Skip to comments.An American in Africa (Do yourself a favor..read)
Posted on 07/09/2003 7:14:26 AM PDT by Valin
At the start of his 5-day trip to Africa, President Bush denounced slavery as "one of the greatest crimes of history." Equally repulsed by slavery, Washington Post reporter Keith Richburg nonetheless wonders, after spending three years in war-torn and disease-ravaged Africa, what his fate would have been had his ancestors not been sold as slaves roughly 400 years ago.
In the week to come, Bush will encourage emergent democracies in Africa, and condemn militant rulers in the region. He appears close to sending 2,000 U.S. troops to Liberia to join an international peacekeeping force. In addition, Bush aims to alleviate the suffering rampant in Africa by giving $15 billion to fight AIDS, $200 million for famine relief and $100 million to combat terrorism. Richburg's reflections on his time in Africa, and his plea to oppose tyranny wherever it is found, appear in our July/August 1997 issue:
I watched the dead float down a river in Tanzania. It's one of those apocryphal stories you always hear coming out of Africa, meant to demonstrate the savagery of "the natives." Babies being pulled off their mothers' backs and tossed onto spears. Pregnant women being disemboweled. Bodies being tossed into the river and floating downstream. You heard them all, but never really believed.
And yet there I was, drenched with sweat under the blistering sun, standing at the Rusumo Falls bridge, watching the bodies float past me. Sometimes they came one by one. Sometimes two or three together. They were bloated now, horribly discolored. Most were naked, or stripped down to their underpants. Sometimes the hands and feet were bound together. Some were missing limbs. And as they went over the falls, a few got stuck together on a little crag, and stayed there flapping against the current, as though they were trying to break free. I couldn't take my eyes off of the body of a baby.
We timed them: a body or two every minute. The Tanzanian border guards told us it had been like that for a couple of days now. These were the victims of the ethnic genocide going on across the border in Rwanda.
For the three long years that I spent covering Africa as a reporter for the Washington Post I had to live with images--countless images--like this one. Three years of watching pretty much the worst that human beings can do to one another. Revulsion. Sorrow. Pity at the monumental waste of human life. These sentiments began nagging me soon after I first set foot in Africa in late 1991. It's a gnawing feeling that I was really unable to express out loud until the end, as I was packing my bags to leave, a feeling I felt pained to admit, a sentiment that, when uttered aloud, might come across as callous, even racist.
And yet I know exactly this feeling that haunts me; I've just been too embarrassed to say it. So let me drop the charade and put it as simply as I know how: There but for the grace of God go I.
You see, I was seeing all of this horror a bit differently because of the color of my skin. I am an American, but a black man, a descendant of slaves brought from Africa. When I see these nameless, faceless, anonymous bodies washing over a waterfall or piled up on the back of trucks, what I see most is that they look like me.
Maybe 400 or so years ago, one of my ancestors was taken from his village, probably by a local chieftain. He was shackled in leg irons, kept in a holding pen or a dark pit, possibly at Goree Island off the coast of Senegal. And then he was put in the crowded, filthy cargo hold of a ship for the long and treacherous voyage across the Atlantic to the New World.
Many of the slaves died on that voyage. But not my ancestor. Maybe it was because he was strong, maybe just stubborn, or maybe he had an irrepressible will to live. But he survived, and ended up in slavery working on plantations in the Caribbean. Generations on down the line, one of his descendants was taken to South Carolina. Finally, a more recent descendant, my father, moved to Detroit to find a job in an auto plant during the Second World War.
And so it was that I came to be born in Detroit and that 35 years later, a black man born in white America, I was in Africa, birthplace of my ancestors, standing at the edge of a river not as an African but as an American journalist--a mere spectator watching the bloated bodies of black Africans cascading over a waterfall. And that's when I thought about how, if things had been different, I might have been one of them--or might have met some similar fate in one of the countless ongoing civil wars or tribal clashes on this brutal continent.
We are told by some supposedly enlightened black leaders that white America owes us something because they brought our ancestors over as slaves. And Africa--Mother Africa--is often held up as a black Valhalla, where the descendants of slaves would be welcomed back and where black men and women can walk in true dignity.
