By Mwatabu S. Okantah
I was in African airspace. Africa. I was seated aboard a Ghana Airways jet bound for Dakar, Senegal. I had begun my journey in Nigeria. Actually, it had begun in South Carolina, in Charleston, in Geechee country, in the Africa kidnapped inside a wandering people's lore. I had to find Africa on American shores. If I could not find, and see Africa in myself, in the America a held hostage people created, it would never have meaning in my personal life. Only then could I truly know, and make peace with the collective who we have become as a distinct New World people. Approximately two weeks prior to leaving for West Africa, I began my pilgrimage in the black belt, in the low country along the South Carolina coast.
The flight from Accra, Ghana to Dakar reminded me of long Greyhound bus rides south. We flew from Accra to Abijan, Ivory Coast; from Abijan to Monrovia, Liberia. We left Monrovia bound for Freetown, Sierra Leone. In Freetown, an elder woman boarded the plane who looked so much like my maternal grandmother, I had to remind myself that she had passed away almost a full year earlier. I sat transfixed. As I sat, it occurred to me that those people called Geechee in the South Carolina low country are descended from the enslaved Africans brought from what is now Sierra Leone to cultivate rice. My mind raced. I sat back, deep inside my own thoughts.
After Freetown, we landed in Conakry, Guinea-the land of the late Ahmed Sekou Toure. We then flew on to Banjul, Gambia-land of Kunte Kinte; from Banjul, we began our descent into Dakar. Although I never left my seat during the flight, from my window, I watched the slow, subtle change of the landscape from the edge of the rain forest, across savannah, and into the arid Sahel. While the plane taxi'd, I remembered all those days spent staring at wall maps, imagining, aching to experience being in Africa, longing to walk upon African earth. I was giddy. After traveling in Nigeria and Ghana, I was now in Dakar, Senegal.
Dakaro. I would learn that the French had arrogantly renamed it. Muslim Senegal. I was in the land of Amadou Bamba and tall, blue-black people; land of balafons and djembe drums; the land of Cheikh Anta Diop. I was making a second sojourn in West Africa because I wanted to travel through ancestral lands. It was not important, or, necessary that I know precisely where either of my family lines had originated. It was enough for me to journey into, and through, the regions where the majority of those Africans who were scattered into the western hemisphere had been taken; an area ranging as far north on the west coast as Mauritania, as far inland as Niger, Chad and the Central African Republic, and all along the coast as far south as Angola.
I come home to Africa to reclaim our untold story and to sink my spiritual roots into native soil. I come to Africa to journey deeper into our collective black Self. I was in Senegal because the winding river of my poetry had emptied into Afreekan ocean, where along the battered coastline of our endurance stood Cheikh Anta Diop, a towering lighthouse, guiding the wandering and the lost into safe shores. Cheikh Anta Diop's work had allowed many of us to visit places in the private corners of our minds where we had never before ventured. He helped us find the origins of our African selves. He provided us with the means to restore the historical continuity, and dignity, in our lives. Late in the winter of 1988, I had been commissioned to write an epic poem in his honor.
In his major work, THE AFRICAN ORIGINS OF CIVILIZATION: MYTH OR REALITY, Professor Diop wrote, "… The history of Black Africa will remain suspended in air and cannot be written correctly until African historians dare to connect it with the history of Egypt… It will be impossible to build African humanities, a body of African sciences, so long as that relationship does not appear legitimate. The African historian who evades the problems of Egypt is neither modest or objective, nor unruffled; he is ignorant, cowardly, and neurotic. Imagine, if you can, the uncomfortable position of a western historian who was to write the history of Europe without referring to Greco-Latin Antiquity and try to pass that off as a scientific approach."
My personal connection in Dakar was Ismael Mbaye, who had come to Ohio in 1988 to participate in the Cleveland International Program. He had arranged for me to be hosted by the English Club at Cheikh Anta Diop University. It had never really dawned on me that he had been sending my published work to the club during his stay in Cleveland. Although my sojourn attracted media attention in both Nigeria and Ghana, I was unprepared for the reception I was accorded in Senegal. Throughout my entire tour, I was treated with the kind of genuine respect and appreciation African-American artists rarely receive in the land of our birth. West Africa had become for me what Europe generally, and, France particularly, almost became for numerous African-Americans of an earlier generation including Josephine Baker, Richard Wright and James Baldwin.
