Updated: Mar 29, 2020
I am no queen of Africa. You may be wondering why I feel the need to clarify this point. Well, to explain I have to take you back to that time I climbed Kilimanjaro.
It would take seven days for our group of twelve Americans to reach the summit, two days to descend. We would be sleeping in tents and abstaining from showers for the duration. My mind was especially focused on the latter point given that I was trekking with my then-boyfriend and his parents. (Note: he is now my husband, so it was fine).
On the first day, we were escorted to the trail entrance and waited for the local guides who would assist us on this journey. I stood with the other hikers and that sensation hit me, the one when you consciously notice you are in the minority. Nearly all of the others in my group, and in the groups surrounding, were white. There was one other Black American who worked for the tour guide company. But when our guides arrived, and about 20 men exited several trucks, all of them were Tanzanian. All were black.
Our trek together presented an interesting expression of class and race—even within the African diaspora. Although the guides and I were all black, they seemed to perceive me as profoundly different. Some seemed mystified by me, and of my status in American society if I would fly across the world and pay money to climb a mountain. Climbing Kili for sport was something they understood as a pastime for white people, but not quite for me. They even seemed to better understand why the other Black American would participate—she worked for the company after all.
Still, there was a pride in my presence. "Maybe she is one of the Obama daughters," was my favorite whispered rumor. This pride morphed into the affectionate nickname "Queen of Africa." They rooted for us all, but I felt a special kinship with them as they pushed me along toward the 19,341ft high peak. Pole pole, they chanted in Swahili—encouraging careful, purposeful steps.
So on our summit day, I stood at the top looking out from the highest mountain in Africa. We did it! Of course, I shared in the feelings of pride. But, I couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing. Standing there, in "The Motherland,” for the first time in my life, I couldn't help but feel disconnected from my past.
What I didn't mention earlier, was that there was a discussion—an ongoing debate in fact—about where I was really from. My African country of origin.
"No, Nigeria. They are all mostly from West Africa, right?"
"I say she is Tanzanian, for sure. Her bone structure looks Masaai."
This lighthearted debate continued as we ascended. Yet, when I was at the peak, the questioned haunted me. And I had the eerie feeling that this was just the beginning of my journey.
American Origin Stories was born of this experience. I know am not alone in wondering where I come from, who my ancestors are, and what I am made of. I am no queen of Africa, but I am a storyteller. And I intend to share our stories with purpose and care, one step at a time. Pole, pole.