Chapter One: Middle Passages
They face each other, the Negro and the African, over a gulf of three hundred yearsan alienation too vast to be conquered in an evening's goodwill, too heavy and too double-edged even to be trapped in speech.
The ancient woman crawled through the doorway on her hands and knees, moving with the slow and painful determination of a tortoise. She made her way across the porch and around the side of the house to the outhouse, concrete blocks and flimsy sheets of corrugated zinc that shielded the family's simple toilet from view. None of the adults sitting around the courtyard chatting offered to help her; no one really seemed to even see her.
My father, sitting next to me, sighed and stared at the floor. The little kids playing in the dust a few feet away continued with their game, chattering softly to each other and occasionally laughing or shouting. The chickens in the yard scratched at the dirt, pecking at insects, pebbles, and bits of bright plastic. Some young women with colorfully patterned cloths tied around their waists sat together talking in the sunshine that filtered through the leaves of the large tree in front of the house; one of them was braiding the hair of a restless young girl seated in front of her. And my father, my great-uncle, my cousin, and I sat in the porch's wooden white chairs, saying nothing.
We had already exchanged our greetings, and my father and I, who were visiting various relatives in Kinshasa, Zaire, on this Christmas vacation in 1994, had already shaken hands with most of the cousins, aunts, uncles, and in-laws who lived in this particular house, and had already received the drinks a cousin had been dispatched to bring for us. My deeply evangelical uncle had made a sound of disapproval in his throat when I chose beer from the beverages my aunt offered. So now we just sat, nursing our drinks, and seemed to wait. My father was silent. And I, born and partially raised in the United States, and equipped with only halting French and no Kikongo or Lingala to speak of, smiled at my cousin seated across from me, and said nothing.
I had been quiet for much of the four days we had so far spent in Kinshasa, having difficulty making myself understood, and getting slightly lost in the parade of relatives we visited in homes all over the huge city; sometimes I wasn't really sure who lived in what house, whom we had come to see, or how they were related to me, facts that my father, in his typically absentminded manner, often forgot to supply me with. Most of the relatives I met on that trip had me at a disadvantage when they happily embraced me; they always knew exactly who I was, calling me by name, and had been eagerly expecting me, while I would feel awkwardly ashamed that I didn't know their names or who they were in relation to me unless they or my father told me. It was all quite overwhelming, but also very moving, being greeted so warmly by my family, these strangers.
The old woman emerged from the outhouse and made her slow, deliberate journey back to the porch, once again on all fours, once again unassisted by anyone present. She got to the porch and stopped, sitting down on the concrete floor and leaning against the house, catching her breath. She was painfully small and thin, her face etched with deep wrinkles, her small shorn head covered by a head scarf, a once-colorful pagne tied around her waist, and a faded blouse hanging loosely on her wilted frame. She gazed over at us, seemingly expectant.
I looked at my father.
He looked back at me, seeming in that moment to return from very far away. His voice attempted nervous cheer. "That's your grandmother," he said softly.
Though his words only confirmed what I had already suspected, I was struck with disbelief. I had seen old black-and-white pictures of my father's mother: she was a tall, stern-faced woman, strong-looking, with an unsmiling dignity that reminded me of the poker-faced Native American chiefs who stared unflinchingly from nineteenth-century portraits in the American history books I had studied in grade school. I had heard of my grandmother's failing health, but I had trouble accepting that the woman whom I had known only as a proud and impressive figure in a photograph, a woman who had raised my father and his eight brothers and sisters, had been so severely betrayed by time, losing her strength, her vitality, and even the use of her legs. I wondered at how difficult it must be for my father to see her like this. And I felt guilty; I was twenty-four years old, but this was my first time ever meeting her, ever speaking to her. I felt as if I were hopelessly lateif only I could have seen her in her prime, heard her tell the stories and sing the songs that our father had repeated for us when my brothers and I were younger, and watched her effortlessly hoist a basket of cassava onto her head or a plump child onto her back. If only I could have experienced her during her life, had been able to know and learn from her. But all my life we had been separated by distance and circumstance, bound by blood but living worlds apart.
