KuntaI drank the African kool-aid early.

I must have been around ten years old when I saw Roots for the first time, but the effect on me… Kunta left me defenseless against anything that Africa was selling. In him I saw a warrior, a King.  And when he held his newborn daughter Kizzy up to the sky and said, “Behold the only thing greater than yourself,” I saw a father figure that I never had.

Years later, when I read the book in junior high, I’d stay up till the wee hours of the morning devouring those pages, dreaming about the Motherland, sometimes weeping like a baby, sometimes plotting ways to avenge Kunta, to make wrong right. I stopped eating pork, it was the least I could do. This from a girl who grew up in a family dominated by pig’s feet, hog maws, chitlins’ and skins with hot sauce.

It would take an all black college in Ohio before Africans would become real. My God, the first time I saw one in the flesh was surreal! His name was Badu, he was from Senegal and you couldn’t tell me that he wasn’t a Prince. If you saw him dressed in his royal African garb, skin the color of night, eyes as black as coal, walking as if the sky would collapse if it weren’t for him, you would know. He taught me my first real things about Africa. No he wasn’t a Prince (come on, you sure?) and his father didn’t have four wives. I also became friends with his two buddies. My girls and I would hang out with them just because they were so damn respectful! It was a welcome contrast to the guys we were used to seeing shooting dice outside of our dorm room, drinking 40’s, in an area called “The Breezeway.” And calling me “African lover.” imgresI guess I was supposed to be pissed but it only strengthened my determination to be friends with whoever I wanted. It also made me more aware of what I had noticed to be a divide between African-Americans and Africans. Well, that would never do. If they knew what I knew, that Africans were cool as hell, they might actually become friends and even learn something. And who didn’t want to know about Africa? So I organized a ‘buddy day’ where an African student would be paired with an African-American student for a few hours to hang out and get to know each other. It was going to be wonderful! Or so I thought. Buddy day came and brought with it the reality that it wasn’t that deep for either side. It consisted of me and one African girl from Cameroon who spent most of her time trying to cheer me up. “You tried,” she said a few times, and then, “I’d better go, I have homework.”

Years would pass before I would meet an African King. This dude was handsome in an edgy sorta way, a complete free spirit, and an artist to the bone. Plus he knew a few things. On the first night we met he told me the story of Sundjata Keita, the founder of the Mandingo empire, and how the Moors almost took over Europe. That was it. We married a year later. And a few years after that I was on my first trip to Africa!!!

Cote D’Ivoire Fall of 2010
Champagne poppin’, Jay-Z blastin’ till 10am in the morning. I drank so much bubbly I was afraid I would get alcohol poisoning. Africans can party! And I jumped right in. It helped that there was enough family around to take care of our one year old daughter day or night.

In fact, help was everywhere. I didn’t have to cook, clean or bathe my own child if I didn’t want to. The first time I handed my dirty clothes over to someone else to wash (by hand) I objected because, like, how could I expect someone else to do that? But I was assured that it was the girl’s job. The girl being someone who came from the village to work in the city in exchange for a place to stay and a minimum wage. I would come to see many of these workers in different homes, sometimes with families so poor they couldn’t have been making much money. On one hand I felt guilty for participating in a system that didn’t seem fair, but at the same time I was thankful for the break. I was used to busting my ass in America, but in Africa a sistah didn’t have to bust a coconut.

Another surprising thing in Africa was eating some of the best Italian food of my entire life. The restaurant, a place my husband had been going to for years, was nothing fancy, but damn, that seafood pasta rivaled anything I’d eaten in Venice. I would have enjoyed it more had it not been for a phone call my hubby received from a friend with connections to the government, right in the middle of our entreé. The Presidential election was coming up in a week and things were already starting to unravel. Now had my head not been in the African cloud, I would have sensed that something was brewing when I learned the sitting President’s slogan was “On gagne ou On gagne!” translated “We win or we win!” The government was giving all foreigners two days to leave the country. My husband got off the phone and relayed the information to me, trying to sound casual, but saying in the same breath that if he couldn’t get his passport in time (that’s one of the reasons we had come to the Ivory Coast) my daughter and I would have to leave without him. WTF!

