The girls under the hijabs: Salma Ali
October 31, 2014
On her first day of sixth grade, Salma Ali sat in a wooden desk 8,488 miles away from her parents at a school in Kenya where everyone around her spoke what sounded like gibberish. This gibberish translated to Swahili, a language that Ali had no idea how to speak. She could not understand any of the students or teachers around her trying to help. She was on her own.
“It felt like I was a sheep lost inside a pack of wolves,” Ali, junior, said. “Everyone was so intimidating and I had no idea if they were talking about me or what they were talking about in general. I felt like such an outsider.”
Ali’s parents decided to send her and her brother from St. Louis to Mombasa, Kenya when she was 12 to live with her grandparents. They hoped this would allow her to experience the hardships there and to see daily life compared to America. Ali was required to take an entrance test when she registered for the school. Her score placed her into seventh grade courses, although she was actually in sixth.
“They could tell that I was different even though I dressed like them,” Ali said. “They thought I was Americanized because I spoke fluent English.”
Ali said she felt very out of place at first, but she was quickly able to make new friends and pick up Swahili after two months of school.
The Kenyan school required Ali to arrive at 6 a.m. and leave around 7 or 8 p.m. Instead of going to extracurricular activities after school, she said she went home to work on the excessive amount of homework they were given each day. She then slept four to five hours each night, returning to school the next day to do it again, six days a week.
“In Kenya, our teachers would read our grades out loud to the entire class,” Ali said. “It didn’t matter how bad you did. They did it because they thought we would want to work harder to improve.”
But the changes did not stop with school. There were copious differences between Mombasa and St. Louis.
“Every corner you turn, every street you go on there are stray animals and children,” Ali said. “I’d say about half the people there were impoverished. People don’t really help them like they do in America because there are so many that it is overwhelming.”
After two years of acclimating to the poverty and culture of Kenya, Ali moved back to America for eighth grade. She said compared to her friends in Kirkwood, her friends from Africa were very observant and always noticed when she was having a bad day and they always said what was on their mind.
“At first I felt like I didn’t belong [at Kirkwood], but now I overall feel pretty accepted,” Ali said. “I don’t really care about what race you are or anything like that. If you come up and start talking to me I’ll have a conversation with you.”
From the US to Kenya, Ali said her experiences have changed her life for the better. Ali said her experiences in Kenya have helped her especially in shaping a new perspective.