CULTURE

Living Abroad: The Colombian Experience w/ Shahida Muhammad

Living Abroad: The Colombian Experience w/ Shahida Muhammad

read in: 38 min

Ebony S. Muhammad (EM): Like many, I’ve been keeping up with your travel abroad in Colombia. You’ve been residing there for about 3 years or a little more, right?

 

Shahida S. Muhammad (SM): Yes, it will be about 3 years in July. I was home for a few months last year. The time has gone by quickly. I have lived in Cartagena, Bogotá, and now settled in Medellín.

Cartagena – in the Walled City

 

EM: What initially brought you to Colombia, and was this your first time visiting?

 

SM: Yes, upon moving here it was my first time ever in the country. Around high school I developed an interest in Latin-America. My Spanish teacher at the time took my class on a cultural trip to the Dominican Republic. I also visited Mexico a few times with family, and went on Mother Tynnetta’s (may Allah be pleased) Mxodus tour in 2010 where we engaged with the Black population in Costa Chica. These experiences deepened my interest in the history, language, and cultures, and after college I knew I wanted to eventually spend time living in a Latin-American country to try and become fluent, learn more on the Black/Indigenous presence, and experience a different way of life.

When I was looking into places to go, Colombia stood out to me for some reason; it intrigued me and something called me to the country. I saw that teaching English was a great doorway to working abroad so I began training and working as an ESL teacher part-time a few years before coming. I made a few friends from Colombia during that time, which was helpful. I had applied to programs in 2011 and 2013 but they fell through, so I was very excited when things finally worked out in 2015. Allah knows best because the experiences have shown me that the timing was just right. I’m happy I made that decision.

Teaching English to the community at the Masjid in Cartagena
Teaching English to the community at the Masjid in Cartagena

 

 

EM: What was the preparation period like for this particular trip? How did your family and close friends react once they saw you were serious in relocating to Colombia?

 

SM: My mother has always encouraged me to pursue my interests, travel, and learn about other cultures so she was very supportive. My dad was somewhat concerned, but he’s grown to accept it because he knows I’m happy here. I got mixed reactions from family and friends but mostly excitement and curiosity because up until recently, Colombia was not a popular place to travel to. The preparation process was mainly letting go of things I couldn’t bring, packing and trying to spend quality time with those closest to me. Spiritually, I prayed for a good experience, to grow, and to represent the communities I identify in as a Black Muslim American woman, in a positive way. I studied up on Colombian history and culture as much as I could, reached out to people in the program I initially came through to get some perspective and tips, as well as family/friends that have studied or worked abroad for insight.

With my Mother in Cartagena

EM: I know you are fluent in Spanish. How much of an advantage was that? Did you have to learn a different dialect once in Colombia?

 

SM: When I was around 11 years old my mom enrolled my sister and I in Spanish classes and I had it in high school. I began to take it serious in college, but when I moved here it had been a while since I practiced regularly, so before I left I tried to brush up by doing a language exchange with a friend from Colombia and listening to programs in Spanish. Having a foundation in the grammar was definitely helpful, but nothing is like being fully immersed socially in a language. So even with what I learned beforehand, I still had difficulties understanding others and expressing myself at first. I had to get over the fear of sounding silly, and dive in. My first year I lived in Cartagena which is on the Caribbean coast, and they have a very distinct accent and way of speaking referred to as “costeño”. Once I caught on to the rhythm, things became a lot easier. There are a lot of regional accents here, so living in different areas has helped tune my ear. I haven’t reached fluency yet – mainly because I have to use English a lot at work, but I’ve reached an advanced level and I know being here has been a great way to get there.

With students while teaching in Cartagena, 2015

EM: We’ve spoken a few times since you’ve been there and between various cities you’ve moved to. We talked about the food quality and lack of chem-trails there compared to here in North America. Can you reiterate what has stood out to you in that regard? How have you noticed the difference in your health?

 

SM: There’s definitely a difference.  Access to healthy produce is wonderful and one of the things I appreciate the most. There’s always a wide variety of fresh tropical fruits and vegetables, because the climate stays pretty much the same year-round. You can go to just about any restaurant and have freshly made juice.  And even though Colombian cuisine isn’t particularly healthy in my opinion because it includes a lot of pork, starch and fried foods, it seems that processed food is not as popular as in the U.S.. Lunch (the biggest meal) is typically soup, rice, meat/fish, plantains, beans and/or salad and you’ll see this served in schools for children. People also tend to be more active than sedentary. It’s common to walk or bike for errands rather than drive.

