Archive for the ‘identity’ Category

A Bend In the River

December 24, 2008


“The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

So begins V.S. Naipaul’s classic of African literature. My last week in Oman had me searching for something to fill the spaces between the history and physics reading. I was pleased to pick up A Bend in the River a masterpiece from an extraordinarily gifted writer. I must tell you I “finished” it in two days. I say “finished” because my copy ends on page 286, as Salim the narrator heads downriver, escaping from the small town in the Congo where he has made his life. The last page is a like an ending, but I am left mysteriously wondering if there is more from Salim, whether the narrative has room for his other life at the end of that steamer voyage. Instead, the last few sentences read: “the sky hazed over, and the sinking sun showed orange and was reflected in a broken golden line in the muddy water. Then we sailed into a golden glow.” A full stop, but not an ending.

Naipaul has both fascinated with his brilliant prose, and vexed with the often reactionary observations of his narrators, so much like autobiography. The man has undeniable talent, but I felt as I did when reading Paul Theroux’s book Dark Star Safari; the man is grouchy, content with his sweeping views of ‘Africans’ and seemingly obsessed with the achievement of Europeans in contrasting his society with theirs. In this way the book reminds one of Heart of Darkness Perhaps this is a particular feature of our narrarator that Naipaul has captured with great skill, but, having read other of Naipaul’s work, I suspect that Naipaul is able to write so penetratingly into Salim’s mind because he himself feels the ambivalence of place, the loneliness, and the slight contempt of the privileged outsider.

Salim’s family is from Africa, part of an Indian trading caste (the Khoja) who were originally Hindus but converted to Islam, particularly Ismaili Shi’a Islam. Salim introduces himself as an outsider/insider: “The coast was not truly African. It was an Arab-Indian-Persian-Portuguese place, and we who lived there were really people of the Indian Ocean. True Africa was at our back. Many miles of scrub or desert seperated us from the up-country people; we looked east to the lands of with which we traded–Arabia, India, Persia. These were also the lands of our ancestors. But we could no longer say that we were Arabians or Indians or Persians; when we compared ourselves with these people, we felt like people of Africa.”

Salim feels insecure in his family, because they are static, falling behind in changing times. He wishes to get away. He lacks the religious conviction of his fathers and brothers and does not have a temperament like them to be “buried so deep in their lives that they were not able to stand back and consider that nature of their lives.” This pessimism of Salim’s “can drive men to do wonders” and it pushes him into Central Africa as a shop owner in Kisingani (one of the many way stops for the ivory trade, it was founded in 1883 by Henry Stanley). But even there, he writes of his displacement and loneliness, in a deliberate way: “I seperated myself from them. I still thought of myself as a man just passing through. But where was the good place? I couldn’t say. I never thought constructively about it. I was waiting for some illumination to come to me, to guide me to the good place and the ‘life’ I was still waiting for.”

Salim’s commentary on both Africa and Europe reveals this insider/outsider dynamic. On the one hand, he and his family have mixed African-Indian servants, speak Swahili, and occupy a long established niche in African commerce. But one of the overriding themes of the book is the ambivalence of Salim’s racial and cultural heritage. For instance, while his family and tribe continue to live in Africa and avoid political discussion of Africa’s future, Europeans (through the eyes of Salim) are a more creative force in the modern world, and this makes him both envy and despise them:

“The Europeans could do one thing and say something quite different; and they could act in this way because they had an idea of what they owed to their civilization. It was their great advantage over us. The Europeans wanted gold and slaves like everybody else; but at the same time they wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves. Being an intelligent and energetic people, and at the peak of their powers, they could express both sides of their civilization; and they got both the slaves and the statues”

This dynamic finds expression in the affair he begins with Yvette, the young and beautiful wife of a European professor whose ‘expertise’ on this region of Africa is a penetrating example of the uses and misuses of historical knowledge. Salim reads the scholar’s articles and eats with him and Yvette in their home, and then leaves to be with the latter at his house. He finds their company stimulating and it takes away his loneliness; this is the optimistic period where Salim and others in the new African university (The Domain) live “in the companionship of that pretence, to feel that…we all lived beautifully and bravely with injustice and imminent death and consoled ourselves with love.”

