I first met Alex Ike about 20 years ago while her family was on furlough in Georgia. We became fast friends and spent countless hours running around our church building, getting poison ivy in the woods and laughing at everything. Alex is one of those people who makes you feel more like yourself when you’re with her, and her friendship has been one of the great privileges of my life.
“It’s weird to tell you my life story since I feel like you’ve been there for a lot of it.” Alex’s smile takes up my computer screen as we Skype one afternoon. “I was born and raised in West Africa,” she begins. Specifically she was born in Ivory Coast. She lived the first few parts of her life on a small boarding school campus. Her parents worked at the school and they lived there. Everyone on the campus knew her and she just ran around barefoot all day. She felt safe and free and it was a very idyllic way to grow up. As missionaries, they were required to take a furlough about every four years, so when Alex was in first grade her family moved back to the states and then two years later, they moved back again to Ivory Coast.
Alex’s family moved to the capital city Abidjan when she was in the fourth grade. It was September when one day they woke up to the sound of gunshots and motor fire, and they found out they couldn’t go to school. The country broke out into civil war. Her family was told it wasn’t safe for them any more, and they had to move back again to the States. “That was just a really weird and confusing time. We moved from this big international school in Abidjan to a little private christian school in Lilburn. And then my parents really felt like we need to go back. They got a lot of criticism for that. People felt that it was really unsafe, but for us that was home so why wouldn’t we go back.”
After about 2 weeks back in Ivory Coast the school shut down and they were on lockdown for a week. They couldn’t leave the house and the city had become very dangerous. A few weeks later they had to move to neighboring Ghana. “Even though Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire were right next to each other, Cote d’Ivoire is a francophone country and Ghana is an English speaking country so there were definitely cultural differences. And my parents had been there for 18 years, my brother and I were born there. It was a huge transition.”
They stayed in Ghana for a year and then moved again to the States. All the transition was hard. “We went back to private christian school in Georgia and it was definitely like moving from one world in West Africa to a very privileged white world… I think that now looking back I can see that going to the private christian school everything was about who fits in with who and your image, whereas in West Africa I just felt comfortable to be who I was. I didn’t feel that in the States as much. I think one of the hardest things about transitions is everyone just moves on without you. The hardest thing about transition is finding where you fit and recognizing what you missed.”
Her family then moved back to Ghana and Alex was there until she graduated high school. “That became home for me,” she says.
Growing up in this way had some heavy challenges, but there was so much about this life that Alex loved. It developed in her a passion for serving people. “I remember my mom would go in and spend time with the women at the prison. So Sunday afternoons I would help pack bags of rice for the women. And this was when I was 4 or 5. It just seemed like what we do. My mom helped the lady who worked for us who was HIV positive and her community cast her out, and my mom was the only one who would go into the community to give her a bath and take her in our car and stuff. So I just learned and without a doubt knew that no matter where we are, we are here to serve people and speak for people who can’t speak for themselves. The opportunity I had growing up to be involved in service and be involved in helping people really impacted me.”
Part of the work Alex became involved in was with refugees coming to Ghana from places like Cote D’Iviore and Liberia. She was in a unique position to not see just a “refugee crisis” but to see her friends, people she knew, being displaced.
“My work with refugees came from relationships we built with people that we knew in Ivory Coast. Specifically, one family that we knew really well in Ivory coast, the dad was the guard of the neighborhood, and we just built a connection with him and we knew that he had fled from the war. When he came to Ghana, he had run through the woods with nothing but the wallet he had in his back pocket. So I right away had this understanding of, he had a job, he had a whole life and then he had to come here with nothing. Knowing that family became a huge piece of it because they now live in a refugee camp in Ghana. I know other families that were deeply affected by the war and are still deeply affected by the war, and I also recognize that I’m deeply affected because we said goodbye to people there that we loved. But I get to do life the way I want to do life because of my nationality and because of the color of my skin. They don’t. And I was so moved by that.”
