By Mwatabu S. Okantah
The nightmare lasted so long and the distances traversed were so vast that communication was breached between home and diaspora; even memory lapsed, and the two sides lost each other; they forgot who they were, their proper name. One side earned the name of slaves and the other of savages. Oppression renames its victims; brands them as a farmer brands his cattle with a common signature. It always aims to subvert the individual spirit and the humanity of the victim; and the victim will more or less struggle to remove oppression and be free. --Chinua Achebe
Weavers of tales do not always begin their stories at the beginning. The story itself determines how it should be told. Some stories are told from their middle, when the drama is at its height. They then flash backward, recalling origins, before flowing forward to reveal whatever truth there is to be revealed. Rahsaan Roland Kirk calls them, "bright moments." Some memories do not fade with time. Some memories, like fine wines, age gracefully over time in the deep cellars of our minds, always there to be savored, to be recalled on lonely nights or to be shared with friends during dream filled days. This is just such a tale. This is my story. It springs forth from our ancient, deep, dark black-story well.
In the United States, if you happen to be descended from the one African in ten who survived the middle passage, to even ask of origins is to slip perilously into forbidden and uncharted waters. For a people forced to literally recreate ourselves, talk of beginnings is too often lost in the harmattan of those things we learned over time to forget, those things we try not to remember. Holocaust. If you are lucky, you find yourself searching for a true self, only to realize you have become caught up in something larger and more profound than the scope of your individual life. You realize it is not about you as individual. You realize you are a part of something you cannot readily identify, so you search for connections. You begin to search for meaning in your life.
You realize everything is up side down. You realize things are not always the way they appear. Our story is a New World African story. In this society, that story begins with our legacy of resistance. For me, it began during my student days in Ohio, at Kent State. It began in earnest when Nigeria's Chief Fela Sowande warned us, "The Negro in America must choose between recovering and becoming fully conscious of his own identity or being washed down the plumbless drains of history as a mindless freak of nature." We heard him, but there was nothing in our experience that taught us how to hear him. Trapped inside the virtual prison of our Americanness, we did not then know how to understand, how to listen to an elder's wisdom when it was spoken to us. At the same time, we knew enough to fear being flushed away down those "plumbless drains of history." We also knew that mindless freaks of nature were walking amongst us.
Returning to Achebe's essay, African-American Visitations, he writes, "To answer oppression requires knowledge of two kinds: self-knowledge by the victim which means, in the first place, an awareness that oppression exists, an awareness that the victim has fallen from a great height of glory or promise into the present depths; secondly, the victim must know who the enemy is. He must know his oppressor's real name, not an alias, a pseudonym or a nom de plume!" I began this essay with the excerpt from African- American Visitations because Achebe so clearly articulates the struggle for a healthy African identity in a way I could not at the time of my first visits to West Africa. He is also one of the few rare Africans who realize that the post-slavery struggle of so- called Black-Americans for a true ethnic identity, and the post-colonial struggle of Africans to reclaim their own collective identity was, and is, virtually one and the same struggle.
I can look back now and see that Chief Sowande saw Africa in us before we knew what to look for to see it in ourselves. He became our searchlight as we groped blindly through white-tunnel darkness, making our way back to safe shores. He instilled in us an awareness of the significance in each life moment. Most importantly, he taught us to recognize our personal truth when it appeared before our eyes. So, when I found myself in Umuomayi, near Aba, in Imo State, in southeastern Nigeria, standing before an elder woman who was 102 real African village years old, I was acutely aware of being a conscious participant in my own unfolding destiny. I began to recognize my own truth inside my people's epic
story. Beginnings became crystal clear. I could even see Chief Sowande smiling in my mind's eye. I could hear his ancestral voice in my inner ear.