My father got up from his chair and walked over to his mother. He extended his hand, taking her spindly palm in his, and bowed, she gazing at him happily and fondly, his eyes filled with the greatest love and respect. I followed suit, and he introduced me in Kikongo. "This is Philippe Kiatuntu," he said, using the Kikongo name by which I was known only to my relatives in Zaire.
She stared at me with deep, dark eyes that were bright and amused. She spoke, in a soft, high, and warm voice that wheezed slightly with age, and my father translated: "She says finally you've come to see her." I felt tears prickling the corners of my eyes as I smiled down at her, my heart full, frustrated by my inability to communicate.
After the initial greetings, my grandmother made her way slowly into the house, and after a while we followed her to the little room where she lived with my father's older sister, who had been helping to take care of her since my grandfather died and my grandmother moved to Kinshasa from the village where my father grew up. When we entered the room she was perched next to my aunt on the bed, which occupied more than half of the small space; she looked dignified and regal, and indeed I felt like a humble subject in the hushed presence of royalty as I crouched on a stool at the foot of the bed. She stared at me again, smiling slightly. She gestured at her chin, jokingly referring to my goatee, and said something to my father.
He laughed. "She says your father doesn't even have a beard, but you have one." I presented her with the bolt of African fabric and the scarf that I had bought for her in Boston before we left. She clapped her hands in gratitude, immediately yanking her own head scarf off her head, revealing a crown of close-cropped white hair. She asked my aunt to help her put the new scarf on, and when it was in place, she spoke.
"Praise God that you have come," my father translated. "I'm so happy right now, if I weren't so old I would be dancing." My grandmother clapped and wriggled in a little seated jig to illustrate her point. I said that I was also very happy to meet her finally, after having heard so much about her from my father. She continued speaking, and my father said that she was complaining, as she apparently often did, that whenever he made one of his infrequent trips home to Zaire she always asked for us, her grandchildren in foreign lands, but that my father always said that we were unable to come. Now, at last, I, at least, had made it.
"Now you have seen your grandmother, and when you go home you will tell the others about me," my father interpreted. "I am happy now because I have children, and they are here." She gestured to my father. "And they also have children, and they are also here, so I am very happy." She addressed me earnestly. "You must also find a good wife and have many children, too, so that our"my father's translation faltered for a moment, as he groped for the right word"so that our species will spread."
I felt a sudden unmistakable rush of love for this small, wizened old woman, a love that eclipsed the regret I felt at not being able to speak her language and the guilt I felt about having taken so long to meet her. None of that seemed to matter. When I was little, my mother had told me that if you handle a baby bird that has fallen out of its nest, its mother will reject it as a strange-smelling impostor because she no longer recognizes it as part of herself. When I visited my grandmother, I know I looked, smelled, and acted like an alien, mute in my inability to speak her language. But she recognized me. She embraced me as her own; and with all that separated uslanguage, culture, nationality, generations, gender, and our very worlds of experiencewe were still inextricably bound and could still reach each other across the divide. Though she, like most of my relatives in Zaire, saw me as a foreigner, I felt that I could never be foreign to her. And I realized that I wasn't too late. Maybe I was just in time.
Our "species," as my grandmother put it, has already spread, and spread far. Of my grandmother's eight surviving children, four are scattered throughout the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one lives in Congo-Brazzaville, the DRC's neighbor to the northwest, two are raising families in the United States, and one, my father, teaches history at a university in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where my immediate family settled after living in the United States for nine years.
