After visiting 40+ countries in other parts of the world, I had the privilege of visiting East Africa in the Fall of 2019. Many of my friends on the continent had routinely said to me, “I see you’re a man of the world, but when are you going to come home?” Undoubtedly, these were the playful invitations of proud people who missed their friend. Yet, it was also the unrelenting voice in the back of my mind that told me I needed to visit my ancestral home. I felt a certain obligation that I couldn’t ignore.
Going to Africa can feel like a homecoming for many members of the African Diaspora. But is it home? Although we are African in our collectivism, our art, our spirituality, and our genetics, many of us have also been indelibly impacted by our experience in the West. Being African American has meant coming to terms with my own sense of individualism, consumerism, and entitlement. Because of this duality and cultural assimilation, some may argue that the “African homecoming” is a fiction for a people who still feel under-appreciated in the United States. I never felt that way, but I wanted to see for myself what the environment and culture would feel like once I stepped foot on the continent.
My trip included stops in three countries. The majority of my time would be spent in Rwanda, followed by shorter stops in Uganda and Kenya. As I flew the 20+ hours to the Rift Valley, I was more excited than I had been in a while. I also recognized that my relative discomfort in economy class could not compare to the horror that enslaved Africans felt hundreds of years ago as they made their way over the Middle Passage.
Whereas my trips overseas had started to feel a bit routine, this one had an element of mystery to it. I asked myself numerous questions: How would it feel to see the demi-gloss of black faces around me? How would the locals react to me? Would I fit in? Would I be seen as a “brother” or a Mugunzu (a.k.a., a white foreigner)?
In Rwanda, I was hosted by my friends and colleagues Maurice and Jeremy as part of a larger group of interculturalists. Maurice is an enterprising millennial Rwandan who survived the horrors of the Rwandan genocide. Jeremy is a British-born transplant who moved to Kigali in 2019. During my ten-day stay in Rwanda, I was able to visit the Rwandan Genocide Memorial and spend time at an orphanage village in the countryside. In Uganda, I spent time socializing with new friends and experiencing the nightlife of Kampala. In Kenya, I spent several days in the Masai Mara before connecting with colleagues amidst the buzz and humdrum of Nairobi.
I can still see the collage of so many beautiful images in my mind: the red clay streets of Kigali…the intense traffic of Kampala…the daybreak serenity of the African savannah.
Of course, no place on Earth is paradise, and in Africa, there are still disquieting truths. For example, Rwanda is still recovering from the torrent of violence it experienced during the genocide, a dark episode enabled by the world’s refusal to intervene. Uganda has some of the most virulent anti-LGBTQ laws on the books, and the Kenyan government is said to be overrun by corruption.
But governments do not define a people.
I also kept reminding myself to step away from my social conditioning. Africa is not a homogenous place; it consists of 54 countries with their own unique cultures and histories. Africa is not “exotic,” at least not to those of us who share its sensibilities. And although Africa has been exploited by world powers for centuries, Africa is not needing saviors. Africa is simply needing a reckoning, or an acknowledgement of its centrality to human existence.
What I felt in East Africa was the acknowledgment that I had been missing. A lot of what I felt is inexplicable. In the weeks and months since I departed, I have struggled to find the words to convey what I felt. Others who have visited the continent have shared a similar experience. It felt surreal to be “seen.” In every interaction, there was never any question of whether I was human or whether I belonged. I felt socially embraced there in a way that I have strangely never felt in the United States.
This is not to suggest that every interaction was deeply metaphysical or profound. Sometimes I was just making small talk or ordering food. But the people had a humility and grace that was unmistakable. What I felt in Africa was the capacity to be joyful in the midst of simplicity, or the capacity to be more human without the presence of a capitalistic agenda. I didn’t feel transformed as much as I felt alive in nuanced and discrete ways.
As an example, I remember the dozens of schoolkids waving excitedly at our bus as it rattled through the hillsides in Rwanda. I wanted to bring every one of them home with me. I remember being in Kigali and laughing as the servers in a trendy restaurant told me I was the first Black person they met who didn’t eat meat. I remember being in Kampala and hearing music blaring from a nightclub that could’ve easily been in New York, Chicago, or Oakland. There was no such thing as “soul music;” there were simply rhythms that everyone could shake their hips to. I remember inviting new friends in Nairobi to visit the United States. and fielding their questions about the gun culture and whether it was a safe country to visit. Each interaction carried with it a thousand different subplots, twists, and insights. Each interaction carried with it the enduring aroma of love, laughter, and community.
It was wonderful to have conversations that weren’t transactional. People actually wanted to talk and hear my story. People wanted to know where I was from, though many were surprised to know that I was American. I was asked questions about my family and in each conversation, I felt an openness and a mindfulness that I rarely get in the States. The Africans I met were astonished to see my clothing (bought from an African-American retailer) which bore such close resemblance to theirs. They were thrilled to see pictures of my family and friends, many of whom looked like their own relatives. They asked if African Americans thought about them. I reminded them that we are one and the same.
The peace I felt came not in some profound moment of cultural exchange. It came from the abiding feeling that I could be myself and that in being myself, I was able to relate to everyone I encountered.
I often think of the day when I will return to the continent. There are other countries I want to explore and other parts of myself I want to meet. Fortunately, I no longer have to deflect the questions from my African friends as to when “I’m coming home.” Now I ask myself: “How do I keep ‘home’ living inside of me?”
Dr. Joel A. Brown, Esq., CLC.
Dr. Joel A. Brown is the Chief Visionary Officer of Pneumos LLC, a management consulting and coaching company based in San Francisco, USA, specializing in cultural intelligence, leadership, change management, and strategic storytelling. As a change agent, Joel works strategically with organizational leaders to cultivate innovative, creative, and adaptive environments where the cultural genius of everyone can be harnessed and leveraged successfully.
Best known for his critical analysis, creativity, humor, and his ability to build consensus, Joel has partnered with Fortune 500 Companies, non-profit organizations, and government agencies to help them achieve sustained growth and organizational breakthroughs. His clients have ranged from LinkedIn to the United Nations, and his “sweet spots” have included men’s leadership, LGBT inclusion, interpersonal dialogue, and intercultural communication.
Joel is a member of several international think tanks, including D2K, the Diversity Collegium, SIETAR, and the Global Community Dialogue. He is also an Expert Panelist with the Global Diversity & Inclusion Benchmarks. Joel is an adjunct professor at the IESEG business management school in France, and is a nationally recognized spoken word artist in the United States. Joel is a graduate of the University of Minnesota and the Virginia School of Law, and received his doctorate in Educational Leadership from Saint Mary’s College in May 2018.