An African-American in Africa — Robin in Rwanda

I’ve been “writing” this particular blog for weeks.  I had the feelings, but either I didn’t have the words or I had too many words: Awe, pride, love, wonder, happiness,  anger, fear, hope.  How could I feel all of these things, sometimes at once, I wondered.  And how do I express them?  Then I came across this quotation and the words of this great comedian seemed to sum it up:

“Now I know how white people in America feel……. Relaxed.” – comedian Richard Pryor on his first visit to Africa in 1979

Between the time I learned I was going to Africa and completing the logistics of getting ready, I didn’t have much time to think about what to expect when I got here. I’ve travelled a lot outside of the US, but as an African-American, the ability to live and work in Africa for six months through the PULSE program was a dream come true!

PULSE Infographic

I have always felt a connection, a pull, to the motherland — where it all began. But Africa is also a huge continent of many countries and cultures and I don’t know exactly where it began for my family.  I didn’t have the sense of going “home”, where I would be able to look up relatives, hear familial stories and all the other things people do when they trace their roots.  Because of that, I didn’t have any pre-conceived notions of how I would be received or perceived.

With my cappuccino-colored skin and face full of freckles, I don’t see a lot of people who look like me here. I’ve been warmly welcomed and frequently asked where I’m from, which is to be expected, but then, I am often quietly asked about my ethnicity (Ethiopian, Eritrean, part European, Caribbean?). No one is mistaking me for Rwandan, and while it’s not “home” of course, and there are so many cultural and language differences, there is a connection and I am inexplicably quite comfortable here.  I know it’s not how I’m perceived that counts.  It’s what I see and feel and especially what I’ve learned in these few short weeks that’s important

RWTbus

With everything going on in the US, more killings by police and more killings of police, our justice/incarceration system, the prevalent gun violence, our political landscape — I literally choke up at times.  At other moments,  I find myself grinning like an idiot by what’s around me –black people everywhere, doing everything, conversing in several languages, especially their own!  There are Black men and women in positions of power, helping to shape the future of Rwanda.  Black men: excelling, engaged, loving fathers and husbands.  Black women: comfortable in their bodies, with natural hair, African braids, Kitenge wrapped heads– proudly beautiful.   I see  traditionally styled and patterned clothing everywhere — even when with a European twist, it’s a uniquely African style that modestly celebrates curves and highlights brown skin tones!!

Crosswalkpink umbrella

Everything I am seeing is what the stereotypes back home tell us is an anomaly AND, so different than what is constantly being telegraphed in the US about black people.

Of course, Rwanda has its challenges.  There is a lot of poverty here — many very poor, vulnerable people, but importantly, there are Rwandans helping Rwandans, developing local capabilities and rebuilding Rwanda. Rwandans are returning home from the diaspora to be a part of the future. It’s an exciting place to be right now!

 

For most of us African-Americans, we are several generations and worlds away from our African ancestors, forced from our ancestral home. We don’t know from which country, which history, which language, which customs we come.  We are proudly American and yet, in our country, we don’t see ourselves in power, leadership or other significant roles in proportionate numbers with the exception of sports and music.  President Obama is a sign of change, but to hear people tell it he is “special”, “different”, in some cases not even black, and if black, then his very Americaness is questioned and disrespected in ways we haven’t seen before — and not because of his politics.

We are all impacted by what we see and hear everyday. ALL of us harbor and/or act on biases we’ve developed over time often unknowingly and unwillingly and sometimes, unfortunately, very deliberately.  I think I am flooded by emotions and surprised by that, because I am suddenly acutely aware of the sheer weight of the biases under which we routinely labor.    Many of us African-Americans have a shared experience, of being the only ones or one of a very few of any color in many aspects of our daily lives and though we know to expect it, it can be a lonely and tiring experience.

Every country has a history (or a present) of which they are not proud — Rwanda, is no different. No place is perfect, and, I do miss America.   I keep wondering , however, if our black kids at home could see and experience the people here, in their own country, what impact would it have on them?  They would see people who look like them doing every- and anything, everyday.  How would it affect how they view themselves and their vision of what they could achieve today and tomorrow?  They might see potential in themselves and opportunities in America that they weren’t able to envision before.  Rwandans know their history, the good, bad and ugly and it matters. Rwandans see themselves in every walk of life, and it matters.

girlboysFamilypolice

I’ll close as I started, reflecting on what it took to write this blog — I even wondered if I should write it since this is a work-related assignment and topics like this can be highly charged, to say the least. But these PULSE assignments are, in the program’s own words, meant to “Change communities, change employees and change GSK”.  I am only part of the way through this assignment, but I am already filled with appreciation for GSK for having the vision, commitment and frankly, the moxie, to challenge and support it’s employees (me) to be part of the change we want to see.  I also appreciate that I am an American of African heritage and with all the challenges that brings, the work left to do, America is a great country that we helped build. It is home.

I don’t have any easy answers as yet and I may leave some of you feeling uncomfortable, but I hope you will accept that this is a journey of discovery for me. I also hope that you will continue on this amazing  adventure with me and appreciate that I have learned what it feels like to be…….. “Relaxed.”

43 comments

  1. Again Robin a well written account of superimposing your life into your Rwandan’s experience. It makes me feel as if I’m there with you. I’ve been o both Ghana and Nigeria; would like to have gone to Cote d’Ivorie….long time past. Soak it up young lady; I know Mr Robert misses you and so does everyone else. God bless and keep up these blogs. Try to provide some info on monetary rates,salaries, etc. Thanks.

