F. Wafula OkumuToday there is a debate on whether African Americans can survive in Africa once they return to the Mother Continent. A question which is being asked is: If they returned to Africa, can they settle and make a difference, like the diasporic Jews have done for Israel?
Keith Richburg, in his book, Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, profusely thanks God for bringing his "nameless ancestor . . . across the ocean in chains and leg irons" and for being American. He not only adamantly rejects his "African-ness" but forcefully disowns his relation to Africa: "I have been there, I have lived there and seen Africa in all its horror. I know that I am a stranger (t)here. I am an American, a black American, and I feel no connection to . . . (that) strange and violent place."
One wonders why some African Americans after reading, or hearing of, Richburg's excruciating and soul-wrenching experience will even dream of going to Africa. Richburg's unpleasant experience and subsequent renunciation of his African roots is not the first. Of course we are quite familiar with the realities most of our brothers and sisters had to face when they made a beeline to Africa in the sixties and seventies. Quite a sizable number made a retreat. Reading Maya Angelou's book In the Heart of a Woman, one can feel the deep resentment she brought back from her failed marriage to an African freedom fighter living in Cairo and Accra.
In the sixties, many African-Americans "returned" to Africa with high hopes of a new life in their ancestral homeland. Most of these returnees were active in the civil rights movement or escapees from the brutal police state that had targeted the movement for destruction. We know of the well publicized fugitive days of Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria and his subsequent return to the U.S. with deep resentment of Africa.
Another prominent civil right personality who went to Africa and spent quite a number of years was Bob Moses, the spiritual leader of the "Summer Freedom Rides" and the campaign to register voters in the South.
If the movement back to Africa in the 1960s by African-Americans can be called the third wave, the first and second waves having taken place in 1840s and 1930s respectively, we can call the nineties migration to Southern Africa a fourth wave. Since the liberation of South Africa and Namibia from the apartheid rule we have seen a migration of highly skilled African Americans to South Africa. These brothers and sisters have left for South Africa with hope of helping a newly independent black-ruled nation that is experiencing a massive brain drain (of white South Africans).
Despite leaving with enthusiasm bordering on missionary zeal, some have been disappointed by the chill reception from the South African blacks. Writing in the South African newspaper, The Sunday Independent, Charles T. Moses, a former adviser to Governor Mario Cuomo lamented that "Many of us have been lied to, misled and abused by our South African brothers and sisters, usually out of jealousy and ignorance."
Moses's article prompted Felicia Mabuza-Suttle, South Africa's Oprah Winfrey, to hold two one-hour programs on the tension between African Americans and black South Africans. The South African panel, which consisted of President Nelson Mandela's daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, openly accused African Americans of three things. First, the South Africans lambasted the African Americans who go to South Africa with an attitude of patronizing Africans. They said these African Americans feel that they are doing South Africa a favor of rescuing it after the white brain drain. Secondly, the South Africans claimed, African Americans come to their country with a belief that they are owed something by black South Africans for leading the anti-apartheid movement in the United States. And third, they accused African Americans of socializing among themselves and being aloof from the black South Africans.
Many African Americans on reaching South Africa expect to be embraced as brothers and sisters who have returned home. However, the hugs ends at the airport. After finding out that the only common thing they share is their skin color, pronounced differences emerges based on culture, language, lifestyle and expectations. For example, most of the African Americans have moved into the fanciest white neighborhoods where they live in palatial homes with maids and pools.
The emotional feeling that overwhelm African Americans when they land is sometimes misunderstood by black South African who do not understand how one can claim "oh, I'm home. I'm home" in a land where one has no family members. This misunderstanding is compounded by the fact that the new immigrants do not know anything about African cultures. Worse, many do not make an effort to be absorbed into African cultures. Worst of all, some want to be accepted and respected as they are- Americans.
Misconceptions, lack of understanding of each other, and hyped expectations have exacerbated the tensions between the two groups. While some South African blacks resent African Americans for hijacking the jobs that are created for them on the affirmative action basis, others suspect African Americans' commitment to the long-term interests of South Africa. The former think the latter are using their color similarities to gain acceptance so that they can act as local agents for American business interests. Indeed, 30 per cent of the African Americans in South Africa are representatives of American businesses.
