Sunday, February 28, 2010

Africa: You Must See It for Yourself

When I told my mother that I was taking a trip to Ghana, West Africa with my class she told me I'd better bring a rifle to defend myself. My mother is an educated woman, and sadly, I knew she was only half joking. And if I went only by what American television and newspapers were telling me, I might feel the same way. I might be under the impression that Africa was nothing but famine, AIDS, and war. And while those things are certainly part of the picture, that is certainly not all there is to this vast and diverse continent.
I knew it was time for me to go to Africa in the summer of 2003 when I had the option of traveling to Mexico or to Ghana. Go to Mexico, I thought to myself. You're not ready for Africa yet. I was startled by my own thinking. Wait a minute! Not ready for Africa!? And just what was it that I needed to prepare myself? The fear, ridiculous and without any basis, was what made me commit to Ghana on the spot. And it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I was not prepared for Africa, not by a long shot, because no Black American person truly can be prepared for their first trip back to the motherland. I went with a group of about 15 African Americans, on a trip facilitated by Professors Wade Nobles, Na'im Akbar, and Mama Marimba.
The first thing I was struck by upon our arrival in Accra, Ghana, was its incredible beauty. The lush greenery, dirt roads, the pulse of the city and the vastness of the countryside. The air was thick and hot, and smelled of ash. Standing on the beach, I was struck by a feeling of coming full circle. Long ago my ancestors had been ripped from this land against their will. And here I was, back on the same shores they had left.
In many respects, we were like newborn babies in this land, emotionally raw and unsure of what to expect. I remember one of our first days there, two women from our group had ventured out of the hotel and gone for a walk in a nearby neighborhood. They returned visibly upset, and said that they had passed two women on the street, and when they said hello, the women glared at them. They took it pretty hard. When Black Americans dream of coming to this homeland, they dream of being welcomed with open arms. After all, it has taken so much to get there.
I was not immune to any of it. In fact, I found the only way I could function was to feel all of it. I had to let my romantic notion of Africa crumble, I had to let go of my expectations about what this place should or should not be, how we should or should not be treated. Coming to this home was just like going to the home of any friend or relative one has a relationship with: there will be some good times and some bad times. But at the root, what holds everything together is love. So I let love take over. I cried when I needed to, laughed when I wanted to, got angry a few times, and prayed a whole lot.
I was thankful for our particular group of guides, these amazing Black scholars. As we traced the routes of the enslaved through Africa, and visited dungeons where they were held, and other sites, they never let us forget that our ancestors did not go quietly. These were places where they fought, where they plotted, where they comforted one another and protected each other from harm. So even when we shed tears, we did not lose sight of their strength and power.
Some of the most interesting interactions I witnessed were between our group and the local people around the subject of slavery. At one site we visited, a large open area where many were chained when they were first kidnapped from their villages, the local man guiding the tour broke down and cried as he told us the story of what occurred on this land. When we visited a dungeon on the coast, we found an altar where local people poured libations for those who had been held captive there, and prayed for the return of Africa's lost children (us). That was deeply moving to witness. An interaction that humiliated me was when we visited a village that had lost many of its residents to the slave trade. Some members of our group demanded to know from the village elders how villagers who had participated in the kidnappings were punished. Then they demanded to know how the elders felt about what had happened in such a way that these men literally bowed their heads and apologized for something they had not done. That hurt my heart to witness. But it made others feel vindicated. Everyone needed something different from the journey.
This homegoing was necessary, but not easy, and I was glad to return home. Africa was a place I was starting a relationship with that would last a life time, and like all family visits, this one had come to an end. But I learned and grew so much on that journey! And Africa comes back to me in bright memories, sounds and smells. I know it will be time to visit her again soon, to continue the dialogue.
Going to Ghana brought me to this conclusion: Every Black American person should visit Africa at least once in their lifetime. They must visit to help break apart the ignorant stereotypes perpetuated about the continent. They must visit so they can witness brown-skinned people who hold their heads high with pride. They must visit so they can lay down the weights they do not even realize they carry around. I left mine on the beach in Accra.