Becoming Me

We are interested in learning more about you and the context in which you have grown up, formed your aspirations and accomplished you academic successes. Please describe the factors and challenged that have most shaped your personal life and aspirations. How have these factors caused you to grow?

“Gue… Gue…Gueb…be,” my new teacher stumbled over the pronunciation of my last name. I smirked under my breath but decided to put her out of her misery by raising my hand and declaring my presence. “It’s Guebediang but I go by Maeva.” With a name like Sandra Maeva Makendi Guebediang I never stood a chance of being just another inconspicuous student in the mass of first day roll calls. If my name did not already brand me as different, then my deep, foreign accent surely did the trick.

I never realized that I was different with my hair cut short and multi-patterned clothes until I started middle school in the US. My new classmates pointed and snickered when the teacher tripped and stumbled over my name. In the hallway they whispered and mumbled while staring at me like an animal in the zoo, as if all those National Geographic magazines they briefly glanced at on their father’s desks had suddenly materialized and was now walking amongst them. The nice students would ask me if I lived in a hut and walked around naked, while the mean ones screamed, “African Booty Scratcher,” as I walked down the hallway, shoulders hunched.

After months of being exhibited and paraded, I decided that I no longer wanted to be known as the African girl, with her hair cut like a boy and her strange clothes. So, I did what I had to do to survive: I assimilated. I no longer insisted on being called Maeva, and instead let my teacher and classmates call me Sandra because Sandra was easier to swallow.

Sandra was like any other American preteen, she had long hair and short skirts. She enjoyed talking about the latest celebrity news and obsessing over the brand new technology. Sandra did not eat sautéed legumes with fufu. She did not wear Ankara, and she was absolutely not to be called Maeva Guebediang. Sandra was almost perfect except for the accent which refused to westernize and bend to the will of speech therapists and ESOL classes. Sandra lived a life of blissful ignorance until the summer before senior year when a trip to Cameroon awakened her cultural pride and self-acceptance.

Cameroon was exactly as Sandra had feared. It was filled with unpaved roads, unorganized and unregulated outdoor markets where people walked barefoot and mothers carried their children on their back with a brightly colored cloth. My cousins did not have running water and instead woke up every morning to pump buckets of water from a well far away from their house, but they were so happy to see me and showered us with hugs and food, food and more food. They wanted to know how the US was really like. They asked how I was doing in school and my sister jumped in to say that I was a straight “A” student and had been a Governor’s Honor Finalist, a program for really smart kids. Their eyes gleamed with pride and they reminded me with absolutely certainty how proud they were of me, how I was going to do great things, and how I was making all Cameroonians proud. I smiled and grinned on the outside, but on the inside my self-imposed cultural separation had been shattered. They were so proud of me and what I represented as a successful African girl, while I had been trying for years to erase that part of my identity, to erase them from my new life.

When I came to the states I became more involved in ADNA BASSA, a Cameroonian organization whose main goal is to increase awareness of Cameroonian culture and organize fundraisers for students in Cameroon who could not afford to go to school. This year as the curtains closed on the fundraising gala and the crowd dispersed, I looked around the at the empty tables covered in Ankara cloth and listened to the pulsating beats of Makossa, I finally felt proud to be African, to be Cameroonian. Now, when every school year starts and the teacher stumbles over my name before finally giving up and asking how to pronounce it, I no longer duck my head in shame. Instead, I raise my head proudly and state, “My name is Sandra Maeva Makendi Guebediang.”

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