Time passes. My first sojourn in West Africa came during the spring of 1988. Two experiences stand out from that first trip to Nigeria. I can never be the same after crawling in the darkness of Ogbunike Cave. I am an American of African descent because my ancestors did not escape into the sanctuary of an Ogbunike Cave. And, I will always remember my encounter with Great Grandmother in Umuomayi Village. Standing before that 102 year old African village woman, I came to know concretely what it actually means to be connected to roots. I came to know what it feels like to begin to put the fragments of our story back together again; to know the story of where and from what it is you come. Roots.
In Africa, no one had to tell me I was home. There was no longer any confusion over who or what I was, or, who or what my people had become. I knew what proper name to call myself and my people. I could look around into the too familiar faces, and know that we are Africans still. I arrived for my second sojourn in West Africa on the night of December 31, 1989, literally on metal wings and prayers. I would begin my new year in Africa. Unlike my first visit, I traveled solo. I was making the pilgrimage I had been planning and dreaming about for years. The experience of that first journey had assured me that my refusal to give in to the doubts, the ridicule and the false characterizations was, indeed, the correct place to stand my ground in the face of so much intensely negative energy. I stood in the rush and hustle of Murtala Muhammad International Airport, knowing the voices I heard in my inner ear were ancestral voices. Once again, I was taken by the familiarity of the faces. This time, I knew I had come home to Africa to search for and to learn those stories Black poets are born into this world to sing to tell. I had come home to Africa to affirm that sense of Africa Chief Sowande taught us we held deep inside. Sowande had written, "Only when a seed begins to sprout its roots does it begin to live?. The more deeply and powerfully entrenched its roots are in the soil native to it, the more able it is to weather all storms. So it is with a tree. So it is with every group of individuals, large or small. Roots are the only absolutely reliable and foolproof channels of communication with Life, the only authentic affirmation and confirmation of being-in the real sense-alive." I come home to Africa to sink my own spiritual roots into ancestral soul-soil. I come to experience bright moments. To see, and, to be one among the sea of black faces you encounter there is a bright moment. There can be no debate, there is no need for convincing explanations when you stand before a woman, only to find you are looking into your mother's face. You see your father, sister, brother, uncle, lovers, friends in the faces. You see all the faces from the 'hood.
You visit Warri, Benin City, Sapele, Onitsha, Enugu, Port Harcourt, Ibadan. Everywhere, you are overwhelmed by the presence you feel in the faces. Bright moments. In Badagry, one moment you are being received by the Oba, the next you are in the Slave House touching shackles and chains that helped lock your people into epochal madness. You stand before the Christian grave marker of Chief Sunbo Mobee, whose family descendants still live in the very compound where he once bartered away Africans to European traders who would sell them into New World slavery. You visit the two story building where the white Jesus was translated into Yoruba. Back in Lagos, you walk the streets and alleys of Suru Lere, Ikeja and Palm Groove only to experience sights and sounds and smells you already know too well. Bright moments. Georgia. Alabama. When you recognize Harlem, Hough, Liberty City, you know concretely that you come from a still mighty people who must finally take stock of the epic stories that shape who it is we have become in this surreal American world.
My Africa. I returned to Imo State, to Aba, to Akoli and Umuomayi villages. I wanted to retrace steps I had already taken. I wanted to feel that special feeling one feels returning to warm and familiar places. I wanted to restoke the blackflame my audience with Great Grandmother had fired in my breast. Traveling south from Enugu, on the road to Aba, my mind raced in anticipation. I was riding with Chief Dan Nwankwo. Chief Dan had been my first host during my first visit to Nigeria in 1988. The Nwankwos were one of five host families I lived with during my tour of Bendel, Anambra, Imo and Rivers states as a Rotary International Group Study Exchange Fellow. The Nwankwos will always be the first family in Africa to welcome me home.
