Kimani Isaac: Adventures Abroad and At Home

I'm a NYC native, but I've been exiled to NJ for the past 11 years (not literally exiled...just, you know, bored in the suburbs). I'm currently a theatre major at Northwestern, and the thing I love most about this school is the faculty and staff support. I'm also a Questbridge scholar, so NU has been the ride of a lifetime thus far. Mostly, though, I'm just very excited and grateful to have found a way to be productive and resume build during the summer while staying at home with my mom and cat.   If you're wondering whether or not to do a URG, I hope this blog will give you some insight and (hopefully??) wisdom into why or why not you should apply for a URG.*   *(Pssst: Personally, I think you should go for it! Even if you're undecided, at what other time in your life will you get paid to design your own project and research something you deeply care about? Hopefully, tons of times, but this is such a unique and awesome chance!)

Language is Water

I’ve found the adolescence I always wanted in my adulthood. Growing up, the idea of going wherever I want, whenever I want, with my friends has finally come true. In my adulthood I’ve found a community thicker than the thieves who stole my childhood, who bullied it out from under me. This trip to Morocco has been a continuation of the most valuable gifts that Northwestern has given me: love, acceptance, community, and a bright future. It’s like breathing fresh air after nearly drowning.

And speaking of water, learning a new language is like learning to swim in the ocean. You dip your toes in at first, nouns and articles easy to understand lap over you in the mélange of everything else, but these words you understand. Next, you wade in, knee deep. Things are a mess the first time you actually get in up to your neck. Salt gets in your nose, the water tastes of brine and liquefies your insides so that later, when you go to the bathroom, it can remind you again how incompetent you were. The water overcame you. Language, when you just start out, is a mother of an uncomfortable experience. But next time you get in the water, you set your brow, and you try to flow with the current and pray that the waves of information don’t overwhelm you.

Learning a new language is also like brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. It’s an extra layer of humiliation because you know you would be dexterous if you could only change one factor in the situation. If you could just change your hand, you could get the back corners of your teeth, the sides, the parts that you know are hard to reach and need a little more proficiency. But it takes time, and thankfully, time is what I’ve got. I just have to trust that I will progress at a snail’s pace, and then one day I’ll look back and see I’ll have climbed a mountain or something. But in the meantime, it’s an uphill climb at a snail’s pace.

And I live my days on striated levels of understanding. The US, for all of its diversity, is linguistically homogeneous. I don’t mean that we don’t have more than one language spoken there, but when I say that English is dominant, it is King of the land. It is so strong that even Spanish, for all of its profusion, cannot erase the sheer dominance of English in the US. But here, in Morocco, language is like a river with lots of different dyes poured into it. Arabic is most dominant here, and after that, French, Berber, and English. However, the multilingual nature of the country means that when a Moroccan speaks, they might start in one language, and end in another. Trying to keep all these languages separate is like trying to stop all the dyes from mixing with water, and mixing with each other.

Thinking back, I don’t know that I fully realized the complexity of what my situation would be in Morocco. I look like someone who comes from the region geographically in some sense. I am learning and speaking the language of the colonizer, however. Add to this the realization that now, English is a private language for me. It’s hard not to lean on it. Today, I took a taxi via a technically illegal but ubiquitous Uber app called Careem, and the driver didn’t speak French. I ended up at the main station for leaving Rabat entirely to go to another Moroccan city. I had to take another taxi to the tramway. It was a funny experience, but it does make me go like

Because honestly I have to laugh at myself coming to Morocco to learn French. In some ways it’s honestly bizarre or brilliant and it’s become both and neither at the same time. It was the best option, and I’m proud of it. It’s just weird to experience, no matter how much I rationalize it.

That’s all for tonight. I have more to say, but I also have class tomorrow and I’m tired.

Good night!


Do Your Homework Overlooking the Ocean

Second day of classes!

I am in Rabat, still alive, still healthy, and I even walked my host family’s dog alone today to go buy sunscreen.

That was also a new experience. I’ve never walked a dog by myself before.

So, here’s the part where I unpack my preconceptions. As a woman, I definitely thought that I was going to have trouble here in Morocco. I thought that I would get catcalled all the time (not that it doesn’t happen in the US anyway) that I would have to wear a scarf all the time, couldn’t travel unaccompanied, that all the men I spoke with would be sexist jerks, etc, etc, etc.. Now, granted, it’s only…day four or five, and the female tourists I’ve met have definitely been more skittish than the Moroccan women I’ve met, but I have not encountered any of my preconceptions as true.

