Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 10.20.11

I Went to Africa
Finding wealth in history and culture
By Mark Harris

When I’m in America, they remind me I’m from Africa; when I’m in Africa, they remind me I’m from America. Travel is broadening, as they say, and I was granted the opportunity to go to Africa with a group of yoga practitioners. Besides teaching classes about Africa and Africans in America, I had to admire a number of Africans who came to America, ending up in Lane County, where one dubbed his workplace as “a training ground for learning how to deal with institutional racism.” Another, whose tribal totem was a mouse, left me with the admonition to “stand tall.” I had to wonder at their grace and endurance as they both became American citizens; I speculated that Africa was the source of their strength, and America of course, the test of that strength. 

There is a difference between throwing out the British 230 years ago, and 50 years ago. In America, only Natives recall having democracy and civilization before 1492, or the Dark Ages. In Africa, the Dark Ages came with colonization, and the struggle towards the light is all around you in the people. It’s embedded and surviving amidst what we consider grinding poverty, but they are not ground down. They are rich in something else besides bling. 

After my last column, someone sent a black dead mouse to the UO, using my name and work address as the return address. UO Public Safety asked me if I had any enemies. I was puzzled, not fearful. Instead I was inspired by the thought of my Shona friend Derek, and I prepared to go to Africa. Where had he come from, and gone through, wresting his country back from the racist colonizers, only to lose it to a power-mad despot, who left the people even more impoverished? 

Well, in Africa culture and history are forms of wealth, and the land itself is rich and fertile. I met people eking out a living sifting Togo sands, who remember their ancestors living six millennia ago in the biblical cities of present day Iraq. I met Vodun priests with images of the Hindu god Ganesha on the walls of their temples, claiming 600 million fellow practitioners, following a practice 100,000 years old. 

They shrugged when I asked, “What’s up with all the White Jesus pictures? Ieshua was an African.” “Of course he was,” they replied, “but the influence of the colonizer is still very much present.” While the tombs of W.E.B. Du Bois and Kwame Nkrumah are tourist destinations, some of their lessons have been lost. If millennia-old sacred grounds are littered with trash, if Chinese nationals are allowed to use mercury to extract gold (while the chief or king gets a kickback), what does it matter if you have cell phone reception and your clean drinking water comes out of plastic bags and bottles sold on the street? 

Du Bois wrote that America had a lot to teach the world, but warned of not bleaching, or losing touch with your African soul, in the continuing struggle to improve the world. 

Mark Harris is an instructor and substance abuse prevention coordinator at LCC.