This Bajan-American educator has taken her career around the world, literally. With multiple international moves over the past decade under her proverbial belt , Cheryl-Ann Weekes offers her personal assessment on life abroad and finding community as an expat (in mostly black spaces).
Share your international story. Did you grow up travelling or living abroad?
I was born in Barbados and moved to Boston when I was eleven and this is where most of my family still lives. I always hated winter and snow so I moved to the DC/Maryland/Virginia area in the summer of 2001 and lived in Prince George’s County in Maryland until I left to go abroad in August 2010.
You are an experienced school counselor who has lived all over the world. What was the catalyst that took you abroad?
In 2009 I was working at a DC public charter school as a high school counselor. I was doing what I always wanted to do, which was help young people see and pursue university as an option after high school. My personal life was going well. However, I was feeling burned out due to the pace and expectations at the school, working two jobs, a myriad of challenges within the system and philosophical differences with the administration. I was longing for a change of pace and a better quality of life. I had a conversation with a colleague who was leaving DC to go work at an international school abroad and it sparked an interest in me to follow her lead.
My plan was to return to Maryland after one year, because I was dating a great guy. I didn’t know then when I accepted that first counseling job in the Dominican Republic that one year would turn into many more years working in different countries.
Share your first experience as a counselor at an international school? How did it compare to your experiences in the US?
Initially I struggled with the differences in the way things were done at the private international school in the Dominican Republic. Cap Cana Heritage School was a small school with the first senior class in 2010-11. I was the counselor for grades three to twelve, and initially I felt restricted. There was a major difference in the way things were done – I had to create transcripts on an excel sheet. There was no curriculum to do social emotional learning and I had to create advisory lessons. My apartment consisted of very basic furnishings and had many issues with mold. All staff were required to wear khaki pants and very ugly shirts as uniforms. It was impossible to get around on my own because of the location of the school and it was difficult to communicate with some of the local staff and the surrounding community because I didn’t speak Spanish.
As it compared to my experiences in the US it was a much better experience in that the class sizes were much smaller, resources were more readily available, and I felt seen and supported. Both the principal and head of school encouraged us to eat lunch in the cafeteria together; which was something I almost never did in DC so my work life balance was so much better. The first several months were hard as I worked to manage my expectations and learn to work with younger students where I had to do classroom lessons. I credit my principal for helping me because he realized my frustration and gave me the space to do things my way and supported me both professionally and personally. Eventually I hit my stride and began to enjoy the job and we developed a close friendship.
Currently, you are based in Abidjan, Cote D'Ivoire and there are many who know little about the country. Describe your life in Abidjan.
Life in Abidjan has been bittersweet because I don’t speak French and so I have trouble communicating with the community. While there are lots of restaurants, art galleries and supermarkets with imported products and alcohol it is very expensive to eat a certain way. It is a city so it is easy to get around and taxis are inexpensive. My apartment has several issues especially with the design of the bathroom, which has been annoying.
Côte d’Ivoire has some electricity and water issues so sometimes we experience outages and that is frustrating. You can only watch movies in English on particular days during the week, and the traffic and the driving is challenging. Infrastructure is limited as it relates to roads and internet access but you can get to the beach within an hour or two depending on the traffic. I really enjoy eating out, getting my hair done in salons and buying fresh fruit from the side of the road.
Image courtesy of Cheryl-Ann Weekes
In addition to Cote D'Ivoire, you have worked in two other African nations. How did they compare?
Yes, I have also lived in Ethiopia and Egypt, although culturally Egypt is not an African nation but a Middle Eastern one. I always get this question from people and it is hard to compare them because they are all so very different. Ethiopia was a very difficult place for me to live due to food and health issues. I had problems with the food and felt food deprived so I lost a lot of weight. The healthcare system in Addis was problematic and the supermarkets were limited due to a lack of imported products. In this way Ethiopia was more difficult than Ivory Coast. However my apartment was great and modern and the school had great benefits like access to the US Embassy commissary to get American products.
Egypt on the other hand was an easier place to live than both Côte d’Ivoire and Ethiopia because there are lots of things to do socially. English movies are available daily. It is also easier to get around because Uber has been there for years, while Abidjan just got Uber and most drivers struggle with using GPS. You can get things delivered to your home in Cairo. Even doctors will make house calls and it is a much cheaper place to live.
If I had to rank the three countries, Ivory Coast would be in second place because of the culture and food and health system. It is a good place to live but Egypt offered more and was easier to navigate. The things that Ivory Coast offers that was not available in Egypt are alcohol in the grocery store (which is definitely a plus), hair salons that know how to do locs and a vibrant African culture.
