People, Environment, Our Work
Cultivating Skills, Survival and Simplicity in a Complex World
Curated by Laila Zahra Harris, in conversation with Maryam F.
August 17, 2023
As the first-generation daughter of Afro-Caribbean parents, Maryam F. moved to rural Ontario in 1997 when she was 8 years old. Over the next decade, Maryam and her siblings were raised to live a more minimal and traditional lifestyle at their home in the rolling hills of the Madawaska Valley, which is a township municipality in Renfrew County. Today, Maryam is 32, and works in the field of aviation security in a large urban centre in Southern Ontario. We sat down to discuss some of Maryam’s childhood experiences in rural Ontario, her perspectives on growing up in a natural environment, and how this has shaped the person she is today.
A conversation between Laila and Maryam:
Laila: When we had our preliminary chat about what you wanted to talk about, you mentioned that you wanted to discuss your early experiences as a child in rural Ontario and how that's impacted you as an adult?
Maryam: Umm, in a positive light I might add, yeah.
Laila: Can you describe where you grew up, what it was like?
Maryam: So, I actually grew up in the country and I grew up with no electricity, no water. You know, just kind of being one with the earth, for real. And I feel like how it impacted me, and how I feel now when I look back at my life and how it was before, is that it really impacted me in a positive light. But when I was younger and growing up the way I did, I couldn't really see it. I couldn't really see the core values and I couldn't really see, basically, the sense of strength and the sense of being able to handle any situation that my parents were giving to me. At the time, I was just kind of like, why am I having to live this type of life? Why am I having to, you know, live without electricity and water when so many people are living with those things? What I didn’t realize though, was that it was the most pure and best way that I could have been raised. You know what I mean?
And I feel like now, with the way the world is, everybody is so stuck on having Internet or having lights or having, again, water – everybody is so stuck in their ways. Like, “Oh, I can’t function if we don’t have Internet…I can’t function if we don’t have these things.” But I feel like with the way that my parents raised me, I'm pretty much prepared for any situation. So there's basically nothing that could happen in today's society that would really scare me because I was raised to be a survivor – in any shape or form I was raised to be a survivor.
Laila: It’s possible that when people read this story, they might say, well how do you survive without water without electricity? I'm assuming you meant that you didn’t have running water in your house, and instead you had to go get it from a well?
Maryam: Mm-hmm, yes. So, first of all, my parents were very open – very open-minded and comforting. And they pushed you, but they were still very understanding parents. So obviously they knew that when they were choosing this life for me and my siblings, there had to be a way to live and be able to function, and so on the piece of land that my parents bought, there was a well. And because I was so young, I didn't really see it the way I see it now. But when I look back at my life, that well is the reason that I am now able to stay in a routine and stay committed to things. Because something as simple as fetching water from the well, that is something you have to do on a daily basis, and it is something that becomes a habit and an action that becomes a part of who you are. It teaches you how to be, first of all, responsible. It teaches you how to keep yourself on a proper schedule and teaches you, again, to survive without running water. Every time we’d go to fetch water from the well, we had to get the jug, fill it up, and then we’d carry it back home. We'd use this water for whatever we needed – drinking, bathing, cleaning, cooking, laundry – whatever you want. We’d use it for everything, you know?
And even for something as simple as not having electricity or lights or heat or anything like that, again, we were taught to go outside and chop down the trees – though obviously my parents or my father was doing that part of it or my brothers were doing that part of it. But still I was taught those skills – how to cut down trees and how to cut wood, how to get kindling and how to build the fire in order to produce heat. And we learned how to take the bark off of a tree and use it as a fan when it's too hot inside your house, how to light a candle safely, and how to use kerosene and put it into a candle with a wick. I was taught so many skills. And at the time I was like, this is so annoying…why do I have to go through this? But when I look back – my parents created a survivor.
Laila: I’m curious if you think that anyone else could move to a similar environment in rural Ontario and develop those skills and knowledge that you mentioned, such as working with kerosene, cutting kindling and making a fire, or going to get the water from the well?
