Bora Mahano - Community Studies
It has often been said that understanding the Newfoundland dialect is like understanding another language. No one knows that better than Bora Mahano. “I thought I had learned English in Uganda as a refugee student but you guys have this Newfoundland accent. I totally got lost. I thought to myself, ‘Well this is not English and they don’t speak English here’. ”
Born in the Congo, which has a long history of civil war, Bora came to Newfoundland in 2000 as a refugee, with the help of the World University Service of Canada (WUSC). The organization helps students from Third World countries find educational opportunities in Canada and around the world.
As she struggled to acclimate to life in Stephenville, the staff, students and faculty at CNA helped her persevere.
Bora says she felt extremely lucky to have been selected by CNA but never could have prepared for the major change her life was about to undergo. From the time she stepped off the plane in St. John’s it was a continuous challenge.
“It was a very surreal experience coming from Congo to get to Newfoundland. It was in January, and was very cold. The teachers always joke because I came in my sandals and a really light dress,” she recalls with a chuckle.
She was faced right away with a huge decision. What did she want to study?
“Coming from war, all you are thinking about is survival. I was on the run. The last thing I was thinking of was what I wanted to do in school. I just wanted to be alive. I just wanted to be safe.”
With that mentality she says it was difficult to focus on choosing a career path. The staff at CNA helped her set a goal and recognize the steps she needed to take to achieve it. They determined that based on her experience dealing with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, she should pursue community advocacy, so she enrolled in the Community Studies program.
The educational decision was only the first obstacle in her path.
While she had survived the war in her home country, she faced another battle here in Newfoundland.
“I fell into depression. It was so dark, and I had not seen darkness. Everybody was nice but I was missing that nice weather in my first few weeks.”
With the Newfoundland accent providing a major barrier, Bora says there were times she didn’t understand anything she heard during an entire lecture. But despite the culture shock she recalls feeling very blessed, and now, more than a decade later, she raves about her CNA support system.
“Marg Lockyer was my advisor and she was one of my teachers so she really helped me get through that time. She spoke a little French and would help me if I had questions.”
“(She) took it upon herself to work extra hours every day just to explain in French what they talked about in class. That was a great support. Many teachers really helped me out until I got used to the language, the accent, made friends and started functioning like anyone else.”
The food was another major hurdle to overcome. For her first two weeks in Newfoundland she was afraid to try the local cuisine so she only consumed milk and quickly became ill.
“So I said to myself, ‘Bora you have to eat!’ I started eating and I loved the food. It took a while to get used to it, but everyone really just rallied around me to help me out. My colleagues in school were inviting me for supper so they could make something I could relate to. I mean it was just a really, really great experience.”
Looking back she doesn’t believe she would have continued with the program had she not found such an exceptional support system. She says she wouldn’t have stood at chance at a bigger institution.
“I was ready to go back (to Africa). I couldn’t take it anymore and told my teachers I can’t do it and I have to go. But the school really helped and provided the support which I don’t think I would have got if I went to another school somewhere else.”
The strong foundation from her experience at CNA gave her the building blocks she needed to make a better life for herself. After graduating early from the two-year program, she took advantage of the college’s transfer agreement with Cape Breton University and earned a bachelor’s degree in social work in just one year.
Eventually she went on to earn her masters from McGill University, but she found herself longing for Newfoundland.
“It was very, very different. I missed that homey feeling.
“If I had come in at the level of McGill University I would never have had that help because the school at CNA is very small. People know you one-on-one and the class sizes are small,” she says.
While she lives and works in Montreal, Bora says Newfoundland will always be home.
“It has been nine years that I’ve been out of Newfoundland and everywhere I’ve been I’ve told them that Newfoundland is my homeland because I have my connection there,” she says. “I love Newfoundland and I love that college and I always say I will come back if I ever have enough skills that I know I can contribute. It is definitely my second home to the Congo. I travelled a little bit in Canada and the community spirit, the friendship and understanding – nowhere is like the Maritimes and Newfoundland. I love it.”