imgresMy mind started racing. I started thinking about what he had told me of the war eight years earlier when his father was tortured, leaving him with a serious heart condition, neighbors selling each other out, death squads kidnapping people at night, bodies left in the street to rot in the sun. I thought about the visa guy at the Ivorian Embassy in DC, who looked at me like I was crazy when I told him that I was about to go to the Ivory Coast. “You know, the elections are coming and it’s about to get hot, right?” I smiled and acted like I knew, but the truth was I hadn’t a clue as to what that could mean. I also thought about Rwanda, Liberia and Sierra Leone and almost chucked up my food. I was scared out of my mind and crushed by the realisation that I wasn’t cut out for this. This was NOT the Africa that I had been dreaming about and nurturing since I was a kid. The one that I had been defending with all of my might every time the media tried to poison my thoughts with countless horror stories.

I felt trapped. Between my idea of Africa and the Africa that was staring me in the face, ready to eat me alive…

And just like that I became one of those Westerners who couldn’t wait to get the f*ck out! We stepped up our passport game, carefully crisscrossing Abidjan, going from one government building to the next, paying off everyone and their momma. I learned that in Africa too, when you want something done quickly, or at all, money is the universal language.

It came down to the WIRE, but we were able to get it and get out. However, it was bittersweet because what would happen to the countless friends and family that were left behind to weather this current storm? People with whom I had popped bottles, broken bread, had deep conversations or in the case of my sister-in-law, Sogana, shared many walks with warm smiles because her English was worse than my broken French. What were we leaving them to endure?

And it happened.

imgres-2The elections caused an all-out war when the sitting President wouldn’t concede to the winner. Mercenaries were recruited from Liberia, Angola and Russia. Countless people were left dead, a million fled their homes, women were beaten, stripped, assaulted, raped and fired upon with a tank during a peaceful protest, mass graves were discovered, and my husband’s father died. His heart still weak from the first war gave out. I was grateful to have met him and happy that he was able to meet his granddaughter.

Back in America, in the comfort of my routine, I couldn’t stop thinking about Africa.

How could something so beautiful turn so sinister? It was hard to believe that the place I had experienced was capable of all that.

Was it the nature of war? Were my expectations too high? Was I naive?

And then I realized I was asking the wrong questions?

The real question was, Why couldn’t I get Africa off my mind? 

That’s when I thought about a conversation I had a few years earlier with my friend Amy, a first generation American whose parents are from Haiti. Amy went to Haiti at age 20 and discovered that she never really knew herself until then. Seeing her people in their everyday environment made her understand why she does things the way she does here in America.

It was about a BOND.
A bond that could never be broken.
A bond that’s beyond space and time…

I could never disconnect from Africa.
Even if I wanted to.
It’s visceral.
It’s mystical.
It’s something that is bigger than me.
It’s home.

—-

Republished from Bitches Brew Blog with permission.  To follow Erickka Sy Savané + Bitches Brew please visit www.bitchesbrewblog.com and follow her at twitter.com/bitchesbrewblog

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  • This article is at least a start but there has to be more voices from both sides of the story sharing their parts in its entirety….or else we gonna keep on arguing and tearing each other down.

  • Allie

    I’m a Black American who’s worked in a few countries across East and West Africa, and I feel pretty confident in saying that, as a whole, I love Africa. I love the Continent. But I’m not an African.

    [Side editorial: I apologize to anyone offended, but I reject the idea that saying “I love Africa” is out of line; every place has individual character, but it’s nested within a larger geographical/regional/political zeitgeist that can operate on multiple countries or cultures at once. North Americans are a great example; we are all very different, but still share a greater geopolitical setting and history that are influential on our sense of identity. The mainland US is roughly the size of the North of Africa; with with Canada and Alaska added in, we’re comparable to about Africa from Tunis down to Juba. China is even more massive. However, we’d never debate the existence of a Chinese identity, nor of a North American or United Statesian identity. Shared history and experience can overlay nuance. Likewise, the African (particularly the sub-Saharan African) identity *does* exist and can be spoken about; this is a continent of incredible nuance, but also of a shared recent/ongoing geopolitical history that has given common touchpoints of culture to many peoples.]