But also bear in mind that everyone thinks I’m Moroccan when they first meet me, and my experience is subjective and not true for everyone who has visited Morocco, nor for everyone who will visit it.

That being said, it’s been nice to encounter the best of my hopes and not the worst of my fears.

So, after my classes this morning and lunch at the Addictest center, Jes and I did another walking tour of the Marina and we went back to L’Oudaya with our guide, a student associated with Addictest.

He kept telling us how much he loved the fresh air of the Marina, but the wind smelled like brine and old fish to me. The best part was going back to L’Oudaya. We stayed there for hours drinking mint tea and our guide was able to teach me some good grammar.

I’m going to try to start taking note of things throughout the day so I have more detailed posts for y’all.

Oh! I almost forgot. It’s impossible to unlock my phone, apparently. Myriam’s mother said it was impossible without being in the US. BUT they got me a cheap Moroccan phone. Not a smart phone, but hey, better than nothing.

I hate my phone company.

The Beach!

Yesterday we had a small snafu when starting the day’s programming. A Lankey rep was supposed to come pick me up but they had a personal emergency so I ended up taking the tram with my host sister to the Addictest center. Once we got there, it was beach time!

Miryiam’s mother drove us in the Addictest car to a beach called Skirat. It was near Casablanca. The weather today was kinda cloudy, so maybe it wasn’t stereotypically perfect beach weather, but it was gorgeous all the same.

We ate sandwiches, bought some snacks, and relaxed for a couple hours. There was one snack I bought though, that really drew my attention. It was a bag of mixed, assorted nuts. It was packaged in Spain, but all my alarm bells went off.

Racist mixed nuts package.

Closeup. You can kinda see in the corner that it’s manufactured and made in Spain.


You know, it’s one thing to know that anti-Blackness is global, to study it in class and watch it manifest as Colorism, but it’s definitely another thing to experience it. When I saw this and took a photo of it, it ended up sparking a conversation with two of the high schoolers who were at the beach with us. They’d never noticed that part of the wrapping before. They feel that Morocco is a country that’s really welcoming and accepting because tourism is such a huge part of the country’s economy, which is why one of them was quick to point out that this snack was manufactured in Spain. I hope that their perception of things are true.

I guess that at the very least I’m happy that this iconography is no longer found in America this blatantly. We definitely have our issues, but this sort of thing would immediately go viral back in the States.

We stayed on the beach for another hour or so after eating, and I got some nice shots of some volleyball players.

It was kinda cloudy yesterday.

I have more photos of the beach, but I forgot to ask permission from the other people there if I could put their photos here, so I’m gonna leave the photos in my private folders until then.

I fell asleep on the ride home. The beach is one of my favorite places, and I always know I’m going to sleep really well after visiting one. There’s something about it that just makes me go right to sleep as if I was a child again. We ended up back at the Addictest center eventually (which I’m just now realizing I should probably take a picture of, since I’ll be mentioning it often). I met up with Aïda there (my host sister) and we went to meet up with her mom, who coincidentally works at the Royal Palace as a secretary for an official there. I got to walk around the royal grounds.

Somehow this is my life. As with any photo, click to enlarge.

We hung out, Aïda, her mother, and I, at a series of compounds built for workers at the palace. Aïda has family who live there, but it was interesting for me. Almost none of the family we visited spoke French or English. I sat there, eating a bunch of snacks, listening to the conversation flow around me. They were really kind, but my miscommunications definitely became small jokes for the conversation going on around me. The family we visited had a housekeeper, and at one point someone said something in Arabic to her along the lines of, “Show her your English.” She knew how to say, “My name is [her name].” It was  sweet to witness.

There was one family member I met there who spoke French. He was an older gentleman, maybe in his mid-fifties. At first, when he offered his hand and I shook it, I froze up because I didn’t know if he was bilingual or not, I was trying to remember the Arabic word for hello, and my brain goes really slow sometimes when I have to switch between languages.

It became a joke. Aïda’s mother asked me in French if he was handsome, and not wanting to be rude but also trying to sidestep more jokes about marriage, I said, “Bien sûr!” which means “Of course!” and the room burst into friendly laughter.