My father was born in Sundi-Lutete, a Swedish mission in the westernmost province of the Belgian Congo, in 1942. The area had once been part of the Kongo kingdom, which flourished in the fifteenth century, and my father is descended from Bakongo lineages that can be traced back for hundreds of years. He was named after his father, so his own given name and his family surname (his father's name) were the same; his father was called Wamba, so he was Wamba dia ("of," as in "son of") Wamba. My father's father had not actually received the name Wamba at birth; instead, he had acquired it as a young man. It means both "creativity" and "troublesome," and in the days of the Kongo kingdom it was associated with the king's counselors at the royal courtthose who dared to tell the truth to the Kongo monarch. Appropriately, both my father and his father had reputations for being creative and troublesome as youths. In one story my father told me to illustrate his father's youthful mischievous streak, my grandfather and some student colleagues, who had been forced to carry a white missionary on a palanquin, cleverly resisted the task. After conferring with his peers in Kikongo while the oblivious white man lounged in his seat on their shoulders, my grandfather and his friends pretended to stumble near a stream, "accidentally" plunging the missionary into the cold water; the European never ordered his teenage charges to carry him again. Though incidents like this probably helped to earn my grandfather the title that became my family name, however fitting the regal appellation was, my grandfather's actual ancestral pedigree was quite humble. His great-grandmother had been a slave, forced to leave her own village of Yanga to live in a neighboring community called Nsundi as payment for a debt (one pig). Indigenous African slavery was very different from the notorious New World version, and though technically "slaves," my grandfather's great-grandmother and her descendants were able to assimilate into their new community essentially as social equals. In fact, by marrying into the village chief's family, my grandfather's clan eventually came to comprise Nsundi's leadership. Nonetheless, when my father was a very young boy, my grandfather and other relatives decided to return to the area of Yanga, their great-grandmother's ancestral home, and left Nsundi to found the village of Zabanga (named after a nearby creek) where my father grew up. My father claims that if I walked through southwestern Congo into Angola, a distance of several hundred miles, repeating my family's tribe, clan, and village to people I met along the way, I would find dozens of distant relatives eager to provide me with food and shelter. And my father's brother in Boston has boasted to me (with characteristic exaggeration) that our family's ancestral lands in the Congo are "as big as Massachusetts." Forget forty acres and a mule; my father's people proudly lay claim to a statesized chunk of rural Africa.
On my mother's side I am descended from a large African American family with roots in Georgia and Mississippi. Family lore has it that one of my mother's earliest documented ancestors, a woman named Betsy, a slave in Georgia, ran away on the eve of the Civil War after her mistress beat her because a loaf of cornbread she had baked had cracked slightly on top. She successfully escaped with her infant son, Greene, and was sheltered by friendly Indians as she attempted to retrace her mother's steps back to Africa. When this proved impossible (her navigational cues consisted solely of her mother's belief that she had disembarked from the slave ship in Savannah, Georgia), Betsy settled near Sparta and raised the beginnings of my maternal grandmother's side of my mother's family. Subsequent generations of my mother's ancestors spread from Georgia to Ohio, Illinois, California, and Michigan, where my mother grew up.
My parents, born and raised on either side of an ocean, were coincidentally united in 1965, when they met as students at the state university in Kalamazoo. My father came to the States from the Democratic Republic of the Congo on an international student scholarship, and first saw my mother, a French major, at a campus French Club meeting. She was impressed with his seriousness and cerebral demeanor; he appreciated her intelligence and curiosity about Africa. Like many of her peers, my mother had overcome the fear and disdain with which many older black Americans regarded Africa; she saw the continent as a motherland she had never known, and eagerly educated herself about my father's country and culture. Though my father was often at a loss for what to make of the African Americans he met at college, whom he often considered frivolous and unfocused, he felt that he had enough in common with my mother to build a sound foundation for the future. My parents were married in 1966, in an inelaborate Western ceremony attended by my mother's family and assorted friends. The couple stayed on in Kalamazoo, and soon had their first child, a boy they named Remy. Even though my mother's family had accepted my father, one of her aunts still phoned my maternal grandmother anxiously after the baby's birth. "Is he too dark?" she wanted to know.
The young family anxiously faced a changing world. Africa was rapidly decolonizingmy father's Congo had become independent in 1960and American blacks were pursuing their rights with renewed vigor in a continuing struggle that was drastically transforming the American political and social landscape. "Black power," "black unity," and "black is beautiful" were for many blacks around the world the Afrocentric catchphrases of the day.
