Always without a home

Oct 26th, 2009 | By | Category: Student Work


Oakland, Calif.–With slender fingers and great concentration Muhammad Diaw worked.  It was hard to tell whether he was tearing up the tobacco from a Newport to roll into his own cigarette paper, or separating stems and seeds from marijuana leaves to roll a joint.

“I like to smoke weed and hash…that’s what I like to do,” he said.

Looking at his full, dark-stained lips it’s not hard to believe that Diaw smokes regularly. But looking at the rest of his face—bright smile, slender cheeks and a hint of teenage innocence, it is hard to believe that the 26-year-old Senegalese son of a diplomat was once a trouble maker.  A self-described joker and the high school class clown, Diaw said being expelled from school was a regular thing.  By the time he’d graduated he’d attended several high schools, mostly being expelled for being a distraction and not taking teachers seriously.  But he was serious when it came time to pass his baccalaureate exam, a means of achieving his goal of moving to the United States—not France, the destination for most Senegalese immigrants.Diaw

When Diaw visited in 1995 he fell in love with California, he said.  So amidst the clowning he devised a plan to come to the United States through a student visa.  He attended the University of Tennessee in 2004.  He spoke little English, so the transition was difficult. But for Diaw, who lived his formative years in Morocco, he was used to being an outsider.

“I’ve learned how to be a minority.  Basically I’ve been a minority everywhere I’ve been,” he said, regarding growing up in Morocco in a French system with few black people.

Diaw lived in Morocco until the age of thirteen, when his family moved back to Senegal for his father’s career change from diplomat to businessman.  He said he was teased in school because he was Senegalese and didn’t understand Wolof, the language of the land.  In Morocco he was regarded as Senegalese and in Senegal he was considered Moroccan.  In the United States he is clustered into the broad category of African. For Muhammad Diaw home is hard to come by.

My first encounter with Diaw was last spring.  Having lunch with a girlfriend at Max’s restaurant in downtown Oakland, I was served by a polite waiter with a distinct accent.  After flirting with my friend by sending us a free dessert, he managed to get her phone number before the end of our meal. It had been almost five months since I’d seen him before meeting again one summer night, but I’d remembered him distinctly.  At 5’8” and thin, what he lacks in build, Diaw more than makes up for in charm—a possible result of diplomatic life. He grew up around the lead men, movers and shakers of Morocco.  He picked up how to walk, talk, and be a man from very important people.  He grew up like the son of a diplomat.

“My mother stopped working and became a diplomat’s wife,” he said.  “My mom would be hosting and taking care of everything. My dad was bringing the money into the house.  I didn’t grow up poor, I had a good childhood,” he said.

While he didn’t grow up like a spoiled kid, Diaw said, he doesn’t relate to the starving children and poor farmers that are rampant in U.S. media coverage of Africa. While he doesn’t deny that the reality exists, he didn’t live a life where he ever farmed or worried about starvation.  In fact, the abundant green space in and around Diaw’s new home in the Laurel District of Oakland is cultivated by his two roommates—one an artist, the other a teacher.  Diaw said that his involvement with the plants and fruit, some raspberries, oranges, and limes to name a few, goes as far as giving them water and nothing more.  Farming has never been a part of his life and will never be a passion of his, he said.  He beams whenever he speaks about his true passion—soccer.

Diaw said his dream job would be coaching a children’s soccer league.  He’s working on getting his license to coach, he said—setting aside any aspirations to finish school and earn the degree in marketing he began in Tennessee before moving to the Bay area.

“I just love the game.  I wouldn’t even worry about earning the money.  I could just imagine kicking the ball all day everyday.”

He is also excited that the 2010 World Cup will be held in South Africa.

“An African country needs to bring it,” he said enthusiastically.  Laughing, he said that he’ll be cheering for the Ivory Coast because Senegal didn’t qualify.

“They suck now….and they used to be good a few years ago,” he said.  But as an athlete who also smokes he can understand how that happens.

Full of contradictions (he won’t have a glass of wine because it’s Ramadan, but he smoked a cigarette and a joint), Muhammad Diaw is both a homebody and an extrovert.  He credits the contradictions to being a Gemini, a sign often noted for being like two different people in one—its symbol is twins.  And while he said he isn’t “claimed” by a country in Africa (Moroccans saw him as Senegalese, Senegalese weren’t sure where to place him because of his upbringing in Morocco though his parents are from Senegal), he doesn’t correct anyone who regards Senegal as his home.  No matter where he is, Diaw is Senegalese.  He also expresses a desire for a more tight knit Senegalese community in California.

“Other African communities here have events; they come together.  But not the Senegalese, everyone is busy,” he said with a modest laugh.

This reminded him of the big Senegalese community in Harlem, New York, which illuminates how small the community is in the Bay Area. While it is argued that some 8,000 Senegalese immigrants live in New York City, it is unknown how many live in the Bay area.  Harlem is often called America’s Dakar, as Malcolm X Boulevard is referred to as “Little Senegal.”  He shook his head at the thought.  But even with such drawbacks Diaw is happy and well rounded.  He considers himself the embodiment of the ultimate modern man.  He took up karate as a child and was influenced by West Coast rap; he cited Tupac and Dr. Dre as some of his favorites.  He narrows his roots down to a mix of everything good that he’s encountered in the places he’s lived, and even the ones he still dreams of seeing, like Brazil.

His confidence apparent, Diaw takes it all in stride.  Easing back in his chair on a cool summer night he reflected on his life and identity.

“I’m at the cross of every culture,” he said, taking a pull from his joint and washing it down with a gulp of Kern’s mango juice.

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