After that, we stayed for a little while longer, but when we finally made it back home, I crashed on my bed and went straight to sleep. (The effects of the beach on my system).  I’m awake now, at 7am, because of the roosters in the neighborhood.

I have my French placement exam today and my first classes. Wish me luck!

Opening Reception with Lankey

The good thing about Lankey, my language program, is that it’s really flexible and gives us a ton of independence. Another Lankey student arrived today. She’s 28, badass, and I’m really looking forward to going to the beach with her tomorrow. Her name is Jes. She is also blogging on this trip, so as soon as I can get a link from her, I’ll be putting it here. She’s from Micronesia, but has been living in the US for the past 9 years. She’ll be here for 3 weeks, studying French. Lankey runs an 8 week program and a 3 week program.

I journaled earlier today that I was bored because I felt like I suddenly had so much time. Northwestern makes you get used to being pressed for time, and then when you have it again, you don’t know what to do with it. Whether or not I actually have a lot of time in the coming weeks, we’ll see, but thus far it’s been a nice acclimation. I think that if this was a Northwestern led trip, I would already have a packed day, whereas I think Miryiam is building time into my schedule for me to catch up on sleep and get on a regular schedule again. (It’s truly a blessing).

My host bedroom. Click to enlarge.

They sent a driver for me around 6pm in an Addictest car (remember, the sister org to Lankey? It mentors high school students to help them get into top colleges around the world).

I have to say, after living alone at college for two years now, it’s both nice and weird to be back in a real home. I got so used to temporary living arrangements (read: dormitories) that it’s strange to be in a nuclear family arrangement. I feel weird having someone else clear away dirty dishes, even if they have a dishwasher. I think I have to get used to cohabitating with other people again. When you’re in a dormitory, you can pretend that you’re alone, but here things like mirrors and bathrooms are shared.

So, they had someone pick me up around 6pm, and we drove to pick up Miryiam from her apartment (which is gorgeous) and then we drove to the Addictest center for a short orientation.

That’s when I met Jes. She landed today. We got orientation packets, and a short presentation from one of the Addictest students about Moroccan history, architecture, music, and food. Apparently, it was the first out of a few different ones we’ll get while we’re here. Then, a couple of the students walked us back to Miryiam’s apartment, and we had dinner together with other Addictest staff, interns, and Miryiam’s mother and brother. Lankey is sort of the family business.

Terrace in Miryiam’s apartment. Click any photo to enlarge.

We stayed at Miryiam’s apartment eating dinner until about 10:30 and then Miryiam’s mother drove me home. There’s a popular music festival happening here called Mawazine. It felt like everyone in Rabat was out and walking to the festival. (The Weekend is playing. I’m gonna try to go. Wish me luck!) I wish I had gotten pictures. Hopefully there will be some coming soon!

And then, to my surprise, my host family had adopted a puppy while I was out today!

His name is Kimbol! He’s the sweetest puppy.

My host brother with his new puppy!

The puppy is so cute!


Keeping in Touch with the US While Abroad

Strap in for this.

If you’ve never seen ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, the documentary on James Baldwin, go watch it.

I’m mentally replaying a couple of scenes from the documentary about when Baldwin was abroad, when he heard about the atrocities going on back home.

This post is being written during the time period of forced family separation and internment of Central American immigrants who are seeking asylum from the US. (They are not illegal).

Baldwin was abroad, and felt the call to return to bear the burden of a witness. I’m abroad, but I feel just as helpless now as I did in the US. Truth is, I’ve lived my life knowing that I was not the kind of person America was built for and enforced for. I’m not part of the America that the country’s wealthiest and Whites citizens might first think of.

But I am no less American. I am no less human. I am not a mistake. I am an American that my country should be proud to have, and this is no less true for me than for the people and children who are, at the moment I am writing this, being unfairly detained, separated, tortured, abused, and exploited.

Growing up, I think it’s common to wonder how bad things in history happened. You think, ‘shouldn’t someone have stopped it? Why didn’t someone do anything?’

