Is it possible to conceptualize Africa prior to the Berlin Conference when she was given boundaries and borders for European Interest? Can we imagine a name for a mighty continent before Roman General Scipio Africanus left his stain of ego? Do we still remember the natural order of life before the continents drifted to separate humanity?
My first personal encounter with Africa came through the Arabic language. My Arabic teacher caught my attention because of his kind spirit. He was a likable character, an extremely passive Sudanese man from Southern Sudan. Coated with rich and beautiful dark skin, he hung a constant smile on his face when he spoke and taught us. “I am from the wonderful continent of Africa,” he would often share. At age six, understanding the definition of a continent was still a foreign and insignificant concept, but Africa and its dark smiling face hung proudly in my subconscious mind because of my teacher Muhammad.
Even before my Arabic teacher came into my small world, I had heard the word Africa throughout my childhood. My many fathers and uncles were students of the Pan African movements that gripped New York in the 60’s. Great figures like Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois were discussed constantly in the backdrop of my adolescence. Children never truly understand the coded language of adults until their vocabulary is strengthened. Many of the great men in my early childhood were Africa-conscious and believed that a tree could not grow to it heights if it believed itself to be a bush. This was the story of African Americans trying to rediscover their identities through centuries of self-hatred programming and conditioning. The great elders that I was raised by were determined to instill a sense of pride, dignity, and identity within me.
Then, Bugs Bunny and television happened. For the next decade, the beautiful face of Africa was slowly being reshaped in my subconscious. AIDS, starvation, savagery, and ugliness became synonymous with Africa. This was subliminally fed to me through my early education system, cartoons, news and movies throughout the 80’s. Lucky for me, my many fathers and older brothers provided a balance to the negative programming about Africa, but layers of self-hate had already begun to seep in. I, too, wanted the good hair that was portrayed on the television commercials. I, too, began to believe that black was a complexion of ugliness and white was a symbol of beauty due to the many hours of television programming. I, too, began to tease the darker skinned brothers and sisters in our community with unkind names. This had become my programming.
Along came Hip Hop to rescue me from the road of self-destruction. Many Hip Hop artists of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s began to stir within me a new love and respect for Mother Africa. We wore African patches, dashikis and medallions to show our allegiance to Africa and its endless struggles. I was no longer a kid captured by the subliminal cartoon programming.
I was now commanding a better understanding of the language and putting together the puzzle pieces laid by my father, my Arabic teacher, and the conscious lyrics fed through Hip Hop about Africa. My strongest memory came in 1990 when myself and a few of my big brothers almost got arrested for hopping the train to get to a Nelson Mandela rally held in Brooklyn. Thousands showed up at the rally to show their solidarity for South Africa’s struggle with the cruel system of Apartheid. I stood with them at age 14 chanting slogans of freedom for South Africa.
After decades of engaging myself with organizations, literature and writing poetry about Africa, I decided that it was time to visit this continent I’d read and learned so much about. I yearned for the moment to put my feet in the soil to honor so many elders who had passed on, wishing they had an opportunity to do so themselves. I’d already imagined myself in Ethiopia, Egypt, and Ghana, and believed one of the three countries would be my first visit to Africa. But as the saying goes, when man makes plans, the creator laughs at it all. Never would I have imagined that Zimbabwe would steal my heart and guide me on a deeper path inward for clarity.
My first introduction to Zimbabwe came from Bob Marley. When Zimbabwe was fighting for its liberation, I was still a child hooked on cartoons. When I fell in love with Reggae and heard Bob Marley’s song Zimbabwe, the energy moved me to do a little research about the liberation struggle and how Zimbabwe fought and won back their independence. But like other research I’d done in the past, it too faded away. The opportunity came for me in 2008 to go to Zimbabwe. It was extremely special to me because I was not a part of any missionary groups or those who perceived themselves as the saviors of Africa. It was a chance to visit Zimbabwe and be amongst the people. No agendas, just being an African in Africa.