With more individuals considering moving to Africa, what have been the benefits of living on the continent for you? What have been the challenges?
The benefits are the vibrant, diverse culture, the Black people, the great food, and the ability to travel to other countries on the continent for less money. The challenges are electricity and water shortages, lack of infrastructure and stable internet access in some countries and the traffic and the stability of health systems.
From my perspective I would think the countries that are easier to move to would be Ghana, South Africa, Kenya because of the stable infrastructure in the main cities, the access to health care and the number of people who speak English. Egypt is also pretty easy but Cairo is a filthy city with too many stray dogs and cats. There are also some challenges as it relates to how women are treated and the prevalence of sexual harassment. Some people have encountered racist behavior by Egyptians towards African Americans and Africans.
How have you found community abroad as a Black woman?
One of the benefits of working in an international school is that you come in with a cohort of people who often serve as your first community because your transition to the country is similar. In each country I tried to take advantage of that community for support and social interaction even if I was the only Black woman. Because I am an introvert and tended to be in the older age range of these new teachers sometimes I found it difficult to form lasting friendships. I would say that finding community, as a Black woman, has been different and sometimes challenging in each of the five countries. For me it is equally important to find friends outside of school because whenever teachers get together they almost always end up talking about work and the students and I need a break from that.
It was the most challenging in the Dominican Republic because I was the only Black expat both inside the school and outside in the community. Punta Cana is a beach resort town and most of the expats were European. However because the school community was small, the expats and the local Dominicans made an effort to create a welcoming community. I made some really good friends at work so I didn’t mind it as much.
In Jamaica, although I was again the only Black expat, I still found it easy to develop friendships because the local staff consisted of mostly Black Jamaicans and they were very welcoming. The challenge in Jamaica was in meeting people out in the larger community because I didn’t have a car and access to some of the social circles. In Ethiopia I connected with some Black Americans at work and a couple of Black expats who worked for other organizations in Addis so in this way my community was more how I desired it to be.
In Thailand there were no other Black women at the school where I worked, there were very few Americans since it was a British school and sometimes I felt isolated because of the negative comments about Americans. However the cohort of new teachers was so welcoming that we had a great time. I only met one other Black woman in the area although I’m sure there were people at the Embassy and other companies. We supported each other by hanging out on the weekends and exploring the city together.
Surprisingly Egypt was the easiest to create a community due to the large number of international schools and Black expats living there. We had a WhatsApp group for Black people living in Cairo so I had a vibrant social life and made some great friends.
Here in Abidjan, there are several Black Americans working at the school and we try to support each other. I am sure there are Black people working at the Embassy but I have not met any of them, it has been hard getting on the social email list for the Embassy. I have made friends with another teacher who is African and she works at another school. I have recently joined InterNations, an organization that offers activities and events in hopes of finding more of a community outside of school so my social life may get better.
Image courtesy: Cheryl-Ann Weekes
Related, what has been your experience navigating Black spaces as a Black woman (who is not necessarily from the communities you are living in)?
As an immigrant to the US at age eleven, it was already necessary for me to learn to adjust to a place where I was not from. So, I guess I can say I learned that lesson early in life – that although we (Black people) have similarities, we are quite different in many ways. As it relates to my international experiences, it was not surprising to me the way Black Americans are viewed outside of America.
In both Jamaica and Ethiopia, being seen as a Black American had its ups and downs, as people have very strong opinions about Americans. Both cultures are very proud of their heritages and this sometimes came across as dismissive of American culture. As a result, I learned when to respond to people’s criticisms, when to speak up and when to just observe the culture and enjoy the experience without comparing it to Black American culture. Here in CI I have not hung out with many Ivorians who don’t work at the school because of the language barrier so I really cannot speak about creating a community here yet.
What's one experience someone should have visiting Abidjan (or Côte d'Ivoire in general)?
Truthfully Côte d’Ivoire is not a place where tourists come unless they already have connections to the country. However the beaches are nice, the restaurants and art galleries are great and I have heard that the nightlife is lit. There are lots of music festivals including reggae even though it is in French.
I recommend the Bushman Café and Hotel as the one experience for how it is decorated and the food and ambiance. It is a roof top restaurant that is beautifully decorated with African motifs and the food is wonderful.
There are several hotels (Sofitel and Pullman) that offer brunch on the weekends. Assounde, Bassam or Assinie beaches have several small hotels on the beach. I’ve heard San Pedro is a great little beach town a short forty-five minute flight from Abidjan.