Africans in the diaspora coming home: memories, nostalgia, dreams

John Otim

For years in the metropolitan countries where he lived Ahmed carried with him the feeling of a nowhere man. Ahmed had lost all contacts with his family and with his homeland and this bothered him. Almost to the day he left Africa to pursue his studies abroad violence had broken out in his homeland. A civil war followed, which ended in a genocide that targeted his people.

Ahmed is not Tutsi and does not come from Rwanda. For all he knew his family were long dead, wiped out in the deliberately slow-paced low key genocide. But the world is a strange place and hope endures in many hearts and many stories there abound of survival even in the direst of circumstances. One day Ahmed surprised even himself and wrote home.

Against all odds the mail and the package that accompanied it arrived in a small town which fifteen years ago was the scene of a brutal massacre that had been for a brief moment the focus of world attention in the central African country where he hailed from. In this town his old mother still lived. Considering the scale of the destruction and the displacements that followed it was a miracle.

In the package were items and goodies picked from end of season sales in small town America where Ahmed, long since graduated, now lived and taught African literature at the local college. He loved campus life and enjoyed the work he did and was pretty good at it. He had friends and was married to a local girl and despite his constant pining for Africa Ahmad felt at home here. Home is where you make a living, a wise Nigerian friend had once told him.

In the package he lovingly put together, there were items of clothing and household goods that Ahmed knew his people would need if they were still alive. There were edibles; there was an assortment of red wine, something his old mother loved. There were brewages and dried fruits. There were cameras and audio and video recorders. He took care to include a pair of powerful radio receivers so that folks at home can keep in touch with the world at large. When they received the package his mother and his people were elated and overcome with joy.

In the midst of their misery had come this irrefutable piece of evidence that their beloved and long lost son was alive and well. In the midst of the hostility that still raged around them this was all they needed. The family had not felt this good for a long, long time. Omotola, Ahmed’s only sister read the letter out aloud to incredulous ears. And now came the request, and they were taken aback. Was Ahmed truly well and safe in America? The family knew that terrible things sometimes happen in America. The shooting down of Tryvon Martin, the unarmed Black teen as he walked home was just the latest.

In the carefully worded message, written as if to reassure them in his own familiar long hand Ahmed requested of his people a favor. Please would they record the cry and the buzz of night insects by the stream below their home and would they send him a copy. Here on this spot unknown to his people Ahmed had received his first kiss from a local beauty as the night insects serenaded. Now his mother and the others could see for themselves the up to date recording gear he had included in the package, now unpacked and staring at them from the table.

This was typical Ahmed. He took care to leave no one in doubt about his meaning. Now it was up to them. But surely only a madman could ask what Ahmed was asking for. His people knew that the war and the genocide had produced many traumatized people now loitering about the countryside, mostly young people, who went about staring blankly into space and laughing at insects and animals they encountered along the way. God forbid! But the elders were convinced that Ahmed had gone crazy in America. They shook their heads meaningfully.

In this world there is nobody like one’s own mother. Nobody! Ahmed’s mother loved him. Of all her kids Ahmed had been the brightest and her favorite. Now she spoke not a word. There were no doubts in her mind. Without question she did exactly what her son asked. His words were her command.

It was winter when the recordings arrived from Africa. Ahmed was surprised and reassured. His mother was alive and well in Africa. She had understood and responded to his deepest longing for a piece of Africa that was also a piece of his past. She knew how much her son loved to be by that little stream. God knows what he used to see there.

Now he made himself comfortable and settled down and played back that precious piece of Africa he had longed for all these years. And it was like magic. In the midst of a bitter North Carolina winter, his apartment bubbled with the cheer and the warmth of Africa. He was transported back millenniums to a long ago epoch when the world was new, when his great grandparents were kids in Africa. Through his boundless joy he heard the voice of the immortal Ray Charles speak to him in a song from long ago. Those happy hours that we once knew, they still make me blue. I can’t stop loving you.  Yes he still remembered that girl.

Today there is a huge African Diaspora. Millions of Africans now live, study and work in Europe, North America, China, Japan, India, Malaysia and many other places right across the Globe. Many Diaspora Africans are proud citizens of their new countries. Some were born there and are second or third generation overseas Africans. Many like Ahmed are in the professions and in the business world and have done well. A few are in politics. Some are struggling.

For most Diaspora Africans the old Continent in all its magnificence and tragedies and contradictions acts like a powerful magnet. The longing for Africa and things African is deep. Overseas Africans search for African recipes and indulge in African cuisine, a taste of Africa. They attend many get-togethers where the talk invariably turns to Africa. They watch African movies and listen to African music. Everyday their women rediscover Africa and adorn extravagant African hairstyles and colorful African costumes. In their games and play their children, from scraps of information they cleverly put together, reenact scenarios from the old Continent.

Yearly, a growing number of Diaspora Africans make the pilgrimage back to Africa. Like the tourists they have become they sample and enjoy the pleasures of the continent and return to their new countries elated and renewed by the experience. Younger men sometimes arrive back from Africa accompanied by elegant new brides they met on the trip. Nowadays an increasing number of Africans take the final plunge. After years and decades of living abroad in foreign lands they return home to Africa for good.

For the returnees, the journey back to Africa can be a richly rewarding experience. After hours of flight the jet plane lands in Accra, in Lagos, at Entebbe, Lilongwe, Ouagadougou or Lubumbashi; name it. Our man or woman often in jeans and trek boots steps out into the warm African sun. Like magic they are reconnected to all that they once knew and for years could only dream about. Emotions overflow. They are children again playing the same old games they use to play.

But in the real world the return to Africa can at times be fraught with dangers. There are sharks out there. In a series of short pieces that we will run specifically for you on the pages of Nile Journal in the next few months, we hope to enlighten and delight you with the adventures of the returnee, who after years in the Diaspora, now picks his bags and journeys back to Africa to stay.