These were responses I heard when I told people I would be traveling to Gaborone, Botswana over my winter break for a service learning trip. Many were puzzled as to why I would travel over 8,000 miles across the Atlantic to immerse myself in a culture I never knew. Wasn’t the continent of Africa diseased, impoverished, and war-torn? It sounds like a terrible place. I heard misguided truths from people who were prejudiced. Even sentiments like “why not Europe?”, even though Brexit had just happened, let alone the rampant xenophobia. I knew exactly why people would say statements like that but they were still problematic.
I didn’t know what to expect, but I do know that I long for it now that I’m back stateside.
People’s assumptions about the Motherland did not dissuade me. I wanted to learn more about public health and social entrepreneurship. I had Skyped with my University of Botswana classmates on issues surrounding global health. In those conversations, I had been was overwhelmed by a culture I did not know, a collectiveness I didn’t know and already felt welcomed with open arms. I knew that many people in the US had become invested in Africa due to the popularity of Marvel’s Black Panther film and the promise of an Afrofuturistic kingdom visualized. As my departure date approached I began to think about my place in the conversation. I am a Black American woman. I am a self-proclaimed blerd looking for a home in a country that never loved me, where my skin grants me more personal victimhood than equal opportunity. Searching for beauty in the age of Black Lives Matter, where it feels like I mourn for family members I don’t even know, Black American identity lately seems synonymous with death and dying. We are constantly looking over our shoulder.
With all of that on my mind, I traveled to Botswana. I didn’t know what to expect, but I do know that I long for it now that I’m back stateside.
Over the last 30 years, we have seen popular depictions of the continent of Africa, Africans, and of course, the animals. Recently, we are seeing more media that feature Africans on their own terms, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels (Half of a Yellow Sun, Americanah), or Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation based on a novel by a Nigerian author, Uzodinma Iweala. While those are excellent pieces of art by African creators, the majority of Black Americans learn about the Africa through narratives driven by non-Africans. One of my favorites of all time, Disney’s The Lion King, was my first introduction.
With its golden skies, vaguely foreign musical numbers, and a plethora of talking animals, as a child, I didn’t question the lack of people or the fact that the antagonists were darker skinned in The Lion King. (Now that I’m in college I question it extensively.) My next exposure to African-ness was the luxurious kingdom of Zamunda featured in the Eddie Murphy classic, Coming to America. A coming of age tale about a young man who dreams of a different life in America; by disguising his royal identity he finds himself in humorous predicaments. Now while it’s a classic, as I grew older I was saddened to learn that Zamunda was a fabricated place. It shared no ties to any real nation, ethnic identity, or language. While growing up I longed for that representation; however, when it came it was limited solely to trauma porn, used to guilt white people and highlight the humanity of slave masters. Period pieces have their place but the narratives are gnawing; Black history is either during the Antebellum South or limited to the Civil Rights Era.
So when more discussions about what Wakanda could be as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I started asking: What could an idealized African nation be like? A nation untouched by Western civilization and filled with superior technology. The question loomed over my head as the day arrived for me to leave the states.
As a Black American arriving in the Motherland, there’s a wave that washes over you. As you leave the airport, there are more faces like yours than you can count.
As a Black American arriving in the Motherland, there’s a wave that washes over you. As you leave the airport, there are more faces like yours than you can count. I couldn’t tell if it was my anxiety or being in a new place but for the first couple of days being in Gaborone, I just kinda sat back and observed. It didn’t dawn on me how different back home was from my current environment till I met my classmates from the local university. My American peers and I were studying in a brand new culture.
The customs, the language, and mannerism were so startlingly different. In all honesty, one cannot read an article to prepare beforehand. I had internalized so many of the perverted ideas from home, even for how “pro-black” I was. The disconnect between Black Americans and their continental African counterparts is stark. On both sides, we either faced or perpetuated microaggressions against each other, but through dialogue we managed to work through our issues.