I was in West Africa once again. The harmattan had come late this year. I was startled by the dry-dust haze that blanketed everything. Like so many other things I was experiencing, the harmattan had been a thing of African novels and my imagination. Whenever I am in Africa, it always feels as if I am walking out of one of my own dreams. We rode in virtual silence. I think Dan sensed my need to just look out at the long stretches of burnt brown landscape. I needed to bring order to my thoughts. Processing bright moments is not always easy. I listened intently for the first signs of the stories I would have to fetch from the deep well of my being. I could hear my inner voice whispering, "You are not dreaming, you are in Africa, in Nigeria, once again." Two weeks into my tour, the experiences had already been so intense I began to wonder if my planned stops in Ghana and Senegal would prove anti-climatic. I could feel my excitement building. I was on the road to Aba, traveling to visit with Great Grandmother once again. I could feel my roots sinking ever deeper into native soil.
I had begun my journey in Lagos. My week there had been so filled with activity, I looked to my stay with the Nwankwos for rest and relaxation. Things were happening so fast, I needed time to literally catch up to myself. I had arrived in Lagos knowing no one, armed with graphic instructions from U. S. for people I would have to locate, secure in my faith in the course my life had taken. I felt protected. My first full day in Lagos, staying in a hotel I was not supposed to be staying in, before delivering my letters, I met a musician, Umobit Christopher, who knew the Nigerian in Cleveland who had written my letters of introduction, who had directed me to stay in a different local hotel. Bright moments. I had been looking for signs. I was stunned, but not surprised. I knew the ancestors and guardian angels were guiding my sojourn.
After meeting Umobit, I then signaled to the driver I had hired to help me deliver my letters. Rather matter of factly, he asked me where I was from in The States. When I told him I was from Cleveland, he asked me if I knew a Clevelander by the name of Don Scott. I know Don Scott. At that moment, I could hear Chief Sowande's voice assuring me that the world is indeed a village. At a loss for words, I settled into the back seat of the car to contemplate the mystical deepness of the experience. Signs. I did not need other signs. I delivered one of my letters to Master sculptor, Olabissi Fakeye. It was Fakeye who arranged my audience with the Oba of Badagry. He took me to Ibadan where I was introduced to three of Nigeria's leading creative artists-Niyi Osundare, Femi Fatoba and Sunbo Marinho. Watching Fakeye in his own studio, I was privileged to witness an aspect of African culture I had been studying for years. I watched him bring new life out of wood with the magic power in his black hands. I knew I was in good hands.
Umobit Christopher became my gate to the city they call, "the New York city of West Africa." Lagos. He introduced me to the real Africa I saw only from the safe distance of private car windows during my first visit to Nigeria. The Nigerian Rotarians were too aware of us as "visiting Americans." With Umobit, I rode in crowded taxis. On rickety local buses, people wanted to touch my locks to see for themselves if my hair was real. We walked all over the city, my presence attracting attention everywhere we went, but, especially from children who always called me, "Dada, Dada!" Umobit took me to meet the legendary Chief Priest himself, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who dubbed me, "the visitor from America with African name." I will always remember entering Fela's shrine, wearing a Malcolm X tee shirt and being greeted by Malcolm's picture on the wall. By week's end, Umobit arranged for me to meet King Sunny Ade who named me, Omowale-"the baby who has returned." I met reggae singers Ras Kimono and Majek Fashek. Fashek would name me, Ekpen-"The Lion." It was almost as if I were outside of myself, a witness to all that was taking place.
When we finally arrived in Aba, my adrenalin flowed as I began to recognize familiar sights. We passed into Akoli and Umuomayi villages. I saw familiar faces. I was warmed in the knowledge that my face was now a familiar face to be recalled as well. For me, the village is South Carolina tranquil, but more beautiful-a quiet beauty that is so powerfully serene. To see people walking freely at night, in darkness darker than Mississippi dark, is something to behold. No fear. At least, none of the fears that routinely haunt American nights. I visited compounds that did not have doors to lock. After Lagos, my second visit in the village gave me a better sense of the pressures building within contemporary African societies. In the village, it is possible to see the effects of three centuries collide, where the new coexists on often uneasy terms with the old. The 19th and the 20th and an emerging 21st century all come together in the village. Our forward march into the future will not be easy. There are many traps in which to fall. In the New World, that things are not always the way they seem is a difficult lesson to learn.
