In 1998, I traveled for the first time to Africa -- Ivory Coast and South Africa. The experience was so profound and life-changing that I wrote the article below. Since then, I have traveled to Kenya, but this coming summer will be the first time I return to South Africa in 16 years. So I am reflecting on my past experiences and curious about what experiences I will co-create with my sisters and brothers this time.
I never dreamed that information I learned in high school social studies actually would be useful 25 years later. Even now I can hear Mrs. Joyner—screeching a shrill pitch in my ears yet bellowing a resonant tone in my soul as she talked about Africa. Mrs. Joyner ignited the flame of curiosity about my ancestors and their homeland. As she lectured, I often felt a painful emptiness that I only knew information about my family two generations back. Where did my people come from before they were slaves in the United States? How did my ancestors survive during slavery? What were the stories that had been passed from generation to generation in our motherland that I will never know?
Recently, I experienced Africa—the homeland of my ancestors—for the first time. Much of what I learned in Mrs. Joyner’s class came alive for me as I traveled in Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa. These two countries seemed so different from each other that it sent my head reeling. Before I left New York, I knew that I would have profound and incredible experiences in Africa, yet I could not have anticipated what I saw and felt. My journeys in both countries left deep footprints in my soul.
My first profound experience came in Cote d’Ivoire. As I stood in the Atlantic Ocean on Africa soil for the first time, my soul heard the stories of my ancestors that my ears would never know. I heard the whispers and cries, songs and prayers of my mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers whose names and whose stories I cannot tell. I felt their presence with me. They used the ocean’s breeze to empower and commission me. Through my tears and the ocean’s tide, they anointed me. They told me that I was at home.
That afternoon with my ancestors in Cote d’Ivoire prepared me for what I was to experience with my family in South Africa.
When I arrived in South Africa, my mind was flooded with memories of classes with Mrs. Joyner. One particular memory was about the Hottentot tribe, an indigenous people in southern Africa. My high school classmates and I had learned that one major characteristic of Hottentot women is their plentiful butt. My classmates had unanimously proclaimed a theory that my African ancestors were Hottentots because I share that characteristic in abundance. I did feel an uncanny sense of being “at home” in South Africa. Maybe my classmates were right after all.
My high school classmates’ Hottentot theory was not the only reason I felt at home in South Africa. The warmth of the people I met created a feeling of coming home to meet relatives I ha, the presence of people of different colors and ethnicities, At times, walking down the street and hearing different languages being spoken I thought I was transported to New York City. The Euro-American influence in food, dress, entertainment. The fact that English is spoken by many people. And the racism and classicism so familiar to me in the United States.
But even more, the sense of welcome and embrace that I felt warmed my soul. Throughout my travels in Africa, I felt that I had come home.
When you read my blog posts, please send your comments and I will be glad to respond. Peace, CJ