When I first arrived on Washington & Jefferson Campus in 2018, I almost immediately knew who Tasha Mwanakalando was. Everyone on campus regarded her with respect, and just from a few conversations with her, I knew that she was a truly genuine and caring person (with the most style I had ever seen). Coming from Lusaka, Zambia, Tasha provided me with an interesting perspective on American customs I hadn’t thought about before, and explained to me how she is addressing the current political climate Americans find themselves.
Tasha grew up in Lusaka, Zambia and was raised by her mother, Angela Ivory, and her father, Boyson Mwanakalando. Both of her parents are Zambian, but her mother comes from the Bemba tribe and her father from the Lenje tribe. Although Tasha, her mother, her stepfather, and her sister are currently living in Pittsburgh, her father still lives in Zambia.
Tasha fondly recalled memories from her childhood about her grandmother, saying that “my grandmother is the real storyteller, she has a way of putting together narratives; captivating, inspiring and informative. She would tell my sister and I African proverbs and metaphors that were brought to life in seemingly simple stories. I don’t really have one story that’s my favorite, but I loved how every story taught me something and had infinite meaning.”
In fact, because of her grandmother, Tasha enjoyed birthdays more than any other holiday while growing up. “Birthdays were always my favorite because my Grandma would take the bus with handmade cakes on her lap and bring them over to us. She was diligent, and I looked forward to her special treats every year.”
While in Zambia, Tasha attended a private school, and remembered “our uniforms being brown and white. It was rather common to have uniforms in school,” unlike the customs in the United States where most students dress as they choose. When she wasn’t mastering her two favorite subjects, English and Math, Tasha remembered “having a lot of friends from the same neighborhood as me. We all played together, climbed mango trees, rode our bikes around the compound, and ran in the street.”
Tasha moved to the United States from Lusaka, Zambia when she was only 7 years old. Although it meant leaving behind many family members and friends, Tasha’s mother made this strong and fearless choice because she wanted Tasha to have “the best opportunities in education,” and because “she saw the US as the best environment” for her children to learn.
Before coming to the United States, Tasha “was excited and anxious to see what America had to offer,” but “didn’t have a lot of expectations with being quite young at the time.” However, she had heard that “the US was this untouchable place with unimaginable opportunities that everyone always spoke so highly of.”
Once she arrived in the United States, “the culture and traditions surprised me the most. There were just so many new things that I had to learn about. For example, Halloween. My first encounter with the holiday was in 2nd grade when we had to dress up and I had no idea what that was all about, but luckily one of my friends at the time had a costume for me. So for my first Halloween, I was a bunny princess.”
As an American, I have always considered Halloween to be a “normal holiday,” just like Thanksgiving, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, and even “Groundhog Day.” However, after speaking to many people about American holidays, I have realized just how strange a holiday Halloween really is. We dress up as our favorite characters, walk through towns asking strangers for candy (with the ominous threat of a trick), and carve menacing faces into pumpkins. I’m not quite sure how I would explain apple bobbing to someone who wasn’t an American without sounding rather deranged. Tasha made me consider the odd traditions and holidays that I have always celebrated throughout my childhood without ever actually knowing about their origins.
Even though she came to the United States when she was young, Tasha recalled that she did face some tough transitions and cultural assimilations. She recalled that, “perhaps my accent was one of the things that truly made me stand out. But after a couple of years of ESL classes, that quickly went away. Now that I look back, I do wish I also practiced keeping my ability to speak. I fully understand Bemba but my ability to speak it is very limited and I am so very grateful that my mother speaks it home so I’ll never truly leave it.”
Tasha’s “first introduction into American society was my enrollment into Washington Elementary School in the Mount Lebanon School District.” Having grown up in a country where “everyone in my community for the majority was Black and African,” when she moved to “a suburban mostly White community, it was rather difficult for me because I looked around and no one really looked like me.” Growing up in a new town, Tasha told me that “most people were very intrigued to meet me, a foreigner. They had many questions and I didn’t mind answering them.” Additionally, when dealing with this new community, culture, and country, Tasha remarked that luckily “I had an incredible support system from my new friends and teachers and I am so thankful to this day that I had them to teach and guide me through such a new journey.”
Tasha most misses her family and friends from back in Zambia, but remarked that her family still tries to preserve their culture in the United States. She said that “I stick to my customs and try to make sure that the pertinent aspects of my culture are a part of my everyday life. I would never want to lose such an important part of who I am.” In fact, “my mother has always instilled the importance of preserving our culture and our traditions, whether it be our language, our food or our customs. It is just as important to me here as it was back home.”
When asked about her identity to both Zambia and the United States, Tasha told me that “my home country will hold a place in my heart, and in a way I feel as though my home country resonates more with who I am even today. America has given me so much and there is no doubt that the experiences I have had here and the people who have guided me through said experiences have added to my identity in wonderful ways, but Zambia has my heart no matter what.”
Obviously the political environment in the United States is extremely tumultuous right now as our country deals with COVID-19, the impending presidential election, and rampant unchecked racism that is being addressed by the Black Lives Matter movement. When I asked Tasha about her opinion of America’s current political climate, she responded saying, “It is disheartening and honestly that makes it incredibly difficult to watch. But perhaps the most anxiety causing part of it all is that as a Black Woman, I cannot just merely watch it because it is inherently part of my existence.” Tasha elaborated, stating that “there were times when I was met with microaggressions and insensitive comments” from her community members and peers throughout her life, and she added that in school, “I remember that a lot of my classmates had questions about where I came from and many misconceptions about Africa so I remember having to debunk some of the misinformation.”
However, Tasha also told me that “I’ve never really been one to remain quiet so when I see injustice, I will use every ounce of my ability to fight for the voiceless and stand against those who threaten the human spirit.”
To address the continuous racism and prejudice against migrants in the United States, Tasha left me, and leaves you, with these words. “I wish people would realize that migrants, refugees, immigrants whatever the experience may be, are all seeking to be seen, understood, self-sufficient and happy. We don’t come to take from society but rather to find the best environments for us to grow and live. Some migrants are coming from extremely detrimental countries with turmoil and hardship being an ever present ailment, they seek to find peace and opportunity in a new land.”