This summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Africa for the end-of-year retreat for my fellowship at Global Health Corps. The retreat was scheduled for one week but I go to The Motherland every 28 years; I might as well stay a few weeks. From July to September, I traveled to Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. I kept a journal of my travels, for this is a brief synapsis of my trip with some YouTube assistance (download an Ad blocker if it gets obnoxious).
I grew up in a Pro-Black, Pan-African household. My father owned an art gallery, specifically focused on African and African-American art. As a child, my brother and I had coloring books, textbooks, and video tapes, which featured images of smart, healthy, and powerful black people in Africa and throughout the Diaspora. My mother critiqued my coloring books for the predominant use of the peach crayon for skin color. I told her that I was following my classmates, but she suggested using the brown crayon more often. Brown-colored crayon people resembled me and people like me more than the peach-colored crayon people, she said. I credit these moments in shaping my worldview, despite hearing unsavory statements about Africans even by Black Americans outside of the home. Comments denoting the opposite of smart, healthy, and powerful people.
Admittedly, I was that 7-year-old kid watching music videos and imitating Pro-Black, Pan-African rap acts -- most notably X-Clan, Poor Righteous Teachers, Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, and Lakim Shabazz. Africa was cool. Being black was cool. Knowing your history was cool. I was all-in. But sheeeeiiit, it took some time to step foot onto African soil.
As a college student, I was introduced to continental African music via Dr. Christopher Brooks (VCU). Outside of the class, I gravitated toward Mariam Makeba, Manu Dibango, and Fela Kuti. Then, I experienced my first taste of African-inspired American music like Oneness of JuJu and Johnny Pate ("Shaft in Africa" soundtrack). On the airplane ride over, I was crossing my fingers anticipating that grand ol' African funk music. I experienced something else (we'll get to that later).
Before I left The States, Cormega released his latest LP, entirely produced by Large Professor. You know I had to purchase it off iTunes before I hit the airport. Turns out, his subject matter was spot-on and timely. Sounded like he was studying world history. It even sounded like he watched "Hidden Colors" a few times when songwriting. Definitely, a splendid album. Little did I know, it would be my theme music for what I felt as I scrolled my social media newsfeed during this bloody American summer.
This was my international maiden voyage. I received my passport and vaccinations weeks before the trip. Damn procrastination. Yes, flying is nothing new to me but I had never flown beyond the Mississippi River, let alone over an ocean. With passport and a fully-charged 120GB iPOD in hand, I set off to Dulles Airport with my fellow DC fellowship folks: Casey, Majo, Jon, Jose, Joya, and Odina.
If I relied upon certain textbooks and television specials, I would believe Africa was the epicenter of insurmountable poverty. These images would be devoid of humanity. Thankfully, my parents knew better. Plus, I know enough about international political economy to know many African nation-states are considered "developing" by Western standards and are far from wastelands. I braced myself for the impending moment when my WiFi would not be at Fios-speed or being without those comforts of drinking tap water. In my travels, I noticed stark contrasts between the proverbial haves and havenots. Expatriates with European and U.S. citizenships (me) ate fresh sushi in bohemian eateries and slept behind gated walls armed with security guards ; meanwhile, the common Black Africans appeared to experience more rugged conditions. Many of the houses that I saw from the main roads were not equipped with indoor plumbing, electricity, and air conditioning. The cell phone situation was definitely new for me. Each few steps in Kigali and Kampala, you see a phone stand where you can purchase minutes on your mobile device. Our guide informed us that the phones were vital in maintaining connection with family back in the rural, farmland. Money is also sent back home via cell phone accounts.
Ben, a GHC fellow, gave us a tour of Kibera. Ben worked in Kibera for seven years before heading to Boston for his fellowship placement. Kibera is one of the largest informal settlements in Africa. The poverty may be overwhelming but the sense of community is immense. I am grateful to have toured Kibera and see and talk to community members. Africa is not monolithic. The single narrative of poverty unfairly paints too broad of a stroke. Opportunities for economic empowerment appear to be limited to so many people -- particularly for those without advanced education and/or social connections (much like in the U.S.), but it does not have to remain as such.
When we initially planned for this trip, I was invited to a safari by Jon and Jose. I politely declined. I wanted my first trip to Africa to be an intentional time with African people. Ain't no lion more important than one of my cousins. I think it was and is imperative for me to meet with Black Africans, and for Black Africans to have personal relationships with people from the U.S.