With the escalation of tensions, some African Americans are cutting their stay short and hastily returning to America. It won't be long before we start reading or hearing more African tales like Richburg's.
But it will be disingenuous to assume that there are no African Americans who have returned to Africa, loved it, settled down, and made a huge difference. Listen to, and take to heart, the story of Pete O'Neal and his wife Charlotte Hill as told in the Kansas Star of February 20, 1993 and the New York Times of November 23, 1997:
For more than a quarter of a century O'Neal has been living in the Tanzanian village of Imabaseni as a respected elder, loving husband, doting father, a community activist, an exemplary farmer, a gourmet sausage maker, and owner of a safari business. According to the Kansas Star, O'Neal "has helped bring electricity, running water and tourists to his poor, remote village. He has taught his neighbors about electronics, carpentry and food preservation and has introduced them to art, poetry, music and dance."
But in order to understand who O'Neal is today and why he is one of the elders of the Wameru ethnic group one must go back to 1969 in Kansas City. Back then, O'Neal, as a member of the Black Panther Party, was a fire-brand revolutionary who carried out public protests against the racist white establishment while engaged in community activism and development.
But on Oct. 30, 1969, the 29-year-old O'Neal was arrested and charged for violating the Gun Control Act by taking a shotgun from Kansas to Missouri. One year later a jury found him guilty and sentenced him to four years in prison. However, it was apparent to many then that O'Neal was being convicted for his revolutionary beliefs and activities.
While out on bond awaiting his appeal to be heard, O'Neal and Hill escaped and surfaced in December 1972 in Algiers, where several revolutionary organizations and groups, including the Black Panthers, had bases. But his stay in Algiers was to be short-lived after the Algerian government became hostile and expelled him. From Algeria, O'Neal and his family headed to Tanzania where he has since settled and prospered. O'Neal is said to be the only former Black Panther still remaining in Africa.
Among their educational and cultural activities, O'Neal and Charlotte have built the "Malcolm X Theater, where they entertain visitors with documentaries about the civil rights movement; and the United African American Community Center, which enlists foreign students to build schools and clinics and sponsors training programs. The O'Neals also run an exchange program for troubled African American youths from Kansas City. While in Tanzania these teenage Americans learn the strength of the African family and African values of community and service.
Although still a fugitive from the U.S. laws, O'Neal has no intention of returning to the United States. He says if he were not in Africa he would be dead by now. He also acknowledges what became a reality; that his efforts as a Black Panther revolutionary would have failed. This sobering acknowledgment of the American reality is what endears Africa to the O'Neals to and makes them Africa's solid link to the Africans in the diaspora.
From O'Neal's experience in Imbassani, we can prescribe a number of things for those African Americans who really want to return to Africa without regretting their decision. One, they must prepare themselves culturally and emotionally. They must learn the African cultures and languages. They cannot assume that their skin color alone will endear them to their African brothers and sisters. Second, they should not expect to find another America in Africa without discrimination and oppression. Although they will find an Africa without racial prejudice it will be one with its own unique problems which they must be willing to help solve.
And, third, they should go to Africa with the intention of being Africanized. They cannot live an American lifestyle in Africa. They cannot demand special treatment for being Americans. They should be prepared to suffer alongside their African brothers and sisters. They should mingle, wiggle, and dissolve into Africa. This can easily be done by adopting one of the 1700 vibrant cultures and becoming bona fide members of the respective ethnic groups.
While reflecting on Pete O'Neal's enriching and fulfilling experience, they should also pay keen attention to the sagacious words of Charles T. Moses, who said: "Where is the hope for us in America? We will never be in charge. We will always be 10 percent. We will always be fighting to keep some cop from shooting us in the back. But here it's worth the battle. You can win this here."
Yes, African Americans can survive in Africa if they want to. And yes, they can make a difference, like the diasporic Jews have made a difference in Israel, when they return to Africa. In fact, they should learn from diasporic Jews who have not only made a commitment to the survival of the Jewish state as a political, cultural and geographical entity but represent its interests wherever they are.