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USA/Africa: Transnational Lives in Kentucky

AfricaFocus Bulletin
March 9, 2020 (2020-03-09)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Some arrived as refugees, as part of the refugee resettlement process managed by non-profit agencies for the federal government. Some came to Kentucky from Africa for education, for a job, or to join other family members. And some moved to Kentucky from other locations in the United States, in search of smaller communities or better opportunities. Their experiences were diverse, like immigrants from any other places around the world in any other time in history. In the 21st century, however, new levels of transnational connections have made possible ongoing ties enriching the societies of both their new and their old homes.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin includes excerpts from a new book based on oral histories of almost fifty first-generation African immigrants to Kentucky, as well as links to on-line interviews with many of those cited in the book. Thanks to the co-authors and publisher for permission to repost these excerpts and to co-author (and AfricaFocus subscriber) Angene Wilson in particular for much additional background.

While the book amply illustrates the diversity of paths by which African immigrants reach Kentucky, it is also notable that the state ranked fifth nationally in refugee resettlement. In Kentucky, this is handled by non-profit groups, including the Kentucky Office for Refugees in Louisville, Kentucky Refugees Ministries in Louisville and Lexington, and the International Center of Kentucky in Bowling Green and Owensboro.

Albert Mbanfu (on the right in the photo), the director of the International Center of Kentucky, is from Cameroon, and first came to the United States to study in Atlanta in 2000. He and the center were featured in a 7-minute PBS segment in December 2019. Credit: Screenshot from PBS video.

PBS introduced the segment as follows: “For the year that began in October, President Trump has capped the number of refugees who may enter the U.S. at 18,000 -- the lowest level since 1980. The policy is having a significant effect in what may seem like an unlikely place: Bowling Green, Kentucky, where a disproportionate number of refugees has settled in recent years, forming a crucial component of the local economy.”

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on migration, visit http://www.africafocus.org/migrexp.php

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Voices of African Immigrants in Kentucky: Migration, Identity, and Transnationality

By Francis Musoni, Iddah Otieno, Angene Wilson, and Jack Wilson

University of Kentucky Press, 2020.

https://www.kentuckypress.com/9780813178608/voices-of-african-immigrants-in-kentucky/

Hardcover also available at https://bookshop.org/a/709/9780813178608, kindle version at https://amzn.to/2wrWKre

Preface

It is a human being that counts. I call gold, it does not answer. I call cloth, it does not answer. It is a human being that counts. — Akan/Ghanaian proverb

Voices of African Immigrants in Kentucky: Migration, Identity, and Transnationality is about particular human beings, individuals for whom the continent of Africa was their original home. Based for the most part on almost fifty oral history interviews with first- generation African immigrants in Kentucky, this book tells stories of their African pasts, of migration to the United States, specifically Kentucky, of dealing with struggles and successes, and of becoming individuals who are often simultaneously American citizens, “borderlanders,” and transnationals who connect and contribute to two continents.

One aim is not only to tap the richness of the oral history interviews in the book’s narrative but also to suggest … that the reader listen to the actual voices themselves, easily available online in the African Immigrants in the Bluegrass Oral History Project at the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. …

Voices of African Immigrants in Kentucky is not a book about African immigrants as the strange “others” in Kentucky. We know stereotypes about Africa and Africans have been and remain rampant, even instilled, whether in talking about a continent of “developing countries” or using abhorrent ape references for black people. Instead, this book takes seriously eminent African historian Ali Mazrui’s rhetorical question to African and American educators at a 1994 conference in Nairobi, Kenya, when he asked whether Africa and Africans could be taught about in schools as “subject instead of object, as active rather than passive, as cause rather than effect, as center rather than periphery, as maker of history rather than incidental to history.” In this book African immigrants in Kentucky are active subjects: the cause, the center, and the makers of history. They speak. They have agency. They do the absorbing rather than being absorbed.