“One weekend we went and visited them and went to a church service with them in the camp. We got to know their kids really well. Their youngest is named after my dad. There was no hesitation in my head. I don’t see them as anything but family. So the next summer I went by myself and stayed with them. They’ve been in this camp for like 4 years now and they have sort of two rooms. We all slept in the sleeping area and then they had a makeshift kitchen and seating area. And the mom knew what all my favorite foods were so she cooked them every night. They knew I loved soccer so they got me on the girls soccer team in the camp. And I really loved every minute of that time. These people have been through it and I honestly believe refugees are some of the strongest people in the world. I walked around with the mom and we visited the home of this woman who had just had a baby and I just sat on the bed and held the baby and we just talked. They were just normal new parents, and they were very honest about saying, we don’t want our baby to grow up in this camp. And you know, who would? Now more and more as I’m seeing folks opposed to these people… for me, if you’re opposed to any refugee coming into the country, you’re opposed to my friends. And I can’t wrap my mind around it. Knowing that the president has shut the door on several countries that desperately need more aid… it’s just horrifying. I don’t know. It blows my mind.”
Living in “Poverty”
Alex says she learned from a young age what “living in poverty” really means, and how bothered she becomes when she sees people travel overseas and be so moved by the poverty. She pauses here and then says, “I was going to go on a rant and say, ‘don’t tell me how happy they are even though they have nothing…'”
“Wait, but I want you to go on that rant,” I say.
Alex laughs. “Ok. Well. I see people all the time who say ‘wow look at how happy they are even though they have so little’. It’s like what other choice do they have. If they could get more they would get more. It’s not like they choose to have little and they’re happy. They are people just like you and they have hopes and passions for their kids. And a lot of times there’s a picture of some [American] playing with children and it’s like, yeah they’re gonna be happy, you’re playing with them. And then posting it on social media just takes away who they are as a person. What if I went into an impoverished place in the US and I took a selfie with a bunch of kids. People would not be ok with that.”
I am nodding enthusiastically and insert my own thoughts here. “These ideas of poverty are so backward because you have what you have and you’re born into whatever situation you’re born into and that’s what you know and that’s your home and your life, and you can have joy in that regardless, at all ends of the spectrum. Just because you perceive them as having a little bit doesn’t mean that’s actually even accurate. You don’t know what that might mean in that economic context. It’s such a limited view of the way people understand poverty and see the world. It’s a good rant.”
Alex confers. “Totally. Maybe we have a different perspective on what poverty is and it’s not just about what you have or don’t have. Its about so much more. And I also want people to know that living in Africa doesn’t mean just living in extreme poverty. There’s so much diversity. I saw extreme poverty every day and knew people living in it. But I also went to a nice school because my mom worked there and I was surrounded by a lot of privilege and I was privileged as well.”
This is a great point to note, especially when talking about a white woman who grew up in Africa. And Alex is very aware and very articulate about her position in this. She lived in Africa but she was also went to a diverse high school where she went to prom and took class trips to Egypt. But of course that’s the case; there are many different levels of wealth and types of education you can achieve, just as you can in the US. Just because it’s Africa it doesn’t automatically mean poverty.
Even though Alex’s family was a “missionary family”, she didn’t grow up with that traditional white savior complex that many foreigners living in Africa (and elsewhere) have. “I think my family really helped me have a good understanding of what it meant to be a ‘missionary’. And now that I’m older I don’t think we really lived that classic missionary life. Even now I don’t feel very comfortable even using the word missionary to describe my background. Because for me, like I have Ghanaian brothers and I would never think of them as people we were there to save. That would feel weird. They lived with us and they sat and watched movies with me and we ate dinner together and we would go to the embassy late at night and play soccer together and jump in the pool afterwards. And today, these brothers are my family and I am so thankful that they are going to be a part of my life for forever. “
It’s easy to look at Alex and think her life must have been intense and adventurous. Of course there were moments of that, just like there are for everyone. But also, her life was normal and happy. She had Ghanaian friends and ate Ghanaian food and played sports and went to prom. And she got to experience her life in a cultural context that was rich and diverse.
