Updated: May 11
What I (Jacqui Beckford) learnt while chatting via Zoom with the charming Anna Mbayo, was that it is priceless to be understood by another person’s experience of being othered.
Anna firstly apologised to me for any errors in her spoken English, stating that it was not her first language. I reassured her that we would take our time. It became apparent within 5 minutes of our conversation that she was fluent and clear at expressing herself.
Anna was born in 1997 to a Dutch mother and Congolese (DRC) father and is an only child. Her parents separated when she was 3 years old but have always remained good friends and Anna lived with her mum. Her place of birth is Friesland, which is a northern region of the Netherlands where other black and brown people are seldom seen.
Anna has never travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and did not grow up with Congolese culture so does not feel very connected to the culture, which she regrets. Many of her father's family members are spread across Belgium, France, Germany and the USA.
Anna says that if she were to have children in the future, she would raise them as her mother had raised her because upon reflection, she had a wonderful childhood with her mum. At this point Anna’s demeanour saddens, because despite having an “amazing mum”, as she puts it, she always felt like the odd one out because there were no black people especially in the northern part of the Netherlands. She was bullied in every school that she attended, being called names like ‘monkey’ or receiving negative references about her hair. At around age 11 she became acutely aware of her difference. Anna and her mum moved 8 times throughout her childhood. As the family moved closer to Amsterdam, and now that she is studying at university in Utrecht, she feels more at home.
When asked how she became interested in sign language, Anna brightens up and tells me that when she was around age 15 or 16 years old, her mum bought her a DVD about NGT (Nederlandse Gebarentaal - Dutch Sign Language). They would both sit in front of the tv screen and learn together. They did this for a few weeks but life became busy so their efforts were put on hold.
For eight years Anna studied dance and performing arts, consisting of singing, acting, classical ballet, jazz and tap. Her main place of study was Lucia Marthas Institute for Performing Arts. Plagued by migraines, Anna made the decision to quit performing arts and try something else for a while. So, just over four years ago, having decided to take a gap year from performing arts, Anna went to work as an au pair for a family in Paris.
During one of the regular tri monthly catch-up sessions with the mother of the Parisian family, Anna was asked about her well-being and whether she wanted to undertake a course. Anna knew that she wanted to study something but at the point of being asked had no clue what to study and was left to ponder which course to take. Coincidentally, that same week Anna met three deaf people randomly on three separate occasions. Somehow remembering the twenty or so basic signs that she had learnt with her mum meant she felt confident enough to interact with the deaf people and the spark was lit.
During our conversation I relay how desperately seeking to develop more black and brown sign language interpreters for the theatre and arts domain, I unintentionally became the catalyst for IOCN. This triggers an emotional response in both of us and Anna tells me, with moist eyes, that it sounds like a wonderful family has emerged. I, of course, agree and with my own moist eyes promise that one day upon meeting her for the first time I will have a big hug in store.
Anna attended the IOCN AGM remotely last November and explained that she cried behind her laptop at seeing so many black and brown interpreters on Zoom and observing some of us meeting face to face for the first time. Her fellow student, Marieke Xia, from Hogeschool Utrecht (their university) was also in attendance. Anna relishes the idea of meeting with other members of IOCN face to face.
Anna has identified that there are a few other students of colour on her university programme and their heritage hails from Morocco, Indonesia (mixed heritage) and Suriname. When she shared information about IOCN, they seemed interested.
So, having decided not to go back to performing arts, Anna is now in her fourth year at Hogeschool Utrecht. Having deferred one of her modules, she will grade next year. The impact of Covid-19 proved to be a mentally exhausting time in the accommodation she shares with 20+ students due to a particular period of lockdown when they were all crammed into a relatively small space. Some students were able to escape every weekend to their parents, however Anna was not able to as the distance would have been too far away.
Anna states that at the last count, there are 13 interpreters of colour in the Netherlands' RTGS (Register - Tolken Gebarentaal en Schrijftolken) - the national register of sign language interpreters and translators. Anna and Marieke Xia reached out to some of them as part of research for a thesis that they are working on together. However, unexpectedly one of the interpreters they reached out to was offended, leaving Anna feeling as though she had made a mistake referring to the interpreter as a person of colour and subsequently had to apologise to said person for any offence caused. Another interpreter did not respond at all. At the other end of the spectrum, one interpreter was delighted that Anna and Marieke had reached out because of their profile picture on the interpreter website and said that Anna and Marieke had made their day!
One day Anna would like to learn International Sign but for now, fully mastering NGT and interpreting skills and completing her course are Anna's priorities. Currently, Anna is on 'Stage B' of her studies, which involves finding an interpreter which you can shadow on interpreting jobs, and interpreting yourself to gain skills and experience. Anna says that although it can be terrifying at times, it brings her a lot of joy.
Article written by Jacqui Beckford