First Time Travel: My African Homecoming

“Welcome home, sista!” Those words were music to my ears.  A familiar melody I’d heard before, but only in my dreams.  Now, my dream had come true.  As an African-American, it took me 31 years to get there, but I had finally arrived in — or rather, returned to — Africa.

A view from the top of Table Mountain
A view from the top of Table Mountain

I took my first footstep on the continent in Johannesburg, a spectacular city with a history of racial tension that rivals that of America’s.  I had no idea what to expect.  Would it be obvious I was from the States?  How would South Africans treat me once they heard my American accent?  But the main thing on my mind was: would I feel like a stranger?  It only took a few hours to find out the answer.

The answer was, no.  As I looked at all the beautiful brown faces, I felt more at home there than I do in the state of Georgia, the place where I was born and raised.  I don’t mean any disrespect to my state or my country, but something unexplainable happened when I walked down the street and transformed from a minority into one of the majority.  And it wasn’t just the melanated skin.  Everything from the food to the music, the cadence of the language, and even the multi-part handshake greeting, felt very familiar.  The vendor’s words became crystal clear.  I really was “home”.

I was joyous throughout the majority of my two week stay, except during my visit to the (in)famous Robben Island.  Robben Island is the place where Nelson Mandela spent eighteen of his twenty-seven years as a political prisoner. As I gazed between the bars and into the 8 x 8 foot cell that served as his home, I started to weep. It was as if the spirits of racism and oppression, which once hovered over the prison, had surrounded me. In that moment, I truly understood the sacrifice Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other political prisoners made so that their people could be free.

Nelson Mandela's prison cell
Nelson Mandela’s prison cell
I’m not naive enough to believe that South Africa is representative of the entire African continent.  I know the cultures and experiences vary from country to country, and even from neighborhood to neighborhood.  I saw distinct differences between Jo’burg and Cape Town.  What I am saying is, my first visit to the continent of my ancestors was more than just a homecoming.  It was an awakening, and I can’t wait to go back.
Next stop: Senegal.

Rae Oglesby is a freelance multimedia journalist and the founder + chief storyteller for Oglesby Communications Consulting. She can be reached at rae@oglesbyconsulting.com.