The response I received made me know there is a serious, and hungry, audience for our work in Africa. I am convinced our creative impulses would be nourished and nurtured there. I was in Senegal to complete preliminary work on the poem in honor of Cheikh Anta Diop. The Philadelphia Black History Museum's James G. Spady had charged me with the task of poetically informing the world of Diop's impact on black people in America. Spady had asked me to write a grand epic that would give Africans in Africa a better sense of just who it is we have become as a distinct African derived people living in the US. He asked me to write an epic poem on behalf of all African-American poets, for our ancestral voices who still cry out in the wilderness. He asked me to proclaim before the world a real sense of our claim to being a people of African descent. No longer the same people whose ancestors were taken from Africa so many centuries ago, Spady asked me to write a poem that would speak to the real people we have become.
On more than one occasion I have asked Spady, "Why me?" He knew, and knows, I am no Diopian scholar. Yet, I know now, that when he put the idea of visiting Senegal, and traveling to Diop's village in my mind, he knew I would find, and know, THE WHY soon enough, would come to know it in a way he would be forever unable to explain in words. During the original planning of my visit, when Mbaye asked, "What do you wish to see my brother?", I had no real idea of the magnitude of what I thought, then, was a fairly simple request. Even though I had accepted Spady's challenge, I still failed to see the full significance of the assignment. There was no way for me to have known.
During a lecture on Diop, in Cleveland, in 1986, Spady mentioned the name of Ely M. Fall as one of Diop's proteges to watch. At the time, the name was just a footnote. I did not think anything of it. Things began to become clear for me when I found myself sitting in the office of Prof. Ely M. Fall, chairman of the Department of Economics and Law at Cheikh Anta Diop University. Dr. Fall is Diop's cousin. More importantly, he had been a close colleague and confidante. I would learn that Fall was a former professor of Mbaye's. I was in the right place, with the right people, at the right time. Since Diop's untimely death, Prof. Fall had been looking for contacts in the United States. He considered my presence in his office a Godsend. He would arrange for me to visit the village where Diop was born, and, is now buried.
Early Sunday morning, February 4, 1990, we boarded a bus filled with pilgrims ready to embark on what I learned was the third annual pilgrimage to Diop's birthplace. Because of his deep commitment to African development at the village level, Diop had instructed that when his time came he be buried in his home village. Not even my travels deep into America's rural south prepared me for the journey into the Senegalese hinterland. I will always remember boarding that bus, being given coffee, bread and some fruit by the women seated just inside the door, and feeling very much like I used to feel when I was a boy and traveling with my grandmother.
When my fellow pilgrims learned I had come all the way from the USA, their cries of "Alhamdulilah!" (All praise is due God!) expressed all that needed to be said. That I was carrying a copy of Ivan Van Sertima's, GREAT AFRICAN THINKERS: CHEIKH ANTA DIOP, Vol. 1, in English, only served to magnify Diop's stature and the importance of the pilgrimage in their eyes. I spoke no French or Wolof. For the most part, my fellow pilgrims spoke no English. Yet, we communicated in spirit, in feeling. I was stunned to learn that many of them had never read any of Diop's work. They had no sense of his impact as a scientist outside of Senegal. Although we had to speak to each other through translators, our shared experience was not lost in translation.
Throughout most of his career, Diop was suppressed first by the French, and then by Senegalese authorities in cooperation with the French. Despite the many obstacles and road blocks placed before him, he refused to be denied. He quite literally forced the western establishment to acknowledge his rewriting of human history. His major premise that black people, during classical African antiquity, were creators of the first recorded human civilization in the Nile Valley effectively rescued African history from the tyranny, and imposed oblivion of European definition and control. Even though he never claimed to be the first African world scholar to make such claims, it was Diop's scientific and multidisciplinary approach that stood the status quo version of African history on its proverbial head.
My sojourn approached its climax as our bus joined the caravan of vehicles, led by Prof. Fall, that would make the journey into the West African Sahel. A group of stout hearted students devotees had left four days earlier, on foot, to underscore their commitment to preserving Diop's legacy. The trip inland from the coast to the village of Thiaytou was profound. Even during the dry season, Nigeria and Ghana had been lush and green compared to the flat brown back drop of the Senegalese landscape. I will always remember the huge, magnificent baobab trees that stood anchoring that distant line where earth meets sky. I was in Africa. I was not dreaming.
Diop was born in Thiaytou, near Diourbel, about 150 miles inland from Dakar. The village does not appear on the map. In many ways, it is remote, but, not in the way National Geographic magazine would have people believe. My first impression of the village suggested a people fully conscious of the "delights" of Dakar, but, who live outside of Western penetration into Africa by choice. Another of Diop's cousins-one named after him-confirmed my observation when he informed me that Thiaytou was left off the present-day map because of the historical role villagers played in the resistance against French colonization.