    Anyway, on with my love letter to Africa:

    I’ve madly in love with Africa, both individually (certain dark spots excluded), and as a shared continuum of culture that the continent as a whole possesses. I love the aloofness of some tribes and the warmth of others; the reward of learning very difficult languages and the ease with which I can make a pastiche out of others. I love the little village kids who try to get me to play chase with them, and the too-cool-for-school street swagger teens rocking 80’s fades and Ray-Bans in the city. I love the spicy, rich food of the Horn and the down-home, almost-familiar cooking I get around the Eastern Lakes.

    I love these things because I love contrasts, and Africa has more contrast than any other place I’ve been (East Asia running a close second). This contrast can make for incredible beauty (the verdant forests of the interior vs. the scrubby, pale dunes of the Sahel; the unfailing kindness of strangers in places overrun with corruption) or incredible pain (happy times disrupted by outbreaks of violence; sacred cultural practices that turn into pathological abuses). But that’s what I love. That’s Africa. It’s everything, all at once — it’s more of life than you can get in one dose any other way. It’s mansions overlooking slums. It’s driving past Kibera on my way to Karen. It’s tall fences — sometimes with barbed wire, electricity, guard dogs, and armed men — covered over with violets. It’s people caring for sick relatives who will never get better, and taking in children who have no homes. It’s love and hatred and charity and greed, all at once.

    And I love it. I love it for what it is. And maybe I get to do that because I don’t think I ever had romanticized notions of Africa as a mystical land that was better than my own. I think I just always saw it as Another Place, Where My Ancestors Came From Long Ago. I went through a fairly militant phase when I was about 14 or so, but even then it centered strongly on the development of a Black American identity; it made me angry that a people with so much history, so much achievement, so much overcoming didn’t even have a name of our own. Just a pushed-together set of words that said we were neither one thing nor the other. Just a derivative. An afterthought. Something that lives in the leftover spaces. We are not f***ing leftovers. We are not f***ing derivatives.

    Sorry, I guess that still makes me angry. (Also, someone in a comment earlier said “shoot, call me Negro” — I don’t agree, but I understand the sentiment. Why can’t Black Americans just be ourselves? Why do we *have* to attach to one place or the other? When our ancestors were dragged here and had their language, their tribe, their identity, their religions — everything! — stolen from them, they started fresh. They built something new, and that new thing is us and we are good and we are beloved and we should be damned proud of what we’ve become, even if there’s more work to do and a long way to go. That new thing should have a name.)

    But getting back to Africa…It’s a difficult place to love, but I love it, and that difficulty is not unique. I grew up in a city here in America that is also a difficult place to love, but for whom/for whose residents I have an equal amount of passion and affection.

    That said, my dirty little city in America is home for me, in a way that no place in Kenya or Chad or Ghana or Liberia or Tanzania or Namibia or Uganda or Egypt will ever be. It’s where I was born, in the same hospital as my father before me. It’s where my grandmother sat in her boarding-house room and wrote love letters to my grandfather, stationed away at war. It’s where my mother played in busted fire hydrants and shoplifted food for her 12 siblings from the corner store. It’s where my great-grandfather finally took a rest when he made the long, dangerous trek North for better jobs and better opportunities in the Great Migration. It’s just up the road from where my great-aunt bought her home in the early 1940s after saving her money diligently for years. It’s where I fell in love for the first time, where I still know all the good sandwich shops and the fastest way to get from my best friend’s house to my own. This city is my home; this country is my home, and when I celebrate that, I believe that I am celebrating the incredible, rich history of my Black American ancestors who were born here to unenviable lives, persecuted/pinched/lynched, and *still* managed to create, from scratch, an unparalleled empire of love and human survival.

    So, I love both these places, and I consider them both a part of me (and the longer I spend overseas, the more the African part grows). However, I love them very differently and very distinctly. Black American is my identity (my “tribe” as I have had to explain it sometimes). That identity is connected to Africa, certainly, both historically and now, because of my career and how I live my life. But I am not African. I cannot become African, no matter how long I spend in N’djamena or Nairobi or Windhoek, or how many people I meet or how many books I read. And it makes me sad, I suppose, to see Black Americans sometimes reject the incredible beauty of the Black American experience in a chase for something “better” abroad.

    I guess what I’m saying is: to love Africa is great; to love ourselves is even better.