Salim’s discussions with his friend Indar reveal one of the book’s dynamic figures. Indar leaves Africa, goes to university in London, and returns as a Lecturer in The Domain. Indar, like Salim, wanted more, but unlike Salim, he was rich and more ambitious. He tells Salim, “I found myself growing false to myself, acting to myself, convincing myself of my rightness for whatever was being described. And this is where I suppose life ends for most people, who stiffen in the attitudes they adopt to make themselves suitable for the jobs and lives that other people have laid out for them.”

Of course, the affair ends badly, the situation under the unnamed but obvious character of The President (Mobutu) gets steadily worse, and Salim has to flee. The plot is simple, and the characters, when they are not Indian or European, seem curiously immune from Salim’s otherwise penetrating interior gaze. Rarely do we see or hear about the inner life and thoughts of any African from Salim. Even his closest companion, Metty, the mixed Indian-African, is always there attendant to Salim’s needs, obsequious, and seemingly concerned only with his female liasons. In the end it is Metty who Salim suspects of betraying him, after Salim tells him he can no longer take care of him. None of the African women Salim sleeps with in the brothels merit so much as a name, and there are only two other African characters who are given any narrative importance. One is Zabeth, a customer from a forest village who Salim admires for her enterprise and attachment to her village traditions. The other is her son, Ferdinand, a boy who grows into a man during Salim’s stay in the Congo. I felt Ferdinand was more of a narrative device than a true character, he exemplifies for Salim the ambivalence he feels about the new generation of Africans. For Ferdinand was put in Salim’s care by Zabeth, and at each juncture of the novel, Ferdinand straddles the ideological and social debates of post-colonial Africa: loss of tribal allegiance, European education, the African personality. Eventually it is he, as a newly appointed appendage of the post-colonial state, who saves Salim’s life.

I always feel a sense of quiet pessimism upon finishing Naipaul’s work. His prose tends towards the themes of decay and stagnation, loneliness and the loss of stability in the world. As a writer he must have struggled with this most explicitly as an Indian from Trinidad who was educated at Oxford. I suspect that in writing this book, Naipaul drew quite heavily on his own ‘African experience’ as an Indian minority in a majority African, postcolonial country. There are bits of him in both Salim and Indar. Of course, writing is autobiography, so this shouldn’t surprise, but it ought to make one aware that the position of relentless outsider is not the only legitimate position of a writer, but the product of a unique background. (see Alan Nest’s excellent review of the book which touches on this) I can identify in some ways with Naipaul’s internal anguish. But I am still debating whether one has to, like Ferdinand, choose an identity and be subsumed by it, or pay the price of loneliness and exile like Salim for the sake of writing with a critical distance. I am not sure this is even the correct way to frame this debate. Can one maintain a critical distance, be true to oneself, and still be a participating member of a given community. Is it really that easy? Is ‘fitting in’ worth the inevitable price? Are these questions only relevant to those who, through some trick of fate, have lost their own true identity? For historians and anthropologists who want to consider the value of their own knowledge and who they produce it for, these are essential questions to fit within an ongoing critical self-analysis.

The ‘Swahili’ Omani

October 7, 2008

Nation-building and communities in Oman since 1970: The Swahili-speaking Omani in search of identity

by Marc Valeri
full text article
In 1964, the revolution in Zanzibar put an end to the local al-Busa‘idi dynasty. The Omani Arabs were summoned by the newly independent state to ‘go back home’, because of their supposed foreignness. Yet no collective repatriation process was organized by the sultan of Muscat. It is alleged that around 17,000 Arabs died during the events. Oman received 3,700 refugees only and many other families were forced to settle in Dubai, Kuwait or Cairo.

