That American Woman: Finding Myself in Africa
(Photo: Courtesy Cherisse Gardner)
My father once said to me, “Just once I’d like to get my feet on African soil, to stand anywhere on the continent if only for one day.” It’s a fairly common sentiment held by those of us whose ancestors were brought by the African slave trade to the Americas, the desire to reconnect and bind ourselves to an identity beyond our short and tragic history here. Given his advanced age and fear of flying, I’m sad to say it’s a dream I doubt he’ll ever realize.
I, however, had the great fortune of spending a couple years after college as Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia during the pre-war years, an experience I will never forget. Full of hope and wonder, I was excited touch, see, smell, hear, and taste the wonders of “the Motherland” for myself. Despite my enthusiasm for reconnecting with my roots, however, I was disabused of any notion of belonging almost as soon as I arrived. No amount of sun could darken me enough to stop the locals from referring to me as “bright,” as in fair-complected (which, by American standards, I am not). Everything I said and did made me stick out . At a mere 5’6,” I towered over the women and even a few men in the upcountry bush town of Kakata where I stayed. I was unequivocally “that American woman.”
Halfway through my term, a couple other volunteers and I decided we needed a change of scenery and took it upon ourselves to explore the region. We hoisted our backpacks and set out on our journey, getting around by hook, crook, bribe, and, when necessary, flirtation to reach our destination of the Dogon region of Mali.
At a mere 5’6,” I towered over the women and even a few men in the upcountry bush town of Kakata where I stayed. I was unequivocally “that American woman.”
From the northern border of Liberia to the bone-dry region of Sahel, the one constant throughout our trek was that everywhere I went I was an anomaly. Folks were accustomed to seeing Peace Corps volunteers, but no one I encountered had ever seen a black volunteer—and they weren’t quite sure what to make of me. They would ask “Where are you from?” I’d answer “Virginia.” Not knowing much about what a Virginia was, they’d ask “But where’s your Ma?” thinking I would finally have to confess I was from a wealthy family elsewhere in Africa and had been sent abroad to school. I’d try to explain, but my brief synopses of American History only ended up confounding them more. The one means I found of connecting was through food. Often I was offered something to eat, and, if I liked it, they took it as proof that my ancestral origins hailed not far from the pot where it was cooked. Having a healthy appetite (and strong constitution), I was heartily embraced by everyone I met and claimed as a prodigal daughter.
Even so, we were a great curiosity and our every move was observed by a crowd of small children, one of whom was known among travelers as “the Mosquito” due to his small size and constant presence. I learned that his real name was Ibrahim Dibo, and he was the unofficial guide to all foreigners who passed through. He was indispensable. He knew everything and everybody, and everyone’s business and spoke French, English, and Bambara, the local language of the region. He often served as our guide and interpreter as none of us spoke any decent French, much less Bambara.
One day while sitting around chatting, a small girl approached. Curious and eager to talk to me, she asked through Ibrahim’s translation if I could speak French. I told her I could not. “Can she speak Bambara?” the girl pressed. Again, he answered that I could not. For about a minute, this small girl looked me up and down, then boldly stepped forward, gently took ahold of my chin, and opened my mouth where upon she made a full and detailed inspection inside. Satisfied that she had seen all that she expected to find – fully functional lips, tongue, teeth and jaw., She gently closed my mouth and declared, in Bambara,, “Yes, she can—she just forgot.”
All this time I had let others pick at and define me by the differences between me and them — my complexion, my accent, my dress and comportment, the freedom to come and go as I pleased and the fact that I was from another world. But here was this girl, knowing nothing of the circumstance by which I came to be. She just looked at me and made the very clear-eyed conclusion that I was obviously African.
That was the moment I realized my connection. That was when I knew I belonged. I was no longer just “that American woman.” I was indeed a daughter of Africa. I will never again let anyone try to convince me otherwise.
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