Sorry, but I've been there. I've had an AK-47 rammed up my nose. I've seen a cholera epidemic in Zaire, a famine in Somalia, a civil war in Liberia. I've seen cities bombed to near rubble, and other cities reduced to rubble because their leaders let them rot and decay while they spirited away billions of dollars--yes, billions-into overseas bank accounts.
I've also seen heroism, honor, and dignity in Africa, particularly in the stories of ordinary people--brave Africans battling insurmountable odds to publish an independent newspaper, to organize a political party, to teach kids in some rural bush school, and usually just to survive. But even with all the good, my perceptions have been hopelessly skewed by the bad. My tour in Africa coincided with two of the world's worst tragedies--Somalia and Rwanda. I've had friends and colleagues shot, stabbed, beaten to death by mobs, left to bleed to death on a Mogadishu street--one of them beaten so badly in the face that his friends could recognize him only by his hair and his clothes.
So excuse me if I sound cynical, jaded. I'm beaten down, and I'll admit it. And it's Africa that has made me this way. I feel for her suffering, I empathize with her pain, and now, from afar, I still recoil in horror whenever I see yet another television picture of another tribal slaughter, another refugee crisis. But most of all I think: Thank God my ancestor got out, because, now, I am not one of them.
In short, thank God that I am an American.
The young men with the machetes and the pistols had beer on their breath and murder in their eyes. But it was the dried bloodstains splattered across their filthy T-shirts that sent a cold shiver of fear slicing straight through my gut. It was the blood of their last victims.
We were at a Hutu militia checkpoint in southwestern Rwanda at the height of a campaign of genocide that had already claimed untold hundreds of thousands of lives. Most of the victims were from the Tutsi tribe, but the bodies piling up by the roadsides and on the riverbanks also included a fair number of Hutu tribesmen considered Tutsi "sympathizers." For a Hutu, simply sheltering a frightened Tutsi neighbor from the rampaging mobs and militiamen was enough to warrant a machete blow to the head. The other victims were Belgians, hated chiefly because Belgium was the former colonial power here. And that's what these crazed young men at the checkpoint were on the lookout for that day--Tutsi, Tutsi sympathizers, and Belgians.
These were hard-looking young men, and though they had a dazed, faraway look in their eyes, they conducted their search of our car with deadly efficiency--opening backpacks, checking under the seats, even peering inside the gasoline tank. One wore a red, black, and green beret, affixed at the top with a small button bearing the smiling likeness of Juvenal Habyarimana, the Hutu president who had organized these young killers and whose plane, days earlier, had mysteriously exploded in the night sky over the capital city, Kigali. I looked around while our car was being stripped, and I found Habyarimana's likeness everywhere--on buttons, and on the dirty T-shirts splashed with blood.
What I also noticed were the weapons--crude farming tools, really. Machetes and long panga knives, more typically used for clearing brush and chopping firewood than for severing human limbs. There were also big, flat, wooden clubs, smaller at the handle end and rounded at the top.
They reminded me of the all-purpose clubs Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble used to carry. But with one small difference: to make the clubs more deadly on impact, the Hutu militiamen drove long nails into the end. That's what Rwanda has become, I thought. The country has reverted to prehistoric times, to a sick version of Bedrock. Could these be fully evolved humans, carrying clubs and machetes and panga knives and smashing in their neighbors' skulls and chopping off their limbs, and piling up the legs in one pile, and the arms in another, and lumping the bodies all together and sometimes forcing new victims to sit atop the heap while they clubbed them to death, too? No, these must be cavemen.
Nobody knows how many were killed and wounded in Rwanda's bloodbath. Estimates range as high as a million dead. The Khmer Rouge killed more perhaps, but it took them three and a half years, and most of their victims died from starvation, disease, and forced labor. The Hutu militia accomplished almost as much in three months, using decidedly more low-tech methods of extermination.
As I watched the eerie procession of bodies floating down the Kagera River I asked myself, "Who are these people? What are their names? Do they have families? What were they thinking as they were killed?" I remember when I was a summer intern in a U.S. city, covering the night police beat. If a body--a single body--was discovered in the city, the police would find a name, contact a family, determine a cause of death. I remember one murder victim whose corpse was discovered with a severed arm; I got a call from the night editor shouting at me, "Which arm was severed? Right or left?" I went back to the police and found out, because it mattered.
