Our Jasper Nation: Finding a Home Away from Home

The farthest most ten-year-olds travel is a distance that can be covered by car in less than a day, or at most, a few day’s time.  At age ten, Mahamoud Diop made a trip halfway across the world to what would become his new home.  Born and raised in Bamako, the capital city of Mali in West Africa, Diop did not step foot in the United States with his family until his father was asked to move to Washington DC.  “My dad was the Mali ambassador to the US so that’s when I first came here,” Diop said.

While Diop seems at ease talking about both his home and his college experience, he admits he felt culture shock soon after arriving in the United States. Diop’s inability to speak English was the biggest challenge of the move. “I came straight from Mali and I struggled with English,” Diop said.  Growing up, Diop spoke both French and Bambara. In Mali, French is an official language used in both government and school.  Bambara is one of the other official languages of Mali, and it is also spoken in other parts of West Africa like Burkina Faso and the Côte d’Ivoire.

Since English is not one of his native languages, what helped Diop learn it was watching television shows and movies. “I didn’t understand it at first but people told me to keep watching it, keep trying to speak it, you know… so that’s what I did,” Diop said.  Diop even credits Disney channel shows, in part, for his language skills.  “I think that helped me a lot, to learn English,” Diop said with a laugh.

Picture courtesy of Mahamoud Diop
Picture courtesy of Mahamoud Diop

For Diop, a junior in the School of Liberal Arts, the choice to attend Manhattan College and pursue a degree in International and Labor Studies, seemed natural.  “For one, they had my area of study that I wanted to do… and they were in New York City, so I figured there is no city like New York,” he said.

Like his father, Diop is interested in international affairs, and after graduating he hopes to be working for a Non-Governmental Organization, specifically one that addresses humanitarian needs and is involved in post-conflict resolution.

“That would be the ideal situation,” Diop said. While he still has a degree to finish, Diop has already taken the first steps toward a career in his field of choice. Currently, he is working with the African Union Mission to the United Nations.  “It’s a busy time [at The United Nations],” he said, “especially around this time [since] we are getting ready for the general assembly and the pope is coming.”

Since being in the United States, Diop has embraced both American culture and the culture of New York.  “I think I have adapted to the New York culture. I’m more self driven now. I’m self motivated. I’ve also learned a lot from the professors here and the students here, also, definitely,” Diop said.

Picture courtesy of Mahamoud Diop
Picture courtesy of Mahamoud Diop

At the same time, he has not forgotten his roots. “People in New York are much more to themselves… they try to be somebody… [and have their] own thing going on,” he said.  In Mali, there is more of a focus to “take time to get to know people,” Diop said. An emphasis on hospitality is a common African thing, his description being an ability to “…take a journey on your feet and [in] every village you stop at you will never go hungry.”  The Bambara word to describe this is known as “Mogoya.”  The term has a similar meaning to the Ubuntu philosophy widely accepted in South African culture, encouraging human kindness and humanity towards others.

Even a small moment can serve as a shining example of what Mogoya means to the people of Mali. In Mali, “when it’s time to cut the fast, no matter what you’re doing you have to stop and cut it,” Diop said, “so we were outside…coming from somewhere and we were running late so we stopped at a store.” The store manager did not know Diop or who he was traveling with, and they did not know the manager. “He looked at his clock and said ‘Oh it’s time to break the fast, do you guys have anything?’ We said no, so he invited us, gave us tea, gave us all these little cookies to break the fast” said Diop, “in the store too, and we just broke our fast, ten minutes and then just got going… that’s what I mean.”

While being away from his family is something that is still hard, Diop has slowly gotten used to it. “I’ve been away since I was 14… when my parents got called back to Mali [from DC] I went to boarding school in Utah,” Diop said. “My parents left after we were in DC for five years… [my father’s] mission was done so they called him back but then I obtained a scholarship to go to boarding school in Utah.” From Utah, Diop found his way to Manhattan College.

“I try to go [home] every year but this semester was the first time I went home in two years since I started college basically, so that was good to see everybody again.”

When Diop goes home, the first thing he does is make his way to his grandmother’s home.  “Every year is the same thing, when we get out of the airport we just head to my grandmother’s house… she gets mad if we don’t and she prepares a big meal for us, a big welcome, she calls all my cousins, uncles, every time and everyone just comes to the big house,” Diop said, “we go there first and eat and see everybody.”

Like so many college students, if Diop could take one thing from his home and bring it to Manhattan College, it would be the food, “… as much as I love Locke’s food, it doesn’t compare to back home…I would bring the food,” Diop said.  Food that is common in Mali is rice and sauce, sauces with flavors ranging from peanut butter to spinach.

Picture courtesy of Mahamoud Diop
Picture courtesy of Mahamoud Diop

While conflict in the northern part of the country has limited tourists’ access to these regions, the capital, his hometown of Bamako, is still a place Diop would recommend visiting.  Diop’s suggestions include the National Museum and National Park.  Another one of his favorite places is Ibiza Nightclub, the premier nightclub in Mali where all the young people are. “There’s a great atmosphere, I like it,” Diop said.

When reflecting on his home, it’s easy for Diop to think of what a perfect day would include. For Diop, a perfect day would be a Friday.  It is the day for Jumma prayer, “it’s like how Catholics have Sundays… we have Fridays,” Diop said.  The day would include seeing his grandmother and uncles, with a visit to his grandmother’s house. “We pray first, then we go to the Mosque and everybody eats together on a plate with their hands… then after that we go to this place in Mali called the American Club.”  The American Club, with it’s basketball court and pool, is place Diop goes with friends, sometimes followed by a visit to a movie theater called Babemba. “I say that’s the perfect day in Mali,” said Diop.