Tell me a bit about yourself?
My name is Harmmela, I was born in Ethiopia and I came here when I was 7 or 8, I don’t know what my actual age is. There is a 3-year period where I could have been born, but we’re not really sure. I live in Scarborough now, I’m an artist, and I really care about the community.
So right now, I [live] in the Rouge River area, like in Malvern, the northern end of it. I go back and forth from [Scarborough] and Ethiopia a lot, and so my other neighbourhood in Ethiopia is very important to me.
What neighborhood are you a part of? Do you know of any rivers that pass through your neighborhood/area?
I moved here to Malvern in ’09, and I’ve been here since then. When I first moved here, there [were] a lot of Black people, mostly Caribbean folks. We never actually went into the Rouge Valley, and I didn’t even know it existed until I was in high school and I joined the environmental club, and there were like, ``Let's go hiking in the Rouge Valley,” and that’s when I discovered the Rouge River. [Half-way] through high school I moved again, like five minutes from my old house, and now the Rouge River is right in my backyard and so my mom would be like, “No don’t go there, you’re gonna get smashed up!”
[She] was really afraid of rivers because the first river that I mentioned to you, the one back home, it’s at the bottom of a mountain called Entoto. Often times what would happen is that as the kids are hanging around there, up on the mountain it would rain - we wouldn’t know at the mountain, because we were at the bottom and it was so far away – you would here the sound of the water rushing down, and it would flood the entire area. So the kids would be laying at the bottom of the river, and the elders, they would know first, and they would be like “Get out! get out!” “The water is coming!” And then we would hear the sound of the water, but sometimes, there would be kids in the river, and sometimes they wouldn’t hear us, and they would get smashed up by that water. So for a long time my mom would always tell me not to go exploring [near Rouge River], because that’s the experience we have back home with the river.
But for me now, it’s kind of like a safe haven, because I spend most of my time in the city, it’s nice to go into the Rouge, and just like walk along the river, and hear the sound of the water and know that it is not threatening like it is back home. But, even though it [the river] is threatening back home, it also has good things that come with it. Because the water comes from the top of the mountain it brings, a lot of minerals down with it, including gold. The young brave people of the community, would go into the banks and sift for gold, and then sell it, and so it was a really big source of income for the community as well, and nobody would tell anyone outside the community that we collect gold from there. It’s a tight kept secret, and so [ the river] is both a giver and a taker.
Because that’s [Rouge River] where I go when I am feeling stressed and overwhelmed. It’s not like actual physical gold, but I feel that silence is just as gold. I guess, at least also with the Rouge River, the taking isn’t really the river taking away from us, rather us taking away from the river.
In Toronto we have a lot of Black people from the diaspora right, and it is so disheartening to me whenever I hear that Black people don’t mess with the outdoors, and it’s like that is the furthest thing from the truth. The reason why we don’t mess with the outdoors is a result of colonialism, it’s not in our nature, because if you go anywhere else in the world Black people are so in touch with the outdoors. And for the same reason, that’s why when I was In high school and I discovered that the Rouge River is right in our backyard, I was so upset, because when I was in elementary school we didn’t even know it existed. [It] was this old White guy, who wasn’t even from Scarborough, who told me about Rouge River. The Rouge River could be such a human place for Black people too, especially, because there is a lot of crap you have to deal with as a Black person, and having access to open spaces like that is such an important part of healing, at least for me. And it really upsets me to know that in elementary school that I was around all these Black kids who never got told about it, we never got access to it, even though it was so accessible to us. And even that stigma that Black people, we don’t mess with the outdoors, I reject that.
I miss all of back home, just because both of my parents’ home have been destroyed. So, my dad’s side of the family was taken down for the purpose of urbanization, because that’s a thing that’s really happening in Africa – urbanization at a rate that’s just extraordinary. So for me there are very few places that still feel familiar, and so my dad’s side of the family, his home was destroyed to build a train station. And then on my mom’s side of the family, the home is also gone because, it was right on the bank of the river and so over the years the land just kept eroding up until the point the house itself was swallowed by the river, and so now that’s also gone. And so now there is this one house left, my childhood home, that still exists and it’s an ugly house, it’s so ugly and broken down, but it’s my favourite place in the world and I miss it dearly. And I miss mountains, that’s one thing. Whenever I am driving around in Toronto, I always wish that skyscrapers could be turned into mountains. I don’t know, just, mountains really bring me peace. Also, my name means sacred mountain, maybe that’s why.
And I miss my childhood playground, like here in Toronto and my elementary school. It’s still there but last time me and my friends went there to hang out, we got kicked out. Like they called security, because apparently we were not allowed to use it, and this was before Quarantine. But that’s the thing too, my elementary school was very Black growing up, but now it’s not anymore. Me and my friends used to go and visit all the time, we have a lot of really good memories there. As the years have gone by and as the amount of Black students slowly reduces we’ve been noticing that our presence is less and less appreciated there. Which kind of sucks, but it is what it is I guess. For years we would always go back, like even in the middle of the school day we would go and walk into our teacher’s classes and we were always just met with so much excitement and joy. They’d be like, “Oh come talk to the students!” And then now, we don’t even go through the school and they’re like, “No. Get out.”
Do you have a favourite Black author or poet? A particular book? When you think about this book, what was a part that stood out to you, impacted you - tell me about it
I have a favourite poet. I heard them perform at a random open mic and I fell in love. Their voice is literally the voice of angels. They’re name is Mia Willis, [and] they have a book called, “monster house,” and I read it religiously. I think it’s so great and also it doesn’t hurt that they’re so fine, but also they’re mind – wow.
There’s this one poem called “hecatomb”, but it’s like every stanza starts with, “I woke up this morning” – with each stanza they build up on it . You can tell that they are building up a world, but you don’t really know where they are taking you with it. You think, I am not going to be able to relate to this poem, because they are building a world I don’t know, but then by the time you reach the end of the poem, you realize that even though they built a world for you that you don’t know, at the same time you can still relate to the experiences that they describe. And then when you reach the end of the poem you realize that the things that they describe and the experiences that that they describe are actually connected to the physical world that they are building. That physical world that they a building are metaphor for the experience that they describe. And then you are like oh, this world that I didn’t understand at first, I actually really do understand, it’s a part of their experience.