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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine
August 26, 2001


(Photo by Michael Bryant)
Philadelphian Naima Black spent 20 years in East Africa's Swahili society.

By Eric Goldscheider

As a prosecutor stood directly in front of her son, pointing at him, and exhorting a New York jury to sentence him to death, Hideya Rubeya Juma broke down and had to be escorted from the courtroom.

The voice in her headphones translating the prosecutor's condemnations into her native Swahili was that of Naima Black, a Philadelphia woman who has spent half her life in Kenya, on the East African coast where Swahili culture and the Swahili language were born.

Khalfan Khamis Mohamed "does not have fire in his eyes, what he has is ice in his veins," the prosecutor told the jury on the morning of July 2, during the penalty phase of his trial. A month earlier, he had been convicted on 11 counts of murder in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

"Hana moto machoni, ana barafu damuni" is what Mohamed's mother heard Black say as she translated.

On most weekdays during the previous six months, Black left her North Philly house by bicycle in time to catch the 7:30 Amtrak to New York for a mad subway dash to the federal courthouse. Ensconced in a booth at the back of the courtroom, she and a second Swahili interpreter took turns translating everything from the most mundane procedural maneuverings to the dramatic and gory testimony of victims and witnesses.

She was there so that the defendant, who speaks some English, would have as full an understanding as possible of the trial determining his fate. Visitors - such as victims' families and, at the end, Mohamed's mother, who was flown to New York from Zanzibar to testify as to the impact his execution would have on her - received wireless headsets so they too could hear the interpreters.

When Naima Black, 42, left her working-class home in the Logan section of North Philadelphia after graduating from the Community Voyage School at age 16, her first name was Laura. (She has started using it again since returning three years ago to live in the city of her birth.) At 19, after three years of U.S. vagabonding, she set off for Kenya as a student with Friends World College, an experimental school that is now part of Long Island University.

I first heard stories about "Naima" when I went to Kenya as a Friends World College student three years later, in 1981. By then she had converted to Islam, was living in Lamu, an 800-year-old fishing and trading village on the coast, and had started a family with Hassan Mzee, a Swahili fisherman. It was only many years later when I was directing a study-abroad program in Kenya that I met this woman whose life of high adventure had fueled my imagination as an undergraduate. By that time she was well on her way to having raised five children - three of them biologically hers - and had definitively split with her husband. They had married and divorced a total of four times in the course of a tumultuous relationship. She was a well-respected fixture in the community and supported her family by helping to manage a four-star hotel.

Black was in the throes of deciding to move back to the United States when I got to know her. Two of her daughters were already living in Philadelphia with her sister, Kathy Black, and she wanted to expose her other children to the kinds of educational opportunities a struggling single mother could ill afford in Kenya. Not that it would be much easier in America, but at least her girls would get a prolonged taste of life outside a culture in which women's roles are very limited. "I moved back mostly because I wanted to give my kids a chance to broaden their horizons a bit," she said.

They arrived at the end of June 1998. A little more than a month later, bombs ripped through the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

When I heard through a mutual friend that Black was an interpreter for the Swahili-speaking defendant on trial for the Tanzanian bombing, I called her. I caught up with her in the courtroom.

It is fitting on a number of levels that Black works as an interpreter. She quickly mastered Swahili when she arrived in Kenya 22 years ago, while also gaining an appreciation for regional dialects and the politics behind their usage. But more than that, in the years since she has often found herself willingly bridging the gulf between the Swahili culture into which she was accepted as wife, daughter, mother and the European and American cultures familiar to her from birth.

Black, a wiry and physical woman, with a body that has benefited from years of yoga practice and holistic eating, keeps a pace that borders on frenetic. She talks in a rapid- fire stream of thoughts and directives but is never stingy with a smile or a kind word. The tropical East African coast is, in many tourists' eyes, a place of laid-back, easygoing people who live by an ethos that shuns worry. That's not Black, who is goal-oriented and readily transforms her internal impatience into hard, sustained work. She knows firsthand the dire poverty many Africans live with day in and day out, and she knows that survival for them is the result of struggle in the face of meager resources and opportunities.

