February 21, 2019

A search for authentic balance

The term mother language infers that it is the language of your childhood, the language you babbled in, as your tongue first tested the basics of speech.   Romantically, it conjures up thoughts of the words, songs and turns of phrase that washed over us as babes, said and sung by our parents and grandparents, the people of our village.  And with that, language becomes tied up in the ebb and flow of everydays, the daily practises and routines, that set the tempo of life.   However, perhaps language is a neurone superhighway, of centuries of culture that seep into the dreams that became your bones.

Amona doesn’t just navigate her way through the world, she floats.  In fact her grace defies just how much grit and determination drives her forward every day.  When speaking with Amona you cannot help be drawn into her energy – she simultaneously challenges mindsets while encouraging and supporting you to think differently.

Amona is a Group Facilitator with Spectrum’s Family and Relationship Services team.  She spends her days helping parents become the captains of their families in an Australian context.  When Amona greets her clients, she meets them with an empathy lived experience brings.

Amona is very much her own woman.   Her parents were both Eritrean, they moved to Sudan where her sister was born, and her father died, after which her mother fled to Egypt, where Amona was born.   She came to Australia when she was 3, with her mother, after her father died before she was born.

War and arduous journey marked Amona’s early life, as much as the example of her mighty mum.  She, as a recently widowed pregnant mother, seeking peace and calm to raise her two small daughters, heard about a small and emerging Eritrean community carving out a place to plant new roots, in Melbourne, Australia.  It presented an opportunity to create a sliver of a life she loved, on a clean, calm slate.  And so she straightened out her superwoman cape underneath her hijab, and set sail for Australia taking up a 204 Visa, marking her, and her girls, as a woman at risk.  Risk, by its very definition, lives on the flip side of opportunity.  And so, flip it they did, with both hands.

So where does memory begin?  For a young Amona, life, in her memory, begins in Australia.  Her early spoken words are Arabic, developed in the early years in Egypt.  So, if we skated on the surface of this conversation, we may well have stopped right there.  However, Amona also talks of being the only kid with a lunchbox without the rudimentary vegemite sandwiches, and desperately wanting to fit in, of speaking and learning in English as a currency of belonging, and sliding into forgetting her heritage, which of course can be said of many teenagers!

The reality for Amona is however, that the question of her mother language has been difficult to reconcile.  Amona’s own mother aligns with Eritrean culture and so the sights and aroma’s of her childhood are filled with colour and spice.  And amongst it all, is the precise and clipped lilt of Tigre, with droplets of Tigrinya  and Arabic.

Tigre, in danger of extinction, is a member of the Ethiopic branch of South Semitic languages. It is spoken by about 800,000 people in Eritrea, particularly in western parts of that country, and also in neighbouring areas of Sudan, where the language is known as Xasa (ኻሳ). It is thought to have descended from Ge’ez, the liturgical language used in the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

“Sadly I can simply understand Tigre, but not speak it, yet” says Amona quite intentionally.  Amona’s lament and longing, is not uncommon for a self defined “third culture kid”.   As a TCK, “I continue to feel the tension of living life in the centre field of a Venn diagram,” referring to the figurative explanation of this experience, where one circle represents your birth or “home” culture, and the second, overlapping circle represents the culture of where you are now.  “See that middle bit – that’s me!” she points at our scrawled diagram, somehow wrapping up the gravitas of her perceived place in the world, with a wry laugh.  “We do an exercise as part of delivering our Parenting in a New Culture program that asks participants to pick a card that pictorially describes where they are at emotionally.  As a facilitator, I too participate, and it is not lost on me that I always gravitate toward a card that represents balance in some way”

Widely read, she goes on to quote great poet Mahmood Darawish whose writing was fuelled by his search for reconciliation of his disconnection from the land of his forebears, and desire for dignity, that is afforded with a sense of belonging.   In an interview with Newsweek in 2000 he said poems “can establish a metaphorical homeland in the minds of people”.

When Amona is not providing leadership to parents and families navigating their new life in Australia, she is a wife, a mum, and social entrepreneur.  She founded fledgling business, NativTongue out of a desire to not only financially and socially benefit some of the most marginalised in our community but also “to provide linguistic preservation for people like me – people who had to flee their home or birth country for a safer and secure future.”

“Many young people – myself included, living in the diaspora have lost or are losing the ability to speak their mother tongue and are only speaking the dominant language of their host country, but there is a growing need in my generation to maintain our cultural identity through re-learning our heritage language(s).”

Spectrum’s team speaks over 45 languages, serving clients who speak all that and more.  Interpreting and Translation go hand in hand with delivery of our suite of services.  Most interesting is those words in languages for which there is no perfect equivalent in others.  When translating communications we add a step in we’ve called “the tone check”.

Amona draws attention to the writing of Derek Owusu – he talks about his feelings of isolation within his own community, as he cannot speak fluent Twi. He wonders about the difference in thought processes of people who can think in other languages, and how, when communicating in your mother language, you are in flow, a place that you are most authentically yourself. Indeed, in learning languages, it is considered a pivotal point in learning and understanding when you suddenly realise that you are thinking in another language.

However, there is also a beauty in sentences expressed in multiple languages.  It requires finding out how to describe the word you seek to translate.  It forces speaker and listener, to explore communication for understanding, rather than what is literal.  Travellers report developing a sense of observation, of watching people communicate in languages other than their own, and developing a sense of knowing about what is being said, perhaps tapping into the ”flow” referred to by Mr. Owusu.

This question of defining “mother language” gave rise to a contemplation on what represents this authentic balance.  And so, the day before this article is due for completion, I receive an email from Amona that simply says this, “I have decided it is Tigre as it is not just a language but also an ethnic group and the primary culture behind our family traditions.”

What a beautiful inheritance.

by  Natalie Dillon in conversation with Amona Hassab