Wednesday, December 30, 2009

For Bahati Myhelatu

I got my first "comment" to TBAsian. It was exciting. The comment came from my good friend Bahati Ansari who spent many years (twice) in Eugene, making it a better place, and now lives in Arizona. My recent blog on Japanese New Years Open House made her a little homesick.

I miss Bahati. We were sisters, here in Eugene. The first time we met, she had come to my house to a First People's Coalition potluck. We all talked like that back in those days. We rejecteds the pejorative implication of the labels first and third world peoples. We called ourselves first people just because we could. We were a group of women of color getting together to talk, eat and have fun. I remember Bahati picking up a small beaded gourd bowl from the mantle of our fireplace and saying, "Here it is!" Apparently the two of us would take turns going into a favorite store and each of us would pick it up and cup the small bowl in our hands and then put the costly little bowl down regretfully and return home. One day my husband bought it for me, and at Bahati's next visit to the store, "her bowl" was gone. I don't remember if I made her take it with her then, or if I found another one and gave it to her, but we are sisters of the matching bowls. She liked to call shopping as we do in shops with beautiful things from Africa, Asia, Latin America "liberating things" and we'd bring it home. Her home was beautiful, dark wood, bronze, fabrics of the world draping, white curtains, rafia, wicker, books, baskets, shells and other found objects. She also had a collection of racist knickknacks, also liberated, bunched together -- cookie jars, salt and pepper shakers, dolls, all together in one place, and as a grouping, no longer caricatures, but a family.

At that same potluck, she was enjoying a dim sum treat I served at the party. "mmmmm" she said savoring the flakey crust and the sweet gravy inside around chunks of barbecue pork. "What's this?" When I told her she said, "OH NO! I'm f..'ed up! (Over the years, I learned that Bahati never ever swears so this was a big slip of the tongue!) I don't eat pork-OH-well" and laughed and finished the treat. Bahati is Muslim. From enjoying an occasional pork for the sake of multiculturalism, it is an easy stretch to imagine her reading an article about Japanese New Years food and feeling HOMEsick.

Bahati got her name in Kenya. She attended the United Nations Gathering of Women held in Nairobi. As she and another delegate passed a group of elderly women sitting in the marketplace, she was gestured over to them. The elders were speaking their native language but Bahati's friend understood them. She said to Bahati, "they say they know you are from their tribe, the Kisi people." She listened some more. "They just gave you a name. Your name will be Bahati Myhelatu." She went on to explain that Bahati meant "the lucky one" and Myhelatu is "happiness like a butterfly." She listened further. "They just gave you some land and when you come back with your children someday, you will have a house."

Now, how many people, searching for their roots, find it in a moment, passing through a marketplace?

Bahati stands out. She shines. She emanates strength and welcome at the same time. She illuminates. Wherever she works or plays, she brings wisdom out of everyday situations. She "radiates rescue." There are many people who have "come out of the metaphorical cold" to find strength and comfort within her circle. There are the Powerful -- the big fish in this small pond -- who would listen to her when they would dismiss others. And there were some that would try to squash her when her Truth threatened their comfortable skewed world. She still stands.

I've written about Bahati. I think I wrote a blog about her son's bad experience at school and how she turned his school into a Racism Free Zone. I think I wrote a blog about how Ms. Rosa Parks, while campaigning for Rev. Jesse Jackson in Eugene, comforted her. She heard about Bahati taking her sons out of school until schools addressed the racism and told Bahati that when the days seem the darkest it meant that the dawn was near. I think I told you already about when the national treasure Rosa Parks slept for the first time (when touring) without body guards because she had sent the Fruit of Islam to accompany her new friend Bahati Ansari to face the combined forces of teachers, administrators, school board and critics from the community to jump on her and teach her a lesson and teach her her place to dare to confront the District. And when Bahati walked in, surrounded with proud Black men in three piece suits, bow ties, sunglasses and brief cases and who spoke alongside with her, then things kind of turned around. "Yes," the faculty would go through training. "Yes," it was wrong to hang up a picture of a hanged Black man and a flaming cross; racist drawings were not protected by "freedom of speech." And, "Yes, Ma'am, Ms. Ansari, you can design the training." And how it ended up is when she was not cut down, THEY won. They became a proud and beautiful school with a proud history of being a Racism Free Zone, a school which actively worked toward inclusion and respect, where students spoke up powerfully against harassment and bullying where other schools simmered in frustration with the adult's powerlessness to expect respect in their halls and classrooms. The school became a role model for excellence and front page stories changed from trouble to awards.

Bahati adopted my mother -- probably one second just before my Mom adopted her on her own. She became my mother's third daughter. Before that, I did not know that Bahati had such a childhood that she would not know her mom. Even as a little girl, she took her aloneness, her having to learn on her own, having to hug her own self, having to keep her own spirits up and nourish a proud and open heart without an adult's kindness and guidance and grow her own self up.

Bahati auntied our daughter. And that is quite a story, but it's Maki's story, so I'll leave it be. Suffice it to say, Auntie Bahati's authority and some of her wisdom was recognized even by her during the time that in her opinion no adult of worth existed on the planet.

Bahati and I took each other into our worlds. She walked in an Asian sister's shoes and I in hers. The world opened up in good ways and bad. I am formed forever by witnessing how often the daily life's calm is broken with ugly, "out of left field" racism -- DAILY -- by walking with Bahati, and she is familiar with my life experience on the edges, the voiceless invisible region of the forever-foreign. Our alliance is built on standing up to that together, and unfortunately for our well-being, right to the end. Our health has somewhat suffered because of that. I just whipped off an email to her about what I learned to keep us healthier just this morning. It's hard for us to let go. And apparently it comes out of love, not anger. Lot of grieving and loss in our lives.

And the good things! The good things! Celebrations! Marches! Flower gardens! Victories! Beauty! Belly laughs! Kitty cats! Tea! Big hugs! Group Hugs!

I will always miss Bahati when she is not here.


  1. The thanks is all mine! Miss you! Too long for my sister to be gone. Love, Misa


"from Outside the Belly" was also known as "TBAsian" from 2008-2010. Thank you for reading.

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Eugene, Oregon
I am a citizen of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I am a Nikkei descendant sansei (third generation);retired teacher, involved in the Winnemem tribal responsibility to Water, Salmon, and our belief that the Sacred is our Teacher. Working locally for human rights and supporting youth leadership.