As a student she was swept up by the romantic exoticism of the coast, Black says. She initially settled into a project in the village of Takaungu north of Mombasa, Kenya, working with an eccentric elderly Estonian who enlisted the 19-year-old in his attempt, which never came to fruition, to write a grammar book for Kimvita, the Mombasa dialect of Swahili.

Laura Black stayed in the village for nine months and became Naima, a name she had always liked since hearing it in a John Coltrane song. It was also then that Hassan Mzee came to court her. More than 10 years her senior, Mzee was the captain of a traditional fishing vessel called a mashua. Black caught his eye when she and her fellow students were his passengers for an expedition to the northern reaches of the Lamu archipelago near the Kenyan-Somali border.

Black knew that her suitor had been married several times before when they wed in a quiet ceremony nine days after her 20th birthday, less than a year after leaving America. A month later she returned to Lamu to participate in the Eid celebrations at the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Her new mother-in-law, with whom she was to live, traditionally slaughtered a cow around that time of year in honor of deceased elders. People stayed up all night with the women peeling potatoes and preparing onions, garlic and spices for the next day's feast. As an appetizer, the cow's stomach was consumed in the morning.

Naima Hassan, as she was now known, was at once elated and exhausted by the end of the celebrations, though she did not expect the dramatic turn that would cement her relationship to her new community. That evening she heard a baby crying in her new home. Her new husband's previous wife had brought him their two-month-old infant.

Black raised Rahima, now 22 and living in Philadelphia, as her own child. Nine months later she gave birth to Jamilla, three years after that to Maryam, and six years after that to her son Malik, now 12. They all have Hassan as their last name. Along the way she took a hand in raising four of her husband's other children, all of whom now live in the United States.

"My new life kind of took over," Black said. In her early years of motherhood she lived in grinding poverty. She cooked on an open flame in a kitchen without an oven or a refrigerator, and washed clothes and diapers by hand. Survival very much depended on the catch her husband would bring back from each night of fishing. Her parents and her four older brothers and sisters didn't visit her then because, Black said, "I wouldn't have allowed it, it would have been too hard for them."

She flew home to Philadelphia at one point to earn some money doing restaurant work for a few months. "People couldn't fathom what my lifestyle was about," she said.

After her husband divorced her the first time she moved to Mombasa, a large port city eight hours by bus on a rough road from Lamu, where she found a job managing the airport office of a small tourist airline for six months. It was there that she met Lars Korschen, who was running the family business, a hotel back in Lamu at the head of an eight-mile sandy beach that is as magnificent as any in the world. He later hired her as his secretary, and her responsibilities quickly grew.

"That was a huge turning point," Black said. She reconciled with her husband and, with a second, steadier income, they tried to make a go of family life again. Their on-again, off-again marriage - divorce can be a simple process for Kenyan Muslims - was often "the talk of the town," she said. Each of them gained stature through their relationship, according to Black - she because her husband had become one of the most respected fishing-boat captains in the community, and he because his American wife had learned and embraced Swahili culture. Their final breakup came in 1995 after her husband began to follow a fundamentalist version of Islam that she, even though she is still a Muslim, couldn't be a part of.

By then, with a work life in the high-end tourist industry and a home life among people with a centuries-old culture in a community often marked by dire poverty, Black often found herself in the role of a bridge, and sometimes a go-between, straddling two worlds.

The hotel was often the point of connection. Its stock in trade is offering guests a certain degree of luxury. And money guests spent at the hotel accounted for a good deal of the employment income in the community. Yet at times, during meager harvests, children in the community could go hungry while yards away hotel guests were eating gourmet meals with ingredients flown in from other parts of the country.

Paradoxical situations like these exist on many scales all over the world, but Black experienced them on a very personal level, most pointedly when residents requested assistance in one form or another. Often she tried to alleviate hardship, and often she was put in the position of having to weigh what could and couldn't be done.

She also mediated between fishermen who needed to supplement their income by taking tourists on day cruises, and some guests who felt that they were being harassed for their business. Black understood both points of view and tried to set up systems that could make everyone reasonably happy.

These unofficial duties came on top of a demanding job and a demanding life at home. As her children grew, she tried hard to see to it that their academic education wasn't neglected, finding ways to send them to live with members of their extended families in Mombasa or Nairobi for access to better schools.