Further, being that your parents are from the Caribbean and taught you these skills, do you think that their own upbringing in the Caribbean helped them to develop these skills that they could then pass onto you?
Maryam: I definitely do think that. I know they were both living in a time where there wasn't much technology or electricity and it wasn't the way it is now, so I definitely think that where they came from and what they learned growing up in the Caribbean had an impact. And my parents also definitely learned things from their parents because, I mean, things are passed on from generation to generation to generation. But I also want to give them credit because as I was growing up and learning about life in rural Ontario, they were also learning and teaching us too. They were increasing their knowledge. It wasn't just like, “we know how to do this and let us show you how to do it.” They learned and perfected these skills and then passed them on to us. Many of the skills I learned are from my parents, and this opportunity to teach us as their children, where we could basically see and observe what they were doing as a part of life in the country, is probably the best way to raise the next generation. And I do want to give my parents credit in the sense that they chose this lifestyle and they learned the skills and tools and did everything they need to do to pass it on to us – to make us survivors. Especially at a time like this and in a world like this, because before technology and before electricity and running water and all these things came along, people were living life OK. People were living life healthy and people were living beautiful, fulfilling lives – more so than they are today. I believe that because the world was much simpler before – people were happier, more productive, and more just genuinely pleased with who they are as individuals.
Laila: OK, so I wanted to go back to it because it’s a theme that's coming up in this discussion a lot, which is to do with some of the hardship and the difficulties that you experienced growing up in rural Ontario, and how, at the time, you didn't realize it would be something you would appreciate later in life. What I’d like to ask is, do you think that that you could have had that same experience in an urban environment say, for example, growing up in Toronto? Do you think you would be able to learn those same lessons?
Maryam: You know, that's a sticky question, but I'm going to say no because there's nothing more pure and just deep and raw then growing up and being one with nature. You cannot beat that. So, at the end of the day, if you're in Toronto and you're in a busy city, you might have those same struggles, but they aren’t taking place in an environment where you can be one with nature. It's not the same as going outside and seeing trees beyond what your eyes can imagine, or seeing forests, or streams, or rivers.
It's not the same growing up in Toronto and I'll give you an example. I am a screening officer at a major airport, and I have to be at work very early in the morning. A couple of days ago I woke up and noticed that the room was very dark, and that the lights were off on both my TV and Wi-Fi router. While I initially thought, “what’s going on here,” I quickly realized there was no electricity. Now, for any person who was raised in Toronto or in an urban environment, the first response in this type of situation is panic. It’s dark: how will they get ready for work? How will they use Wi-Fi? They panic and don’t even realize that there are other options. And I am telling you from experience, even in situations where people’s Internet goes out…they don’t know what to do. The first line of business is panicking and feeling out of control in every way. But for me, when the electricity went out, I remained calm – calm as a baby. I went and lit a candle and I felt at peace because of the skills and the comfort that my parents gave me as a child and the stuff they taught me about how to handle these situations. I knew I could figure it out. And you know what? I actually got to work even earlier than when I have electricity! So, you know, honestly, I just look at it as one of the biggest blessings that my parents could have given me because in the world today, we don't know what's going to happen. Things can change in the blink of an eye.
But when I am talking to friends and to people about how I was raised, they look at me as if I have a horn coming out of the front of my head! I remember speaking with a woman at work once about an electricity blackout that lasted for three days. I remember her saying that she felt crazy and sat on her porch the entire time, but from what I remember on my side, me and my mom and my sister and my friend were having dance parties, you know? So, it's just something I'm grateful for.
Laila: So, since you’ve previously had experiences where you went without what many would consider necessities, now, when the luxuries of modern life are not available, you don't panic because you have the skills to…
Maryam: …do you see the word you used?
Laila: …uh, luxuries?
Maryam: Yes. Running water. Electricity. Wi-Fi. These are all luxuries to me – like the same as if I were to go into a Mercedes dealership right now and drive off the lot with a Mercedes Benz. These things are luxuries to me, they're not something that I need. They are a blessing to me, and something that I don't take for granted. Because they are something that I can identify and see, I feel lucky to have them and this makes me a person who is grateful.