Walking the familiar footpaths in the village, I began to realize that as Americans of African descent, we are not forever doomed to remain "weeds in the garden of life." Malcolm X was right. Any people who lose their group memory also loses their group mind. More than our bodies, we must reclaim our minds. We must reconnect with our racial memory. We have been a people held hostage for so long, we have forgotten our will. We have become a still wandering people, lost, trying to find our way. It all became clear to me in the village. There was no stress to cloud or distort my vision. No colored- people-nigger-business here. I was deep inside African time. I was in time. I was experiencing a whole new concept of time. Afreekan time. A child of scattered Africans, I had managed to make my way back home to Africa through one of those Doors of No Return.
Mystic roots. Chief Dan's uncle put my return to the village in proper perspective when he said, "God is truly wonderful. How else to explain all that has happened? Why else would God allow you to find your way to Akoli? Who is to say you are not descended from one of those taken from us? You are at home here." It all seemed so dreamlike, so storybookish. Yet, I knew it was not my hand guiding this chapter. Earlier that same evening, the Akpaa Mbato Progressive Union, representing Akoli, Umuomayi and Agbruike-- all 26 kindred families--formally acknowledged my return by agreeing to give me a village name. Great Grandmother had said I was a son of the village. Now, on my second visit, it was being made official.
I was on the continent scaling heights no jumbo jet could reach. I soared on the wings of the poetry in my soul before it erupts into singing words. They named me Onyeije. After eloquently lengthy and sometimes heated discussion, I became "the traveler who has returned." I was moved. I felt whole. These village elders were able to convey to me their love, appreciation and respect inspite of my inability to understand the Igbo language they spoke. Their warm tones spoke directly to my intuition. There was even a point in their discussion where I needed no translation. I was at home. It was a family reunion. I was with my uncles. Their unanimous decision to give me an appropriate Igbo name was my first experience with true African consensus, village level democracy. Along with the names I had been given by King Sunny Ade and Majek Fashek, I received this name as an honorary title. Gathered together with these elders, I began to think of all of our people in The States who continue to believe in our story as it has been told by our oppressors. At that moment, I came to know the real name of the enemy as well.
Too many of us continue to ask, "Is it true that Africans look down on us?" The irony in all of this is the fact most of us have never had the opportunity to interact with Africans from Africa. And, too often when we do, we have no real sense of the mutual ignorance that invariably infects the encounter. It does not occur to us that without hearing accents, we cannot distinguish when Africans from Africa are amongst us. In my own case, the first time I met an African from Africa, I was stunned into asking myself, "If he is an African, what does that make me?" I will never forget returning to my dorm, and looking in the mirror, staring into my own reflection, searching for Africa in my own face. I had never questioned being raised on a steady diet of the Little Rascals, Jungle Bunny cartoons, Tarzan movies and National Geographic documentaries until that moment. Standing with the elders, I realized I had come to Africa looking for Tarzan, looking for mud huts and starvation only to find these things do not exist in the ways we have been lead to believe.
It was liberating. I was back in Umuomayi village, and my encounter with the elders prepared me for the sweet reality of standing in the presence of Great Grandmother once again. In every sense, I came to Africa to find myself and to lay the nagging identity question finally to rest in my own mind. I came seeking bright moments. I had to know if my teachers had taught me well or if I would actually find Tarzan, and then I could just blissfully accept the madness. Suffice it to say, however, the Africa I found was the Africa I was introduced to in the novels of Achebe, Emecheta, Ngugi and the rest. I found the Africa I heard in the poetry of the Negritude poets. I found the Africa I experienced in the drama of Soyinka and Aidoo. I found the Africa I danced to in the music of Fela, Makeba, Masekela and N'Dour. Without illusion or false promise, I found the Africa I was introduced to in the writings of Franz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah and Cheikh Anta Diop. Indeed, our teachers had prepared us well.
