Friday, August 29, 2014

A Different Take on Race

Late Monday I sent a book chapter to my editor.  I awoke Tuesday morning to an email stating, “This is great!  We should talk ASAP. When can we chat?”  We agreed to Skype that night.  As the day progressed I became more excited about the positive tone of the email.  By the time our Skype appointment rolled around I had convinced myself I had A Sorcerer’s Apprentice situation on my hands.  You know how Mickey started off with that one broomstick?  And then it multiplied until he was surrounded by thousands?  I was convinced my 18 pages had grown into a full length book.  No such luck.

This Skype meeting was the first time my editor and I had actually seen each other.  Until that point in time I had no idea he was… black.  And the reason he wanted to talk to me was because I had several statements in my chapter about black Americans and how they are viewed by the locals when they go to Africa.  Since he found this so interesting, and surprising, I figured I would share some of the highlights of our conversation.

Before my trip to Congo I was visiting with some friends in Botswana.  As I told them about the plans for my trip, one of them, a Motswana, said to me, “You can’t go there! There are BLACK people there!”  I was shocked.  She was black.  The other four friends at that get-together were black.  I was the only white person I had seen in weeks.  I was ALWAYS surrounded by black people.  How was going to Congo different?  I couldn’t help but say quizzically, “Huh? I don’t understand.”  She went on to explain that she, and other Batswana, were not black.  They were brown-black.   And as you go further north people become “more black.”  “Ugandans and Kenyans, they are blue-black.  But the Congolese?  (She shakes her head.) They are black-black.”  It had never occurred to me that Africans had their own racial distinctions among themselves until that moment.  But this prompted me to start paying attention to this, and from that point forward I realized that they do differentiate.

When I visited Kenya everyone would immediately want to talk to me about Obama, of course.  “We are very proud to have a Kenyan as President of the United States.  He is a very good muzungu.”  I was surprised to hear Obama referred to as a muzungu, but figured it was because he was light skinned due to having a white mother.  I later came to learn that all African-Americans are muzungu (in East Africa).  Or lekogwa (in Southern Africa). Or obruni (in West Africa.)

Many African-Americans visit West Africa because of its slave history.  Ghana and Senegal in particular have become huge slave tourism attractions.  However, many black Americans who make the trip to these destinations leave less than satisfied.  I have been to some of these former slave prisons, dungeons and trading posts, and they are by nature, sad.  It’s understandable that people aren’t laughing and happy when they depart from these locations.  But African-Americans tend to struggle not just with the historical aspect, but also their interactions with locals while they are there.

When African-Americans travel to Africa they typically have the ideal that they are going “home” to visit “relatives.”  But when they arrive they are called “obruni.”  “Obruni” means “whiteman” but it refers to any non-African.  In other words, Europeans, Asians, people from the Americas are all called “obruni,” so it actually has a second meaning of “foreigner.”  This terminology projects the opinion that Africans do not see black Americans as “black Africans coming home.”

Some tourist destinations have realized this attitude is detrimental.  Ghana launched a PR campaign not too long ago designed to change the behavior of residents toward African-American visitors.  Ghanians were discouraged from referring to them as “obruni” and were instead told to say “akwaaba anyemi” which means “welcome brother (or sister).”

Our conversation lasted for the better part of an hour.  We bonded over our shared muzungu heritage, began planning my editor’s dream itinerary to visit Africa (he’s never been) and discussed my book.  Though I haven’t perfected my spell casting skills yet, at least it appears my new project is off to a good start.

Here are some photos from Bunce Island, a former slave fort in Sierra Leone:

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