My parents were caught up in these heady political currents and decided to move to Congo in 1968. It was an era of political idealism and anticolonialist fervor in the United States and across Africa: black intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois had denounced American racism and moved to Africa, and there was a small exodus of young blacks visiting Africa to recapture their roots. My father, who had secured a job as an adviser to the Congolese minister of social affairs, happily envisioned the part he would play in his country's bright future, while my mother eagerly anticipated her "return" to Africa, looking forward to a glorious "homecoming" to an idyllic continent that occupied a romantic and mythical space in her mind.
For her, the reality was in many ways a shock. Kinshasa, the sprawling capital city, was vibrant and noisy but hardly idyllic. And my father's relatives seemed friendly and welcoming but highly judgmental; on one occasion, an uncle objected rather strenuously to being served a saladthe fact that she hadn't cooked the vegetables before placing them on the table seemed, in his eyes, to disqualify her as a successful bride. My mother felt she was being graded and evaluated every time she cooked or spoke to her new in-laws, as though her acceptance were subject to a rigorous examination process in which her performance of different tasks was observed, noted, and debated.
And there were so many relatives to remember. In most African extended families, distant cousins are all referred to as brothers or sisters, and my mother was rarely sure of the nature of her husband's relationship to the various people who constantly streamed through the house. One day while she was at the market, an unfamiliar young man greeted her joyously, introducing himself as her husband's "brother," a somewhat mystifying claim: my mother believed she had already met all of my father's siblings. He had accompanied her home and enjoyed a meal before my mother found out just exactly who he was in relation to her husband.
She could usually communicate in French, but for that first year, when the discourse shifted to Lingala, Kinshasa's other lingua franca, as it often did, she was completely lost. And to her, Lingala sounded like a language spoken with almost warlike aggression: greetings were often shouted, and to her untrained ear, exclamations of joy or celebration often sounded like expletives.
More ominously, she was shocked by the repressiveness of the government under which she now lived. She had always felt that the black power and African anticolonial movements had been geared toward gaining power for blacks so that they could better champion their own destinies, but even with Africans in charge in the Congo, it seemed that power was still in the wrong hands, used against the weak instead of for them. Squalid shantytowns comprised large areas of Kinshasa, while government ministers were chauffeured along the smooth tarmac of downtown Kinshasa's store-lined Boulevard du 30 Juin in sleek black Mercedes-Benzes, the blue state flag flapping mockingly from the cars' hoods. Rival political parties were illegal, as were antigovernment demonstrations, and my mother often heard hushed descriptions of the government's more odious repression techniques, which included torture and detention without charge or trial.
But even as she was angered and saddened by some of what was happening around her, she was impressed with the resilience of Congolese, who somehow continued with their lives under such harsh conditions. She marveled at the market women, who brought loads of produce from the rural areas to sell in the marketplace every day, balancing massive bundles on their heads while simultaneously carrying infants strapped to their backs. She admired the enterprising spirit of the pushcart men who made their livings by heaving commissioned loads through the busy city streets in their handmade carts. And she was impressed with a people who always seemed ready to laugh and dance even in times of great adversity.
Though my mother was bewildered by many aspects of her new home, she grew quite attached to it, and began to forge friendships with some of her in-laws, with neighbors, and among other African Americans transplanted in Kinshasa. Remy, who was then two, also grew to love his new home, learning to speak French and Lingala and playing with neighborhood children in the house compound. Still my mother was relieved to leave Congo in 1971, when my father won a scholarship to pursue graduate study at a university outside Los Angeles. He had been as disgusted by the Congolese state's misuse of power as my mother was, and he quickly decided that his contribution to the nation's development, ironically enough, might be best made from elsewhere; he eagerly seized the opportunity to continue his education in the United States.
I was born in 1971 in Pomona, California, where my parents lived briefly while my father finished his master's degree. I was born both African and African American, but it took years for me to understand what that duality could mean, how it would make me struggle to span four hundred years of history, thousands of miles, and worlds of experience. My blackness has been the bridge that has linked my two identities, the commonality that my split selves share. But it often seems a tenuous link. And not just for me. I have traveled the world, with my race as my constant companion and curse, and everywhere I have seen black people bewildered by a strange tension between feeling powerfully bound by what they share and hopelessly repelled by what they do not. It's a strange contradiction, like feeling an instinctive kinship with a long-lost twin only to find that you have nothing in common, and perhaps even hate each other. What happens then? Do you just walk away?
