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For Community-Driven Global Development

Back to Africa: African American Students Travel to Africa

back to africa

An African American Peace Corps volunteer who recently returned from her service in Swaziland told me that she had to laugh at the fact that "I went all the way to Africa to be called white."  She told me that many of the people she met during her time abroad didn’t see a hyphenated American identity, but simply saw her as American.

Some African Americans envision bridging cultural and linguistic gaps by “going home” to explore their heritage and, for some, to fill a personal void. Since the U.S. was founded by immigrants, many Americans hold their ancestral heritage near and dear and seek to learn more about the lands of their ancestors. But tracing ancestral roots is not always a simple feat, especially for African Americans. In fact, an article published in 2015 in the Daily Beast notes that, “Black Americans have always had that natural American desire that is a yearning for a connectedness to an ancestral homeland that can enhance our American narrative of success and survival. But when we search for that foreign connection we inevitably will fall short (“African Americans Can’t Go ‘Home’”, 2015).”

Understandably, every individual who has the opportunity to travel back to their ancestral homeland does so for an individual purpose, but one must be cautious when glorifying their native homeland and expecting to feel a long-lost connection. Nadege Seppou of the Huffington Post cautions that “When some African Americans envision going to Africa, they expect to have an exuberant and overwhelming feeling of belonging. The desire to reconnect with one’s ancestral past is only natural and cannot be disputed. However, expecting a heaven-like welcoming and effortless instatement into the country is quite a stretch.” (“If African Americans Returned to Africa”, 2016).”

Through various cultural struggles and shifts, many African Americans have become removed and distant to their African counterparts. Even expats from Africa who have lived abroad for a few years find their identity has shifted in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that make it difficult to “go home.”

Because our identity shapes so much of our experience abroad, we sought to learn more about the experiences and personal viewpoints from several FSD alumni who interned abroad at our sites in east Africa. We sat down for a conversation about “going home” with Jessica Saffold of Northwestern University and Duke University’s Philip Moss, and here is what we learned.

Preconceptions about Africa

Thanks in part to various media sources, Africa has been painted in many lights - a treasure trove of wildlife, a center of conflict, a scene of immense poverty, an epicenter of vibrant cultures, and everything in between. Because of the diversity across the African continent, and with limited means to travel and explore for themselves, many Americans’ perceptions of Africa are limited, with many Americans referencing Africa as a country rather than a diverse continent with more than 50 countries. “Africa is not a country!” laughs Jessica Saffold while talking about her knowledge about the region before traveling to Kenya. Continuing, Jessica notes that her perception was shaped largely by the little she learned in school as well as the media. “I was going in with information from the media, that Africa is very poor, the streets are littered with trash and people are half-naked in the jungle with no access to technology at all.”

These notions are not unique to Jessica, and without having traveled to the continent, there is little to no context to what media filters into our newsfeed. For many African Americans, there may also be preconceptions about reuniting with a lost homeland where one will be welcomed with open arms and enthusiasm. Ultimately, this expectation may not be realized, as was the experience of Philip Moss who had expected a sort of “homecoming” while interning with FSD in Uganda - but there was no homecoming to be found. "My experience was wildly different but definitely exceeded my expectations. My expectations of a cultural awakening were not met. It was a wonderfully richer of an experience than I expected, but at the same time, there was not a homecoming of sort."

Jessica noted that although at first glance she appeared to fit in, when people began to speak to her in Swahili and she could only respond in English they would be discouraged because she wasn’t actually a local. “I almost had this feeling of fitting in, but ultimately I didn’t fit in. I looked like everyone else, but at the end of the day I wasn’t one of them.”

Back to Africa for African Americans

Although bound by race and cultural ancestry, there are many differences between Africans and African Americans. As Phillip noted, “visiting Africa highlighted the differentiation between my nationality and race even more.” Jessica echoed this sentiment, saying that she had to explain the history of slavery and civil rights to her Kenyan counterparts who have a more romanticized view of America. “In Kenya the people I spoke with had an idea of what they thought America is like, that it is an amazing place where all these opportunities are available. I had to tell them that we do have these opportunities, but as an African American, not all these opportunities are afforded to us, unfortunately.”

