It’s my first day in Africa proper. (The trip to Egypt a few months ago hardly counts. Egyptians had not only asked occasionally if I was from Africa, but suggested that I go there being that I was so close! Egypt doesn’t quite consider itself Africa, even with its small Nubian population. It is the Middle East.)
So here I am, finally in Africa, and I can now recall every conversation where someone has said that this kind of trip can be emotional – a homecoming of sorts – a pilgrimage. But I am not wired that way. I don’t bring to Africa those particular emotions. My Ukrainian-Canadian friend asked over drinks a few nights ago, if I knew exactly where in this vast continent my people were from. I told him that I didn’t, and that I had never been curious. And he found *that* rather curious.
Johannesburg where I am staying for the next few days has been described to me as an African cosmopolitan. Everyone from the rest of the continent has come to Joburg to live. I tried to explain to my Ukrainian-Canadian friend that the Caribbean was little bit like that. It wasn’t only the world that met itself in the Caribbean as Lamming has famously said – Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas. But on a slightly smaller level, much of Africa must have met itself there as well. For wasn’t that the policy – to put Africans together that were from different tribes and that didn’t speak the same language. In the mix of Africa that any one plantation was, how could anyone from the Caribbean, hundreds of years later, essentialize where they were from? We are from so many places and so many languages. Many tribes must meet inside me. I am probably as much Igbo as I am Yoruba, as much Ashanti as I am Kuba. And this is to say nothing of the Norwegian Great grand-father, or the South-Indian great grand-mother, who fight for their own odd places in my family tree. I am from too many places in the world, and so it is easier to just say I am a black Jamaican.
On this, my first morning in Joburg, I went down for breakfast, and an old woman was sitting at the table. She looked familiar. She looked like several black women I have known in the Caribbean. A younger woman came into the room, looked at the older woman, and said, ‘Happy Mother’s Day!’
My God! It is Mother’s Day, and I am in the ‘Motherland’. and the sort of emotion that this trip was supposed to hit me with, suddenly hits me a little. Most every family in the West Indies is racially complex, but I think of my father’s family as being the one that is harder to pin down. It is his blackness that is complicated with Norwegian and Indian and English ancestry. My mother’s family, however, I think of as much more solidly black. And my mother’s aesthetic was also African. I think of her outfits – her beautiful head-wraps – much like what this old woman in front of me is wearing. I think how my mother would smile whenever someone, impressed by her clothes, called her an ‘African Queen’.
I do not know the places I am from in Africa, but South Africa isn’t likely one of them. This is not where the slave trade was based. But still, today I would have liked to have called my mother on Mother’s Day and tell her, ‘I have come to the place where your people are from. And all around there are women who look like you and who dress like you. They are all so beautiful. And I don’t mean to be sentimental, but you know, it is a little like home-coming.’