But that was in America where every murder victim had a name, an identity, and it mattered how they died. These are just bodies dumped into a river. No one will try to check an identity, contact a family, find out which limb was severed. Because this is Africa, and they don't count the bodies in Africa.
Tribe remains the defining feature of almost every African society. Even in the supposedly more sophisticated or developed countries like Kenya, 30 years of independence and "nation building" failed to create any real sense of national identity that could transcend the tribe. In Kenya, the Kikuyu still think the Luo are inferior. The Luo don't trust the Kikuyu, who they think look down on them. And both tribes look down on the Luhya. It goes on and on.
In Kenya I also saw the devastating effects of what can happen when politicians, like Daniel arap Moi and his cronies, are willing to play the "tribal card" and stoke the flames of ethnic animosity for political advantage.
I walked through the burned-out town of Enoupukio, after it was raided by Masai warriors driving out Kikuyu who they believed had settled on traditional Masai grazing land. It looked like a war zone after a major battle, which, in a way, I suppose it was. Not a single house or shop was left standing. Even two churches were stripped of everything except a few pews.
Kikuyu refugees who had fled the town told me how the Masai who had once been their neighbors suddenly swooped down on the town with guns and machetes and spears. One woman named Loyce Majiru told me how she had to flee with her nine children, and how she looked back and saw the body of a neighbor on the side of the road, naked, with his head chopped off.
And this was Kenya, a major tourist destination and a country long considered one of the more "stable" in Africa.
These things are not discussed outside of Africa, particularly among the Africanists and Western academics for whom the very term "tribe" is anathema. The preferred term is "ethnic group" because it's considered less racially laden. But Africans themselves talk of their "tribes," and they warn of the potential for tribal explosion.
In Byumba, Rwanda, behind the Tutsi rebel lines, there is a hospital where we met some survivors of the massacre. One is a woman named Rose Kayumba.
She is very tall and thin, a quite striking woman. She tells me about ethnic attitudes and about growing up as a Tutsi in Rwanda. With their narrow noses and sharp features, the Tutsi were considered the physically attractive tribe, though they had lost political power to the Hutus. Even with growing wealth and power, what the Hutu really aspired to was to look like a Tutsi, to actually become a Tutsi.
An old Rwandan joke asks, What's the first thing a Hutu gets when he becomes wealthy? A Mercedes-Benz. What's the second thing? A Tutsi wife.
Rose, who is about my age, remembers her elderly grandmother admonishing her as a child never to play with the small, dark, and flat-nosed Hutu children in the neighborhood because they were beneath her. When the killing started in Rwanda, it was orchestrated by militia cells in the villages that systematically went door to door. But many Hutu did not need to be egged on to pick up their machetes. They would cross the road and slash to death the Tutsi family living in the hut nearby.
As Rose explains all this to me in a remote town in northern Rwanda, I am taken back to a place very different but eerily familiar.
I am no longer in Byumba but in Detroit. I am the small child, and it is not a grandmother but my own father and my relatives I am hearing.
"Don't you go out there playing with those black kids down the street. They're no good." They were "no good" because they didn't own their home; they rented. Because they stayed out on their porch until all hours of the night playing the radio too loud and disturbing the peace of the neighborhood.
Because when they walked down the block, they wore worn-out house shoes and curlers in their hair. Because the boys shouted "Yo', motherf*****" at each other, and you could hear them a block away. Because they were black--dark black, just-up-from-the-South black, backwoods black, and no good.
Black people in Detroit described each other in subtle gradations of complexion--there were "high yellow niggers" and "redbones." These distinctions mattered. Those were the days when, as my father recently recalled, "If you called somebody black, you had to be ready to fight him." Good black people in those days called themselves "colored."
And so my parents drummed it into me, much the same way Rose's parents and grandparents drummed it into her, that black people like us--we were the South Carolina, west-side blacks--were different from the blacks over on the east side. Don't go across Woodward Avenue, we were warned. The blacks over there are Alabama blacks, hard and bitter.
They cuss loud in public. They let their places go down. They eat pigs' feet and more often than not have a dozen relatives all "just up from Alabama" packed into a few tiny rooms.