Additionally, merely sharing skin color with those in Africa does not necessarily mean that one will blend in with the culture. Jessica noted that the language barrier also set her apart, saying that it was weird at first, but a situation that she adapted to during her time in Kenya. Even while getting her hair done in Kenya where the atmosphere and sense of community was very similar to what Jessica experienced back home, the fact that she didn’t speak Swahili fluently was a barrier to fully blending in with local Kenyans.

Shifting Identities

While abroad, there is a shift in identity, no matter your race or ethnic background. For African Americans traveling to Africa for the first time, there may be a shift in identity where race is no longer a primary identifier. Rather, your gender, socioeconomic status, or nationality may become the first indicator of identity. In Kenya, Jessica found her national identity became a focus, “It was really interesting in that when I would meet new people in Kenya, they would say, oh, you’re American, and I would say, yes, I’m a Black American and it’s like for the first time ever I identified as my nationality and not my race.”

A shift in identity can lead to increased stress and pressure while abroad and one must ask oneself, “What does my identity mean in this context?” When so much of your identity in the United States is based on your race, what happens when you are part of the majority? What does that mean for your identity, and how will you cope with the change? One friend that Jessica made during her time in Kenya was a caucasian intern from the United States. Together they would discuss shifts in identity and understanding the others perspectives much better now that the minority roles were reversed. “It was cool to see the different growth that she went through. I mean, you’ll never know what it is like to be a part of a marginalized community in America if you don’t identify with any of those things, but with her, I could definitely see the growth and her coming to a place of empathy. We had some great conversations about identity and privilege.”

Souls are Never Foreigners

Participating in local activities and customs was a vital aspect of both Jessica and Philips experience with FSD. A vital aspect of FSD’s approach is that interns work closely with local communities to identify resources that bring about change. This requires interns to immerse themselves in the local customs and culture and find commonalities with others. A failure to do so could lead to an overall negative experience for interns and a wasted opportunity for positive change within the community.  

Every culture has its traditions. These may show themselves through art forms like music, dance, painting, and sculpture, or through indigenous games, yearly festivals, and rites of passage. Such rituals are critical parts of the social and cultural fabrics of global societies. An exemplar of this is a famous Kenyan game called Nyama-Nyama (Nyama means meat in Swahili). It is a circle game in which one person stands in the middle. The person in the middle calls out an animal. If the animal can be eaten for food and sustenance, the people participating in the game, usually children, yell out ‘Nyama-Nyama’ as a recognition that they are paying attention and the animal could be eaten. While yelling Nyama, the participants jump up and down with their arms stiff at their sides and their legs straight. However, if the animal called out is not eaten for food and a participant accidentally responds, that child moves to the center. This is a fun game which educates its participants about the different local animals that are native to various regions in Kenya. Getting involved in games like Nyama offer just one of many wonderful ways of learning about a culture and feeling like a local. Integrating into traditional games such as this helped both Jessica and Phillip feel more closely linked to their communities. “When I first arrived at my host family, my mother said ‘you’re my daughter because you look like me’ which was really cool to have that kind of a connection,” says Jessica. As Philip put it, “Souls are never foreigners.”

Advice for Others

There are countless reasons why African Americans decide to intern abroad and travel to Africa. No matter what your motivation is, one key point to remember is to go into the experience with an open mind. Jessica advises, “Be open to new experiences. You don’t want to put your experience on a pedestal before going and thinking that when you go you’re going to have this period of enlightenment. You shouldn’t go there thinking you will immediately feel as though you are going to be accepted as a local. Don’t go in with expectations, be open to learn and listen.” Being willing to learn and open to new experiences is sometimes the only advice you can give to a volunteer. Understanding that you will be an outsider in the country you visit is difficult, but it can lead to a newfound understanding of identity and culture. Know that most people who question you about your race or ethnicity do so out of curiosity, not animosity, but if you ever feel uncomfortable or find yourself facing difficult identity issues, the FSD site team is there to support you during your time abroad.

To learn more about becoming an international volunteer with FSD please visit us here.