It is hard to describe the rush of emotions I felt as I sat in the midst of Diop family members and fellow pilgrims inside the Diop family compound in the village. I was being given a sense of Diop the man. He became more than just an author whose work had been part of my cultural awakening. In the village, it became evident his greatest contribution went beyond books, per se. Like his paternal grandfather, Nossamba Sassoum Diop, who founded the village, Cheikh Anta's legacy forms one of the pillars upon which the village's foundation is built. As such, his legacy as scholar, statesman and humanist points us forward into our future as African and African derived people. In the larger context, Diop's work places Africa, and African people, at the center of human development.
Dressed in red Adidas jogging shoes, a Malcolm X tee shirt with a strip of Kente cloth I had picked up in Ghana draped over my neck, and jeans, it is an understatement to say I stood out amongst the pilgrims. I was a focal point of attention from the moment we left our bus after arriving in the village. As we sat in front of the Diop house, Prof. Fall rather matter-of-factly told me I was the first African-American to make the pilgrimage to Thiaytou. I was shocked. For me, this first had meaning. As word of my presence spread through the village, the curious and well wishers gathered, at a reasonable distance, to bear witness. Everyone wanted to see this Fulani looking man from "the other side." I sat transfixed, overwhelmed by the significance of the moment.
Somehow, I did not feel, nor was I made to feel, out of place. Although all eyes seemed to be focused on me, I did not feel stared at, so much as I felt like the family member at the reunion that no one knew existed. When Mbaye told me I was the first black person from the diaspora many of the villagers had ever encountered, I felt special in a way I may never be able to explain. I can say people wanted to know more about life for American-born African people. I realized, then, that as African-Americans, we are a new and distinct people within the larger African family; a new "tribe," if you will. Like the Akan in Ghana, this African-American tribe is replete with its own subgroupings. I realized that our story is a unique African story that must finally be told.
I felt my emotions begin to rise still higher when we were called to gather in front of the tomb where Diop is buried alongside his grandfather. The Diops are interred in a simple, stark white, square shaped mausoleum. An old man stood at solemn attention waiting for the signal to unlock the door. The gathered villagers, family members and pilgrims stood in an arc about twenty-five feet away. I was taken by surprise when Prof. Fall motioned for me to join him with the first group of pilgrims to enter into the tomb. Once inside, he surprised me again when he pointed to my camera. I looked into his eyes and sensed his desire that I record these events.
I entered the tomb with Fall, the village Marabou(Holy man), Diop's former driver/companion and a few others. Initially, we all made silent prayer. Prof. Fall and the Marabou then knelt and formally prayed over Diop's remains. In ritual fashion, they poured sand over the mound that covered his body. I felt as if I were deep inside an open eyed meditation. It was almost dreamlike. The spirits of both Diops were palpable in the atmosphere. My Pan-African education made concrete sense to me at that moment. I realized my teachers had prepared me well. The idea of being a part of a dynamic African historical and cultural continuum became heightened reality for me. Experience now reaffirmed years of serious study and struggle.
The poet in me soared. It is a power-filled feeling to be aware of one's own destiny as it unfolds. I was scaling heights no jetliner could ever reach. More than having reached that proverbial mountaintop, I was airborne on the wings of self-knowledge and understanding. The air was clean, and, for the first time, I could breathe free. I was gliding on the currents of my own poetry before it is birthed into singing words. I was jolted back to earth when a fellow pilgrim standing beside me who spoke English interrupted my reverie to tell me Prof. Fall had just formally acknowledged my presence to the gathering. He wanted me to speak.
They wanted to hear from this strange, yet familiar child of Africa from the other side. I was almost overwhelmed by the intense emotion of the moment. Now was the time to function as the African-American Griot I had always fancied myself to be; as a good friend always said, "It was no time to be nervous." I spoke through an interpreter who delivered my speech in Wolof and in French. Never have I weighed my thoughts so carefully before speaking. I had been swept up into the role of an unofficial ambassador for the African-American people. I was humbled. I was being asked to render the essence of our New World African story. They needed to know the story we have to tell. They needed me to tell it. At that moment, I could see Spady smiling intently in my mind's eye. At that precise moment, I found my Greater Self in the center of my own unfolding epic poem.
I presented myself to them as one of those descended from the ancestors who were sold into slavery through Goree Island's infamous "Door of No Return." Since I had refused to eat when I entered the village, I explained to them that I was fasting during the pilgrimage. I wanted them to know that I had traveled from America to Thiaytou because I was seeking spiritual food to nourish my wounded soul. I soared still higher as I heard whispers of "Allahu Akbar!"(God is great!) My words began to flow as they have never before flowed. It was almost as if my heart had become an open book. The why of Spady's original charge was revealing itself to me. I no longer struggled under the weight of being chosen for such an awesome task. All of my education and experience seemed to be come together during those few precious moments.