Sure, these were all stereotypes, based not on reality but on the psyches of those who told the stories. But for me, a black man growing up in America, these divisions were once very, very real-as real as the tribal divisions Rose Kayumba described for me there in that abandoned church complex under the moonlight in Byumba.
Sierra Leone is wracked by chronic instability. A long-running civil war has made parts of the country impassable, and in 1992, a cocky, 20-something army captain, Valentine Strasser, toppled the incumbent president and became Africa's latest, youngest dictator.
I got to see Strasser about a year later in Libreville, the capital of the small, oil-rich central African state of Gabon. The occasion was a summit meeting between Africans and African- Americans organized by the Reverend Louis Sullivan, the veteran civil-rights campaigner and anti-apartheid activist who had authored the "Sullivan Principles" outlining fair employment practices for U.S. firms doing business in apartheid-era South Africa.
The summit brought together some of the most prominent luminaries from the American civil-rights establishment--including Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, and Douglas Wilder.
When Strasser entered the meeting hall, sporting his now-trademark sunglasses and his camouflage battle fatigues, the crowd of mostly middle- and upper-class black Americans went wild with cheering, swooning from the women, some hoots, and frenzied applause. Sitting in that hall, you might be forgiven for thinking Strasser was a music celebrity instead of a puny boy-dictator.
These black Americans were obviously more impressed with the macho military image Strasser cut than with the fact that he represents all that is wrong with Africa--military thugs who take power and thwart the continent's fledgling efforts to move toward democracy. The chanting and hooting was a disgusting display, and to me it highlighted the complete ignorance about Africa among America's so-called black elite.
Weird things happen to a lot of American black leaders when they venture into Africa. They go through a bizarre metamorphosis when they set foot on the continent of their ancestors. Some of the most prominent veterans of America's civil-rights wars--articulate advocates for human rights and basic freedoms for black people in America--enter a moral and intellectual black box when they get to Africa.
Dictators are hailed as statesmen, unrepresentative governments are deemed democratic, corrupt regimes are praised for having fought off colonialism and brought about "development." Black Americans who called vocally for immediate democratic reform in South Africa become defensive, nervous, and inarticulate when the subject turns to the lack of democracy and human rights elsewhere in Africa.
It's as if repression comes only in white.
I asked Doug Wilder, Virginia's first black governor since Reconstruction, about democracy in black Africa. "We cannot and should not force them to undergo a metamorphosis in seconds," he replied. "Our job is not to interfere, and to understand that there is a difference from what they are accustomed to."
Interesting. Imagine a conversation about South Africa around 1980, where a white governor of a southern state says of the apartheid regime, "We cannot and should not force them to undergo a metamorphosis in seconds.... Our job is not to interfere." That white politician would immediately be branded a racist, and probably by no less a personage than Doug Wilder.
Once, while on a trip to Senegal, I took the ferry boat over to Goree Island, just off the Atlantic coast. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Goree was the main transit point for African slaves heading to America. They were brought there from the African interior and held in small, cave-like, eight-by-six-foot cement cells, 15 or 20 per cell.
And there they stayed until the cargo ships were ready for loading, and then some 20 million able-bodied Africans, chained at the neck and at the ankles, made their final passage into slavery through a small door, down a wooden plank, and on to the New World.
Joseph Ndiaye, the director of the slave house museum at Goree, keeps an inscription book for visitors to write their impressions. I spent more than an hour there, flipping through the book, jotting down some of the comments in my notebook.
"Yes, mother, I have returned--440 years-plus later," wrote a black woman who came here from Sacramento. "I felt the presence of my ancestors and I know why we are a strong people. Black I will always be. Mother Africa I love you."
"I have come home, and I pledge to myself, this will never happen again," wrote another.
"I'm just a born-again African," said a Brooklyn native.
And from this angry black woman, who left no home address: "The only language white people understand is the gun. I will supply the weapons for revolution. It is the only way black people will be free."
It went on and on. Some of the tributes were moving, some poetic, some angry. For many black Americans who had come across the Atlantic, this trip was a near-religious pilgrimage.