My life has been, then, an experiment in an ideal, the testing of a pan-African hypothesis. And through my experiences as both an African and African American, I have found myself uniquely situated to observe and interpret the various dimensions and complexities of the tangled thicket that is African-African American relations.
As a student of history in high school in Africa and in college in the United States, I learned with interest of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association of the 1920s, whose central tenet spoke of the inevitability and desirability of African Americans' "return" to Africa. I read of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I's invitation to diaspora blacks to move to Africa to participate in the continent's development. I read about W.E.B. Du Bois's emigration to Ghana, where he died in 1963, and about Malcolm X's important and enlightening trips to Africa in the 1960s. These and many other examples all spoke to me of healthy spiritual and political ties between African Americans and Africans, a notion that seemed supported by my own experiences growing up in a household where Africans and African Americans crossed paths frequently and enthusiastically.
But while my reading told one story about pan-African unity, my experience often provided other, more complex lessons. When my family moved to Tanzania from Boston when I was eight, I was forced to revise many fantasies that I had held about Africa and my place in it as an African American. And similarly, my return to the United States for college in 1989 prompted me to revise many of the myths I had held about African America and my place in it as an African. I came to realize, as my mother had, that African Americans are not always embraced as long-lost kin when they visit or emigrate to the "motherland." I also came to realize that many African Americans do not look on their African heritage with pride or even a sense of identification; and, as I learned personally and often painfully, many African Americans and Africans not only fail to identify with each other, but look on one another with scorn, resentment, or even hostility.
And even more fascinating to me than the ways in which Africans and African Americans clashed were the ways in which they thought about one another, the ideas that each group had created and assembled about the other. That ignorance and myths were prevalent on both sides was often disturbingly obvious. But I was intrigued by the fact that such established traditions of conceptualizing one another existed and by the functions such traditions seemed to serve. It seemed to me that Africans and African Americans were psychologically captivated by each other, and I came to regard the resulting misrepresentations as expressions of this preoccupation, which manifested itself in my own life in different ways.
I noticed that both Africans and African Americans have a tendency to borrow and celebrate cultural practices and icons from each other, often glorifying ideals that are more rooted in popular mythology than in reality. When I was growing up in Tanzania, African American youth culture had an extremely strong influence on my friends and me; Adidas sneakers, Michael Jackson, and Carl Lewisstyle flat-top haircuts were all among the African American icons that we eagerly imitated when we saw them in the African American magazines, television shows, and music videos that found their way to Dar es Salaam. We absorbed and reinterpreted African American songs, fashions, and fads, and often put our own Tanzanian spin on them, singing Michael's songs with Kiswahili lyrics of local improvisation, and adding traditional African steps to African American breakdance routines.
I learned that a similar process takes place among African Americans. When my family would visit the United States from Tanzania my cousin Chris in L.A. used to ask us to bring him East African bracelets of copper and elephant hair, and "dashikis," the term that many African Americans use for the colorful, loose African shirts that in Tanzania mainly appealed to tourists. These items, and other "Afrocentric" gear, were popular among black American youth in the late eighties, at the height of hip-hop's flirtation with Afrocentrism. Some young American blacks also adopted African names (my cousin claimed he had a friend, Michael James, who "Africanized" his name by reversing it, to become "Leahcim Semaj") to go with their African accessories. And I can remember reading an interview with Big Daddy Kane, a rapper who was popular in the late eighties, in which he claimed that his towering high-top fade haircut (which most Tanzanian youth who imitated the style had assumed was an African American invention) came from ancient West Africa.
I began to realize that images, icons, and styles were recycled between Africa and the diaspora with little understanding of their original contexts. On one of my family's trips to the United States from Tanzania, the items most requested by my friends at home were leather medallions with maps of Africa on them. I reflected on how ironic it was that the medallions were worn by trendy African American hip-hop fans in a desire to celebrate their African heritage, and would be worn by my African friends back home in an attempt to emulate African Americans celebrating Africa. And I realized that despite this strange and perhaps distorted adulation of each other's cultural icons, Africans and African Americans celebrated mythical understandings of each other, and perhaps sometimes preferred the myths to the reality.
