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Essay

The Travail of an Immigrant Writer

Roland Bankole Marke, January 10, 2007

Cooling off with the help of an open fire hydrant in the South Bronx. (Photo: Jon Levy / AFP-Getty Images)

Humanity has a purpose. When pursued selflessly and passionately, it illuminates the existence of others and culminates the essence and happiness of living. I've been haunted by nagging, chronic, stomach distress on a daily basis for almost five years. It's been delusive and agonizing: despite treatment from an array of doctors and specialists, invariably the correct diagnosis appeared an enigma. The more I made trips to these specialists, the more nervous and phobic I grew. I was probably dying deep inside. The precise diagnosis was mystically clouded in a cocoon of darkness and uncertainty. Rationally, my confidence or trust in the medical professionals who treated me swimmingly eroded.

I still recall June 29, 1990; when this vivacious, slim, five-foot-five, one hundred and twenty pound healthy Sierra Leonean left the shores of Freetown in pursuit of greener pastures in the United States. I never anticipated that my newly adopted country would be plagued with attendant problems. My expeditious search for a better life was encumbered with formidable challenges and daily stress. I grew saturated with mixed emotions while being transported from Kennedy Airport to 181st Street in Bronx, New York. Very shocked, I began to see vivid images of two diverse Americas as I journeyed to my new home. It blew my mind to see the beautiful skyscrapers, well maintained in Manhattan, as opposed to the slums and ghettos in the Bronx, where poverty's roots were allowed to grow dangerously. But I was destined to reside in one of the most dangerous and destitute neighborhoods in the United States. How can a rich, hybrid nation be comfortably and consciously partitioned into two economic extremes? I lamented.

I was no longer dreaming the American dream but living it. The reality of starting life all over seemed like a nightmare. It took a serious toll on me. It was hard finding and keeping a job and trying to meet the unreasonable demands and commitments of my extended family back home, who needed support to sustain life, or aid with their medical bills. The outbreak of Sierra Leone's civil war and the rebel incursion did not help the already deplorable plight of a destitute nation.

My first job lasted only a few months. Earning a minimum wage in exchange for maximum output was a formidable challenge. My previous education and skills were simply discounted or ridiculed. But I had no choice; survival was the game. One day I showed up for work only to realize that my job had disappeared without any written notice or verbal communication. The building was locked down and protected with planks of plywood. A notice was posted bearing the date that employees should pick up their checks from security. I could not believe that this could happen in the richest and most powerful nation in the world. Back home, a letter or verbal notice would be issued to each worker, informing them of their fate.

At my second job, I got the boot because of my "strong accent." "We cannot understand you," my supervisor lashed out at me. But I could understand my colleagues very well.

I detested those ungodly early morning collect calls that ruined my sweet slumber, requesting urgent remittances. The perception that America is a land flowing with milk and honey is difficult to erase from the mindset of my folks back home. How can I complain, when at home other dreamers have not been as fortunate to immigrate to the land of unlimited opportunities? But I had patiently waited for almost 10 years, trying to secure a visa to immigrate to the United States. Fatu, a prosperous neighbor spent all her fortune and time trying to secure a visa, but was turned down on numerous occasions. Eventually, she lost her sanity, amid her obsession to immigrate to America.

Several less fortunate folks perceive the opportunity of coming to America as a springboard to prosperity. But some lousy and ostentatious homegrown holidaymakers visiting my homeland have not helped in shedding light on this misconstrued perception. One of them is Morlai, who visited home recently. He was adorned with a gold ring, gold teeth, and gold necklaces. He openly flashed dollar bills and deceived his poor friends, saying, "Money is no problem." In fact, he survived in America on regular overtime income and credit cards. On his return to the United States, he had missed two car payments and a notice from the rental office confirmed that he had missed two months of rent. Two days after returning from his vacation, his 2004 Toyota 4Runner was repossessed and an eviction notice was boldly posted on his apartment door. Sadly, serious homegrown relationships are on the rocks because of this chronic malaise to live beyond one's means.

The rigors of work and school increasingly precipitated a long-term effect on my health. The long hours between work and school seldom gave me enough time to eat appropriately or timely. My school schedule stretched from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., while work lasted from 3 p.m. to 11.30 p.m. The realization that I was developing an irritable stomach did not dawn as a surprise to me.

Though treated for a long time with strong prescription medications, my stomach did not get any better. Back home, I could take natural remedies for most ailments. These include paw-paw, bush tea, lemon grass, roots, herbs, ginger, and garlic. These are cheap common treatments for many ailments. Naturally, my stomach began to reject the prescription drugs. My illness never subsided, though I longed to embrace peace of mind. It seemed as if I was close to the point of permanently being disabled from within. Often, I was afraid to drive, and even to engage in physical activities, because they inflicted pain. Hopelessly, like a convict, I languished on borrowed time. My level of pain grew worse, and as if suffering under hallucination, my sanity was under assault. Fear imprisoned and terrorized my vulnerable mind. I was abrasive and worried. I was like a patient who had been pronounced terminal, awaiting the inevitable. "Is this a mental imbalance or a deadly disease without a credible diagnosis?" I passionately questioned.