Paragliding near Medellín

Personally, it’s been a lot easier to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle. It’s a relief and blessing to be able to buy fresh food without worrying about if it’s organic and paying way more for the better option. During the week I’m out the door by 6:00am and going until around 8:00pm between work and other activities, so I’ve noticed I can maintain my energy better due to the quality of the food in conjunction with with striving to apply what we’re taught in “How to Eat to Live” to my diet. Also the respect for nature seems more widespread. There are many ecological parks and nature reserves.

 

EM: What myths would you like to dispel regarding Colombia?

 

SM: Unfortunately some people still think of drug cartels when it comes to Colombia. Although that image is changing because tourism has more than tripled in the last few years, any chance I get I like to point out that there is so much more here than the legacy of Pablo Escobar. Colombia has its issues like any country, but it’s a very beautiful land with so much ecological diversity. There’s a rich art and cultural scene with many Black and Indigenous influences. And in general people are very friendly and helpful.

Visiting Masjid in Cartagena while assisting with 1Hood x Nation 19 film project featuring brother Jasiri X and Rhymefest. We donated clothing and school supplies.

Another thing is that people tend to associate Colombia and Latin-America with people who look like Shakira, J. Balvin, Jennifer Lopez, etc. But Colombia is home to the third largest population of African descendants (after Brazil and the U.S.), and Cartagena was once the largest slave* port in South America. I’ve seen many people come here and be shocked to see so many black people because we’re not taught in depth on the extent of the Trans-Atlantic slave* trade. Colombia and Latin America as a whole is diverse – there are mixed race people, white people, immigrant communities, and almost every country has a significant Black population. Much of what people love about Colombian culture – the food, music, dance, etc. – has strong African influences. Often times Afro-Colombian/Afro-Latino communities are overlooked, due to structural racism and colorism, so it’s important to recognize the Black presence here and the extent of the Diaspora overall.

Spending time with my adoptive family in Cartagena – the Guzman’s. They rented me my apartment my first year and embraced me as family.

EM: You were initially staying for a year, right? But continued to extend your contract. What inspired you to stay longer?

 

SM: Yes, I was originally planning to stay for 10 months. I remember telling everyone “See you in December!”, but after a few months I felt a strong connection to Colombia and knew I wanted to stay longer. A lot of articles on living abroad say that the three month mark can make or break your experience, and I found that to be true. After going through the honeymoon phase when everything is new and exciting, there is a period where cultural differences can start to chip away at you, you miss what’s familiar, and it can make you question your decision. But after a few months something just clicked, I had made friends that became like family and felt a sense of peace. At that point, my life here became my new normal.

Exploring Cartagena with the Guzmans. They rented me my apartment my first year and embraced me as family.
With students in Cartagena

EM: I recall you were writing for a local media outlet. What was that like and what are you currently working on?

 

SM: I have written for the Bogotá City Paper. One of the topics I’ve been happiest to write about was a social campaign in Cartagena called #SerNegroEsHermoso (Black is Beautiful). I contribute time-to-time. For work, I split my time between teaching and working remotely for a content production company based in the U.S. When I have time and inspiration, I write for my personal blog and try to cover interesting occurrences and facts about Colombian culture, especially within the Afro-Colombian community.

Taking in the view in Jardin, Antioquia, Colombia

EM: How have you seen the evidence of our Teachings abroad materialize where you are? How have you experienced Islam in Colombia?

 

SM: Yes, I’ve been able to experience Islam here and it’s been a blessing. In Cartagena the masjid is in an predominantly Black area. The Muslim body is small, but the brother who oversees the mosque is always doing things for the people in the community. I used to assist by offering free English classes after Jummah, and it was really heart-warming because even though most of the youth that would come don’t identify as Muslim, they would yell the greetings to me on my way to the masjid. The Imam said he was actually inspired to learn about Islam through listening to Hip Hop artists in the 80’s like Rakim and Public Enemy, so he was familiar with the Nation Of Islam (NOI). In Cartagena, it’s not common to encounter Muslims, so in that small neighborhood, even though people would warn me it’s dangerous because it’s considered impoverished, I felt very comfortable and welcomed. It made me think of Master Fard Muhammad coming to what was considered one of the worst areas (“Black Bottom” Detroit) and feeding and empowering us spiritually. In Bogotá there are three mosques so I had wonderful times during Ramadan and getting to know the sisters. Medellín unfortunately does not have the same sense of community, so I’m very thankful I have sisters and brothers to stay connected with elsewhere in the country.

At the Masjid in Cartagena – Imam Ibrahim Armenta (left) and Brother Ibrahim (right, guardian of mosque) *same name, no relation*

Also, interestingly, the predominantly Afro-Colombian city called Buenaventura on the Pacific coast is home to the largest Muslim community in Colombia. From what I’ve learned, a brother from the NOI came here in the 70s and established that community through study groups. Although they are predominantly Sunni and Shia now, it was was amazing to know that the Teachings had that impact. Overall what has stood out to me is how Islam has been an empowering tool among our people here as well. I also see the manifestation of what we’re taught, that keeping us ignorant and divided is a universal tool in dominating the original people. The same issues of internalized racism and socio-economic disparity that impact us in the U.S. are evident here as well.