The fact is that this is the true test of democracy. Something is going terribly, horribly wrong. The US has lost all international standing. We are the scorpion that has poisoned itself. We are now the villains we told each other to fear, and yet we can’t seem to change course. Americans don’t live in a democracy anymore, if they ever did. We now bear the burden of witnessing. I bear it. I’m here, halfway around the world, enjoying a program that’s going to help me be better at French. I’m not in the streets back home, protesting. It seems almost silly when I think of it. It feels frivolous and monstrous to be here when I take in the full view of the atrocities back home. I, like everyone else, end up posting on Facebook because it’s what I have. I email my representatives because it’s what I have.

I’m trying to do what I can, but I wonder who it really makes me as a person to be here when there is so much pain back home. (And make no mistake, I am sure that there is pain here in Morocco, too).  Morality gets messier as you get older. I don’t know that I can say that being here and being helpless is more or less moral than being back in the States. And by all means, as complicated as this situation is, I’m not saying that you should never go after life-changing opportunities. You should. Apply for these grants. Use them to do good in the world. Maybe my French will end up helping me become a tool for someone else’s liberation.

But it’s worth asking the hard questions. Because otherwise, I am no better than a frivolous recipient of my privilege.

I don’t know how other people have dealt with these situations before. Baldwin used it to fuel his writing. I guess that I am using it to fuel mine, too. I just need it down somewhere that not everyone stood by and watched the world burn. We are fighting, and it’s probably not enough, but it’s what we have. It’s what we can do when we still have to think of our own futures and families. It is a privilege to be able to protest. Never forget that. But it’s not an excuse to be idle. If it is my burden to witness and be resistant in the ways I can, then that’s what I’ll do.

There’s no clear cut answer, but my mother once showed me that in the face of extreme loss or heartache, it’s okay to find joy. It proves that whoever was trying to oppress you didn’t win. Joy is a form of resistance, and I hope it’s a lesson I can manage to learn.

I’m a queer woman of color. I resolve to be what I am triumphantly, loudly, and as proudly as I can manage.

Good luck and keep up the good fight.

Okay, the real end of the day

*TMI warning: Personal information about my digestive worries below*

There’s still so much that I don’t know.

I feel like the biggest takeaway today was that I know more French than I thought I did, which is a nice realization. But understanding is like a sieve, things fall through the cracks, and I have to get better at piecing together the meaning of everything.

However, as far as coming to Morocco to learn French, it was a good choice. The websites I read about the languages here were right. The people I’ve met all speak more than one language, and my day to day is a mixture of English, French, Arabic, and even some Spanish, since Spain is so close.

The Arabic is a big hole in my sieve, but I get pretty far with the other three.

It takes time to get used to a new place, and who you are in that place. It’s kind of weird to notice how I communicate here because I’m such a talkative person at home, and now I really have to listen to understand what people are saying. If I do talk, I try to make sure my grammar is right, and I do a lot of repeating my words in an effort to nail that down. However, I’ve noticed that in general, I have been speaking less, and when I do speak, I worry that I’m not making good conversation. Maybe this is my opportunity to get really good at asking questions! When I was on my walk with Fadwa, she did a on of talking and explaining what I was seeing, which is great, but it’s more difficult to bond and create a friendship with someone when there’s a language barrier.

I also don’t know what’s taboo here, so…wish me luck that I don’t make a social gaff. I try to make sure that when I speak French to an older person that I use the proper honorifics, but I’ve caught myself messing up on that from time to time. My mom raised me to be damn polite, and I’m not trying to lose grip of that now.

As far as personal changes, I definitely feel more queer here, if that makes sense. I think that because I haven’t yet encountered much queerness here, I feel my own more strongly.

Also, I think I might be developing traveler’s diarrhea. Maybe that’s TMI, but I haven’t really been strict about my consumption of only bottled water here because when I visited Rio it ended up not even being a worry. But here my stomach is really sensitive. I can feel that I’m producing a ton more air in my digestive system than I normally do. My burps have periodically tasted like bile, which is NOT pleasant. But at least the nausea is gone. Though honestly, it could be the sleep deprivation and jetlag messing with my stomach. In London I really did worry that I was going to puke somewhere public on accident and that had to be the sleep deprivation. Haha wish me luck!

Hello Rabat: The End of a Long First Day

After Chellah and coming back to the apartment, I accidentally slept for three hours.

I guess all the traveling did me in.