A moment that's still vivid took place at the mini-bus station in Kigali. About eight GHC folks were sitting in a mini-bus. We were waiting for a few more fellows to arrive so we could go to Lake Kivu. My head was down. I was reading a magazine. A gentleman was loading the bus with a passenger's luggage. I heard commotion. I looked up and our eyes met. Our eye contact was brief but in that moment he left his mark when he said, "Black Power." Whoa! A magical Kwame Ture moment. It solidified my intentions to make this trip about people and not about lions and tigers.
Religion was almost ever-present while we traveled. I am not the most pious or devout person you'll ever meet. I understand religion/spirituality is great for many people but I wasn't in the headspace to care much. However, I couldn't help but think about the many organizations sending missionaries to Africa to convert people as if their native countries were beacons of morality. Religion and power dynamics (a blog post will not suffice). In Uganda, Majo and Joseph toured various mosques and temples. That was my extent of interest.
As we ventured through Africa, Facebook posts were ablaze with news of Michael Brown's killing and the subsequent #Ferguson protests. I felt a deep mix of emotions: frustration, calm, anger, depression, sadness, and hope. Once again, another unarmed black man was killed by police. This was nothing new but the response actually galvanized mainstream media attention and a short-lived national conversation. I just saw the video of the New York Police Department choking Eric Garner to death before I left DC. And before that, there has been a long chapter of names etched in our American story. My internal struggles with the racial dynamics of the fellowship were already weighing upon me. Now, Michael Brown's situation allowed for more people to be involved in the discussion. Being in Kenya for the peak of the protests tugged at me. I am too far away. I need to get back to set things straight. Unfortunately, that's not how racist/sexist/classist/homophobic/oppressive structures work.
Away, thousands of miles, my homesickness began to arise. Perfect timing. That's when Majo and I took a 12-hour bus from the Rwanda/Uganda border to Kampala. We sat in a cramped charter bus and rode without recognizable bathroom pit-stops. I had to go. My legs hurt from rubbing up against the seat ahead of me. I needed a distraction. Luckily, I had my trusty iPOD. It's time for Funkmaster Flex & Kool DJ Red Alert's Christmas Mix (holidays are great times to listen to urban FM radio for golden age hip-hop). For a solid six hours, I felt little worry and urine urge with Funk Flex geeking out over stories he traded with Red Alert and Mr. Cee.
After the Funk Flex mix, I went for my go-to music, Ghostface Killah and Nas. Their catalogues are full of great music which fit my reflective mood while traveling via planes, trains, and automobiles.
Majo and I spent one year in Washington, DC working at HIPS for our fellowship. Like many major cities, DC is changing. People who lived their whole lives there are being displaced by increased costs of living. In our time, we experienced much of DC's history and culture -- from the AAA guy who replaced my car battery being in a go-go band or the HIPS colleague who organized marches with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall. Try to imagine that warm and fuzzy feeling that engulfed me as we sat in a restaurant in Nairobi when the DJ played music from DC. Yup Yup, Nonchalant. As some heads know, she's from The Chocolate City. The video is filmed in DC too. This was one of those magical moments when home travels with you even thousands of miles away from that comfort.
2PAC is loved in East Africa. His face is on t-shirts. His music is playing in storefronts. I was happy to see how much love and admiration he garnered from young people. As I sat on a beach in Paje, Zanzibar, I was zoning to his album, "Me Against The World," especially the title track.
Remember how I was looking forward to that good ol' East African funk? Well, well, well. I missed that. I was only vibing with live instrumentation when I attended shows. I went to at least three live shows. On the radio and in the club, I was not feeling it. I heard mostly pop dance songs. What did I expect? I am a tourist with a limited time in the region. Do I want to chop my money? No, thank you. These songs sounded like diluted dancehall reggae. That groove, that feeling was amiss in the popular songs played on the radio and in the clubs. I am not here to defecate on African music. Never. I am definitely down for my African friends to put me on. Send me that good ol' East African music (Benon, I have your music on the way).
Thankfully, these three songs stuck out. Two of the three songs are pop but packed with a groove that satisfied my funk sensibilities. When these songs played in the club, I morphed into King of The Dancefloor. And who isn't down with Dan Aceda? He's the Crowned Prince of Benga and the homie.
My friend from back home lent me the novel "2000 Thousand Seasons" years back. I finally read it while in Africa. This was the image I envisioned as I read. Please read it. I don't want to reveal too much, but I found it quite ironic to finish the book where I did in our trip.
