I don’t remember first beginning to read, but I do remember years of being unable to stop. Mesmerized by the newfound magic of words, I walked and ate and slept with a book in my hands. My mom would tease me for being so deeply lost in the story, gently reminding me to pause and take note of the living, breathing, ever-changing world that surrounded me.
My first semester as a Mitchell was an echo of that unbridled enthusiasm. Inspired and challenged by my courses, I threw myself into them completely. Having been raised in a postcolonial country, I had come to Ireland hoping for a critical education of international power dynamics. My program exceeded those hopes: the personal colonial history of Ireland provided our conversations with nuance, and afforded other postcolonial states the attention and dignity that I felt they deserved. Again, I found myself mesmerized.
But I am a firm believer in activist scholarship–I find that the lessons we learn academically are most powerful when paired with lived experience. As an undergraduate, I was determined to make my education three dimensional, and I actively sought opportunities that placed my readings in a larger context. As a graduate student, I had planned to do the same, but by the time I looked up from my schoolwork it seemed the semester had already slipped through my fingers.
Determined to make up for lost time, I set out in search of that lived experience. In particular, I was desperate to see Belfast. The Troubles had loomed large over my education in conflict and reconciliation: I read countless articles, heard firsthand accounts, and traced the lines of political murals that were printed in my books. On a personal level, I was struck by the relevance of African experiences to the Republican narrative. Having spent years defending the importance of African independence movements and their leaders, the murals seemed to be an affirmation of the vital mark they had left on the world.
It was from this international framework of conflict that I approached my visit. I mentioned South Africa in particular to a man I met while there. Suddenly enthusiastic, he told me that he had been a political prisoner before the Good Friday Agreement. He expressed how he had been personally inspired by South Africa’s story of resilience and recovery post-apartheid. Wanting to see the new South Africa firsthand, he had saved up and traveled there quite recently. He described meeting ex-political prisoners from the African National Congress, an interaction that was initially stilted but suddenly changed:
“When I mentioned where I came from and what I had been through,
and in that moment, we became brothers.”
My conversation with him and others grounded what I had already witnessed in the classroom: cross-cultural empathy. What I have found in Ireland is a standard of looking beyond national borders and of recognizing the humanity and the dignity of distant others. In the ongoing and necessary effort to make our global order more just, this tendency to recognize supranational commonalities is a powerful example for the wider world.
Without a doubt, I am so glad to have looked up from my book, and I am so grateful to have seen a little more of this living, breathing, ever-changing world.