Washington Trails Association
Trails for everyone, forever
People might not always be welcoming, but when I'm outside, I can breathe freely and find peace | by Hamziye Aman
As a young girl growing up in Oromia, located in the Horn of Africa, I always knew that I would move to the United States one day. My father had moved to the United States when I was just 2 years old. In Oromia, my entertainment was the outdoors. When I was not at school, I was playing soccer, climbing trees with my cousins and jumping rope with my sister.
I wanted to know more about the country that I might one day live in and even call home. I learned about the United States from the media, movies and television shows. In the movies, the U.S. was portrayed as a powerful, rich country, with that richness conveyed by huge roads, endless freeways, buildings that reached toward the sky, big houses and big cars. To a 9-year-old Hamziye, that was what the U.S. was all about. The country was portraying itself as a place where wealth was measured by man-made material things.
So you can imagine my surprise when I saw huge acres of forest and mountains when I first went hiking in Washington state with my high school, Nathan Hale High School. I went with a program that took city students into the wilderness. I was surprised to see so many people just being in the outdoors and enjoying nature. The resemblance the wilderness had with Oromia blew my mind. The landscape of Washington reminded me of Bale Mountains National Park, where my family and ancestors came from and still reside.
Bale Mountains National Park has a diversity of high-altitude habitats, including forests, moorlands and river valleys. The park has been nominated as a tentative UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. It provides important habitat to three endemic species: a native wolf, the mountain ayala and the Bale monkey. The African Birding Club called it one of the top-five birding hot spots on the African continent. The landscape of Washington, its animal species and the evergreen trees all have some degree of resemblance to Oromia. The lush green trees, the rainy seasons that sustain the forest, the quietness of the wilderness that makes you feel like you’re the only person in the world — yet not alone because you're surrounded by the songs of birds, the life of the trees and the forest animals — all of those reminded me of Oromia.
I was upset that the media I was exposed to as a child did not show that resemblance between the U.S. and Oromia, or any other African country. Instead, the media made it seem like the people, the lifestyle and the environment of the two were completely alien to each other.
When I am in nature, surrounded by old-growth trees and mountains filled with the song of birds — and far from roads, cars and the noises of a city — I can close my eyes and convince myself that I am home again. Only nature, nothing else, can provide that feeling for me. Nothing else in the U.S. makes me feel at home the way nature does. And for that reason I always return to it, despite the societal obstacles I have to deal with because of either the color of my skin or the religion I choose to practice. A variety of stereotypes come with the identities I uphold, and that affects the way I’m perceived everywhere in the U.S.
As a black Muslim woman who wears the hijab, I don’t see anyone who looks like me in the wilderness. If I get lucky, I might see one other black person on the trail. I have these two intersecting identities and it’s rare that I find someone who shares at least one of them, especially in the wilderness. And forget about someone who shares both. This is one of the main challenges of being in the outdoors. The outdoors are dominated by white folks and by mainly white men.
When I was first getting into the outdoors, just learning and exploring this new place, it was uncomfortable. I felt like I didn’t belong in this new environment. There was no one who looked like me who was also out hiking. No one who dressed like me. It was quite discouraging at first. But then I got the chance to explore nature, learn more about it and make powerful connections, mainly through people of color outdoor lovers on social media.
When I found out about websites like Melanin Base Camp — which encourages folks to go outside, to explore and create a space where we can all share our love and the obstacles we face as a POC outdoor lovers — I did not feel so alone anymore. I didn’t feel acceptance and belonging from my fellow humans while hiking, but I did from the wilderness and from folks on social media. Being in nature makes me feel at home. It reminds me of my childhood, when my cousins and I would run around outside for the whole day. It reminds me of being carefree.
In nature, I feel at peace, refreshed and free. I’m able to take a deep breath and breathe freely, like I never could anywhere else in the U.S. When I realized this, it didn’t really matter to me whether people accepted me. It wasn’t as difficult when they stared at me, looked confused when they saw me or seemed to forget how to greet or treat a fellow human being. As a black Muslim woman, I deal with this wherever I go in the United States. There is no escaping it. The feeling that I get from nature outweighs anything that I deal with from the people that are dominating the outdoor space. As long as nature continues to make me feel this way, there is nothing in this world that will keep me away from it. For every person that’s on the trail, I want them to keep that in mind. We’re all here due to the love, craving and passion we have for nature, for how it makes us feel deep inside. All of us have that in common, if nothing else.
For my kids and grandchildren, I hope that our society doesn’t put them in a bubble based on stereotypes and tell them what they can and cannot do based on their identity. I hope the communities that they want to be part of are inclusive and welcoming. I hope that they are encouraged not only by their families but also by their communities, teachers and peers to explore the wilderness, to push boundaries and to create the life that they want without fear or oppression.
Hamziye Aman spent her early years in Oromia, where she enjoyed time outside. She nows lives in Seattle, and has found comfort in her time spent in nature. You can follow Hamziye’s on Instagram and YouTube at hamzi_fit.