season coming off the bench for the Utah Jazz.

Mudiay attests to the sport having changed not only his life but that of his siblings. Basketball gave them all a chance at a good education and the opportunity to dream without conditions. Now he wants to see other talented African players make it too.

We caught up with him to talk about his experience as an African player in the NBA, his hopes for basketball on the African continent and who he and his teammates jam out to in their locker rooms.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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