Bronwen Dietrich

By Alex Park

Bronwen Dietrich is the daughter of a missionary. Raised in Dakar, Senegal, a city of three million people on a peninsula on the westernmost point in Africa, she is one of a growing population of “third culture kids”- people who were raised by American parents in foreign countries who neither fully assimilated into the local scene nor completely adopted their parents’ ways. Though she only has US citizenship, she is fluent in French, calls Dakar home, and says that moving back to the States was the hardest transition of her life. Having floated between the U.S., France and Senegal for most of the last two decades, she now pursues a career as an interpreter and cultural mediator. Here she talks about her life in Senegal, why she’s weary about returning, and the one meeting when she was sixteen years old that made her decide once and for all to go into interpretation.Tell me about what you’re planning to do next year.What’s plan A? Plan A is to go to the Monterey Institute [of International Studies, in Monterey, Calif.] to study interpretation and either use that degree to interpret, or to build a career in cultural mediation. Cultural mediation is generally understood as something done through art, through photography, as a cultural liaison, for instance. As someone who kind of knows both the American and West African culture, I would love to go home and work for some NGO doing that.

You’ve lived in Senegal for most of your life, but yourfamily is originally from Pennsylvania, right?Yeah, I was born in Nigeria. My dad left college to teach in Nigeria through contacts his father had through the church. When my dad decided he wanted to become a pastor, we moved to Pennsylvania so he could go to seminary. He got ordained, decided to become a missionary and we went to France when I was six for language study. At seven we moved to Dakar, and I was there basically until I was nineteen. I say “basically” because in fifth and eighth grade we came here, to St. Paul, so he could pursue a higher degree at a Lutheran Seminary.

So you’d been here before. Yes, that’s why I came here, eventually, because I already knew of the Twin Cities, and I knew Mac. We would drive down Grand past Mac to go to a French tutor for me, and my mom would say, “Hey, that’s the school where Kofi Annan went!” I remember hearing that as a kid, and I thought about it when I was looking at schools. I have to admit, it had a big impact on me.

What do you remember about your move when you were seven? Was it just like, “OK, pack your bags, we’re going to Senegal”? I know at some point I threw a fit, because I was sick of moving around. It was more that I wasn’t able to develop friendships, and I would see my cousins, and they did all their dance classes and everything and I wished I could stay in one place and live like they did. But I was excited about it, too. I had dad tell me what the house was going to look like, and how far away from the ocean we would be, and I had this whole image in my head. Somehow it looked kind of like a house in Cape Cod with a little walkway down to the ocean, but it wasn’t at all like that.
The transitions that were hardest came later. The hardest one was moving here to go to school. Getting here and realizing that I wasn’t like all the other white kids that I saw and none of the other black kids were going to understand that I might have more in common with some of them then most of the white kids- it was a weird dichotomy. Freshman year sucked, because all my [high school] friends graduated and went to France, or some of them were in Canada, some of them were on the East Coast in the big cities, and here I was, an American girl, not feeling American at all, in the center of America, not knowing what the hell I was going to do.

Do you feel more American now?Yeah. My parents are American. I knew what Thanksgiving was before I got here. I was known as “the American” in high school. And middle school. And elementary school. My hair kept getting pulled because it was “the white girl hair.” I dated countless guys in high school that were like, “oh, your eyes are so cool because they’re blue,” and of course I was the only blue-eyed girl for miles.

It’s funny, because I’ve heard that there’s an air of superiority among third culture kids.Oh totally. But there’s also an inferiority complex, because I’m obviously not as Senegalese as the other Senegalese here on campus. But I used to say I was really jealous of those kids who grew up in a farm town in Central Pennsylvania, who have the same friends their whole life, who know at thirteen whose going to be their maid of honor at their wedding. There’s a lot that we miss out on. But there’s also a lot that we benefit from, like frequent flyer miles.

Growing up in Senegal, speaking French, you must have some connection to France. Did you ever think, if worst comes to worst, I’ll just move to Paris?France was, is and for as long as I can remember has been plan B. It’s the middle ground. As I used to say, the compromise between the language I speak and the color of my skin. But then it gets complicated, because the Paris that I have seen and experienced has been walking down the street with my friends, all of whom could be French citizens, but are always second-guessed by the French because they have brown skin. So, I’ve experienced a France that is seen through immigrant eyes, which is notnecessarilythe France experienced by the French.