Spiritual Culture Shock
Alex’s relationship to her childhood, her faith, and her identity as a third culture kid continue to evolve. A major catalyst to this evolution was her transition from a diverse high school in West Africa to a mostly white christian college in rural Kentucky. It was a total culture shock, and she struggled to find her place. “Growing up I was never told that I couldn’t do something or couldn’t be something or had any limit on what I could do as a woman, UNTIL I went to a christian school.” Alex discovered a new reality in this environment that she hadn’t quite experienced before. “It was a lot of me trying to fit into a box that conservative christian environments have made for you to fit into. And it took me a really long time to figure out how to fit into that box. But for me it didn’t feel accepting of who I was as a person, who I was as a woman. But I’m white and christian, I fit in, but I knew other students who weren’t those things and I don’t know if they always did fit in. People in the LGBTQ community definitely didn’t feel that.”
Her experience there was often hard and it has taken time for her to deconstruct that experience. “Now that I’ve been able to process how I feel, I don’t look back with a lot of anger, I look back thinking ‘ok that’s the way it was’ and I made a few lifelong friends who think similarly to how I do. I also know and love some incredible people who went there and work there and I was honored to have learned and been impacted by them in the way they loved me and other people. But I do think there is a pattern in christianity to try to put people in this box and then if you step out of that box, you aren’t equipped for what will happen. That’s really dangerous.”
During Alex’s time at this college she questioned what faith was supposed to look like and who she was supposed to be within it. She’s come out on the other side more sure of who she is and who God is. “I am strong and I am independent, but I never felt that there. And that’s not the christian life that I know. The christian life that I’ve rediscovered now is one that is full of so much freedom and is constantly asking questions and is not afraid of those questions… I think there are plenty of people who went to schools like this and loved it and had so much fun, but I also think there are a lot of people who went to schools like this and come away so angry and really hurt by the church. I want people who are at schools like this now to know that this is not how it should be. I don’t think we should foster this environment that forces people to be a certain way. It’s an environment that tells people how they should be… I’m not angry. I’m bold. And I’m fully aware that that is not an environment I want to be a part of anymore, and I think that’s ok.”
After the difficult experience in college of fighting for her identity, Alex found herself confronted once again with having to start over. She took a teaching job at an international school in Seoul, South Korea where she currently works teaching special education and coaching soccer. Though the realities of everyday life couldn’t be more different then where she was before, there are of course still challenges.
“I think it’s always hard to find your place. Just being in another place and another culture can be challenging and there are some really sucky days where you’re at the grocery store and you can’t figure out what something is or what you’re buying and it’s frustrating. But then you have incredible days where you go for a hike and you meet an old man who leads you up the mountain and you share a snack at the top. The first year was definitely hard, but then this past year was so much better and it’s weird now to think like, oh yeah, Korea is my home and I am overwhelmingly thankful for my community of co-workers, friends and students that have made it home. And I’m not thinking a lot about what’s next to be honest. I’ve just learned so much about myself.”
You Have Really Done It
One the crucial things Alex began to identify about herself her first year in South Korea was that she had anxiety. “The first year was tricky and really hard. I think it was the first time I reached out about this paranoia that I’m having a lot. It’s a paralysis I have over making decisions. And that was the first time I thought, oh this anxiety is a much bigger part of my life than I thought. The past year has been huge for me learning to trust myself and to make decisions for myself. I’ve always made decisions based on other people and this past year I decided I’m not going to do that. Like I’m not going to do two big social events in two days because that seems overwhelming and I want to be prepared for my job the next day. I’ve done a lot of guided meditation prompts. And I’ve created this list of things that I can do that are taking care of me.”
