Updated: Aug 8, 2020
I finished on a high while leaving Germany. Visited 30+ memorials/concentration camps, met with 15-20 scholars, activists, and NGO representatives, connected with the Afro-German population who enlightened me on their struggles within German society, and overall felt independence in my exploration. Rwanda, however, was a different story. When I arrived my mind was on fire. I made it in chaos, trying to find housing, trying to adjust to the technology, or lack thereof, trying to figure out my research with the laws constraining “research”, trying to see how I would make it through the next few months not having full independence with exploring my project. Most importantly, I wanted to see how I would be accepted in 2019 in Africa, 400 years since Africans came to the Americas in bondage. I was hoping for this connection to a land my parents, their parents, and I, had never seen. I was yearning for this feeling of love, friendship, and family, from people I had never met. I was looking for open arms from a land I have only fanatically talked about, but never truly embodied. Unfortunately I did not receive that initially. I was told when I arrived that I was a white man in Rwanda, a “Mzungu”. It broke my heart. Even in Africa, I am viewed as an outsider. I have never been so confused in my life. Rwandan culture, it seems, is largely about proving yourself worthy to the community as a form of trust, either through color or language. I know I will always be an outsider, but from there hospitality can be given, I thought. I remember during one meeting I thought I was having a midlife crisis (at 22!). The stories some survivors of the Genocide against the Tutsis told me were not what caused it; it was what Rwandans largely thought about the United States. Thousands of Africans apply for green cards every year hoping to get an opportunity to go and work to make a living, so that they can come back to their countries and “live like kings.” Some Rwandans even told me they thought the US was heaven. But then I was asked about my alleged African “ancestry.”
“Where are your ancestors from in Africa, since you say you are African-American?”
My only response was “I don’t know. I wish I knew.” In America there is this make believe fascination with Africa, about coming from Kings and Queens, empires, riches and some of the greatest civilizations known to man. The movie Black Panther did not help either. Stories such as this should motivate us to rebuild Africa, instead of putting the image in our heads that this land is what it used to be. Those expectations will never end well, as is what happened to me. These initial experiences alone made me rethink my entire identity and time in Rwanda. What am I? Who am I? Am I too, African, or only a black American? Unfortunately, this ostracism caused me to have a negative outlook on such a beautiful and transformational country. It made me lash out against myself for my American privilege. No matter what woes my community faces in the U.S., wherever we go internationally, our passport opens many doors. Would I trade my US passport for one from an African country? Today, absolutely not. 400 years ago, yes. It made me wonder about the gravity of struggles African-Americans face. Are they worth fighting for? Are we satisfied with our condition in the U.S. because of the conditions of the African diaspora across the world? I wish I could act like it did not happen, but I would only be lying to myself. In America, I am African. In Europe I am African-American. In Africa, I am white until proven Black, but never African. Confused is an understatement.
Other than my personal experiences of battling with my racial identity, I was able to meet many survivors and interview some of them for my project. I even visited a healing center, used specifically to aid survivors with mental illness or other societal troubles caused by the Genocide. The stories they shared with me will stay in my heart forever. Literally the worst things you can possibly imagine, rape, murder, torture, injection, etc, happened to these people. Africans against Africans, and they still find a way to reconcile and unite. An amazing display 25 years later of resilience. What stood out most was their belief and hope in Rwanda’s future, survivors who had been in the worst circumstances saying they still had hope in their government because of the aid they have received from them. Housing, jobs, counseling, orphanages, you name it. It made me wonder about what the American government was doing when millions of recently enslaved men and women were set free in 1865. It made me think of the countless African-Americans finally seeing an end to segregation and Jim Crow. I wonder what their reaction was to the government. Was it one of hope and vision, believing in a government that had allegedly helped them? Or was there still malice in their hearts knowing something was owed to them, or that something worse was on the other side? I can only imagine what it feels like to adamantly love an administration, or rather, be patriotic.