A second wave of return followed the call launched in 1970 by Sultan Qaboos to the Omani elite abroad, inviting them to contribute to the ‘awakening’ of the country. Around 10,000 Omani from Zanzibar are thought to have moved back to Oman by 1975. Despite the fact that most of the expatriate Omani did not speak Arabic fluently, Qaboos had no option but to grant them Omani citizenship, as soon as they returned, without any consideration of the time their family had spent abroad. First, the Omani abroad were relatively more educated than those at home. Many of them spoke English fluently and had been trained in technical fields in Europe, East Africa or other Gulf countries, so they made a significant workforce for the ruler’s planned modernization. Besides, given his political isolation when he came to the throne, the Sultan understood that since the Omani abroad had neither been involved in the internal political and tribal issues in Oman nor on the best of terms with his father’s regime, they could be an asset to him.

All these factors account for the fact that the returnees soon filled many positions in key fields such as intelligence, police and security. Their Arabic language handicap was outweighed by their skills in administrative organization and political control. An example of the Sultan’s dependency on these Omani during the first years of his rule is given by the Interim Planning Council, established in March 1972 to shape development achievements. Of its 10 members, six had been educated in eastern European countries, while two had been born in Zanzibar and had never been in Oman prior to the 1970 coup.

Yet, in a society like Oman where personal relationships play such a role, the fact that marriage patterns of most Manga Arabs had been limited to their kin in Africa, and that they had been kept out of the political affairs of the sultanate in Zanzibar, dramatically narrowed the networks on which they could rely when they returned. The cumulative effect of this lack of social intermediation (wasta) with their lower level of education was a tremendous handicap. If the ‘back-from-Africa’ Omani in general were unquestionably advantaged compared with the nationals who had stayed at home, nobody was better positioned to benefit from the opportunities offered by the developing Oman than the descendents of the aristocracy of Zanzibar.

Today, the ‘back-from-Africa’ Omani population is thought to number about 100,000, out of a total of more than two million Omani citizens. Locally they are called ‘Swahili’ (referring to their vernacular language) or ‘Zanzibari’ (Zinjibâriyyin; ‘Umâniyyin min Zinjibâr). Most of the tribes and ethno-linguistic groups contain within them so-called ‘Swahili’ individuals or clans—including among the royal tribe, the Shia communities and the Omani groups native to Baluchistan—but in varying proportions. The greatest numbers are found within tribes from Inner Oman, like Habus, Hirth, Bani Kharus, Kinud, Mahariq, Masakira, Bani Riyam or Bani Ruwaha. Families, or even individuals, descended from the same clans can be considered ‘Swahili’ (or not) whether they are tied (or not) to Africa.

The Omani who came back from East Africa thus constitute a highly heterogeneous group, which cannot be defined solely on genealogical or geographical criteria. The most important dividing line is the one inherited from the hierarchization in East Africa. This combination of social, cultural and economic divides was a determining factor of the position these returnees found in Oman.

In addition, every member has remained closely linked to his native tribe. Sheikhs who had stayed in Oman played a key role in validating the genealogies of members who came back after three or four generations. The vivacity of the tribal affiliation is highlighted by the huge amounts of financial transfers made by expatriates both to their native villages in Oman before 1970 and to the poorest clans of the tribe in Africa itself.

Another major dividing line is the African place of settlement. Here, there is a division between the ‘anglophone Swahili-speaking Omani’ who had lived in Zanzibar, Kenya or former Tanganyika on the one hand, and the francophones who had travelled to Central Africa (Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Congo) on the other. The latter, who are estimated to be about 10 percent of the whole Swahili-speaking Omani population, were usually Manga Arabs. Most of them only came back to Oman at the beginning of the 1990s, when Rwanda and Burundi exploded into crisis.