Alex has created really healthy habits and rhythms in her life to manage her anxiety and advocate for herself. But as she says, it’s still hard. “There is so much shame around this stuff. Anxiety, depression, or you know, ‘oh you’re on medication’. But if I were talking to anybody else I would be like ‘it’s ok, it’s normal, of course it’s fine!’ But when I’m thinking of myself it’s so hard accepting this is a part of me and understanding that this doesn’t have to rule my life, but this is still a piece of my life that I have to learn to cope with. My biggest thing was learning to be compassionate towards myself. One day I wrote myself a love letter just saying, ‘Dear Alex, you have really done it. You’re awesome’. Just saying to myself, look at all these things you’ve done a good job at. Because that’s what I would say to a best friend. So I pretended I was a really good friend and wrote a letter.”
“I think of me now versus last summer, there’s a big difference. Now when I’m feeling overwhelmed and anxious, not that it goes well all the time, but as much as I can when I’m feeling that way, I go, ok, I have to remember that I need to be eating better or I have to sit on the porch and just stretch or listen to a podcast or go for a walk. Just simple things that will really help me. I think every time I move into a new space, even if it’s for a short time I’m like whoa whoa whoa ok here’s a bunch of stuff I didn’t know was inside me. I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is how to ask for help. Always being real with friends is really hard but man it helps a lot. The power of community and friendship are always huge. And I’m so thankful for mine. I know I wouldn’t have made it through a lot of difficult times without reaching out to my family and friends and them stepping up and walking with me.”
Another thing that has been a form of self care and also an emotional outlet for Alex is her spoken word poetry.
“I started doing spoken word about 3 years ago. I remember loving watching spoken word videos and one night I was listening to a song and I just got upset by the lyrics and how women were being dehumanized and I just started writing.”
Alex wrote her first spoken word poem that night. She says that it is simply a way to process her feelings and emotions and that she doesn’t consider herself a poet. “Of course my mom does though, and she tells everyone and wants me to share my poems more.” (I agree with Alex’s mom).
“I love writing about what’s on my heart and what i’m passionate about. I definitely love performing and I think I just don’t share it because I’m scared that people will think the words are lame or really aren’t good. But I think I need to challenge myself more. It’s always nerve wracking because I feel like I’m sharing a piece of my heart. And if someone doesn’t like that then that’s intimidating. But really, I should share more I think…whether it sucks or not haha. I think poetry is so so beautiful and it’s such a wonderful art form.” (check out one of Alex’s poems at the bottom of the page!)
As Alex and I neared the end of our conversation, her mom popped in to say hello. Which reminded me of one last thing I wanted to ask Alex about.
Alex is a spunky, passionate, strong woman who has experienced so much in her life so far. As much as it is a tribute to who she is as a person, she is also a product of the amazing women who came before her. Alex’s sister, mother, and grandmother, to name a few, are equally passionate and independent and are a source of strength and inspiration for Alex. It is so clear that Alex is also a product of the amazing women that have surrounded her over the years.
She laughs when I bring this up. “I remember my mom telling this story that when she and my dad were just married, they were in India and she was in a tuk tuk and this man was biking by and reached over and grabbed her boob. She got out and chased him down and grabbed his bike, picked it up and threw it in the muddy water. And my grandma, she moved overseas with my grandpa in the 40s and they were some of the first missionaries in Mali. And my sister is a doctor and living on her own, traveling all the time. Her and my mom are both strong advocates for the hurting and the oppressed.”
She comes from family of well respected women and strong male allies as well. She was taught that she had inherent value and that it had nothing to do with her gender.
“When I was moving overseas a couple people would stop me and be like ‘well don’t you want to get married?’ and I’d be like, ‘yes…?’ but that never was a factor. I didn’t grow up in a family where [being unmarried] was a factor that could stop me. And I have brothers who honored me and a dad who supports me no matter what. I remember texting them all saying ‘I’m going to the women’s march!’ and they were all like, ‘yes! Of course you should do that’.”
“I grew up with women who were always speaking out and never had a problem doing so. Ever. I never really saw this stark difference in male and female. Sure there’s pieces of culture in West Africa that make it difficult, but I also know so many powerful West African women who are kicking butt. I never feel like I should have to apologize for who I am.”
Written by Elizabeth Endara
Photos by Crystal Ward