My personality became questionable, as I grew reserved, isolated, and quiet. Unconsciously, I snapped at people at will. Did this help? Not at all: My pain even grew tenacious. Frequent trips to the doctor eventually proved futile and increasingly expensive. Eventually, my spirit moaned in travail while my body endured wear and tear at an increasing pace. Dispiritedly, only one doctor took the time to run difficult tests.

My first test diagnosed an ulcer, but surgery was unnecessary. This information substantially dispelled the perpetual phobia I had long nursed. My pain subsided briefly only to return later with greater intensity. Desperately, I yearned for the ideal therapy to help manage my nightmare of eternal agony. Was it wisdom, or a divine voice whispering within me that said, "Experiment with doing something peaceful to take your mind away from the pain?"

Eventually, I developed my own pain management technique and therapy. A soothing voice within, once spoke to me. For a while, I only exercised disdain to its call. It was compelling, peaceful, and truly transforming. Eventually, I obeyed it and began to write poetry and moving inspirational stories. This experience was a rare therapeutic journey, a milestone that relieved my pain. My passion ignited as I crafted more inspiring poems and short stories. Some of my poems found a home in several outlets. My maiden poem was "Lasting Peace," practically the genesis of personal peace. It was like heavy rain on a parched forest during a heat-stroke summer in Florida. A passionate poet was eventually born. Writing became my passionate routine. I honed this therapeutic soul-healing craft. Constantly, I was working at "poetic justice." Within a short time, I had written numerous poems and short stories. Time was never a yardstick in my effort. I entered a few contests and even received some recognition. My innovative management technique seemed to work for me. Momentarily, I ceased to experience this eternal nagging pain.

My pain would return when I took time off from writing. After many vigorous tests, the problem was finally diagnosed: My gall bladder was the riddle. The medications I had previously taken had probably ruined or infected it, leaving my organ defective. My long-overdue news unyoked this load of lead that I was dangerously carrying. Thanks to my specialist, who with love, patience, and expertise passionately diagnosed my ailment, I was referred to a surgeon, who successfully removed the defective organ. He was a reputable, honest, and compassionate surgeon, from India by birth. He practiced laser surgery. My recovery time was impressively fast and rapid. I was sent home 24 hours later. Apparently insane to many people, I attended church service the next day, a Sunday. I offered the closing prayer, according to divine providence.

Since this episode, I have never stopped writing. My writing niche began to grow in leaps and bounds. Even my craft has evolved profoundly diversified. I had a glowing, burning passion to write. My friends encouraged me to write a book. But I had a full-time job that drained my energy and impeded my inspiration. I longed for time off with pay, in order to undertake this adventure. My wish came true. On that eventful day — March 3, 2003 — my job was outsourced. Outsourcing was as foreign as cancer to me until it actually hit home. It was a big blow. It seemed like doomsday to others, but I had anticipated the ax. I communicated my concerns to other employees who perceived me as a mere dreamer. "He's out of touch with reality," a coworker said. Confirming my severance package, I confidently began my destined pursuit.

It was not all smooth sailing; bumpy roads were ahead. But I was mentally and spiritually groomed for the journey. Writing is not work to me. I had spent endless days and nights writing, rewriting, editing, designing, and inquiring, all geared toward the publication of my collection of poems. The legal aspects were the most frustrating hurdles. I shopped around for price quotes, and later settled on a small local press. The terms and proximity easily enticed me. Publishing is expensive; with meager funds, it is difficult to achieve fruition. Daily, I was at the press collaborating arduously. Strangers and buddies thought I worked at the press. I took each ounce of this exercise seriously as a divine directive; events soon flowed like crafted ripples.

After surmounting the challenges of publishing, my first proof was now ready. I had sound reason to feel a sense of achievement and validation. My inner peace and revived soul radiated with enchantment. My rejuvenated soul sang with a passion, and fired to inflame hearts and souls. A dreamer's pile of enticing books stood waiting. But like a time bomb, I kept my focus and humility. People inquired how I did it. I evolved into a published consultant. My dream had blossomed, and I was eager to exhale my exciting news. My collection of poems, Teardrops Keep Falling, a laudable brainchild, became reality. The first edition sold like Red Lion hot loaves. A revised edition followed. Currently, I perceive writing from a vocational perspective. "With God all things are possible."

Are you suffering from an emotional or psychological ailment? Simply try this peaceful, expressive therapy of inspirational writing. Self-expressive poems and stories, mainly deep rooted, outpouring expositions, will help one to empty out strong emotion often inhibited or secretly bottled up inside. Expressing these smoldering emotions dismantles that load utilizing this inexpensive therapy. Unconsciously, we tend to ignore a peaceful voice speaking to us. Attempt to listen to this voice and be submissive to its will. Surely one's life will experience transformation. God has a tailored plan for humanity. Allow Him to evolve within. Many folks often ask me "Why the sudden change in attitude and interest?" The answer is plain and simple. I'm simply receptive to the voice of my soul.