Finally it is necessary to keep in mind that a strict and well-known distinction is established between the back-from-Africa Omani, who can lay claim to a patriarchal genealogy in southeast Arabia and are the proper subject of this paper, and the Omani citizens who are descended from slaves brought forcibly from Africa (khadim) and who are considered not to be of Arab blood. As Mandana Limbert has put it, ‘Through the paternalizing care of the Arab-Omanis, [they] could become brothers, however, who would never be allowed to forget that they had been slaves, that they had known nothing and that they had had to be cultured’. Hence, many families with noble (qabîli) Arab lineages, who lived in Africa and are nowadays viewed as ‘Swahili’ in Oman, have always taken care to keep their Arab lineage ‘pure’.

The African Presence in Oman: Research Questions

September 23, 2008

My research looks at the influence of Swahili culture on Oman. This research is extremely relevant at the present time. The Arab/African dichotomy has been the subject of extensive media coverage due to the conflict in Darfur. Unsurprisingly, the media focuses only on conflict, reducing a complex historically-negotiated relationship to an ugly racial divide. The history of Oman offers another example of extensive cultural interchange between Arabs and Africans and may help shed light on questions of how intermarriage and migration complicate the simplistic Arab/African dichotomy. It also may shed light on questions of power vis-à-vis family identity.
There are various groups of people who all could be considered African, in one way or another, but who may identify as Arab, Swahili, or simply Omani. Africans in Oman have diverse origins: some come directly from East Africa for employment, while others have someone (usually a mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother) from East Africa. Still others are the descendants of Africans brought by Omani slave traders until the late nineteenth century.

My research starts from the premise that the culture that became Omani—primarily coastal Arabs of the southeast peninsula—had its origins in maritime pursuits and connections with the larger Indian Ocean world. For example, Oman in the nineteenth century encompassed diverse groups of people– Indian traders who made up the core of Muscat’s overseas financial empire, Baluchi mercenaries, Swahili Arabs like Tippu Tip, and indigenous Zanzibaris.
Those I refer to as Swahili Arabs migrated to the Swahili coast in large numbers beginning in the early 18th century and continued until the end of the nineteenth century. There were two major waves of migration—early 18th century, after the overthrow of the Portuguese, and mid-nineteenth century, with Sultan Seyyid Said’s move to Zanzibar.

This migration gave rise to a distinct Omani influence on the coastal culture of East Africa. Tippu Tip’s family was one example of the Swahilized Arabs who traded and intermarried in Mombasa, Zanzibar, Tanga, Bagamoyo, and other city-states of the mrima.

I am most interested in contrasting the community of Swahili Arabs with their fellow Omanis. This means tracing the history of each community, their mother tongues (Arabic vs. Swahili) and the ways in which they constitute themselves as individuals and social groups. Do all now consider themselves ‘just’ Omani? What religious and cultural differences separated Zanzibari/Swahili Omanis from other Arab Omanis? Is there a social stigma in Oman in being from Zanzibar? What kind of economic differences are there between the two groups What aspects of culture in Oman can be said to have an African origin? Which nisbas are most associated with migration to East Africa?

One way I hope to answer these questions is through an individual who in many ways straddles these divides. Hamed bin Muhammed el-Murjebi, the most famous of the nineteenth century Swahili ivory-traders, was the great grandson of an African woman and an Arab migrant trader from Oman. The first part of my research is directed towards finding relatives of Hamed bin Muhammed el-Murjebi (Tippu Tip) and interviewing them, as well as tracing any documents related to Hamed bin Muhammed’s life and family.
Arab/African Intermarriage

Whiteness as a Global Phenomenon: Some Observations

August 20, 2008

And, yet, a certain word, a glance, a guise, will mirror, never show, reflecting not my gaze, but my uncertain question caught inside a shadow of our shifting eyes.

A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.
–James Joyce

Joseph Palmi: Let me ask you something… we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish, they have the homeland, Jews their tradition; even the niggers, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?
Edward Wilson: The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.