I felt disturbed as I stood there. I shuddered slightly, reading the various comments in the inscription book. I, too, had come to Goree hoping to feel that same kind of spiritual connection, to find some emotional frame of reference. And I tried to make myself feel something that simply wouldn't come.
I felt distant, apart. I felt revulsion at the horrendous crime of slavery--sort of the same feeling I had experienced years earlier, as a student backpacker in Europe, when I visited the Auschwitz concentration camp. It was just like that, really; a reminder of a past atrocity, and one that must not be forgotten. But as I stood there I thought about all the other evils I had seen around Africa.
And then I thought: Would I have been better off if this great tragedy, this crime of slavery, had not occurred? What would my life be like now? Would I be standing here now as a journalist with my notebook in hand and a camera slung over my shoulder?
And then I stopped, because I started hating myself for what I was thinking, what I was about to think. Those questions cut straight to the heart of what had been troubling me ever since I had set foot here in the land of my ancestors. But the answers were so unspeakable, so unthinkable, really, that I closed my eyes and literally forced the entire train of thought out of my head. I didn't want to think my own thoughts.
I should have come to Goree long ago, I decided then. Yes, that was my problem. Back in my youth, that is when I should have come. Because then I would likely have come from the other direction, from across the Atlantic, from America, and my head would have been empty of the sights and sounds now swirling around there.
Then I, too, would have added my inscription to the book, paid my own moving tribute to those who had passed here before me. And I would have gone back home, to America, and my soul would have been left pure.
But it was too late now. I had come to Goree from the East, from the darkness, and I had already seen way too much of Mother Africa, and what I had seen had already made me sick.
And I left there that day wondering how I could ever be whole again.
Africa. Birthplace of civilization. My ancestral homeland. I came here thinking I might find a little bit of that missing piece of myself. But Africa chewed me up and spit me back out again. It took out a machete and slashed into my brain the images that have become my nightmares. I close my eyes now and I am staring at a young woman atop a pile of corpses.
I see an old man on the side of the road imploring me for a last drop of water before he dies in the dirt. I see my friends surrounded by an angry mob as they try to fend off the stones that rain down to crush their skulls. I see the grotesquely charred body of a young man set on fire.
I see a church altar desecrated by the blood of the dead, and bullet holes forming a halo around Christ's likeness on the cross. There is a child, smiling at me, while he aims his loaded grenade launcher at my passing car.
My eyes snap open, but I remain frightened of these ghosts that I know are out there, in the darkness, in Africa. I tried my best to get to know this place, to know the people. But instead I am sitting here alone in my house in Nairobi, frightened, staring into the blackness of the African night. It's quiet outside and I'm feeling scared and lonely.
I am surrounded by a high fence and protected by two large dogs. I have a paid security guard patrolling the perimeter, a silent alarm system, and a large metal door with a sliding bolt that I keep firmly closed, all to prevent Africa from sneaking across my front yard and bashing in my brains with a panga knife for the 200 dollars and change I keep in my top desk drawer.
It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. I really did come here with an open mind, wanting to love the place, love the people. I would love to end this journey now on a high note, to see hope amid the chaos. I'd love to talk about the smiles of the African people, their generosity and perseverance, their love of life, their music and dance, their respect for elders, their sense of family and community.
I could point out the seeds of democracy, the formation of a "civil society," the emergence of an urban middle class, the establishment of independent institutions, and the rule of law. I wish I could end my story this way, but it would all be a lie.
How can anyone talk about democracy and constitutions and the rule of law in places where paramilitary security forces firebomb the offices of opposition newspapers? Where entire villages get burned down and thousands of people made homeless because of competing political loyalties?
Where whole chunks of countries are under the sway of armed guerrillas? Where superstition runs so deep a politician can be arrested and charged with casting magic spells over poor villagers?
Maybe if I had never set foot here, I could celebrate my own blackness, my "African-ness." But while "Afrocentrism" has become fashionable for many black Americans searching for identity, I know it cannot work for me. I have been here, I have lived here and seen Africa in all its horror. I know now that I am a stranger here. I am an American, a black American, and I feel no connection to this strange and violent place.
You see? I just wrote "black American." I couldn't even bring myself to write "African-American." It's a phrase that, for me, doesn't roll naturally off the tongue: "African-American." Is that what we really are? Is there anything really "African" left in the descendants of those original slaves who made that torturous journey across the Atlantic?