I explained to them the degree to which we had been denied our very humanity during our enslavement in the United States. I could feel the tears well-up in my eyes. I felt no shame. I knew many in the audience were also fighting back tears. I wanted them to know that in our struggle to reclaim a sense of our humanity, it was Cheikh Anta Diop's work that served as the beacon lighting our way back home to a real sense of our ancient African selves. It was catharsis. I laid my burden down. I remembered my meeting with the 104 year old village woman in Nigeria. I felt that same feeling of being reconnected. I felt my spiritual roots sinking deeper into Africa's soul-soil. Time seemed to stand still. We all stood naked before God and the ancestral spirits of Cheikh Anta and Nossamba Sassoum Diop.
When I concluded my brief presentation, the Marabou, in his turn, responded on behalf of the village. He warmly acknowledged my presence and my word offering. He thanked me for having traveled such a great distance. He assured me that I was always welcome in Thiaytou, referring to me as a "son returned home after a forced absence." The assembled pilgrims and villagers murmured their approval. I knew that, now, in Senegal, as in Nigeria and Ghana, I was home. I was with extended family. My tears gave way to a sense of relief and belonging unknown to most Americans of African descent. I felt all of those doubts and reservations we hold onto so tightly just wash away from me. I felt spiritually renewed in a way I still cannot fully articulate.
My experience had transcended my imagination. It was surreal. I thanked the Marabou and the assembly once again. I tried to convey to them my belief that although I was the first, more African-Americans would be coming. Like me, so many of us need to feel the serenity I felt at that moment. At the ceremony's end, when the gathering began to disperse, I was surrounded by well wishers once again. After being photographed with Diop family members, as well as various pilgrims and villagers, we made our way back to our bus to begin the return trip to Dakar. So much had happened, I was having a difficult time digesting the whole experience; not even getting lost and having to get out of the bus to push it through the desert sand could spoil my day.
My last few days in Dakar were somewhat depressing. I knew from my first sojourn on the continent that culture shock would come upon my arrival back in the U. S. I had not realized the naked intensity of the pressures we live under living in white society in America until I visited Africa that first time. Now, after returning to Nigeria, and traveling in Ghana and Senegal for the first time, I dreaded my return to this land that is becoming ever more familiar in its strangeness. Part of me wanted to remain, although, I knew that, like so many before me, I had been blessed with the opportunity to travel in the lands of our foremothers and forefathers. I knew I had to return because there is so much necessary work that remains unfinished. So long as we remain a people who are still in search of our proper names, the hard work of picking up the pieces of our identity is not done.
In an effort to lift my spirits, my hosts arranged an audience for me with the son of the Grand Marabou of Tivaoune, Habib Sy. The mother and sister of one of the English Club students wanted me to learn more about Islam in Senegal. And, because I had been given names in Nigeria and Ghana, they wanted me to be given a traditional Senegalese name as well. One of the students had been teaching Brother Sy English, and my visit would provide him with an opportunity to test himself. To my surprise, he had even learned to say one prayer in English by listening to cassette tapes of Min. Louis Farrakhan. Habib wanted to know more about Farrakhan, and about African-American Muslims. He was most interested in my perceptions as an African-American, and, he questioned me at length about my experiences in West Africa.
I was touched by the sincerity of his questions. Here again was proof of a definite African interest in, and, concern for, African-American affairs. More than anything, my travels in West Africa exploded so many popular myths. The real Africa, both its wrenching poverty and its grand splendor, defies the distorted images we continue to receive from the American mass media. Habib pointed out that images of America, and, more specifically, images of African-Americans, were just as distorted in Africa. To express his appreciation for my work, he blessed my efforts and then he honored me with the gift of his father's name. In Senegal, I would be known as Mouhamadoul Monsour Sy. Mouhamadoul is for the Holy Prophet, Muhammad. Monsour means, "one who has been gifted by god." I was now an honorary member of the Sy family. I had been given names on three separate occasions in Nigeria. In Ghana, people marveled at my choice of a Ghanaian name-Okantah. Now, in Senegal, I had been given what I accepted as a fourth honorary title. I felt as if I had truly "crossed over." I felt as if I had just completed an important phase in my own personal Rites of Passage initiation.
Habib even introduced me to his mother. Madame Sy had not been feeling well that evening, but, she wanted to receive me just the same. She asked me if my people knew of Islam. When I responded that many were Muslims, she told me to pray and to tell them to stay strong in their faith. She told me God would guide and protect us in our struggles. At one point, it was almost as if I understood her words before they could be translated into English. Once again, we bridged our worlds in spirit. Standing there in her presence, I knew that I had to return to the States because we are confronted by so much unfinished business, and, because I knew my people needed to hear these stories our poets have been born into this world to tell. And, indeed, Africa had blessed me with precious stories to tell.