Laila: And you're also not fully dependent on them because you know that they could go at any time and you also know what to do if they are gone.
Laila: Were there any other aspects of growing up in the country that you feel were pivotal to who you are today? For example, you talked about the beauty of being in nature, do you do you think that was also part of the reason why you feel grateful or is something that impacted you?
Maryam: How I look at it is this – the less you have and the less you have to work with, the more capable you are to come up with ideas and ways to survive – and not only to survive, but to live, to function – you know what I mean?
So, I believe that for me, again, what my parents did…I feel was the best-case scenario. And because we were taught to live with so little, everything in my life I'm grateful for. The smallest things like coming home and going in my fridge and grabbing a bottle of water takes me right back to when I used to have to carry a jug of well water to my house to have something to drink. I drink the water from the fridge, and I say, “Thank you, God.”
And that also relates to growing up close to nature and looking out your window and seeing a mother deer and her little Bambi walking by, like, you know what I mean? Rather than looking out and seeing another building across from your window, those things [the beauty of nature] do change you and those things do have an impact on you. At the end of the day, nothing is more beautiful and refreshing than nature.
Laila: Would you say that a huge part of the success of this experience was your close relationship with your family or with the community around you?
Maryam: Yes, I definitely think that plays a factor. Your community is the support and backbone that you have, and it all comes down to the people you're surrounded by, so that's a huge thing. If you don't have the right community and right support around you in any circumstance, then it's going to be a bad experience. In terms of family, when I think back to my childhood, I can actually get emotional thinking about the way my parents raised me and my siblings, especially me and my sister. Because of the lifestyle we chose, and living in rural Ontario, there wasn't always a lot of money. You're living in a place where you really can't produce that much money because it's a small town, so you're just living within the means that you have. You're really living to survive and surviving to live – just like that, back and forth.
So, when I was young my dad used to come home and bring us back these magazines which had pictures of these beautiful porcelain dolls with the most beautiful dresses. Me and my sister used to cut out the pictures with scissors and then take these floppy little paper cut-outs and play our version of dolls with them. And when I tell you – these are some of the most nostalgic, calming, refreshing memories that I have. And I think, again, this all has to do with the way I was raised in a rural area with a simple life rooted in nature. Today I look around and I see kids on their iPads and on their cell phones and that's the most important thing to them, and even back then I used to see kids with the newest dolls and all these amazing toys, but all I wanted to do was go home and grab my little paper doll and play with my sister.
Laila: Is there anything else you want to tell me about life in rural Ontario based on your personal experiences? Any other memories that you’d like to share, that you think helped to shape the person you are today?
Maryam: Some of the skills I learned were how to make newspaper, how to make wax. I learned how to make hide. I was able to learn the circle of life. When you live at one with nature, you're able to really pay attention and see the circle of life. And by observing it, you understand it and can still see the beauty in it – and this is exactly the way it's supposed to go.
Laila: It’s interesting because at the time you didn't see the benefits, but now when you look back, you're saying, you know, it almost brings tears to your eyes. So, I guess my final question is what would you say to others who might be considering a move to rural Ontario? Any advice or any words that you would give to somebody who's thinking about moving to the country or who's reading this interview and considering that option for their own children and for their own families?
Maryam: I would just really tell them that if you are thinking of doing this and you feel like deep down in your heart this is something that you would like for you and your family, go for it, don't second guess it. I think that the best way to have a great childhood is to just be in a rural area, to be on a piece of land, run through the snow, and run through the forest – to throw pebbles at the water and make them skip, and to pick berries from the trees and make jam. It’s the best kind of childhood, because there is nothing better you can give a child than to be close to nature. I don't need anyone to tell me because I have experienced it first-hand. Basically, I think it’s a core foundation that every individual needs, and honestly, I want this story to touch people and I want this story to open people's minds to other possibilities. So, I would tell you – go buy that piece of land. Go buy the piece of land.