I found the Africa of Great Grandmother. She had become my gateway to the Africa I had been searching for in myself. My experiences with her confirmed the Africa Chief Sowande had seen in us as Americans of African descent. He taught us, "?the Black American does not merely represent Africa; he is Africa. What the cultured Black American is today, the cultured African must be tomorrow, or else become a relic of history. Thus the Black American is perhaps the most direct link Africa will have with the New World now on the horizon, already casting its shadows on the old." It all made sense to me as I sat facing Great Grandmother, bathing in the intense glow of her eyes as she gazed directly at me. Once again, we sat in flickering lantern light, our shadows dancing together about the walls of her room. She was now 104 African village years old. I was pleasantly surprised by her look of genuine recognition and welcome when we entered her room.
She asked Chief Dan to ask me of my "people on the other side." She then motioned for me to come closer. She reached out for my hand. She wanted to learn more about the "America place." She wanted to know more about this place where they had taken our people. She wanted to know how we had survived. She smiled. I felt secure in the knowledge I was fully prepared to answer her questions. Together, we became a human bridge that spanned more than one hundred and forty years. She asked me to tell my people of the old woman in Umuomayi village, to let them know she is thinking of them, that she is praying for them and that she sends her regards. She then blessed me and prayed for continued success in all my future endeavors. I looked deeply into her eyes. I searched for Sowande's vision for us in the dark deep water I saw collected there. New Afreeka. The new vision is there to be seen in an old African woman's eyes. Standing before her, I knew we are desperately in need of a new and healing cultural vision in our daily lives. Without it, Chief Sowande's warning, rather than his vision, will mark our time.
We left Aba the next morning. On the road back to Enugu, I rode again in silence. It was the anniversary of Martin Luther King's 61st birthday. In Nigeria, January 15th is observed as Armed Forces Day-commemorating those who sacrificed their lives and health during their Civil War. So, it was a day for honoring our maimed and our dead. For me, it became a day to contemplate the mountaintop I had climbed the night before in Great Grandmother's room. I knew, then, my experience with her would emerge as one of the most cherished memories of my West African tour. I rode in silence, pondering the nature of the vision the two of us saw as we looked into each other's eyes. I thought deeply about the Africa I felt in common with her then; the Africa that did not need common words to communicate. I thought deeply about the Africa we saw standing there before such an open gate.
Clear vision. Riding north, I realized that I had ascended to a new spiritual plateau in my personal life while in the presence of this wonderful woman. I understood what Marcus Garvey had seen so many years before during his turbulent time. At home and abroad, it was time for Africans to stand up as a "mighty race" who can accomplish what we will. Standing in the presence of Great Grandmother, I came to understand completely that we have steep mountains to climb on both sides of the Atlantic. I wondered: how to help a people see beauty and strength in themselves when they have been terrorized into a blinding, self-imposed paralysis? In America, Africa is buried so deep down in our collective memory, we have to relearn how to remember. At the same time, in Africa, the mad dash to achieve Western-style "progress" has distorted everything in the present. Africans in Africa do not understand that all that glitters in America or the UK or Canada is not gold. In our time, the sad reality is that Africans want to flee Africa in the same way too many African-Americans want to "escape" the so-called ghetto.
It remains to be seen if Black people in the Diaspora and in Africa will respond to our history's clarion call. Chief Sowande came to America because Europeanized Africans in Africa were not willing to build their future on the solid foundation of their traditional African past. In Africa, we became too eager to become Black Englishmen or Black Frenchmen. Here in America, that Sowande saw African traditions as the basis for a new "cultured Black American" is a riddle too many Americans of African descent continue to fail to comprehend. Riding along deep in Black thought, I tried to place the river- rush of my African experiences into perspective. Africa is no idyllic place. It is no mystical paradise waiting to hide Black people running away from the realities of our situation living in America. The real Africa puts America into even sharper focus the moment you step from the plane. For peoples of African descent, no matter where we find ourselves on the planet, there are no hiding places from the challenges that face us.