Are white Americans whose ancestors sailed west across the same ocean as long ago as the slaves still considered "English-Americans" or "Dutch-Americans"?
I do not hate Africa or the Africans. What I hate is the senseless brutality, the waste of human life. I hate the unfairness, the injustice, the way repressive systems strip decent people of their dignity. I hate the way my driver in Somalia passes a starving woman on the roadside and will not stop to let me give her a bottle of water.
I hate the kids swaggering outside the gates of the feeding center with machine guns on their shoulders, thrashing the old people waiting in line for a handful of gruel. I hate the Big Man who forces the entire government, the entire diplomatic community, to line up on a red carpet at the airport tarmac under a scorching sun to see him off on a foreign trip.
I hate the dictator's information officer, sitting in his hot, airless office with no electricity, lecturing me about how "the whites" have brought his country to ruin. I hate the immigration clerk at the dusty border outpost who is officiously studying my passport he's holding in one hand while the other hand is stretched out, waiting for a bribe.
Perhaps more than all that, I hate this maddening propensity of Africans to wallow in their own suffering, to simply roll over when kicked, and to express unswerving faith that some outside force, some divine intervention, will bring deliverance from their misery.
I know now that while I can walk anonymously down the streets of Nairobi or Lagos or Kinshasa or Khartoum, while I can pass through the sea of black faces and remain unnoticed, I am not one of them. I see the people, but I cannot see what lies beyond their blank stares. True, my ancestors came from this place, and these are my distant cousins.
But a chasm has opened up, a chasm of 400 years and 10,000 miles. Nothing in my own past, nothing in my upbringing, has instilled in me any sense of what it must be like to be an African. Malcolm X said we black people in America are more African than American, but I don't feel it.
There is more, something far deeper, something that I am ashamed to admit: I don't want to be from this place. There are some photographs I have kept, clipped out of one of the local English-language newspapers, saved for a possible story that I never got around to writing.
One, taken in a Nairobi slum not far from my home, shows a boy lying flat on his back, being held down by a mob, screaming with terror. One of his hands has been chopped off. An older man is standing over him, gleefully holding what looks like a giant meat cleaver. The older man with the weapon is smiling, preparing to drop down hard and chop off the other hand. The caption explains that this boy has been caught stealing, and the crowd is now imposing street justice.
I became fixated first on the boy's screaming face, but then on the faces of the crowd in the background; they are all laughing and smiling. And I ask myself, what on earth could these people possibly be thinking?
How could anyone stand by and laugh at such torture? How can a human being find glee in another person's agony? And this was not Rwanda or Somalia or Liberia, where I might have expected such callous inhumanity. This was Nairobi, supposedly one of the most modern capitals of black Africa. And these scenes were happening within walking distance of my own home.
How could I possibly relate to these Africans, when we are separated by such a wide gulf of culture and background and emotion and sensitivity? How could I ever understand what is going through the minds of the people, average people, who would stand in the background and smile in the face of such suffering?
And what frightens me most of all is that these smiling people in the photographs look just like me. Had my ancestor not made it out of here, I might have ended up there in that crowd, smiling gleefully, while a man with a cleaver cuts off the hands of a thief. Or maybe I would have been one of those bodies, arms and legs bound together, washing over the waterfall in Tanzania. Or maybe my son would have been set ablaze by soldiers. Or I would be limping now from the torture I received in some rancid police cell.
And then maybe I would be thinking: How lucky those black Americans are! And so, In my darkest heart here on this pitch-black African night, I am quietly celebrating the passage of my ancestor who made it out.
It's been said time and again that nothing makes you appreciate your own country like traveling away from it, and America has been like that for me. I see the flaws, I curse the intolerance, I recoil from the racial and ethnic tensions. And I become infuriated at the often mindless political debate that never seems to cut deeper than the crispest sound bite. But even with all that--maybe because of it--I recognize that it's the only place I truly belong. It's home.
Keith B. Richburg is currently the Hong Kong bureau chief for the Washington Post. This is adapted from his book Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, just published by Basic Books.
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Understatement. I'm in a completely different mood than I was 15 minutes ago, this article went right through me.
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