Although this is a book based on oral histories, it is not organized as one individual story after another. Rather, we are looking at the complicated process of becoming someone who could be called a transnational person, with illustrative examples from the interviews. We realize that our interviews, plus knowledge of and interaction with many other African immigrants, only scratch the surface of the stories of the almost 22,300 Africa-born individuals in Kentucky, not to mention the more than 2 million in other parts of the United States. …

Twenty-three of the continent’s fifty-five countries are represented by interviewees: Algeria, Burundi, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo (called Zaire from 1971 to 1997 during Mobutu’s rule), Ethiopia, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

All four authors of this book are themselves immigrants to Kentucky—“from away,” as Kentuckians sometimes say of individuals who were not born in the state. Francis Musoni came most recently, in 2011 from Zimbabwe via Atlanta, Georgia, where he studied and lived beginning in 2006. Iddah Otieno arrived in 1996 directly from Kenya for her post-graduate studies at Eastern Kentucky University and the University of Kentucky. Angene and Jack Wilson moved to Kentucky in 1975 for Angene’s job as a professor at the University of Kentucky after growing up in northern Ohio and southern Michigan and later living in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Fiji, and just outside Washington, DC. All four authors are quoted in the book, especially Professors Musoni and Otieno, whose interviews are part of the African Immigrants in the Bluegrass Oral History Project, but also occasionally Angene and Jack Wilson, who are “Africans” only in more than fifty-five years of experience, friendship, and passion. We are all referred to in the third person.

Angene and Jack, who were Peace Corps volunteer teachers in Liberia in the early 1960s, continued the friendships they made there and developed many others with Africans over almost six decades. The two initiated this oral history project in fall 2013 and completed the interviewing and indexing of the interviews in fall 2017. However, when they decided to write a book, they knew that they wanted to do that part of the project with African coauthors. As a specialist in migration, Francis Musoni of the University of Kentucky’s history department was an obvious collaborator. With over twenty years of teaching and parental experience in central Kentucky, Iddah Otieno, English professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, was also an obvious collaborator in writing a book that would also consider African immigrants as families.

...

Connecting and Contributing to Africa

“You succeed but you have to bring others up with you,” explains Iddah Otieno. “We have to help. I have a house in Kenya. Just take me home when I am older because I don’t want to be in a nursing home. I pray for good health so I can go back and forth.” Iddah supports a lot of people, both “nieces and nephews and orphans for school fees and general maintenance.” She enabled her mother to have electricity and other amenities at her home in Okela Village. Iddah is not unusual. Almost all immigrants send money, known formally as remittances, back to their families. As Abigail Unuakhalu, who was the first of her family in Nigeria to come to the US, said, “I am so blessed to be in America because it has opened so many opportunities for me and I have been able to help my extended family back home.” A sister had just visited her in Frankfort before her oral history interview. Some immigrants go beyond their families to build schools or develop small nongovernmental organizations or partner with already existing organizations such as churches that can raise funds and other help for African projects from both immigrant and nonimmigrant Americans.

It is important to point out the immense contribution of remittances by immigrants to African as well as other countries in the world. They can be a critical part of a country’s GDP, as for Liberia in recent years. In 2017 it was the top African remittance-receiving country as a percentage of GDP, at 25.9 percent. Nigeria topped African country recipients in terms of total dollars, with $22.3 billion in 2017.Sometimes help travels the other way, such as in the case of Aka Kpla’s cousin, who sent him $5,000 to pay his hospital bill. And often immigrants are helping parents and relatives who earlier helped them get to America.

Some examples of immigrants who have supported relatives but also started and/or worked through and with various organizations to make a difference in the countries from which they emigrated are Moulaye Indrissa Barry from Senegal, Kiluba Nkulu and Beatrice Mbayo from Democratic Republic of Congo, Kwaku Addo from Ghana, Robert and Tambu Chirwa from Malawi, Iddah Otieno from Kenya, and Jacob Guot from South Sudan.

Moulaye Indrissa Barry said that “once you get here you start slowly but soon you will begin to help people back home.” He helped with school fees for a younger brother and sister. Then when he went back to his village in Senegal for a visit he saw kids on the street and so “today I have a school in Africa with three hundred kids and twelve paid teachers. And I started that from my own money.” When he was interviewed in March 2014 he was also planning to start a computer school and had already shipped twenty desktop computers to Senegal. “So these are things when you are here, you are able to give back to your country.”