I was so engrossed in my rumination, I was startled when I felt the car leave the highway. We came to a stop in an area not far from a local Police Post. We had gotten as far as Umuahia. A cluster of passenger cars, taxis and a few trucks had already stopped. Chief Dan suspected road bandits. He was right. Armed bandits had blockaded the lanes north to Enugu. A bloodied victim of their daring stood in the center of a gesturing crowd of people telling his tale. Although we were all gathered in front of a Police Post, a police presence was conspicuously absent. The lone officer on the scene gathered around the victim for details with everyone else. It was evident he was not going to coordinate strategy. He offered no solutions. As I sat in the car waiting for Chief Dan to return, I thought again about the serious mountains we have to climb as a people. From Great Grandmother's majestic 104 years, to the rugged terrain of armed bandits hiding in the high grass alongside Nigerian roads, the new vision became concrete for me at that precise moment.
It seemed the crowd reached a consensus in the same moment I was experiencing my own epiphany. We had to become that new vision. In the words of Margaret Walker's classic poem, "For My People," we had to "rise and take control." It had been agreed. We could not allow the bandits to take over the highway. No longer strangers, we became fellow travelers of one mind. Vehicle after vehicle returned to the road, one after the other, driving resolutely north; a ragged people's brigade riding off to do battle with the worst in ourselves. This time we rode in a different silence. It was the silence of people who are uncertain what the next moment may bring. We arrived in Enugu later that evening without incident. I had to catch a flight back to Lagos the following day. My Africa. I was not dreaming. I was in Nigeria once again. The poet in me continued to soar.
I knew culture shock would come when I returned to American shores. I knew from my first experience on the continent that when I did return, the land of my birth would become even stranger in its familiarity. In the mean time, however, I was also coming to know that regular sojourns in Africa would be the balm I needed to soothe, heal and strengthen my wounded soul. Like Muslims who strive to make the Hajj to Mecca, Americans of African descent need to make the pilgrimage to West Africa at least once in a life time if we are able. There are no words to describe the feelings of belonging and renewal. Bright moments. Great Grandmother had given me my eyes. I could see. The bandits lurking in the high grass had given me my ears. I could hear. Those bandits had also forced me to find a new courage inside, and I felt ready to accept whatever challenges life would invariably present.
I left Enugu feeling spiritually nourished. Traveling in the lands of my ancestors was firing in me a new sense of my Greater Self changing. I saw limitless possibility. I began to develop a more well defined sense of what kind of people we can, and must, become. I looked forward to my second week in Lagos. My excitement was building. I knew I still had experiences in Ghana and Senegal laying in wait. Bright moments. As the Nigerian Airways DC 8 lifted into the air, I closed my eyes to ponder the travel in Africa stories I could feel gathering in my Black poetry well. I was content to ride, once again, on metal wings and prayers. I was content to continue my search for the real Africa my experiences with Great Grandmother had revealed we all hold deep inside.
Achebe, Chinua. "African-American Visitations," EXPLORING THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, edited by Niara Sudarkasa and Levi A. Nwachuku. Lincoln University, PA: Lincoln University Press, 1996.
Sowande, Fela. THE AFRICANIZATION OF BLACK STUDIES. Kent: KSU Department of Pan-African Studies, African-American Affairs Monograph Series, 1972.
Sowande, Fela. "African Studies and the Black American in 1968," Hansberry Memorial Lectures, Howard University, December 12, 1968.
Sowande, Fela. "Black Folklore," Black Lines: Special Issue on BLACK FOLKLORE, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall 1971, Department of Black Studies, University of Pittsburgh.