While on Air Zimbabwe flying from South Africa to Zimbabwe, a sense of awareness came over me. Many of the old ideas and thoughts that once sat in the corners and cracks of my mind to clog my free and natural way of thinking, had finally found their exit out. Like an elaborate mansion built on cards, my entire perception came crashing down with a wind of truth.
It was one question that opened the door within and showed me clearly the power of propaganda through programming. “If Zimbabwe is to be so dangerous and at the brink of a civil war, why is this plane so full of European families heading to this so-called war zone?”. This sight did not make any sense.
It was this question that shook the foundation of fear. Prior to leaving, so many people gave warning that Zimbabwe was unsafe and a dangerous place to visit. Of course, their perception was from a media that purposely projected a small area of conflict as the entire country at war. At that moment, I recognized the mass programming that was in place to keep African Americans’ perspective of Africa as mysterious and dangerous, while the rest of the world exploited her kindness and resources.
It was nighttime when I landed in Zimbabwe. While exiting the airplane, I locked eyes with an older Shumba. A thick black beard with sprinkles of gray veiled his rich oily cheeks, and a colorful crown covered his thick locs. I believe our crowns were the magnet that caused our eyes to lock, and triggered our spirits to a silent conversation allowing only our eyes to speak. We smiled at one another and shared a nod of respect. Before departing the airport, he introduced himself and wished me a great time in Zimbabwe. He informed me that we would meet again soon and he drove off into the black night.
As we drove through the dark roads to our destination, my pre-programmed conditioning made every attempt to take root in my mind. “It’s dark here, where are the streetlights? Maybe it’s really dangerous here.” Various feelings of doubt fought to take control of my thoughts and bombard my spirit. I released this with one deep breath. I’m in Zimbabwe! Old Marcus Garvey speeches rang in my mind. Bob Marley’s song “Zimbabwe” played in my heart as we rode in silence through the night.
When we reached our destination, I stepped outside of the vehicle and stared at the sky full of stars. I stopped to inhale the sweet scent sailing from the trees, and a deep calm hijacked my spirit. A peace took over my body and I became one with the euphoria.
My mission was not to impart my way of thinking and lifestyle on my distant brothers, but to be born again and learn from and share with my brothers. My love for lions taught me my first Shona word- Shumba! I thought I found my name until I learned about the different family totems and how certain animals as well as body parts associated with a family totem. I learned about the first and second Chimurenga wars from the perspective of the children of the soil, rather than from a foreign “scholar’s” perspective.
I ate mangoes, litchis, avocados, and bananas from the trees as I walked through the land. I hiked the rich soil with bare feet and spoke with young farmers and families who depended on the land for their daily bread. I ate Muriwo and Muboora over Sadza, sat around the fire where the Mbira provided the soundtrack as we shared philosophy, comedy and various stories about life.
I met the elder from the plane two weeks later at a poetry reading in Book Café. My plan was to enjoy my last night in Zimbabwe with local poetry and music. After meeting the elder and informing him that I was to fly out the following day, he invited me to stay a little while longer, so he could show us the entire land. My flight was canceled and for the entire month, I received a rich education on Zimbabwe. The experience opened my eyes wider to the warm spirit of the land and the Shona and Ndebele people. The experience caused me to be more appreciative of all the small blessings life offers. It opened my eyes to foreign hidden agendas taking root in Zimbabwe, as well as the reality of life in Mbare.
When one is removed from its origin, stripped of its culture, language, music and traditions, it causes one to wallow in a state of confusion. The seed then takes root in a soil of self-destruction. This is the story of many African American children in search of their identity. To imagine an Africa before the borders of division is to recognize my brother and all of his languages and traditions. To teach a child about himself from his mother’s tongue is to stir awake a sleeping giant. This has become my mission- to build bridges across continents where the children of now and tomorrow can teach and learn from each other. My aim is to help the lost children understand the many layers of themselves, and remove the veil of lies that cloaks them from their true identity. This is what Zimbabwe did for me. For that, I am truly grateful, and to all the wonderful spirits I met along my journey, I say MAKAITA BASA!