"I think travel is everything, because without travel I would not have many life experiences... for me, life is my school." (Zaakirah, Episode 55)
(Note: First, I got my voice back! Second, I received an extremely kind message from a listener in Belgium recently, listen to the episode to hear what he wrote! Third, this episode is transcribed! Check out the transcription above! And fourth, I know traveling is not the wisest thing to do given the global health crisis that's currently going on, but I will continue releasing Young, Gifted and Abroad episodes as usual because at least they can still be something enjoyable for y'all to listen to.)
While I'm not one to try to rush through the seasons or wish winter away, I can't say that I'm not looking forward to the first official day of spring coming in three (only three!) days. This week we're closing out winter with Zaakirah Muhammad, who often goes by Zaakirah Nayyar and is a photographer, brand strategist, travel enthusiast, and published author. She has her own podcast (Living Legacy Podcast), and she and I got connected through the WOC Podcasters group on Facebook. Zaakirah is also a deaf-blind person; childhood cancer led to her right eye being surgically removed, and as she got older she developed mild hearing loss. She's been able to do all the fascinating things she's done so far thanks to her own determination, her creative spirit, and the encouragement of supportive people in her life. So far, she's been to 10 countries, and three of the trips she's been on were study or volunteer experiences that she had as a teenager.
Zaakirah's first international trip was to Costa Rica with a group called Global Explorers (now known as No Barriers USA). Taking place during one particular spring break, this was an ecotourism trip geared toward high school students who were deaf, hard of hearing, or sign language enthusiasts. A friend of Zaakirah's mom had heard about the program, and Zaakirah was hesitant about going at first. She'd been across the country with her dad who was a truck driver, but this was a completely different story. Afraid of what people might think or what could go wrong, at the time she couldn't imagine going out of the country. But her mom insisted that this trip would be perfect for her and encouraged her to try it this one time. If Zaakirah didn't like it, then she wouldn't have to travel ever again if she didn't want to.
Thankfully, Zaakirah had a great time! She enjoyed being around the people she was with, and she loved Costa Rica for its culture which reminded her of growing up in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. She didn't have to worry about being the only person with hearing aids, and if she couldn't make something out, there was comfort in knowing that the other people in her group probably hadn't heard it either. As for the ecotourism part of the trip, the group stayed in an eco-friendly hotel, stargazed at night, and were exposed to various aspects of local agriculture including pineapple farms and coffee production.
The summer following that same school year, Zaakirah went on another group trip for high school students. This time, it was a two-week tour of England, France, and Italy with an organization called People to People. Given that she'd been abroad before, and that there would be chaperones on the trip who were informed about her medical history, Zaakirah was able to approach this trip with less fear. But this European adventure still proved quite challenging, because this time she really had to practice how to advocate for herself. There weren't enough chaperones for her to be closely assisted at all times. So she had to find a buddy, a fellow "student ambassador" in her group, whom she could inform about her needs and how to help her if or when she needed it. During this trip she also experienced her hearing aid battery dying while she was on a noisy street, which hadn't happened before, so Europe was also the beginning of her learning to be better equipped for situations like these. This process continued in Ghana, where the heat caused batteries to run out quicker, and she was able to procure a temperature-proof case for her hearing aids.
Speaking of Ghana. That trip was the one Zaakirah and I talked about the most, because it was the most impactful and still remains close to her heart. This time it was a friend of her dad's who brought it to her family's attention. In summer 2011 after graduating from high school, Zaakirah spent two months in southern Ghana with a volunteer program called Operation Crossroads Africa, which Zaakirah considers to be "the Peace Corps before the Peace Corps". Participants let OCA know what type of project they want to be involved in, and then OCA places them wherever this is a need for them. Zaakirah was assigned to an education project, meaning that she would be teaching primary school students, either solo or with a co-teacher depending on the class.
As she explained to me, rather than a missions trip, the purpose of OCA is cultural immersion and for participants to do whatever they can to be of service to their local community, learning as much as they can along the way. Zaakirah feels wholeheartedly that she did that. She already liked kids and was eager to learn and adapt. Once she established a rapport with her students—patiently fielding their questions about her hearing aids and having a co-teacher help her communicate with them—managing the classroom became easier. At some point all of the OCA volunteers got a week off to travel, and so Zaakirah's group in southern Ghana (more busy and modern) switched with another group in northern Ghana (more isolated and desert-like) to see what that part of the country was like. On top of all that, she met some people who literally changed her life. During orientation before the trip, she made a friend who went to The Gambia at the same time that Zaakirah went to Ghana. Later, that friend introduced Zaakirah to an acquaintance she made in The Gambia, and that acquaintance eventually became Zaakirah's husband.
Capturing the essence of humanity
Since going to Ghana, Zaakirah's gone on solo and group trips to other African countries including The Gambia, Senegal, and South Africa, and she's also been to the Caribbean. With every trip she has made sure to seek out ways to help the less fortunate in each locale she visits, and she's continued to take photos that, as a family friend put it, "capture the essence of humanity".
On her Living Legacy Podcast, Zaakirah regularly talks about her own life experiences in addition to interviewing other women about resilience and the legends that they're becoming in their own right. When I asked her how travel factors into her own legacy, she remarked that taking her professional camera to Ghana that first time was when her photography skills really began to take off, which gradually led to her becoming the photographer she is today. And as someone who's taken to various creative disciplines during her life, Zaakirah believes that her legacy includes using whatever creative means she can to tell her own story and those of others, and using that to inspire people to "live that dream bubbling inside of them".
Zaakirah recently released a memoir titled Seeing Life Through a Different Lens, and she's considering releasing a photo book from her African travels in the future. She wants to go to more African and Caribbean countries, and hopes to also research her ancestral roots in the process. Zaakirah is based in the Nashville, Tennessee area and everything she's up to can be found on her website (zaakirahnayyar.com) and on Instagram (@illuminousone).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Legacy Through a Different Lens (GHANA)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Chapter from "Seeing Life Through a Different Lens" (Living Legacy Podcast episode)
No Barriers USA "Leading the Way" program (for blind, visually-impaired, or full-sighted students)
International exchange opportunities for people with disabilities (Mobility International USA)
Deaf international exchange opportunities (Mobility International USA)
Women of Color Podcasters (FB group)
Otter.ai (audio transcription)