–from The Good Shepherd directed by Robert De Niro

I’ve had a lot of time over the past few days to think, since I am currently holed up in Mombasa with a dwindling cash supply. I’ve been thinking a lot about race and racial identity. Even though ‘mzungu’ calling here seems to have dwindled a bit lately (the kids in the building where I;m living finally know my name), reminders of the ongoing importance of ‘whiteskin privilege’ are ever present.

Yesterday, I was sitting in the baobab forest on the west side of town, munching on coconut biscuits and litchi juice, when this young man came and sat nearby and struck up a conversation. Turns out he is a new arrival in Mombasa from Kampala, Uganda, recently graduated from highschool and looking to get a job in I.T.
He spoke excitedly of his love for America and California, American television (Prison Break anyone?), and of his ultimate desire to marry an American woman. When I asked why this was so, he replied how much he liked their attitude and their freedom. Apparently though, as I soon clarified, this only applied to American WHITE women, because black women, he had been told, cheated on their men, and if their man found out about it, he would kill you.
Again, it got me thinking about the pervasive attitude I have observed over here of mzunguphilia…I am talking about in casual conversation, as well as the numerous women who have approached me telling me they love white men. Is it money? Yes. Is it self-hatred? This I find to be more complex answer.

It brought me back to a reflection about race and white identity that was published in the Liberator Magazine about “Positive White Identity”. That article was my attempt to piece together all the disparate parts of my experience into some coherent philosophy for moving forward and living wholistically in world where the standard for what is right, as much as whites don’t want to admit it, is still based on what powerful white men think.

My article was interpreted by some as an unequivocal stance against identifying as white, as if the identity itself was the virus and not the privilege, power, and arrogance that rides shotgun. Yet I was not trying to call whiteness the enemy so that every white would feel guilty when that identifying word was used. I wrote provocatively because I wanted to use the emotions of that word to spark a deeper probing of identity in general for people like me, family members, friends, and others who may have struggled with these questions and issues.

My own probing began in highschool with history, primarily American history, and looking at how the edifice of white supremacy in America was built and sustained from the first European settlement all the way through the Black Power movement. When I moved South for the first time, the ongoing reality of this system and its effects hit home in a powerful way.

Many years later, after a visit to South Africa, I began to understand how the system that whites built in America had been duplicated in other parts of the world where European migrants settled. Reading Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism made me aware of how the intellectual lineage of European thought was grounded in an attempt to universalize the mix of dynamism and fratricidal warfare that characterized intra-European relations (the specific heritage of European development through history) as a pattern for global development. To some extent this became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the effects and after effects of European expansion and colonialization still reverberate through our modern political order.

At the same time that the historical link of whiteness and power was entering my understanding, my consciousness was penetrated by a second, more profound realization at the deepest levels. This was stimulated by going to school in majority black envirornments at Howard and Lincoln. Already radicalized going into these experiences, I was unprepared for how much I actually enjoyed the respect and affirmation I received for being (more often than not) the only white in most every situation. I didn’t keep quiet or censor my views, but I did find that I was forced to grapple with viewpoints that were far from the rainbow view of diversity-for-personal-enhancement that I had been spoon fed by my public education.

More than being respected, I found I desired to be totally accepted by blacks. Since I increasingly did not find myself comfortable in the lily-white envirornments of armchair leftists, I gravitated towards black culture, and I saw my move as a cultural, as well as a political stance. If I wasn’t going to be white (at least in spirit) then I would try to be black (at least in spirit). I felt I was solving two problems with this move. First, I was confronting my own segregated heritage and the cultural and social divide along racial lines that is absolutely real in America, Obama notwithstanding. Second, I believed I was dealing in an active way with the ‘white guilt’ that seems to overtake ‘liberal’ whites who attempt to confront race. (I used to observe despairingly the extent to which these whites let their guilt virtually paralyze their ability to analyze independently in discussions of race; it was as if their logical circuits shut down, and they put themselves down as the de facto oppressor.)