Finally she came to the conclusion that the way to set them on paths with a wider range of life choices was to move them all to Philadelphia.

When Black arrived back in Philadelphia three years ago, she had $2,000 to her name. She and her brood moved in with her sister until they could get set up. Until recently she did the food shopping for six people on her bicycle, which she refers to as her "soul mate" not only because it is her main transportation, but also because she loves to ride along the Schuylkill for relaxation. She and her son, an avid and skilled fisherman like his father, fish there, too.

She is not always sure moving back was the right thing to do. The noise of the city and much about American culture, with its emphasis on consumption, annoys her. And like many mothers, Black worries that her children waste too many hours in front of the TV. She was overwhelmed upon her return by the complexities of modern living, having to dive into filling out school and financial aid applications for her children while for the first time in her own life dealing with things like a checking account and income taxes. There are still holes in her knowledge of American popular culture. For instance, she has never heard of Clarence Thomas or Anita Hill.

Black likes Fairmount, where she has settled, because "it is a diverse, mixed neighborhood not too far from the city center." She enjoys the city's vibrant live-music scene where she can go to see people like Spearhead and other icons of hers. She loves to dance at late-night reggae clubs.

She is close to her parents, who now live in Northeast Philadelphia, and to her sister and three brothers, two of whom still live nearby. But she and her children often deeply miss the tightly woven social fabric of Lamu. "We sometimes have the feeling that we don't really fit in here," she said.

One way Black stays in touch with her adopted East African roots is to teach a noncredit evening course on Swahili language and culture at the Pan-African Studies Community Education Program at Temple University. A highlight of each semester is the preparation of a Swahili meal.

To make money, she cobbled together a number of part-time jobs in addition to a full-time job at the Four Seasons Hotel on Logan Square. She quickly worked her way up to the position of credit manager at the hotel, a job she held until late last year when a friend from her Friends World College days e-mailed that he had heard that an interpreter was needed for the embassy-bombings trial. She made some calls, was sent a sheaf of documents to translate, and soon was in the middle of one of the most highly publicized trials in recent memory.

On the train ride home to Philadelphia, on the day lawyers on both sides summarized their cases for and against putting Khalfan Khamis Mohamed to death, I asked Black about the trial. What had it felt like the previous week to accompany the convicted bomber's mother, along with several other members of his family, into the bowels of the Metropolitan Correctional Center to be with her son probably for the last time? What impact did the six-month litany of pain and suffering have on Black's emotions? Did she have time to reflect on the thought that she was communicating to a mother that her son had "ice in his veins"?

Because of the sensitive nature of the job and her need to maintain impartiality as the interpreter, Black couldn't share her innermost thoughts.

Part of the prosecution's case for death rested on an attack last November in which Mohamed's cellmate gouged a guard in the eye, causing severe brain injury. Arguments on both sides centered on whether or not Mohamed participated in that bloody episode. The question of whether remorse he had expressed for the embassy bombing was sincere also came into play. Was he a hapless pawn, or a calculating killer waiting for the opportunity to strike again?

In the end, after six months of arguments and testimony, the jury was left to base a life- and-death decision on speculations about what was happening inside a man's head. Did he really have metaphorical ice running through his veins? That is a mystery no amount of interpretation could solve.

But I could only imagine what Black might have been thinking as Mohamed's lawyer told 16 New Yorkers (12 jurors and four alternates) that "today you are his peers." Pleading, in the end successfully, for his client's life, defense attorney David Stern tried to give the jurors a sense of the gulf between their lives and his. Living in a world of "air conditioning, corn flakes and color TV," he told those sitting in judgment, "you have never smelled the wind off the Indian Ocean."

Naima Black has inhaled cubic miles of Indian Ocean wind. Soon after the trial ended, she flew to Lamu for the wedding of Amina Hassan, one of her former husband's daughters, whom she had raised from the age of 9. It is a celebration Black helped organize and pay for. Amina, 24, has been living with Black and will return to Philadelphia to continue her schooling, leaving the groom behind for the time being.

But for a few days Black and the women in her extended Swahili family will be painting hands and feet with henna, preparing feasts, and swooning to the melodic droning of traditional music. They will prepare one of their own to carry ancient, and to American sensibilities highly exotic, traditions into the next generation. •

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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