Kiluba Nkulu had already sponsored education for children who were not members of his ethnic group when he was teaching in Congo, and they “became part of my family.” With that background, in the United States he decided to be a Good Samaritan and establish a program that would sponsor training of needy people back home. The program is called Micheketi, which means young palm tree in Swahili and is a symbol of independence. The idea is that people are trained so they can get a paying job and become self-reliant, then realize they need to also become a Good Samaritan, helping others in their turn. So far Kiluba has supported two medical doctors who did their training in Lesotho and South Africa.

Beatrice Mbayo struggled with depression and flashbacks after she came to the United States and her therapist suggested that she return to Congo for a visit, which she did after she became a citizen in 2011. “I met a lot of women and saw how blessed I was in America. I was healed when I returned.” Beatrice realized she needed to do something to help women who, like her, had been victims of rape, so she started Rêves de Ma Patrie, or Dreams of My Homeland. She has built a school in Lubumbashi to provide education for children and a place for women to meet. She goes almost every year for conferences with the women and speaks with them regularly by phone. Beatrice talks passionately about the need for people to know what is happening in Congo. “Women are being raped every day. I know how that feels. Stand and do something. We can do something as a global community.”

Kwaku Addo, who was professor in dietetics and human nutrition as well as associate dean of the graduate school for eight years and then interim chair of merchandising and textiles at the University of Kentucky, and his wife Esther developed connections between Kentucky and Ghana through the building of a school called Kentucky Academy in Esther’s home village. Beginning in 2005 Kwaku took students and sometimes faculty on a two-week study tour to Ghana each summer. The study tour includes service learning at the Kentucky Academy, reading stories to children, and helping in the feeding program. One summer they painted a building on the campus, named Kentucky, blue. Other University of Kentucky faculty got involved, including a colleague of Kwaku’s who asked that her wedding guests, in lieu of gifts, contribute to the academy so it could start the feeding program. The Kentucky Extension Homemakers Association adopted the Kentucky Academy as a multiyear international fund-raising project that brought electricity, new furniture, and a dining pavilion to the academy, and the Student Dietetic and Nutrition Association and the Panhellenic community added their help.

As members of Second Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Robert and Tambu Chirwa inspired other members to travel to Malawi on mission trips in 2007 and 2010 and to then convince church members to support various projects. As Robert has described the process: “We go and learn and listen. Then we come back and fund things that have life- changing impact.” Among the results of the 2007 trip were the funding of a dormitory at Livingstonia Theological Seminary as a part of a tithe from Second Presbyterian’s capital campaign and a scholarship for a theological student from the mission budget. In 2007, through the Alternative Christmas gifts, individual Second members gave more than $4,000 to fund two shallow wells, eight secondary school scholarships, seven bicycles for seminary students, five days of drugs for the hospital, twenty-one hospital deliveries for babies, and school supplies for an orphan care center. Alternative gifts in subsequent years bought desks for the primary school in the village where Tambu grew up, and then the mission committee began funding secondary school and nursing scholarships on an annual basis. The 2010 trip resulted in the renovation of the roof of the primary school that Robert attended as a child and support for a young theological student who spent a month in Lexington offering his gift of music. Then in 2016 the construction of a classroom block at Robert’s primary school was funded by part of a tithe from another Second Presbyterian capital campaign.

Through Okela School Charities from 2005 to 2015, Iddah Otieno, along with her colleagues from Bluegrass Community and Technical College, equipped the secondary school science lab, installed a water collection system, bought a generator, donated a laptop, built a classroom for the early child development program, established a feeding program, and sponsored two local students through university education. The ten-year project was funded through fund- raising initiatives and personal donations. Additionally, BCTC has donated over two thousand books in the arts and sciences to Maseno University through the Kenya Exchange Program, which Iddah directs.