Africans and African Americans are bound in a multilayered and complex marriage, one often stormily complicated by misperceptions and misunderstandings that have sometimes caused a chilly distance to grow between the two sides. It is a simultaneous closeness and distance that has confounded and fascinated me throughout my life.
As a kid growing up in the Boston area, where my family moved when we left Pomona in 1972, I was often the rapt listener as my father told stories, tales of his youth in Congo and legends and myths he had heard from his mother around the communal fire of his village. He spoke of a clever antelope that constantly outwitted a stupid and clumsy leopard, of a man who used his ability to fly to avoid paying taxes, of a wizened witch doctor who could open doors into the realms of the spirits, and of a drunken uncle who never missed the Communion wine at the village church.
For my brothers and me, all born in the United States and better acquainted with the television culture of our American mother than with the mysterious world of Africa into which our father opened a peephole each night, the stories blurred the lines between fact and fiction and swelled with possibility.
We never really thought it remarkable that our father was from Congo and that our mother's family lived in Cleveland. The fact that the most important condiment in our fridge was not ketchup but pilipili, the ferocious, finely ground, scorchingly hot red peppers that most Congolese refuse to eat without, and the fact that my parents spoke French to each other, were to us more points of interest than peculiarities that caused any sort of identity crisis, though we knew that they somehow made us different from the Johnsons, the only other black family on our street. We were too young and knew too little about Africa to identify as Africans in any meaningful way, and virtually everything we knew about Africa we learned from our father. Through the tales he told, the village where he grew up acquired a mythical and almost magical distance from the Boston suburb where we lived, and I longed to visit this strange place, Africa, which my father still referred to as home.
My parents planned to move back to Africa in the near future, but before they had a chance to explore the possibility, my family was afflicted by a terrible tragedy. In 1978 Remy, who was then twelve, was diagnosed with leukemia, and as his illness advanced he was admitted to the children's cancer ward at a Boston hospital. My mother spent nights at the hospital with my brother, and her face began to reveal her stress. On visits to the hospital, I would spend time with my brother and then look in on my listless mother, who was sleeping in an adjacent hospital room, reduced to an invalid in her own right, emotionally devastated by my brother's illness even as she tried to care for him from day to day. Remy died in 1979, after a year in and out of hospitals.
The months following my brother's death were a difficult and painful period of slow recovery; we all reeled under the cruel blow. Remy had been my best friend, and I grappled with rage and profound loneliness when he was gone. My parents drew into themselves for a time, and seemed hard pressed to comfort each other, much less my brothers and me. Even though my younger brothers were a little too young to understand what was going on, they sensed the loss and sadness that enshrouded our home.
In the end it was Africa that intervened to restore my family's hope. My father was offered a job teaching history at the national university in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He knew it was time to go home, and decided to seize the opportunity. At first my mother was hesitant to leave Boston, because she felt that leaving for Africa so soon after the death of her firstborn, who was buried in Waltham, Massachusetts, would distance her from his memory. But in a series of emotional discussions, my father convinced her that Remy's memory would transcend geography and that he would continue to live inside all of us; my mother agreed, and in 1980 my family moved to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Tanzania was a new playground, brimming with potential discoveries and fresh possibilities, and the move seemed good for everyone's morale. My brothers and I roamed the white sand beaches and swam in the Indian Ocean; we played tag in cashew nut trees and learned Kiswahili from our playmates. It was a glorious time of new experiences and exploration.
At eight I was really too young to suffer consciously from some of the disillusionment with which many African Americans experience their first trip to Africa (as my mother had when she first visited Congo in 1968). And I was too young to grapple in a serious way with issues of identity; when my playmates wanted to know where I was from and to what tribe I belonged, they (and I) were usually satisfied when I said that I had been born in America and that my father was a Mukongo from Zaire (as Congo had been renamed in 1971) and my mother an American. But I can remember a few incidents that forced me to consider the implications of my American background.
