What is Africa to Me?

Title taken from the poem Heritage by
Countee Cullen

This place is, at once, welcoming and entirely foreign to me. I landed at an unassuming but functional airport, moved effortlessly through customs, gathered my baggage and walked out into a crisp, sunny, winter day. I was in Harare, the capital city of the nation of Zimbabwe.

I am the son of Mildred Jessemae and Clarence Robert Pinkard, the grandson of Eula and Jessie Walker and Agnes and Elfred Alphonso Pinkard only one of whom ever stepped foot on this soil.  I was in Africa, the birthplace of ancient ancestors. In truth, my ancestors were most probably from western Africa. No matter, I was keenly and profoundly aware of the significance of the African continent to my genotypic and phenotypic makeup. I had come home and like many black Americans carried a romanticized notion of what Africa should and would mean to me. It is the central character in the collective cultural saga of many African -Americans. It is a massive land mass, the source of enormous natural resources, rich human diversity and the place of dramatic human conflict and subjugation. It is also a sleeping giant bound to awaken with a fierce economic, social and development resolve.

African lionHarare is a teeming metropolis where dirt roads abut gleaming skyscrapers. In Zimbabwe, colloquially referred to as Zim, the people are young, literate and entrepreneurial. There is an undeniable vibrancy and energy about this nation.  In the city and in the country-side alike people are selling goods, handling well-worn US dollars and moving with a purpose. Unlike many places, this enterprising vitality is not accompanied by rudeness and guile, Zimbabweans are a good and wholesome people. I had never in the time I have been alive experienced such an overwhelming presence of black people. It was a magnificent sight that is rarely, if ever, experience by a black American. That sense of belonging and being one with the sheer power of numbers moved me. I am not a minority; I am part of a world-wide community of people who look like me; their wooly hair, broad noses, full lips, lanky frames and deep dark skin reflect a branch of the human family to which I, too, belong.

While I was captivated by my experience in Africa among Africans, I was also made aware of my American-ness by Africans. I was noticeably conspicuous and experienced the same prolonged and curious stares I remember from my travels to Switzerland and Germany. Clearly, I was one of them and just as obviously I was not. Without question, the dispersing of African peoples through the Americas during the Atlantic slave trade caused a rupture in the global African family that exists to this day. Having the expectation of a mythic reconnection of this African diasporic bond while in Africa is common for many black Americans. My connection to Africa and the Africans I met was much more personal and self-defined. Any connections that occurred, I was required to make, they did not occur magically as I set foot on African soil. I had to accept that Africans saw me first as an American with all of the economic privilege that implied. An academician, a Zimbabwean, in the introduction to his talk, welcomed the “brothers from the Diaspora” referring to an American colleague and myself. In Johannesburg, in talking with a South African artists at a street fair, he noted that as an African-American, I had come home. Beyond that, on the streets of Harare and Johannesburg, in the Zimbabwean countryside and at the lakeside resort in the town on Kariba, although there was genuine politeness and warmth,  there was no overwhelming embrace or special acknowledgement of a dispersed African finally returning home.

Despite an experience that was wonderfully exhilarating and life-changing, there were moments of slight discomfort and unease. I drove from Harare to Kariba, with an overnight stop in the town of Chinoyhi, in the back seat of a car, three persons deep. My need for space and the anticipation of a comfortable ride immediately evaporated. On the road, it was common to see cars and vans packed with people and I realized that the very American requirement and expectation for personal space was not shared by most Zimbabweans. In the countryside, there was a perpetual smell of smoke as a result of a common practice of scorching the earth to prepare the land for farming. My eyes were often gritty and my nose bled from the dry, smoky air. The meat-centered diet was a challenge to negotiate as I was served goat intestines and oxtails as culinary treats. I managed to decline hopefully without offending my hosts. Having chosen not to take anti-malaria medication in advance of the trip, I worried about the consequences of the feast I had become for the native bugs. There were also exquisite moments of animal encounters, or near encounters, that were quintessentially African: a lion sitting leisurely on the side of road on our way to Kariba, the baboon who broke into my hotel room and stole fruit from a platter that had been prepared to welcome me, the zebra who greeted us as we entered the conference center hotel grounds, the agitated elephant who charged our car and the power outage that occurred in the middle of the closing plenary session because an elephant had been electrocuted. This was Africa, unexpected and magnificent. At times, I longed for the comforts and familiarity of America and thought myself too finicky for Africa. More often, however, I immersed myself in the wonders of Africa and accepted each experience’s contribution to this cultural journey and the personal narrative that would emerge. My Zimbabweans friends have given me the name, Shumba, which means lion in Shona, the language of the largest tribal group in Zimbabwe. In doing so, they have challenged me to live fiercely and majestically. I receive their message borne of Africa and delivered in friendship.

Zimbabwean are warm, welcoming and wondrous people. This nation is a well-kept secret in southern African that will no doubt realize its mighty potential in the 21st century. I am honored that it was my introduction to Africa and l Iook forward to many return visits.


1 comment

  1. Christine

    I have always wanted to visit Africa, however the malaria medication turned me off completely. But, after reading your blog, I am very curious!