When he returned to Zimbabwe for fieldwork for his dissertation in 2009–2010, Francis Musoni helped organize the Muzokomba Old Stu- dents Association for the secondary school near his village in Buhera, Zimbabwe. Since its formation, the association has donated sports equipment and books and computers to the school as well as sponsoring the renovation of classrooms and the drilling of a borehole that provides water for the teachers, students, and community around the school. The association has a Facebook page with more than a thousand subscribers. In 2010 Francis also helped pay national exam fees for ten high school students who had the best results in school-based tests in history. When he lived in Atlanta, Francis helped organize Zimbabwe Atlanta Initiative, whose purpose was to assist community development projects in Zimbabwe, for example, donating clothes and educational supplies to an orphanage in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.

Jacob Guot worked with a number of local ministries when he lived in Houston. He co-founded the Sudanese Community Fellowship Church, and he headed Sudan Aim Foundation, which collected donations from different churches for Sudanese communities.More recently he founded Africa Sunrise Communities as a faith-based, non-profit organization in Wilmore, Kentucky, with the mission of restoring communities, empowering refugees, and reconciling relationships in East Africa. On a 2017 trip to Uganda’s Kiryandongo Refugee Camp, where about fifty-three thousand South Sudanese refugees live, Jacob decided an important need there was support for orphans. He planned to set up a local nongovernmental organization there to establish a group home for ten to twelve children aged four to ten, while trying to raise money in the US.

As Jacob’s experience suggests, there is a huge difference in how connected African immigrants can be with their birth countries because communication with and travel to the African continent are both so much easier in the second decade of the twenty-first century than even twenty years ago, and certainly easier than when African students came in earlier decades. Thus Kwaku Addo went back to Ghana in 1992, ten years after he first came to North America, and then several more times in the 1990s, but beginning in 2004 he was able to return each summer. In 2010 he took the whole family, including his three daughters, to experience the same tour in Ghana he organized for American students and they also spent a week in his village and in his wife’s village. When he was interviewed Kwaku said he read Ghana News every day online and called several times a week to talk with his siblings and his mother. “We have a house in Ghana that is rented and have bought some land near the beach on which to build a retirement home.” Supporting family in various ways is a part of African culture.

Sam Vorkpor adopted the daughter of a sister-in-law who died in childbirth and brought a boy from Liberia to live in Lexington; he is now on his own in Texas. Sam is in touch with sisters and cousins who are in Liberia. He has a home in Monrovia and has taken his American-born sons back to Liberia so they “can relate to Liberians and to appreciate what they have here.” His wife goes to Liberia several times a year to man- age apartments they own in Monrovia. Francis Musoni pays boarding school and college fees for the daughter and son of his brother, who paid most of his secondary school fees. He also sends presents to family members at Christmas. Because of his concerns about being on a “black list in Congo,” Jose Kazadi did not go back to Congo until he was a US citizen, but he returned in 2010 and in 2012 for the funeral of a brother and is in contact by phone, Viber, Skype, email, and Facebook with his mother and sisters and brothers. Efosa Austin Osayamwen talks to his family in Nigeria for an hour once a week. He recognized that if he went home “they will expect gifts of money, shoes, cologne to say I love you, I have you in mind.” Sylvia Uwamaliya Stainback goes to Rwanda every year and has taken her son several times. “There is no distance now with family.” Her father has visited her in the United States.

Refugees and other immigrants who have come recently phone family as often as they can. Venus Niza is in contact with Côte d’Ivoire through Facebook, phone, and WhatsApp. She reads news about the country on the internet and sends money back. Khadar Abdullahi talks frequently to members of his Somali extended family still in the refugee camp in Ethiopia. Ismail Ali, who also came as a refugee from Kenya, has children still in Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya whom he hopes to bring to the US. He keeps in touch with them by cell phone. Hamidou Koivogui talks by cell phone with brothers and sisters back in Guinea. He has gone back with his current American wife and brought one daughter with special needs to the US and is trying to bring a grandson. Francis Musoni communicates regularly with his mother and siblings through phone calls, text messaging, and WhatsApp. They have a family WhatsApp group where they discuss various issues and developments in the family and the country. The group is also a platform to share jokes.