We were going into orphanages. My classmates made sure that we were not there to “save” any of the communities we entered. They also were kind enough to teach us words in their native tongue, they even extended this by giving us nicknames. I appreciated them teaching us about Botswana, no filter. These students had dreams of making their country the best it could be. Botswana, which gained independence from Britain in 1966, is a country landlocked between South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Known for its art, Big 5 Animals (Rhino, Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Leopard), and the traditions of the nomadic San People. The reality is that the country is still in a developing state, the government is working towards HIV/AIDS prevention methods.
These students had dreams of making their country the best it could be.
After being there for a few days, we began to take part in cultural practices. We visited the village of our instructor and were greeted by village elders. My classmates found great joy in shopping in the local markets and going on a safari. Some days we visited government officials and NGOs. Between class, volunteering, and bonding with one another time flew by. We said our goodbyes and left for the United States.
When I returned home there were so many lessons I had learned. As an American regardless of my race, I do have a lot of privilege. I come from a place where I have the ability to share my story. I live in a country where thousands of Black Americans are creating content to reflect their experiences and curating spaces both online/offline. Many of my African counterparts do not have any of those opportunities. I learned that Africa is always scrutinized under a microscopic lens. It’s not a site of pathology; it’s so diverse, resourceful, and gorgeous. African-ness is not bad; don’t let the media sell you this idea that it is. Innovation originated with African people; countless advancements and discoveries originate there.
African-ness is not bad; don’t let the media sell you this idea that it is.
While the US American education system is notoriously uninterested in telling narratives of brown and black people, I do believe that alternative means that include blogs and documentaries have made learning about our people and their struggles easier. It’s always important to recognize that Black people can romanticize all things related to Africa even when that’s not the main intention. I smile when other Black Americans, express a genuine interest in Africa and Afro-diasporic subjects.
Over these past months, I’ve become more interested in African cultures and what they can teach me. While there are many things I don’t know, I will tell you that while in Botswana, I was met with nothing but open arms from my peers. The cultures and customs were similar to the ways I saw in my Southern home. The food was reminiscent and bountiful, made with care by village women who lived nearby. I appreciated the nature: the golden rays of light and abundance of nature. I respected people’s reverence for the environment and preservation the culture. In the homes, singing and dancing is present. Joy is present. There’s a level of collectiveness I saw there that’s not here. I encourage Black Americans to take a pilgrimage to a country in Africa if they can. They’ll ultimately feel like they’ve stepped into a home they’ve never been to.
Admittedly I am excited about the upcoming Black Panther film; I am planning to cosplay with my friends at a premiere. I am excited that people want to see more depictions of Africa. We are anticipating what the world of Wakanda looks like onscreen, and so far it stays away from the typical child rebel soldier war stories, poverty porn, and corrupt politicians. There should be more depictions of Africa. Like the 2016 Disney film Queen of Katwe which is based on the real life story of Phiona Mutesi, who at 11 became the junior chess champion of Uganda and then the national champion. It is so important for African Americans to learn about our continental siblings. I encourage us blerds to continue to support creators that want to highlight Afro-centric stories, fantastic or realistic.
…Instances of conflict, sickness, and poverty shouldn’t be the only narratives we see broadcast to the world…
After the cancellation of Black Panther and the Crew and World of Wakanda, I was deeply disappointed. I do not wish to romanticize Africa; there’s a lot of strife there. However, instances of conflict, sickness, and poverty shouldn’t be the only narratives we see broadcast to the world. We should refute anything that pigeonholes the entire continent into one pathological entity. At the same time, I acknowledge that relations between Black Americans and African immigrants is strained. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done from both parties. Botswana was nothing like the media I saw of Africa growing up: I am so thankful for the experience of seeing Botswana through my own eyes.
Guest writer Brittney “Atari” Maddox is a writer from the South, her niche is pop media criticism. She’s the Head Organizer/ Co-founder of Black Minds Matter Project, a project highlighting mental health in the age of Black Lives Matter. She’s a Black Bishoujo trying to be magical in a world that says she can’t. Follow her on Twitter as @Atarigems.