  2. Great post Robin! Thank you for taking us with you on your journey and giving words to the morass of emotions that don’t settle into easy definitions, conclusions, or next steps. I hear you absorbing and observing your experience with courage, openness, and curiosity. Your experience has left me wondering about your emerging transpersonal qualities and I smile to think you may be moving into those emerging expressions of your truth with your choice to pursue PULSE.
    Please know we are with you and holding you dearly as you step into a new world.

  3. Robin, Wow! Thank you for sharing your deepest thoughts and feelings about your experience and the impact it has had on you. I wish you well as you continue on your assignment and look forward to the next blog.

  4. Robin, thanks for sharing this. Very thoughtful and inspiring. This obviously is a priceless experience and I sure you will have a lot to change & challenge upon return to the US, both in your communities and within GSK.

  5. What amazingly profound insights, Robin! I love seeing Rwanda through your eyes. As you experience a roller coaster of emotions, I feel immense hope and inspiration through your words and pictures. Looking forward to more of your stories to come! Enjoy this journey!

  6. Robin-cuz, thank you so much for sharing your wonderful insights and thoughts. Priceless. Continued good travels. Love you.

  7. Robin, writing from Rwanda and watching you interact on a daily basis with the staff here I can assure you that the respect you give to everyone here in PIH is the respect you get back too. We appreciate a country or a people more if we respect their history, traditions and culture – often visitors come cynical and leave cynical. Your openness to the people of Africa and Rwanda in particular is what makes you appreciate who we are despite the challenges we face on a daily basis. I hope when you go back to the USA you find time to visit schools of predominantly African-American children and inspire them to be the best that they can be – to find themselves and their place in history without referencing themselves all the time to a more “privileged” group. Belonging and peace of mind and passion and knowing that the only limiting factor is yourself are the essential ingredients to self actualization. Enjoy the rest of your stay

  8. I really enjoyed reading your blog post Robin. You have taken all of us on your journey with you. I look forward to reading your new discoveries in your upcoming blogs.

  9. What a marvelous blog. So descriptive , insightful , lovingly presented. I felt I was there . What a wonderful experience. You are missed greatly but what you are able to share and bring back home to us is priceless. Rwandans are blessed to have you sharing your talents and your spirit. We are blessed to have that access everyday. Keep the blogs coming.

    Love you,

    Mum

  10. I truly enjoy no appreciate your experience especially sharing it with me. WOW – an unfettered view clear of biases and politics is too refreshing to mention. I’d like to answer you about “AMERICA” in kind but I can’t . I am confined even “ingulfed” in a millue of useless rhetoric of my existence. Thanks for the “BLOG”. Keep them coming.

  11. Robin, thanks for sharing the experience you are having here in the country I cherish, Rwanda. i’m touched. if all of these friends following or reading your blog could know how much we enjoy working with you. Would this PULSE take at least a year ???? hahaaahhah

    Alice

  12. Loved reading this Robin-thank you!! I can’t wait to read/hear more about your experience and you’ve heightened my interest in the Pulse program

  13. Hey Robin,

    I totally enjoyed your last blog post. I was tempted to post it on Facebook since this is appears to be where most folks here spend their time…posting pictures and talking about nothing. They should read what travel outside one’s comfort zone conjures up and how they are missing out on being the change for their neighborhood, their community, their city, their state, their county, the World.

    Thanks so much for sharing and continue to be all of what you feel my dear. That’s where you will feel your ‘free’ self.

    Ivy

  14. Wow, Robin – what an incredible, raw, thought-provoking & powerful blog! Thank you so much for sharing some of your deepest thoughts & reflections on what you are experiencing as an African-American in Africa — I especially appreciate the guts & care that it took given you’re still going through the reflection journey and given, as you say, this is such a charged subject. You’ve really done it justice through your voice, which is honest, inspiring and insightful. This blog certainly was worth the wait(!) — and I hope it not only inspires you to keep serving as the strong role model that you are, but also others (Rwandans, Africans, African Americans, etc.) to see & understand themselves as the role models that they are or can be for others. Keep soaking it all up & keep bringing your wonderful self to all around you! Enjoy & God bless.

  15. Hi Robin, Congratulations! I mean this in the most sincere way – what an amazing blog entry: full of power, emotion, thought, courage, admiration, respect for people, self awareness. You showed your ability of going through an experience and extrapolating its impact not just on those around you, but also on those half a world away You have captured so much and so eloquently. I’m awed.

  16. Hi Robin! Thank you for sharing your daily experiences and deepest reflections. I have tears in my eyes. I hope you continue to thrive as you move ahead in Rwanda. Miss you!
    xoxo Julie

    1. So great to hear from you JUlie! It’s hard to believe that I’m on the short end of my journey! Hope you and the family are well.

  17. Hi Robin! I really enjoyed reading about your time in Rwanda. I recently visited Rwanda a few weeks ago and I also felt the same sentiments as an African-American woman. I currently live in Uganda now and am adjusting to life daily, although I’ve lived here a little over a year now. I am a new follower to your blog!

    1. Welcome Ms Black Expat! I am only here for a total of six months and much to my dismay, it is almost over (I do miss home though!). I am looking forward to my first trip to Kampala in December. All of my Ugandan friends say it is the polar opposite of Kigali!!! I can’t wait🙂. Best of luck to you and your son. It is an awesome gift that he will be able to experience Africa with you.

      1. Ms. BE-P, We are planning our trip for the first weekend in December. Please let me know how to reach you. I can’t seem to find a private message mechanism for WordPress. Cheers’

  18. Robin – thanks so much for this powerful post. I was curious what it was like being an African American living in Africa and your post summarized it perfectly. Hope all is well
    Lisa C

    1. Hi Lisa, Thank you! I hope you are enjoying your new role. I am looking forward to catching up in the new year.

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