However, my growing adaptation culturally–deepening friendships, serious working relationships, dating, and even the ability to master linguistic cues in Black English–was not without its problems. Some blacks found my ‘passing’ into black culture less than authentic and actually quite pathetic. Those who disliked me likely did so for one of three reasons (that I either overheard or was told directly) 1) Genuine suspicion–ie, this guy has got to be a spook or 2)Belief that I was basically an interloper snooping where I didn’t and couldn’t belong. (commonly held by the ‘conscious’ crowd) or 3) Envy–ie, how could this white guy be so successful at a school for ‘us’?

At the same time, I think my immersion raised concern among my family that I had really lost my foundation and didn’t know who I was. I am quite sure other whites had even more unkind thoughts: Who the hell is this ‘wigger’ and what does he think he’s doing? But there were many whites, who even if a bit quizzical, admired what I was doing. For my own part , I (uncharitably)found their admiration evidence of their unwillingness (or, more likely, inability) to do what I was doing.

I got so accomplished at being racially ambigous that black women customers at the Silver Spring Kinkos where I worked would frequently ask what race I was or comment how I must just be lightskinned. My personal favorite was, “Are you related to my cousin in Newark? Because you look just like him.” This phenomenon even occured internationally. Two years ago, in Tanzania, an elderly man asked me, “Are you mixed with Negro?”

It made me very happy to not be considered white, I must say. At first, I felt like some kind of pioneer, or maybe a new hero, someone like the few whites I idolized–John Brown, Bob Zellner, Heather Booth. I was motivated by the idealistic feeling of a higher calling to do something no one else was willing to or capable of doing. I was that ‘special white boy.’ I was ‘different than the rest.’ And maybe I was, indeed am. No one can take the experience I have had from me.
But the inescapable fact, despite my abilities, my openmindedness, my ability to break down cultural barriers, despite the acceptance I have gained, is that I am no closer to being ‘non-white’. At the end of the day, I have privilege and power I didn’t ask for, benefits I have not earned, simply because of my skin color and my passport.

Indeed, the immersion into majority-black-envirornments actually helped me avoid dealing with the fundamental issue of who I am. In a way, as long as I was the only white, and I was down enough to hang around, I could enjoy myself and not have to think about a more fundamental problem: who the hell is Nate Mathews? That question only popped up when other whites came around, and I was forced to interact with them on some interpersonal level. Maybe that’s why I found myself often a little suspicious at other whites and their motives for being where I was.

At the root of a lot of my suspicion, as well as white guilt, as well as the pervasive fear in the American body politic, is a lack of knowledge about who WE truly are? What collective identity do white people (now many generations removed from European descent) have other than living in the most powerful nation on earth? As a colleague put it, if America were to fall, what would ‘whites’ really have? What cultural foundation do we have to stand on? Where are our roots? Who the hell are we?

Now this is a question I found that African Americans (that is the descendants of those Africans brought to America to be enslaved) had to grapple with historically, and did so on a collective level by drawing on their remembrances of West African culture and tradition and attempting to extend that in an unfamiliar context. However, white Americans, by virtue of their political position, have not had to do this to any great extent. This is because of the relative economic position and illusory security offered by whiteness (in the form of land benefits, better jobs, family wealth, etc). Yet it is something that we must do, if we imagine a future beyond the United States as a people. I am reminded of that immortal quote from James Joyce, “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” I hope I am too modest to claim to be forging the uncreated conscience of my race, but G-d willing, my experience can offer some food for thought on how whites can both look at themselves critically and take action as REAL participants in the struggle for justice, not mere sideline contributors driven by latent guilt or a need for identification with the other. May the ‘battles behind my forehead’ be something worthwhile to someone, somewhere.

P.S. You know, as close as 6 months ago, I could not have written this post. I was still working so hard to be accepted. But thanks to some great conversations with people like DH, NP, and TN, I have been able to see the importance of admitting to myself certain things I did not want to see for a long time.

