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My life has had its share of divisive events. I was born in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire twenty years ago in a hot 27 April twilight, the youngest of four children and the only son. My father was a private high school teacher and my mother was a “passionate midwife,” as my father used to say. I unfortunately lost my mother when I was six years old, though her passion for people still lives within me even today. Separated by death from his true love, my father later became separated from his livelihood due to Côte d’Ivoire’s crippling economic situation. Despite this fact, my father struggled for me and my sisters to make sure our daily needs were met, and above all that, we received an education. I saw his sacrifice, all the unthinkable things he did to take care of four children, and I knew I could never disappoint him.
But that road was not easy. There are few stronger barriers to a human being than negative energy. Teachers throughout my education were not encouragers, but doubters and skeptics. They used their power and rank to look down on pupils; they failed to follow-up with children who needed a little extra help, and they could care less about the day to day struggles we youth were facing at home. This discouraged many of my peers. For me, it gave me time to daydream. During the first part of my secondary studies, while teachers were talking, I dreamed about the change I could bring and the places I could visit, even though I didn’t know fully how I would accomplish either. I did, however, realize that I had a handicap: language. In a country where the official language is French, it was difficult to find persons who were fluent in other languages, especially English. I did not want to learn “broken English”, I wanted to become perfectly bilingual.
Juggling between my classes and part-time jobs to assist my father’s expenses and pay my schoolbooks and copybooks, I abandoned social activities with a world I knew, to learn more about worlds I knew very little about. I scoured for books, materials, and even some people to improve my English. I spent most of my nights in my English schoolbook and listened to British radio programs. I learned new expressions and sayings from watching Americans movies and listening to American singers and rappers. I practiced what I was learning through English speakers clubs at school, cultural activities and personal exercises alone at home. The hard work paid off; consequently, I have been the First in the class in English during all of my secondary studies. I obtained my High School Diploma in Literature and subsequently started Law School at the Public University of Cocody. My achievement was stifled, however, by another divisive event: civil war. This time, I would be separated from my homeland and sought refuge in Benin. A stranger in a foreign land, despite it is my father’s homeland. I continued studying English and am currently pursuing a Masters Degree specializing in Communication and Marketing at the UPI-ONM in Benin, and eventually plan to obtain a Doctorate in English.
A stranger in a foreign land, despite it being my father’s homeland
I have learned that pain can be the best motivator. While I longed for my family and friends back home, I still had the dream of making a difference in the lives of others. Benin, as a fellow Francophone country, allowed me to learn new customs and traditions fairly easily. Language was our ally, it allowed a visitor, like me, to embrace a new family and community. Language lessened the hurt I felt for my country, then divided by war. And it was through language that I discovered that there were others just like me: daydreamers. Young men and women throughout the country were thirsty to change the world, obtain an education, and become fluent in English so they can be ambassadors of change. I realized that my ability to speak English was not just for me, but for others. For so many young people in Africa, English is the vehicle to get to one’s dreams. And I have decided to be a bridge.
For so many young people in Africa, English is the vehicle to get to one’s dreams
Dedicated to my community and passionate of community service, I have started working as a community builder within the international organization, Give1Project, a global organization that aims to engage young people as leaders in creating and building strong and healthy communities. In November of 2013, my language skills were put to the ultimate test: I served as an interpreter for a U.S. Delegation composed of professional women leaders that came to Benin for Give1Project’s Young Women Empowerment Summit (YWES). My specific role was to serve as the medium for the sixty young Beninese women to understand the ten dynamic American speakers. For twelve days, and up to twelve hours every day, I interpreted lectures and presentations for all participants. I also facilitated the sharing of personal experiences during break times and often at lunch. Key political figures who came to see this movement conveyed their commitment to improving the lives of women in Benin, and I helped facilitate conversations between American and Beninese leaders to ensure such improvements would occur. Day one, no one spoke the same language. But I am proud to say that by the next day, I helped young women from across the globe relate to young girls about education, careers, and relationships. And as an up and rising leader, I learned more about what my female counterparts experience every day. I wanted to be in a position where I could help improve the life of my blood sisters, and my adopted sisters of Benin. I am proud to say that my role as interpreter transformed strangers into sisters. Language was a great unifier, and still proves to be the glue that helps the world progress into the next generation.
Language was a great unifier, and still proves to be the glue that helps the world progress into the next generation
Another profound thing occurred during this experience: I learned first-hand about the lives of African-Americans. I shared the daily routine of American ladies, learning more about their works, their friends, their culture, even their personal life. They also learned more about my own life. Women I never met before are now family. They complimented me on how well my English was, and I was eager to help them understand our culture better, because I wanted them to know that my home was their home. Language was no more a barrier, no more an obstacle, but an advantage. It was amazing to hear how both Africans and African-Americans share similar experiences, how even in America, there are young people who do not speak English well as I did. That broke my heart. Africans and African-Americans are united by the same roots, the same troubles and realities but they are separated by different conditions and environment. One of the most profound experiences on the trip was when I accompanied the American women to Ouida, a city of historical significance because it hosts one of the major African slave ports. The beach scenery was symbolic of the divide of a people, and the pain of a divided history. But our presence on that ground proved that language was no longer a barrier to Africans and African-Americans coming together. Yes, there may be a body of water separating us, but anything worth getting is worth fighting for. Language is a tool of healing and I believe that continued communication between my sisters and brothers abroad will result in actualized emancipation of my people here in Benin and throughout the continent.
That broke my heart. Africans and African-Americans are united by the same roots, the same troubles and realities but they are separated by different conditions and environment.
It was our global father, late Nelson Mandela, who said “knowledge is the real power.” I am convinced that knowledge is the highest key of progress. When talking about terms like “globalization” and “fluency,” there is often an assumption that certain truths are experienced by all. But we all, as global citizens, must equip ourselves with the realities of what our sisters and brothers are experiencing in other parts of the world. Globalization invokes conversations about rights, duties, commonness, integration, shared threats and necessary commitments. It also requires us to include language as a priority if equality is a goal for all. In my current home of Benin, linguistic fluency would provide a dramatic rise in entrepreneurial, educational, and personal opportunities. No longer will young people feel “stuck” in one country because of the inability to communicate and be understood. Language allows people to advocate to their leaders in their country, but also globally. Economic disparities and social class gaps would decrease. Health care on a personal and institutional level would improve. Language is a way to knowledge. It is because of this reason that I plan to take advantage of any opportunity that allows me to embrace the real power of knowledge.
Albert Einstein said: “Those you have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” As I pursue my future career as a Diplomat, I am committed to being the change I want to see (as stated by another leader, Gandhi). More than anything, I want my dreams to come true: for African people to become global citizens; for each person on Earth to benefit from equal rights and access to health care, shelter, security and wealth; for global understanding and peace in Africa.
[Cover photo © USC Upstate]
Jonathan Balley serves as a US Ambassador Youth Council Board Member and works as a community builder within the international organization, Give1Project, a global organization that aims to engage young people as leaders in creating and building strong and healthy communities. He also serves as the Vice president for African Youth Organization for a Sustainable Development.
Jonathan was born in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. He obtained High School Diploma in Literature and is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in English studies specializing in Communication and Marketing. Jonathan have traveled West Africa and represented his country to high level summit and workshops throughout Europe and Africa. He is responsible for communication within the Benin National Youth Think Tank. He works as a freelance Interpreter, a graphic designer and he is Consultant in Start-Up and Business development.