Sometimes the connecting and contributing becomes a two-way street. As well as keeping up with relatives and friends in the United States through regular phone calls, Jemima Roberts talks on the phone with her daughter and her sister in Liberia about once a week. In the 2010s her sister Ellen Natt has several times a year visited the United States and often Lexington because of her membership on a United Methodist Church Commission for Planning Conventions. Ellen worked for the Liberian Ministry of Agriculture for many years before the civil war, was the superintendent of Grand Bassa County from 2000 to 2003 and, like Jemima, has children in both the US and Liberia. Dur- ing her fall 2018 visit she was able to connect with an aquaculture spe- cialist in Kentucky’s Department of Agriculture who was preparing to travel to Grand Bassa County for the first time to work on an aquacul- ture project there.

Immigrants also think both about how they can invest in their home countries and what they may be able to contribute to their countries in the future. Kennedy Boateng is building a house in Accra, Ghana, and trying to invest in a business. Francis Musoni has bought land in Zimbabwe’s capital and two other cities to build houses, and during his several-month visit in summer 2017 built a house on one of those properties to rent out. Although he is a US citizen, Mulbah Zowah has thought about “perhaps one day doing consulting and going back to Liberia to help rebuild the medical system there.” He has now built a house in Liberia and wants to start a clinic. Zineeddine Hamoudi would like to move back to Algeria eventually. “If I go back, one of the things I am planning is to try to convince using English as a second language instead of French because of its importance in technology and research, and communication with the United States for mutual help.” His wife Samah Sadouki talks to her family every day on Skype and also hopes to return to Algeria someday to live. “I love my country,” she said. In 2017 they were in Algeria for nine months caring for an ill family member. They also wanted to be there for the birth of their second daughter.

There are other ways to keep a connection to and make a contribution to one’s birth country and to other countries in Africa. Gashaw Lake has been back to Ethiopia only a few times because of the political situation, but he taught his three adult daughters about their Ethiopian heritage and to speak the Amharic language every Sunday when they were growing up. He looked forward to the future publication of his book of poetry in Amharic. In addition, he was honored with the 1988–1989 Ethiopian Human Rights Award as well as being declared a Grand Officer of the Imperial Order of the Ethiopian Lion for his outstanding work to improve human rights and national unity in Ethiopia. While Nkongolo Kalala has not been back to Congo, he has done professional consulting for the International Fund for Agricultural Development in Cape Verde, Gabon, Morocco, Senegal, and South Africa.

Related to the 2017 hopeful change in government in The Gambia, former ambassador Essa Bokar Sey maintains an active online journal and Facebook page and conducts programs via YouTube and Radio Hello Gambia. In June 2018 Essa went back to The Gambia, appointed by the government as head of public relations in the Office of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Secretariat. A first job was to organize The Gambia’s hosting of a conference of the OIC, which is the second-largest international organization in the world, after the United Nations, with fifty- seven member states. It was formed in 1969.

Desmond Brown, originally from Sierra Leone, has particularly enjoyed his work in Ghana. He volunteered twice with the nongovernmental organization Winrock International to help develop hospitality and tourism curricula at two two-year colleges and in 2002–2003 taught and did research at University of Cape Coast as a Fulbright scholar.

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Appendix: Oral History Interviews (selected)

The following interview segments can be accessed at https://kentuckyoralhistory.org/catalog/xt7tb27prz26

Kwaku Addo, Ghana
https://kentuckyoralhistory.org/catalog/xt7hqb9v4186

Kwaku Addo of Ghana was one of the first, if not the first, assistant professors from an African country when he arrived in 1991 to join the Dietetics and Nutrition Science Department at the University of Kentucky. In his interview he describes his childhood and schooling in Ghana through his first degree in biochemistry at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, then research lab experience in Switzerland and Canada, followed by M.A. and PhD education in the U.S., and 22 years at the University of Kentucky as faculty and administrator. His continued connections to Ghana include eight years taking students and faculty each May to Ghana and raising money for a Kentucky Academy, a kindergarten school that he and his wife Esther run in Esther's home village. In fall 2013 soon after the beginning of this oral history project, he became an administrator at Prairie View A&M University in Texas.

