An Afropolitan Diary Entry #StraightOuttaTogo
I was hit with a force of emotions sitting in the airport waiting to board the plane back to Johannesburg, South Africa where I’m currently teaching. I thought about the need to craft the narrative of my experience in the last seven nights and tell it with grace. In a different way, I understood another element of my parent’s journey. I was able to grasp the excitement and fear of the unknown that must have held them in both paralysis and action. I understood the immense love for a child that leads to such selflessness…to depart from so many systems of security of family and of community.
I couldn’t hold a few tears back as I recalled memories of our arrival to New York City fourteen years ago. A son of Djakotomey, his wife and their four sons. That breeds a certain tenacity I must be grateful for.
Returning to Lome was necessary. It was a fusion of dispersed selves from a diaspora. There, j’ai reconnu le petit garcon. The nine-year-old boy who had no idea what he was in for. The nine-year-old boy who sat a few days before they embarked on this trans-Atlantic journey and watched his parents fight with only neighbors holding back the punches. The nine-year-old boy whose only experience of Lome was with his family.
In the ennui which ensued during my few days in Adidogome, I let thoughts and broken memories simmer, unable to find links between lost tongue and forgotten family.
Day 1 & 2: 14 Years Ago
The bottom picture was taken at my brother’s baptism so I was about five. It was four years before we would leave for the US. In the middle is mother and on the edges are uncle and aunt whose house (top picture) I’ll be staying in for the next week in Adidogome, a neighborhood of Lome, Togo. They definitely got love for me but I have no recollection of any memories with them or the cousins I used to play with. I understand Mina very well but I don’t speak it and my French is mighty, mighty broken. But I do speak family and have lots of questions.
Day 3: Cheap Horse Won’t Get You Up The Hill
This was one of Kamal’s (pictured on the right with the black t-shirt) favorite proverbs to tell us back in the University days at CU Boulder. Four years ago we were in college dreaming of ways to not be slaves to the dollar. Now, Kamal’s really going for it! He just opened his first office with his cousin in the heart of Togo and they’re hustling trying to build a reputation with their first clients. They’re trying to position themselves as the real estate connection between Africans abroad who want to build houses in their home countries while also investing in local land development. Africans designing solutions for Africans. It got me excited to identify needs in Togo that HackSchool-Africa can potentially serve.
Day 4: Everybody Is Somebody’s Cousin In Togo
“In our language, I can describe a relation down to the bone. In English, it’ll just translate to cousin.” Language matters. My mother’s maiden name is Goncalves. Clearly not West African. Turns out there were a lot of Afro-Brazilians in Togo. That explains the music, the dance, and maybe it’s why randomly in Mina, we’ll say Yesu Kristo versus saying Jesus Christ when speaking French. I guess I got a little Brazilian in me.
Day 5: Brotherly Nostalgia
Our final home before that lottery visa. It’s impossible to put into words the breathless feeling of gasping at faded images in the conscious and retrieving nothing. Nothing from an aunt whose family shared a home with you or a cousin who talks of always playing with you and your brothers.
Yet, as our car passed by the old computer school my father opened, I recognized our quartier. The gate is grey instead of the burgundy red it used to be. The court “yard” is just as spacious as I remember it. Except the small mango trees we planted didn’t survive and the tree we used to take naps under is no longer there. I message my brother, “was there always a giant palm tree in the corner?”
Nothing but smiles for those thirty minutes as I walked through each room, passed by the outdoor shower, and toured the second floor now complete. I laugh as I think about the hours and days of arguments back in Colorado which funded this second floor overlooking Togo’s capital. Arguments that straddled the tensions of hungry mouths, empty wallets, and family duties.
Nothing but smiles as I remembered jumping from the second floor (roof at the time) into mounds of sand with my brothers.
Nothing but smiles as I feel the dirt we spent hours playing football, Ludo, Sipa, and James.
Nothing but smiles as I finally felt a wave of nostalgia. Finally a bit hope, a bit of home, and a bit more at ease.
Day 6: The Dead Don’t Speak
When your family has won that lottery visa and you’re packing up your bags to chase the American dream, there are truths no one speaks to your father or your mother. No one can speak the pain of being unable to attend the funeral of their mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, or sisters. No one can speak the frustration of the international calling card robbing you of your last four cents remaining during that crucial conversation. And no one can speak of the longing for community that awaits.
Day 7: It’s A Family Affair
It wasn’t hard to smile while dealing with the aftermath of diarrhea from the questionable meat only Pierina and Maman were able to survive. A proper farewell from my country. A reminder that even the bacteria in my intestines are foreign. I leave with hope, diasporan Africans like myself can find ease in our home countries. Next time, I’m eager to figure out my role in the development of our country and the community we left behind.
Returning was a necessity. You’ve learned another set of codes, rites, and traditions. From a mile away, without ever opening your mouth, they know you have come from abroad regardless of your choice of clothing. Yet, the fusing of your disconnected distant selves is powerfully healing.
The immigrant narrative isn’t easy. To risk it all is a gift which can only be repaid by living with the same level of courage. That breeds a certain tenacity I must be grateful for. The perpetual chip on our shoulders.
The tension of a complex narrative.
I am the insider-outsider. The Black Mzungu. The African-American and the American-African. My grandparents chose my name. My parents chose my story. I am choosing my destiny in the duality of my identities.