But around 6pm, we went to the Addictest center, this sister org to Lankey, my language program. There I met some high school students who are studying to apply to different colleges around the globe. I also met Miryam, one of the cofounders, and she sent me off with this gorgeous Moroccan woman Fadwa to see the Tour Hassan, which is a mausoleum for one of the old kings.

It. Was. Beautiful.

And because I had slept later than I intended and was in a rush to get to the Addictest center, I forgot my camera.

But it’s okay! Tomorrow is a new day, and hopefully I’ll have some pictures of my own by then.

My host sister did manage to take a couple of me at Chellah, thankfully, so here you go!

If you want to make them bigger, just click on them.

A Bad Day for Sandals, But A Fun Adventure

So, I just got back to the apartment with my host sister, Aïda, who has been incredible at shepherding me to and from wherever we need to go and whatever we need to do.

I woke up at 7am this morning, and after a quick breakfast, I asked Aïda if we could take a walk. She helped me get cash in Moroccan dirham, and then we took the tram to the centre-ville and walked around.

I forgot to bring my camera! Otherwise I would upload pics of the beautiful places we saw. She helped me get some new sunscreen, since mine was confiscated by the European TSA, and then we went to a museum, and then to Chellah!

Chellah is a site of old Roman ruins that thrived around the 1300s.

We basically climbed down a long pathway into the ruins. It was rocky, and by the end of it my sandal broke! And I realized that I had also accidentally stepped in some dog poop. So, not great on that end.

Shit happens.

But! The ruins were gorgeous. You can look out from the wall and see plains, trees filled with storks.

Storks are the one, true residents of Chellah. They have nests everywhere. Behind them are cats, who roam the grounds, staring longingly at the mosque towers filled with birds.

Essentially, the roof of the entire necropolis was somehow destroyed, or it simply fell into disrepair, so everything is exposed to the air the elements. You can see the remains of hammam bathhouses, and fountains. My host sister and I even got yelled at by someone who works there, since we were a bit more…strong in our conviction to venture in and see everything.

And then, we came back here to rest before I go to meet Myriam, one of the Lankey founders.

I think my biggest takeaway thus far is that it’s been fine to walk around dressed the same way I would be in the US during the summer, and that I don’t have to worry about traveling alone with just my host sister. That was probably my biggest fear before coming here, and when I was getting ready this morning.

Most women here do wear hijab or the niqab, but even if a woman is not wearing those things, it’s fine. My host sister and I weren’t harassed, or stared at. Plus, I also saw lots of women traveling solo. So, if you were ever worried, don’t be. I definitely had worries about how I would need to dress, and assumptions about what I might be able to do and not do as a female traveler. However, my fears have been put to rest now that I’m actually here and I see that it really is fine to dress however I want.

Signing Off,

Kimani “My Sandal is Smelly But I’m Doing Alright” Isaac

Good Morning Morocco

I’m up at 7am, but after all the traveling, sleeping horizontally feels like a dream.

Good morning to the world.

So, here’s what I was too tired to catch you up on last night.

The Lankey program had someone come meet me at the airport, and he helped me get my bags into the car, talk to Myriam, one of the founders, to get my itinerary for the next few days and welcomed to Rabat.

Then, I came to my host family’s apartment. I have two host siblings, a girl who is 17, and a boy who is 11. They’re both really sweet.

They tried to help me setup my SIM card, which didn’t work, but Myriam said that they have someone here who might be able to help unlock my phone. So, around 4pm today, my host sister will help me take the tram to the Lankey center to meet with Myriam. (I love trains. I’m really excited for this). I’ll hand off my phone, get tested on my French, and hopefully by Saturday my phone will be unlocked.

My reaction when she told me they could unlock my phone.

Then, after dropping my bags into my room, I took a shower, and had dinner with my host family.

It was so nice to have a real meal after all the airport food.

I think it’s probably the little things here that make things feel the most different. The light switches are flat, instead of that weird little rectangle thing that sticks out of the wall in America. Showering is different. The blinds on my room are electronic, which is really cool. All in all, I’m excited and grateful to be here.


Finally in Rabat

  • I finally made it to Rabat!

I got on the plane in London, and honestly fell into such a deep sleep that I have no memory of taking off.

I woke up midway through like

We had already taken off, climbed 30 thousand feet, and I slept through all of it.

But it finally happened! I am safe, sound, and in Rabat Salé, ready to learn more French.

Now first, sleep.