Beatrice Mbayo, Democratic Republic of Congo
https://kentuckyoralhistory.org/catalog/xt70p26q2222

Beatrice Mbayo grew up in Democratic Republic of Congo, one of 17 children, most of whom graduated from secondary school in Lubumbashi, Katanga. She escaped from war in 1996 by walking and by truck into Zambia and Zimbabwe where she and her two children lived in a refugee camp for four years. She describes coming to the U.S. in 2006, including hard times and good experiences. Beginning as a dishwasher in University of Kentucky Food Service, she then was a case worker with Kentucky Refugee Ministries for three and a half years. After completing her nursing assistant certification at University of Kentucky in 2001, she has been on the Kentucky nurse registry. Beatrice has founded her own organization, Dreams of My Homeland, to help people back in Lubumbashi and has made annual trips since 2012. One of her eight stories in a book published by Bluegrass Community and Technical College ESL students provided its title, 'Slowly is the Journey.'

Sylvia Uwamiliya Stainback, Rwanda
https://kentuckyoralhistory.org/catalog/xt7bzk55hm49

Sylvia describes growing up in Uganda as the fourth of eight children in a struggling Rwandan refugee family, striving for an education. With the persistence of her mother and her older brothers' contributions, she got a secondary school education in Uganda and then Rwanda where her parents returned after the 1994 genocide. On scholarship, Sylvia graduated from the University of Rwanda with a degree in social work in 2004. After meeting a visiting American doctoral student, she came to the US in 2005 for English as a Second Language, graduate work, and marriage. She talks about her work as an ESL instructor at the University of Kentucky helping newcomers learn about U.S. culture and how she keeps in touch with family in Rwanda through social media and visits.

Bankole Thompson, Sierra Leone
https://kentuckyoralhistory.org/catalog/xt73ff3m0387

Judge Bankole Thompson speaks about his childhood in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the influence of a market woman grandmother, the opportunity to attend a top secondary school on scholarship, as well as Fourah Bay College and Cambridge University. A judge in Sierra Leone, he first traveled to the U.S. on a study tour at the invitation of the U.S. Ambassador. Then he was offered a position at Kent State University and the University of Akron. After that he moved to Eastern Kentucky University. He was the first African to chair comparative constitutional law at the University of Akron and the first African Dean of Graduate Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. He describes his key role as a member of the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone in the indictment of Charles Taylor while still President of Liberia and also describes the structure and function of the court. He talks about his wife and children, and travel and Sierra Leone. Judge Thompson is presently a member of the West African Commission on Drug Trafficking and Other Transnational Crimes, sponsored by the Kofi Annan Foundation and a Judge of the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Abigail Unuakhalu, Nigeria
https://kentuckyoralhistory.org/ark:/16417/xt73j9608b3f

Abigail Unuakhalu met and married her husband when he visited her birthplace of Lagos, Nigeria. Already a professor at Kentucky State University, he brought her to Frankfort two years later, in 1997. She arrived with an Economics degree and transferred enough credits to complete a degree in Accounting, and then get increasingly more responsible jobs in state government. She and her husband have three children whom they have taken to visit their families in Nigeria twice. Abigail talks about adjusting to small town life after bustling Lagos with the help of Nigerian and American friends, and educating children at school's Global Village Day about Nigeria. She is proud of Nigerians as hard-working immigrants in the United States.

Mulbah Zowah, Liberia
https://kentuckyoralhistory.org/catalog/xt74f47gt84j

Mulbah Zowah of Liberia describes primary school starting in the village, moving to a larger town, and finally driven by war to the capital Monrovia to finish secondary school. He provides a dramatic description of escaping Liberia by ship to Ghana during the war, leaving as a refugee and going back to Liberia several times to work on university education. He tells how he found Berea College on Google, got a scholarship, and traveled 40 days through three countries to get a U.S. visa. He provides details of being welcomed in Berea, early difficulties, and success in the nursing program using his Liberian hospital experience and information from his midwife mother. He graduated from Berea in 2009 and is a nurse in Kentucky.


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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