On one occasion, soon after we had moved to Dar es Salaam, my mother, my brothers, and I took a shortcut to the store through a neighborhood just outside the university campus, where my family lived in faculty housing. As we walked through the complex of dingy state-owned bungalows, barefoot children playing in the dust saw our American sneakers and jeans and the other subtle signifiers of our Americanness, and pursued us, playfully chanting "Wazungu, wazungu!" I spoke enough Kiswahili at that point to know that "wazungu" referred to non-Africans in general, and to white people in particular. The taunts wounded me. Why did they see us as outsiders when we were blacks returned from America to our rightful homeland? I wondered. After that experience, I took pains to blend in, donning shorts, thong sandals, and T-shirts like most Tanzanian boys my age; after I adjusted my wardrobe in this manner, and after I learned enough Kiswahili to sound like a native, I was rarely "exposed" as a foreigner again.
But I still struggled with the duality of my identity; I was unable to fully transform myself into a complete Tanzanian. In my third-grade class, which was conducted primarily in Kiswahili, the teacher once used the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" as part of an English lesson; when the class laughed at the unfamiliar sounds and joked around jovially, mangling the lyrics and deliberately distorting the melody, I felt personally offended. Didn't they know that this was a song that had been sung by African American slaves and as such should be approached reverentially? I seethed with silent indignation.
A similar chord was struck by my first trip to Zanzibar, a small and beautiful island off Tanzania's coast, where slaves from the mainland had been held in caves before being exported to the Middle East and Europe during the days of the East African slave trade. My brothers, my mother, an African American friend of hers, and I made a weekend trip to the island to see its sites of interest. As we inspected the dank, dark slave caverns, one of many stops on our guided tour, I was moved almost to tears. Maybe my mother's ancestors had been held in this very cave before being taken to America, I pondered sadly. And I wondered if the fact that my family had now returned to our estranged homeland mattered to anyone but us. Our guide seemed bored, leading us, a group of tourists, to yet another of his island's many attractions, a cave he must have seen thousands of times. I saw the site as a tragic torture chamber where my own relatives might have suffered hundreds of years ago; I wondered what our guide, or any other Tanzanian, saw. Did they see a blood-drenched pit where their abducted kin had been held against their will, or an ancient ruin where distant and vaguely recalled historical dramas had unfolded long ago, a dullish tourist attraction like the tomb of some nineteenth-century white missionary? And did they see my family as the descendants of their enslaved ancestors, or as just another group of tourists, exploitable sources of income? Or, even more sinisterly, were they themselves descended from an African family that had participated in and benefited from the slave trade? Did they therefore see the caves as a perhaps unpleasant, but nonetheless profitable, monument to an important economic engine of history?
The sense of alienation these experiences created was fleeting, however, and within two years of moving to Tanzania I felt at home, learning fluent Kiswahili, playing barefoot soccer with my new friends, and becoming more distanced from my American identity.
My mother also ultimately found this second "return" to Africa a positive experience. She was enchanted by the beautiful East African scenerythe tropical beaches and the palm tree-studded landscapes. She found work as a French teacher at the local international school, which catered to the children of foreign diplomats and foreign-aid agency employees. She began to enjoy the relaxed routine and the slow pace of life in the humid coastal city, making weekly trips to the beach and frequenting local open-air markets. She even learned how to laugh at the frustratingly common shortages of essential commodities like bread and sugar, and managed not to be too exasperated by the frequent electrical blackouts and water shortages.
She learned about Tanzanian culture in a Kiswahili course at the University of Dar es Salaam and through her interactions with Tanzanians she met at work, at the market, and in our neighborhood near the university campus. And she also made friends in the small community of black Americans and West Indians who lived in Dar es Salaam. Many had come to Tanzania in the 1970s, inspired by the then popular black consciousness and pan-Africanist movements, and though the reality of life in Africa didn't usually square with the romantic expectations of black American newcomers, some had settled in Dar es Salaam as teachers and businesspeople, and regarded Tanzania as a newfound home.
