Life As A Black American In Africa Is No Utopia
THE first time I landed on the African continent I felt an overwhelming sentiment of optimism, excitement, and peace. I was a bright-eyed 26-year-old who had just arrived in the southern African nation of Namibia for a year of teaching abroad.
My first stop was Windhoek, Namibia's capital city. I quickly fell in love with the country’s panoramic mountains and ethereal sunsets. The hypnotic beats of South African house pulsated through every corner of the city. I was mesmerized.
I soon traveled to rural northern Namibia for my teaching assignment. This was like taking a step back in time.
I would awake to the sounds of goats beckoning outside my window. Little boys passed by me driving donkey carts. I couldn't help but stare at Namibian elders who I passed on the road. I was struck by the steely wisdom etched on their faces. They left me in awe and reverence.
My new home in Namibia was a culturally infused dream come true. I was finally living in the Africa I’d dreamed of for so long. I was captivated.
When The Newness Wears Off
Six years later, I am still living out my African dream.
I am now married to a Namibian and we have a 21-month-old son. Yet, the excitement that I initially arrived on the continent with has long worn off.
The truth is life abroad in the motherland can be frustrating. It can be draining. This continent can push you to your limits. Even for an African American in Africa, life is far from perfect.
I have witnessed many African Americans talk of moving "back to Africa". I listen to their romantic expectations. Then I internally reflect on how my continental life has been far from a utopia.
Small Town Living
The small town I reside in here in Namibia is extremely boring for me as a foreigner. It's cozy but for someone with my interests, socially there is little to do.
So I’ve had to be vigilant about crafting my own set of activities. I fill my days with professional writing, reading, blogging. I'm learning how to become a better and healthier cook. Anything to pass the time.
Going to the gym would be the perfect activity to break up the monotony of my days. However, there is only one gym in my town.
It’s also owned by White Namibians who weren't exactly welcoming when I visited. I refuse to give them my money. So, Youtube and jogging through the local streets is my exercise routine.
My son is just over one year old. There are very limited childcare options where I live. So, I choose to work from home. I recognize my freedom to do this has been a blessing for my son.
Still, I would love to balance this lifestyle with a mother's group of like-minded women. An occasional documentary screening would be amazing as well.
Nothing like this exists in my community.
Small town Namibian living also means very few extracurricular activities for my son. There aren’t even any playgrounds where I live.
I daydream of taking my son through the museums of Manhattan, my hometown. Or, introducing him to his first Broadway performance. The close-knit environment of our African town has its perks. Still, I want him to be exposed the way I was as a child.
To combat this, I’ve learned to embrace the simplicity of the outdoors. We walk through town. We sit and have picnics in the open grassy spaces and play ball. This will have to be enough for my son.
And somehow it is. I’ve realized that young children don’t require formalized activities to be entertained.
Missing The Familiar
Another reality is homesickness. Over the years it has quietly taken residence in the halls of my psyche.
Most black expats in Africa who I know also suffer from this affliction.
I miss my family and friends. I long for the endless amount of things “to do” that New York offers. Having a caramel Frappuccino in a cozy Starbucks is sorely missed. And my memory of smelly NYC subway tunnels doesn’t seem so bad anymore.
The holiday season brings about its own set of challenges. Sometimes social media posts from back home are painstaking to read. Even watching Namibians gathering with their own families leaves me feeling jealous and depressed.
So, I choose to avoid social media on major American holidays. I also replicate American traditions that I grew up with.
Sometimes it's as simple as putting up a Christmas tree. It helps me push through what could be an extremely dismal holiday. I’m even considering making a Thanksgiving dinner this year.
When it comes down to it I don’t just miss American culture. I specifically yearn for African American culture.
I long for a trip to New York or Baltimore to visit family. However, social media immensely helps me to remain connected.
Being The Outsider
With a love for African American culture comes a high regard for my blackness.
Yet deeply integrating into Namibia’s society has often left me questioning my Afrocentric identity. Despite the fact that everyone looks like me, I am generally seen as an American. Not as a woman of African descent.
Two years into marriage this is something I struggle with. My husband’s family cooks by the fire. They plant crops under the hot Namibian sun.
My African American upbringing certainly did not include anything like that. I’ve had to develop a more complex understanding of what blackness is, globally.
Finally, it can be difficult to forge deep friendships with locals. Breaking into cliques can be even worse. I've redefined my expectations and definitions of friendship.
Taking initiatives to socialize with locals is great. However, I've also learned to recognize the value of simpler relationships. Such as the man who makes shoes that I pass by on my walks through town. This is to be appreciated too.
Aside from my own challenges, there are the harsh realities of life for many Africans in Africa.
Opulent malls and plush communities exist all across the continent. But extreme poverty in Africa is also very real. I've observed things here that have been extremely difficult to stomach. Things I've rarely seen back home.
“Street children” stop at my apartment complex every day. They sneak and fetch water from the outdoor tap. They then pick through our garbage for food.
Women in their third trimester of pregnancy sleep outside of many hospitals in tents. They are waiting to go into labor. Unfortunately, the health facilities are too far from their villages.
There are stories of government officials pulling strings to amass their own wealth. This, while the majority of their country struggles paycheck to paycheck, or even to find a job.
These realities can be disheartening for a black expat who moved to the continent with the idea of African bliss.
There are many days when I want to simply run back to New York, husband and toddler in tow. And still, something keeps me, one foot in, one foot out.
Africa frolics with my mind. She performs a taunting dance with my blackness.
Time after time she reminds me that there are lessons to be learned just over yonder. Right beneath the surface.
I am then reminded of just how truly healthy it is to be here.
My son sees himself everywhere. Even in the throaty laugh of the male taxi drivers who chit chat around the rank.
During those challenging visits to my in-law’s village, there are no museums. There is barely any internet. But there are chickens and cows that my young son stares and laugh at in amazement.
There's the infectious kindness and openness of most Namibian people. I’ve continually observed how quickly they band together to assist someone in need. They do so with little complaint and often very few resources.
The other day a middle-aged Namibian man just randomly helped my son down a steep curb. He didn't ask us, he just did it. My husband held my son's arm and this man held the other.
There’s that something in the smile of Namibian children. That undeniable warmth and spirit that African children so naturally emit. I only hope that I raise my son to have that same glow.
On my most difficult days abroad I am tempted to give it all up. But there is a quiet voice which I cannot ignore. It summons me to stay. Almost as if my ancestors want me to know Africa is not done with me yet.
And so I give Namibia another chance. I prod through another week in homage to the blessing, albeit challenging, that I have been afforded, as an African American living in Africa.