By Natalie Wyatt
When Sofia Gulaid arrives at my suite in Welch on an icy November afternoon right before Thanksgiving break, the first thing she does is smile and say, “I think I am right on time,” with a nod of her curly black hair. As she takes off her large winter jacket and settles down, we discuss plans for break and the phenomenal freshman seminar we take together, 20th century African American Poetry. Before this interview, I knew Sofia was sharp from class, but to have the opportunity to meet with her one on one allowed me to see how complex and extraordinary her story is, and fully experience her particular brand of insightful honesty. Few people have travelled in their entire lives as much as Sofia has at just the age of nineteen. And fewer still are as aware of that privilege and can so eloquently put into words how such an experience has shaped them. For an hour I had the privilege of Sofia showing me that home is not simply the sum of the places one has lived in, and that identity is not simply the sum of one’s ethnic backgrounds.
Sofia was born in New York City to a white mother and Kenyan-Somali father, but she has lived in three continents throughout her life thus far. This is mostly due to the fact that her father works for UNICEF, and her mother is a public health consultant. “Their work travels with them,” she explains. Sofia moved to Ghana as a young girl. Soon enough though, she then moved to Vietnam, where she lived from the age of eight to eleven. “I felt like a tourist living there,” she remarks frankly. “It was crazy different,” she shakes her head of black curls. But the small smile on her lips makes it clear that “crazy different” is not always a bad thing for Sofia. By eleven years old, she had moved to Swaziland, a small country almost entirely surrounded by South Africa. Sofia lived there until she was eighteen, and most of her clearest memories are from this time. She describes Swaziland as having “a really slow pace, almost like an island. You’ll see cows on the road, rolling hills.” It was in Swaziland that Sofia attended boarding school for the last two years of high school. “It was amazing,” she remarked, describing the diversity of her school, where all sorts of people from around the world gathered. “Around 50% were African,” she explains, “the rest were from everywhere else.” After her senior year ended in November of last year, the Gulaid family moved once more, this time to the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam.
Hearing all the places Sofia has lived and the diversity of experiences in each place, I find it hard to keep up. Of course, the natural question to ask someone so well traveled is where home truly is. When I do ask this, her brows furrow and, after a long second, she responds: “Wherever family is, I think.” Although, tilting her head to the side in thought, she does add that, since her parents have built a house in Swaziland (where she has lived the longest), it tends to feel most like home.
When I ask more about Swaziland, she immediately makes it clear that she did not experience a lot of what Swaziland is infamous for, high poverty rates and the highest rate of HIV in the world. Instead she remarks, “The hill divided us” (her neighborhood from the townships); “I was separated quite a lot.” As Sofia describes the beauty of Swaziland at length, she is quick to add, “But there is also a lot of inequality. You can just step out a little [from my neighborhood] and see that. It is almost like the Yale bubble in that way.”
When we begin to discuss Dar es Salaam, again she comments on the stark inequality. “If you zoom out on Google maps,” she explains, “you can see the mainland is packed together, but then on the peninsula, where the wealthy live, you see space, trees, nature.” Acknowledging that the world she inhabited is so vastly different than what many Africans know, Sofia is quick to make it clear that the experiences she has had are hers alone. Sofia’s explanation of this divide does not seem apologetic, but simply honest, trying to do justice to the diversity of experiences that exist in Africa.
Due to her desire to talk about inequality and other social justice issues she is confronted with daily in Mbabane and Dar es Salaam, it comes as no surprise that Sofia is interested in Global Affairs, the Humanities, and “especially conflict resolution.” Although she makes it clear that she definitely does have a connection to Africa, saying, “I do want to return at some point, but not for all of my life,” her view is perhaps wider than just the scope of one continent, no matter how diverse a continent it may be. In many ways the world feels like home to Sofia, and so a life of travel appeals to her. “I want to move around a lot. But I don’t know what I want to do,” she adds with a short laugh; yet it is clear she does know that it will involve continuing to be a global citizen.
I ask Sofia about how she views her own identity in the midst of all her travels,. She explains that, though she does see herself as African, and American, it is a little bit more complicated than just that. In Southern Africa, Sofia would be considered “colored,” a term that seems offensive in the United States, but in parts of Africa refers to a distinct group of people that are racially-mixed European and Black African. The term is in many ways a remnant of the apartheid regime in South Africa, in which every person was forced into specific racial groups. In Tanzania, “they call me mzungu because I am bi-racial and do not speak Swahili very well. They view me as a white person. But in Swaziland I am colored. I miss the colored culture,” she says, grinning. “It is so specific and potent.” When I ask her what she means by that, she effortlessly shifts into colored slang, a mix of various regional languages that many people throughout Southern Africa speak, as if to show me the melody of that culture. The way her face lights up makes it clear that the colored identity is a fundamental part of who Sofia is, though not the only part.
When I ask her about how she views Africa, and Africa’s future, once again her refreshing honesty comes out. “I am not the most political person,” she admits with a laugh, “but everything is political, I suppose.” She adds, “I am more American when I am [in Africa], and more African when I am here,” as if making it clear that as much as she identifies with Africa, she does not feel as steeped in African culture or politics as many African people might. When I ask her about the continent’s future, she remarks, “Things will get better, but it is going to be a rocky process. It is really hard to talk about just Africa. The problems in most countries in Africa are problems everywhere,” she says, listing other countries like India as also having stark inequality. Again Sofia’s distinct view comes out. She may have lived a majority of her life in Africa, but that does not mean she focuses on the problems of Africa alone. Instead, she places them within the context of the larger world she considers home.
When I ask about what it means to be African at Yale, Sofia’s grin widens. “The YASA community is fabulous; they are so fun. It is definitely PanAfrican in a great way. I don’t know how I became friends with a Tunisian guy, because that is such a different world, but to me that diversity is amazing.”
Natalie Wyatt ’18 is in Davenport College. Contact her at email@example.com.