As I retail my idea from door to door, I relate to people who often ask, "What inspired you to write a book?" My list of friends grows endlessly; in some eyes, I am deemed a beacon of light, amid a world in turmoil. An old man said, "You represent America, indeed all of us should be ambassadors of this great nation." Individually, each one of us has a divine calling, yet lust, trials and tribulations has plagued us, and eroded that purpose. It takes a transforming experience to rekindle that focus. The world may rob us of the vital peace and harmony that sooths our souls. Can a bird exist without a song? But reality is conviction. Immeasurable joy and happiness prevail when we live a life that brings happiness to others. Selfishness or isolation has no room in the web of life. Can the head say to the neck, I don't need you, or the eyes say to the brain, I can do without you? We are truly part of an interdependent hemisphere. Why try to be an island? The universe is a stage, where humanity is simply a player. Can America survive without China, or Africa without Europe? Probably it could not.

It is amazing that the peace I now enjoy can be shared with others. But real peace germinates from within. Youths have become my prime focus. I feature in poetry readings at universities, libraries, and schools, spreading a vocal message of peace in poetry, within the framework my life story. Leadership works by example, not just through rhetoric. Society urgently needs caring and sharing folks to fertilize dreams not those who mow down visionary ones. We're our brother's keeper, living in a global neighborhood. History will be kind to us if we imprint footprints on the sands of time. Our deeds live long after us and subsequently become a lasting legacy. Growing up, three legendary giants have illuminated and impacted my life, through music, the arts, humanitarian and religious expediency, in tiny Sierra Leone in West Africa.

George Frideric Handel will be ever remembered as a legendary powerhouse of evergreen classical music. He's still a supreme master of the Baroque. Born in Germany he lived and performed in Italy and England. His most famous work, "Messiah," is still loved and appreciated globally. He gained access to the royal family in England, and wrote four anthems for the coronation of King George II. His wide range of expressions is depicted in his various operas, oratorios, cantatas, anthems, and passions, to name a few. His rich and varied arias feature the fate of nations or individuals. A vivid sense of drama, resourcefulness, and originality is portrayed in his extraordinary variety. Boldness and humor are carefully interwoven in them. His music has inspired classical musicians and liberal music lovers universally. I now appreciate that poetry is music. Handel's legacy sparked a full-blown fire in me. A new wave of inspiration has captivated my creativity. My experience in various choirs during my youth, helped to harness my hidden talent to write songs. Some of my poems have been arranged into songs that cover various genres. And three professionally recorded CDs have resulted. A perfect positive correlation between poetry and music has ignited a profound inspiration among readers and music lovers.

My second book of poetry, Silver Rain and Blizzard, was published in 2005 by Publish America. My third book, Harvest of Hate, of short stories and essays, was recently published by the same press. This account addresses the genesis and psychology of war over diamonds, dubbed "Blood Diamond" by a recent movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio that raises global awareness: the massacre has claimed thousands of lives in Africa, especially in Sierra Leone.

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxiu of Macedonia has also impacted my life; she carved for herself the sobriquet Mother Theresa. Her devotion and dedication to humanity earned her the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize. An excerpt from her speech reads:

I choose the poverty of our people. But I'm grateful to receive … in the name of the hungry, the naked, the homeless, of the cripple, the blind, of the lepers … [the] unwanted, unloved, [and] uncared. …. People that have become a burden to the society … shunned by everyone.

Her divine mission has aided the poorest people, the sick and dying in the streets of Calcutta, India. Mother Theresa founded a religious order — Missionaries of Charity. Her mission provides food for the needy and operates hospitals, schools, orphanages, youth centers, and shelters for lepers and the dying poor. Her charity covers five continents, feeds 500,000 homes, and helps 90,000 lepers annually. Our world expeditiously needs many more like her.

Saint Francis of Assisi also touched my life. God appeared to him in a dream. His message echoed in Francis' mind as a summons. This encounter was the genesis of his conversion and commission for prophetic events. An experience with a leper whom he embraced led to the denouncement of his possessions. He initiated meditation and sacrifice that touched many. His ideal view of poverty, charity, and simplicity set the stage for the composition of the "Canticle of Brother Sun." A deeply religious and lyrical prayer synthesizing the bedrock of humility helped to shape his soul and frail body. The weaker his body grew the deeper became his devotion to charity and love for others.

My dream or mission in life is to live for others by propagating global peace through writing. Daily, I pray that hearts and souls will be touched and humanity will emerge a better, peaceful, and united family. Poems like "Child Soldiers," "Blood Diamonds," "I Cry," "Pain," and "Rest in Peace," to name a few, will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. A necessary, but scarce commodity needed today is lasting peace. The Creator's incessant music is vibrating joyfully, playing an arresting melody. It is about time that we listen to it. His favorite harmony is "LOVE."

We all need peace and harmony
Cosmic necessity lasting peace
Bonded folks love global ease
Humanity a chain linked bond
Faith is hope bedrock of need.

Soul reincarnation as mutual trust
A loving tender and caring shepherd
Accepts back all who have strayed
Eternal peace is a bond with the soul
Lasting peace is as dove from above.

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