It's not every day that a person like me can travel to Africa. I am a Black American who does not shy away from Afrocentricity. Still, with slave trade and colonization, I do not know what present-day country my people are from. This being so, I proudly claim the whole continent. I experienced a grand richness of culture, history, and humanity. I do not want to romanticize the trip because my travel companions would attest. There were some rough moments, especially when I desired an actual human connection only to feel like a plain tourist (remember the economic situation). Then, there were those moments -- magical moments -- when I felt entrenched in the African experience. I longed to step foot onto the soil and touch the people. I did that.
I really, really, really want more Black Americans/African-Americans to travel to The Motherland. We backpack Europe and party in the Bahamas, yet we too many of us do not take that extra step. Black Africans need to see us more on their streets, in their restaurants, in their homes. Black Americans need to embrace some sort of Sankofa in an attempt to strengthen our bonds with our distant cousins on a global scale.
Africa. This is the same place that transformed Richard Pryor and Afrika Bambaataa. This is the same place that transformed many of my friends, in and out of the fellowship. And, I stand before you noticing a change within myself. Transformation may be in effect.
But, in the meanwhile, asante sana.
"Passport stamped/ Yeah, I'm out on a mission/ Explorer of the world/ Eddie Bauer Edition" (c) Nickelus F
(c) hubert & debra laws I spent a Saturday with my dad in Washington, D.C. as he ran errands and hung out with his friends. I was the 8-year-old munchkin tagging along with Pops. There I was with him and some guys from the neighborhood standing around a green Ford pick-up truck tailgate. We were in the non-touristy, pre-gentrified section of the city and reminiscent of the neighborhood where my barbershop was located back home. I was hungry. I asked my dad if I could walk to the corner store to grab a snack. Yes, he said as he handed me a $5 bill. Off I went to indulge in my daily Twinkie delight. Minutes later, I walked back to the circle of guys and my dad motioned to me. “Don’t walk with your money out,” he said. “Count your change and put it in your pocket.” We stood out there for no more than 20 minutes and we jumped back in the car heading back to Northern Virginia. Then Pops said something that has remained with me ever since: “Look around. This is what people call ‘the ghetto.’ Never look down on the people here. You’re lucky that we live in a big house in Stafford, but many of your cousins still live here. Never look down.”
My cousins, my cousins, my cousins.
Family means the world to me, but I recognize that not everyone feels similarly. I define family as a collective forged by shared genetics, surnames, and/or life experiences. Subsequently, family is wholly dependent upon the cohesion of individuals. And the communities we serve as public health ambassadors would be non-existent without these families.
I’m reminded of my father’s quote each day as a Global Health Corps fellow at HIPS. I’m often conducting outreach in communities often labeled as ghettos (I never liked the term “ghetto”; it marks the area as unsafe without context and attempts to strip the humanity of the community of families living there). Though I have been fortunate to experience so many luxuries like travel and a college education, quite a few of our clients’ lives tell a different story. Combined with the oppressive nature of the ghetto, many of the families there are grappling with the use of illicit drugs and their ramifications — my family included.
I know of loved ones who have been addicted to heroin and crack/cocaine. They lost careers and became estranged from their children because of their drug use. I know of the cousin who has been to rehab twice and is still taking sobriety one day at a time. It’s masked as one of those family secrets, yet we often use language that expresses shame and embarrassment about his situation. Though unsaid, we want him to reach a better place. And the drug rehab counselors he’s encountered have provided support – possibly, the support that his biological family struggles to provide. Those counselors acknowledge my cousin’s humanity and work to empower him, not rebuke him with stigma and rejection. And I’m aiming to do the very same for people in D.C. As I told my co-fellow, Majo, I think of our clients as my cousins who haven’t been introduced as cousins yet. They’re someone’s cousins and that is good enough.
And the part of my dad’s quote about not looking down on anyone, well that is what HIPS is all about. HIPS has served Washington, D.C. for 20 years and is known for its harm reduction outreach with sex workers and drug users; however, that snapshot is too narrow. The scope of HIPS includes the families and communities of those engaged in drug use and sex work. Condom distribution and syringe exchange affects families; so do the policies and evaluations of said programs. Equally, the defunding of these initiatives affects families. We cannot ignore how families will be touched from each equation.
A city is but a collection of families, and each family beholds a particular dynamic. No family is unaffected by crime, affordable housing, transportation, medical access, and law enforcement. Everything is cyclical: my family’s influence has shaped me into the person I am today, and my work will affect the next family and eventually land at my family’s front doorstep. The world is too small for me to think for one moment that MY family lives unscathed. These are my cousins, my aunts, and my uncles. This is my family and they shall be treated as such. I want to make my family proud and stronger.