My "uncle" Jan was a motorcycle-riding management professor from Milwaukee who sported a magnificent Afro and had dreams of establishing a dynasty in Tanzania; he gave his children African names, filled his house with African carvings in ebony and with other local art, and began construction on a grandiose mansion near the beach. He was reluctant to accept some elements of his adopted culture, however: he was too proud to feel comfortable using the Kiswahili greeting shikamoo, a salutation reserved for respected elders, which literally means "I hold your feet."
Edie, a management consultant from Washington, D.C., who had first come to Tanzania in the 1960s, became known as Aunt Edie in my house and in many other black expatriate households in Dar es Salaam. She taught at a management training school in Morogoro, a beautiful mountainous region in eastern Tanzania, and was building a large house there for herself and her children, nieces, and nephews back in the United States. She spoke grammatically flawless Kiswahili but was never able to shake her distinctive Washingtonian accent.
Jan, Edie, and others would gather with my mother to play bid whist, a card game popular among many black Americans, and to exchange experiences as black Americans who had "returned" to a sometimes baffling motherland. The group often spoke disdainfully of blacks who arrived in Africa and were so stunned by the reality that greeted them that they returned to the United States in frustration.
Once, for example, a group of professors from black colleges in the United States came to Dar es Salaam as part of an African tour; many of them had their hair in dreadlocks, wore colorful African patterns, and spoke the impassioned rhetoric of pan-Africanism. But throughout their trip some of them complained about the food, they complained about the heat, they complained about their accommodations, and they seemed to wonder why no one was more helpful. They returned to the United States in bewildered indignation.
My mother and her friends took a dim view of such people and regarded them as naive; my mother, Jan, Edie, and the others seemed to feel that by staying in Dar es Salaam and enduring the relative inconvenience of life there, reconciling their expectations of Africa with the reality, they had earned the right to look down on those who couldn't. But it was a similar idealism that had brought many of them to the continent, and some still harbored a mythical and romantic understanding of Africa.
In 1981 my family was forced to confront a crisis that devastated us all, and, for me, in some ways demystified the often rosy conception of Africa that had dominated my childhood. For our Christmas vacation that year, my parents planned a visit to Zaire. It was to be the first time that my younger brothers, Kolo and James, and I set foot in the country of our father's birth, the first time we met his family. My father, whose vacation began earlier than ours (after a year in state schools, my brothers and I had begun to attend the international school where my mother taught French), went on ahead, resolving to meet us at the airport in Kinshasa.
He never made it. Instead, my mother, my brothers and I were met by members of the Zairean secret police, and a representative from the U.S. Embassy, who greeted us with the news of my father's arrest for the possession of "subversive documents," essays he had written that were critical of the Zairean regime. He was imprisoned for five weeks without formal charge or trial, in a notorious Zairean jail where he was routinely beaten, and was held under "city arrest" (in which he was confined to Kinshasa's city limits) for a year after that. At the time, of course, we had no idea when he would be allowed to rejoin us in Tanzania.
This experience completely soured my perceptions of my father's homeland, and ran a knife through all the naive expectations I'd based on the legends and stories he had told me when I was a child in Boston. Aside from my two years of living in Tanzania, an experience that had been overwhelmingly positive, my understanding of Africa came from my father, who had tried hard to provide my brothers and me with positive images to counter the stereotypical representations we regularly saw in the U.S. media and on television. Perhaps he overcompensated in his efforts; when my family moved to Tanzania, I knew that my neighbors would not be wearing grass skirts and carrying spears like the Sambo character who occasionally appeared in Bugs Bunny cartoons, and I knew enough to be offended by such images; I also knew we'd have running water and electricity, live in a city, and not have to worry about lions finding their way into our backyard. But I had no idea that it was common for black-led governments across Africa to jail or even kill anyone critical of their policies, and to do so with impunity. My father's arrest and the fear and hostility that then pervaded my perception of Zaire savaged the idea of Africa represented to me by him and even called into question my own growing attachment to Tanzania. I felt as though I had been lied to and betrayed. Africa was not a mystical, magical, and beautiful place, as I had thought; instead it was a place inhabited by evil and dangerous menblack men, at thatwho had imprisoned and beaten my father and easily could have chosen to kill him. My naive romance with Africa was over . . . .
© Copyright 1999 Philippe Wamba
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