And now? Now I am much more comfortable living in the States. Four years ago, I would never have dreamed of staying in the States. Two years ago I was looking at transferring to the American University in Paris.

Do you feel like an outsider in Dakar in the way that you did here?Always, in some circumstances. And thus, the dilemma of the third culture kid, right? I’m a white girl with American parents. I’m not a Wolof from Dakar who speaks Wolof and has three generations of family living in the city. [In Dakar] I’ve gotten so used to hearing taxi drivers say, “yeah but you’re white, you have money, so give me more,” you know? I’ve blocked it out by now because I can bargain with them in Wolof and my accent in French, depending on who I’m talking to, can sound very African, so they’ll understand that I’m not a tourist because of the way I’m speaking, and the way that I know the city, too.

There was this one taxi driver who kept trying to get me to marry him and I just kept saying, “but you already have a wife,” and he said “yeah, but she’s too old to give me kids, I really want to take a second wife, you would be the perfect second wife.” So I said, “what would you give me?” And he said, “I would put you up in an apartment in HLM,” which is like the government housing projects, “and I’d give you 30,000 Francs a month,” which is fifty bucks a month, “and I would give your father a cow and a goat.” I was playing on all the stereotypes but he was playing on all the stereotypes, too. And I said, “A cow and a goat, that’s all I’m worth to you?” And he said “No, but I really want to marry you, because the white woman knows what true love is.” Right when he said that we got to my friend’s place and I threw myself into my friend’s arms, like “I’m taken, see?”
So there are funny situations like that, and there are bad situations. My house is on a street with a boutique that sells alcohol, so there tend to be drunks, and that’s cool because I know the people on the street and they know me. But there was one night I had to buy some onions, and this drunk who was not from the street followed me and said, “If white guys can come here and sleep with our women, why can’t we sleep with their women?” And he was speaking in a mock French accent because he thought I was French. It was scary, so I got to the boutique, and I knew the guy there and he told him to go away.

I had this almost familial relationship with the guy behind the counter- I knew his family, I know his kids, I see him every day, twice a day, three times a day- and behind me was this guy who was m
ad at me for being white, saying I was a whore, things like that. That’s when I realized that going back as an adult would be weird, because I would be an adult white woman, and that has all these different connotations. If you’re a teenager in Dakar, nobody bugs you. But if you’re in business clothes, you represent money, you represent a visa. That’s a sad truth. That’s something I don’t like to say because I know in a lot, if not most cases, it’s not true, and I feel like I’m being veryjudgmentalof a people that I love and want to be a part of, but it’s a reality that I would have to face, living as a white woman in Dakar. So there’s always the outsider aspect.

Was there ever a time in Dakar when you wished you weren’t white? I remember, I was a little girl and I was in the car with my mom and I asked, “How can I make this freckle on my arm (which was brown) cover my whole body?” That developed in different forms. I hit my teen years and I wasn’t upset so much that I didn’t have brown skin, but I wanted to have a butt and curves and know how to dance. Or when I was thirteen, I had this whole phase of putting cornrows in my hair. So I have had issues being white, obviously. But I don’t have those issues now. I wouldn’t be who I am now if I didn’t have the color skin that I do.

You said you want to go into interpretation. When did you know that was what you wanted to do? There was one experience, the one that really pushed me towards interpretation, at a missionary event in the States, and there was this woman there from the Central African Republic. She was one of the first ordained female ministers in her area, and at the time there had been numerous rebellions in her country. I was asked to interpret for her to an audience with the bishop and a few other officials in the church, and I did. They told me to just convey the message, be as professional as I could be, and I was what? Sixteen?

So I went in and I sat down with them and she started telling her story, and it was horrible! She was talking about people in her community, who she knew, who had suffered horrendous things from the rebels. She told the story calmly, and I had to sit there and tell the story, and not cry, or get upset or freak out, or put in my own judgment calls or do any of that. But I did it. And I stopped at one point and took a deep breath in and continued telling the story. And when I came out of it, I thought, “Wow, I have just shared a piece of this woman’s history, and her community’s history, with people who otherwisewould havenever have been exposed to it, and who wanted to know, and I connected two worlds by doing it.” And I loved it. And it was crazy hard, but it was also amazing to be at this meeting of people, and to be the connecting element at that meeting. That’s what pushed me to be an interpreter.