TCDC Conversations

July 23, 2008

Here at TCDC is like being in another world and I am anxious to move on. This place is a safe place for the many missionaries and development workers who come to try out their latest projects or do research or work to convert more Tanzanian muslims to Christianity. Our group has had lots of interesting discussions about this and where it fits into the ‘discourse’ on Africa and its ‘development’. One of the things that inevitably has to be asked in these sorts of conversations is: development toward what? and for whom? Mwalimu Nyerere expressed this thought very eloquently, and in principle the Center is committed to the same sort of vision. But in reality, students and aid workers come here for their own reasons and with their own prejudices.
An interesting conversation with an American who grew up in Kenya as the son of missionaries and has done a lot of work in Djibouti:
“Well,” he told me, “you can’t blame all Africa’s problems on the West.” I thought this was intriguing because I had never stated that I did or that one should. As I began an explanation of US foreign policy in Africa, he listened and agreed, but then began to rail on ‘the usual suspects’ in the sort of ideologically lazy blame-game played by lightweight racists: “Well, these African leaders are the ones that are corrupt. Who is holding them responsible?” I agreed and explained how many of the corrupt ones were propped up by the United States government for their strategic interest. He claimed to agree, and we continued to discuss about culture. He said, “the reason Somali society doesn’t progress is because all the men want to do all day is drink chai and chew chat (a popular lightweight narcotic). He also made various statements claiming that whenever Muslims own the land, the land is never prosperous.
The illuminating thing about these sorts of conversations is that they are usually had by the very people doing long-term work or research in Africa. It is sooo interesting to me how many people want to ‘study’ Africa but never see the culture and people as contributing something potentially very necessary to an ongoing conversation about culture and sustainability. Like when my friend expressed admiration for the Maasai and the way they have sustained their culture, another student from America felt compelled to chime in, “But you know they have a very high mortality rate!” Since when did that become the ultimate criteria for the good society?
I am truly ashamed at the arrogance of Americans in Africa; almost every day different situations are presented to me that make me question and probe how I interact with people here. One of the things we discussed as a group is the cultural assumptions we bring here and where and how to ‘be ourselves’ while still honoring our ‘guestness’ among Tanzanians. The Tanzanian people, I must say, are profoundly impressive. I have found them to be extremely polite, hospitable, welcoming, and very gentle.
Watching A Panther in Africa about Pete O’Neal’s work in Tanzania continuing the legacy of the Black Panther Party, I was struck by something he said about ‘being caught between two worlds’ and not being able to return to one in U.S. (and partly not wanting too) but also not fully part of the life-world he lives in–i.e. not completely adapted to being ‘Tanzanian’. I found his struggle to be tremendously inspirational and moving and also applicable in a way to the situation I have often found myself in.
One of the things I reckon with in understanding myself is what I am and how I got this way. And in considering this, I have realized many times that the existence I came from and the people I grew up calling my friends are gone. The path I have chosen to push myself down has alienated me in a way from many of those I grew up with. And the deeper I go down the path, immersing myself in various experiences–in the Delta, Atlanta, at Howard, and here in Tanzania– the more friends I make and the more I understand a certain, shall we say, point-of-view. And the less I seem to be able to understand the point-of-view of people from my own socio-economic/cultural background. And that scares me, it really does. But seeing what Pete went through confirms for me that these experiences are just a part of life, and an essential part of life for anyone who is struggling from any perspective to make sense of the madness we are living in.
This relates to the many students of my generation also studying in Africa who I find myself unable to relate to. And I can’t just go back; I don’t want to return to the way they think. But at the same time, I am still a product of my envirornment and no matter how many different places I gain acceptance into, I will never completely ‘fit’ there. And the place where I could be accepted, I no longer fit.
It feels very strange, very lonely, but in the end it is also tremendously gratifying and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.