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  • What Is Africa to Me Now?The Sweet, the Bitter …
  • Karen King-Aribisala

My romance with the continent of Africa began with its name … Africa. … It was to me a sweet and bitter melody, a song that sang of my African diaspora heritage. Sweet because of its mystery: it was an unknown, a land imagined; a land of vast deserts, tumbling plains, wide waters, the cradle of civilization; a land of famed warriors like Chaka Zulu; a land with plenteous jungles where lions and zebras and other awesome animals roamed free; a land where exotic birds of colorful plumage marked the sky in bright streaks of orange and yellow and green. Africa was romantic and exotic and so thrilling it made your heart beat with drum beats just with the imagining and thinking of it. Africa was a land of stories sweet.

It was also a constant reminder of bitterness, bitter stories, for it was the land where my ancestors sold fellow blacks into slavery; a continent that placed premium on material wealth, selling me and mine for silver and gold, creating a seemingly un-crossable divide between Africans and those of the diaspora; a land whose peoples caused my ancestors to be subjected to the dehumanization of the Atlantic slave trade, shipped in the worst conditions imaginable to the so-called New World, auctioned, forced to work on sugarcane plantations. The bittersweetness of Africa was an irony. In fact, the late prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams, has commented on this irony, that something as sweet as sugar, as sweet as the slave crop sugarcane, should have occasioned so much bitterness of the human heart.

And my heart continued to be divided into bittersweet polarities of Africa, mostly bitter. For even before the age of nine, when I first left the shores of my Guyanese land of birth for Africa, I had been exposed to derogatory perspectives of an Africa bedeviled by drought, famine, incurable diseases, extreme poverty, and savagery where people ate each other with consummate ease; where twins, because they were twins, were deemed abnormal and condemned to death; an Africa that could only be made civilized by Tarzan and Dr. Livingstone of “I presume” fame; an Africa that could only be “tamed” by fictional and nonfictional white men. And another sweet and bitter irony manifested itself when, finally in Nigeria, I was in Africa with my brother and parents. We had come “home,” to the land of our ancestors, and that was sweet. But we were also not “at home.” [End Page 15]

My parents were stationed in Ibadan, my father teaching forestry at the University of Ibadan, and my brother Brian and I went to school at the International School of Ibadan. I was in my imagined Africa at last, so I thought. I looked desperately for the exotic animals and the jungles and the exotic birds and for the warriors of African fame. I saw no African warriors. The animals and birds I saw; they were in the Ibadan zoo. I searched for Dr. Livingstone “I presume”; I searched for Tarzan swinging from the trees. I did not find them. What I found was a Nigeria teeming with people, fellow blacks. And the latter did not seem to know that we had come home, that we were linked by history and particularly by race. Rather they referred to us and to me as oyibos, the name given to white men, foreigners, strangers. I did not belong either in terms of culture or any of the things that I had thought would connect us to each other in spite of historical divide. That was another bittersweet polarity.

And that polarity continued to exist in a different guise. We lived in an expatriate world with other expatriates: whites and Indians, blacks of the diaspora, West Indians, and African Americans. Perhaps it was we, foreigners, who created another country to live in within Nigeria; perhaps it was the fault of Nigerians who deemed us as “other” that engendered this divide. Whatever the reason, when foreigners live in another country they tend to group together and become a nation on their own. Examples abound in countries...


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pp. 15-25
Launched on MUSE
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