Outside Masjid in Bogotá

EM: What trials have you overcome while being in Colombia that have made you stronger in general and as a follower of the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan?

 

SM: I would say being totally out of my comfort zone in a country where the awareness and presence of Islam is not as widespread. Catholicism is the predominant religion in Colombia. Being from Philly where there is such a large Black Muslim community, sometimes I take for granted that being a Black American Muslim is seen as an anomaly in other places. Here Islam is widely associated with people from the Middle East, so I get asked a lot of questions about my name, the way I dress, why I don’t eat certain foods or participate in certain activities. It’s made me more prepared and astute to answer questions in a different cultural settings. Black American history and experiences are often told from a Christian perspective, so I enjoy being able to share our unique history, and exemplify that Islam is a way of life for people all over the world. It’s given me a stronger pride and appreciation for what Allah has given us through the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan. And it’s shown me that it’s possible to nourish your relationship with Allah no matter where you are.

Breaking fast and attending Tarawih prayers during Ramadan in Bogotá, 2016

 

EM: What has being away from family for so long been like? Has it been difficult not being able to attend Saviours’ Day and Holy Day Of Atonement? Are you able to view via webcast?

 

SM: I do miss seeing family as often, especially my nephews and niece. As well as my friends and the sisterhood in Philly. I chose to be here though, so it’s the downside I have to accept while I’m abroad. Even though I love Colombia, there will never be any place like home. I do my best to keep in touch with everyone and try to visit home twice a year. The great thing about technology is that I’m able to view the weekly webcast and live feeds from events such as Saviours’ Day and Holy Day of Atonement.

On Mt. Monserrate in Bogotá – tallest peak in city. Church on top with a shrine and depiction of Black Madonna and Jesus inside

EM: How has social media aided in your study and continued connection with our Teachings and the Mission?

 

SM: Social media can definitely be a spiritual aid. I try not to be too consumed with it, but one thing I appreciate is that it helps me stay connected to things that are going on at home. Outside of reading and studying on my own, I’m grateful that I can go online to the Minister’s pages and other Believer’s pages for timely spiritual and inspiring messages. Seeing live updates from events during Saviours’ Day and watching the weekly webcast is like a taste of home abroad. It helps keep me spiritually grounded and focused.

 

Visiting San Basilio de Palenque – considered the first town established by escaped slaves* in the Americas.

EM: For anyone interested in traveling abroad through the program you were in, what advice do you have for them?

 

SM: I initially came to Colombia through Greenheart Travel’s Heart For Change teaching program. I no longer work with them, but it was a good gateway and they have programs around the world. If teaching English interests you, it can be a great way to work abroad. I would suggest getting some teaching experience at language schools in the U.S. and if possible go for a TESOL or CELTA certification. There are sites like eslcafe.com and esljobslounge.com where you can find opportunities all over. Also, it’s good to speak to people who are currently living, working, or studying where you want to go. There are many Facebook groups and pages for Black expats in particular, so it can be a great resource.

On Mt. Monserrate in Bogotá – tallest peak in city. Church on top with a shrine and depiction of Black Madonna and Jesus inside

In general, I would say whenever going abroad for an extended period reflect on what your goals or intentions are going into the experience. It’s good to have a “why”. It will help you during the difficulties of adjusting, and allow you to reframe challenges as opportunities to grow and reach those personal goals. Lastly, racism, colorism and sexism are worldwide realities. Each culture may manifest this differently, but be aware that you may experience ignorance.

 

EM: Is there anything else you would like to share?

SM: It’s possible to to have a pleasant life outside of the U.S. I don’t think living abroad or travelling extensively is necessarily for everyone but if it interests you, even if it’s for a short period, I believe it can enrich your life in many ways. If you aren’t able to or don’t really want to travel often or go abroad for an extended period but have an interest in other cultures, you can look for resources and communities where you are. Seek out language groups, classes, clubs, and events that can connect you to other cultures.

EM: All praise is due to Allah!!! Thank you so much for sharing your journey and experience abroad with us Sis! Truly inspiring! May Allah continue to bless you!

You are welcome to follow Shahida to stay updated with her experience in Colombia!

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Hurt2Healing

H2H Magazine is the ultimate lifestyle digital publication that has been described as inspiring, life-saving and cutting-edge. Known for it’s penetrating exclusive interviews, H2H holds to the principle that there are no subjects too heavy for discussion.
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