August 23

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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

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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!!

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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.

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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.”