Amena Brown: Roots

I held my passport in my hand, still shiny and nearly brand-new. I’d only garnered two stamps from trips to Canada and the Dominican Republic. This time I was crossing larger seas into a continent I imagined would be a place of great tension and conflict for me.

For years, I had said no to opportunities to travel to Africa. In particular, if I was invited on a mission trip that seemed to be focused on poor Africans being helped by middle-class or wealthy Americans. In particular, if there seemed to be a dissonance between the concern for poor Africans and the concern for poor African Americans.

I didn’t want my first trip to Africa to be riddled with view- ing her as a place that needs assistance, as a place to visit because pity disguised as problem solving seemed like a good, Christian, American thing to do. The history of my ancestors was there in that soil. The woundedness of the bloodline of a people whose language and culture and customs were stolen from them was still waiting at the bottom of a Middle Passage sea.

I wanted my first trip to Africa to honor the ancestors whose names I would never know. I wanted to mourn the continent they were stolen from while basking in the joy of the rich cultures still thriving there.

I met Dr. Una Mulale at a women’s conference where we were speaking. Her hair was twisted into a beautiful coif, and her hips were wrapped in bright and beautiful fabric from her native Botswana. I told her I loved her outfit, and we exchanged a few pleasantries. I was even more impressed when she took the stage to discuss the nation where she was born and raised and how God was using her medical degree and education in global health to improve the conditions for children in Botswana’s hospitals.

We met again at another women’s conference the next year, and she asked me to step into her office at an after-party, which basically meant occupying a vacant corner and talking through an idea she had going. She and her best friend, Leah, had cofounded Barona Children’s Foundation, an organization created to establish Botswana’s first Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and children’s hospital.

“I want you to come to Botswana,” she said. “I am hosting a Gratitude Gala there for medical professionals. I want you to come and share some poetry, and I want your husband to deejay,” she said.

I ran through my usual Africa trip checklist: Does this make me feel uncomfortable or sick to my stomach or like Africans will be treated as less than? I felt none of those things, only the pride Una had in her country and in her people. Four months later, my husband and I were on a plane to Botswana.

We met Una and Leah in Maun, a medium-sized city in Botswana. There we met Bonty Botumile, a storyteller and community activist who converted her property to an arts center for young people to create, find their purpose, and build community. We learned about Love Botswana, an outreach mission founded by Jerry and Jana Lackey. We toured the Village Church where the Lackeys pastored and where the Gratitude Gala would be held. Jana took us to the Okavango International School, where we spent time with students from Botswana and many other countries. We visited Love Botswana’s home for children who had been abandoned or had special needs.

We went on a horseback safari at the Royal Tree Lodge, where the giraffe made it very clear to us we were in their territory, not the other way around. We saw herds of zebra, impala, and gazelle. We saw flocks of ostrich. We went to sleep and sometimes stayed awake at the lodge where we were staying, listening to the noise of the mammals and birds around us.

At the gala, dignitaries sat next to common folk, chiefs sat next to nurses, while Una and Leah watched their dream of bringing the community together to build better medical care for Botswana’s children become reality. After the gala, we traveled to the Okavango Delta for Leah’s wedding. The only way to travel to the lodge where she would be married was via a tiny plane that could only seat six people, including the pilot. I may or may not have sung “In the Name of Jesus (We Have the Victory)” over and over until we landed.

When we arrived, the staff at the lodge sang a traditional Botswana welcome song. Shortly after sunset, Leah and her husband said their vows under a beautifully dark and romantic Botswana sky and spent their first few moments as a married couple being celebrated with the singing and dancing of the lodge staff and their friends from Botswana. I held Matt’s hand, thankful for the adventure of our marriage and all the adventures our marriage had brought us, including rejoicing in a newly married couple’s wedding vows underneath a sparkling lattice of stars.

The day after the wedding, we said good-bye to Leah and her new husband, and six of us rode seven hours to Francistown, Una’s village, in an uncomfortable van with our knees in our chest. It was easy to forget about our rough travels after nearly the entire village greeted us when we arrived.

We met the village chief and Una’s dad, uncles, aunts, and community. They prepared food for us, and we prayed and ate together. They asked us about America, and we asked them about Botswana.

“It honors us that Una wants to bring her friends home to meet us. We are Una’s roots,” her uncle said.

I took pictures of the older women in Una’s village, their shawls wrapped around their shoulders and tied with a pin or brooch not unlike the ones my grandmother and great-aunts would have worn. Somehow, we were all inexplicably tied together, even after centuries and miles of distance.

Una had given us the opportunity to see Botswana as more than a two-dimensional representation of the faux African accents found in American movies or the “savage” narrative that pervaded America in an attempt to make slavery and racism acceptable. I experienced Botswana through the dance, music, strength, and stories of her people.

A year later, I traveled to Rwanda with women from the IF:Gathering and Africa New Life. Of a group of more than thirty women from America, I was the only black woman on the trip. I was nervous. During the week and a half we were in Rwanda, there were repeated incidents of violence, police brutality, and racism in America. With little Internet access, I was unable to drown myself in the news and in my Facebook newsfeed. I was unable to console my friends who were heartbroken by all that was happening, but I was also better able to be present with the things I was learning in Rwanda.

The tensions of systemic racism that boiled over in America were a tough burden to bear while walking through a country that had been sliced open by the fear of its people — fear that caused neighbor to murder neighbor, friend to murder friend, relative to murder relative; fear that had produced one of the worst genocides in history.

I walked through the Kigali Genocide Memorial with Rwandan poet Michaela. I saw how the ravaging wounds of colonization brewed a division among the Rwandan people, how corrupt government and religion collided to cost the country the lives of so many citizens. My chest tightened at the pictures of babies, aunts, uncles, family members who had been killed. I read about genocides all over the world. I thought of my own country’s sordid history of genocide, racism, and slavery; how fear, ignorance, and unfounded assumptions of supremacy led people to rape, enslave, and murder.

The memorial left a caution in my heart, to watch how far my fears can take me away from love and from seeing other people as creations made in the image of God.

That night, the Africa New Life children’s choir and dance team performed traditional Rwandan song and dance for us, and for the first time since I had arrived in Rwanda, I cried. I wept for the wounds in my own heart and in my own country. I wept for the places where my joy as a black girl had been lost. I wept seeing the freedom in the eyes of each boy and girl, how the light in their eyes gave me hope for how much freedom was truly possible. I wept at how God can take a wounded place and begin to heal there, even when that process is not quick and is not without its flaws and imperfections.

Later that week, I was asked to speak to a room full of Rwandan young women who were high school students at one of Africa New Life’s boarding schools. I shared poetry with them; I told them about my mom, grandma, and sister and why they were my own personal sheroes. One of the young women asked me where in Africa I was from. I tried to be present with the pang in my chest while I explained to her that I, like most African Americans, didn’t know my African country of origin because no records were kept of which country and village Africans were taken from during the slave trade; there is no record of the languages, customs, and cultures lost.

“You are Rwandan,” she said, and the other students smiled and nodded in agreement.

Even though I was pretty sure there was no way that my being Rwandan was historically possible, my heart heard, “You are home.”

When we returned to the guesthouse where we were staying, one of the American women on our trip came up to me to ask how I was enjoying the trip so far.

“It’s been really beautiful and really hard,” I said. “It’s difficult being the only black woman from America on our trip, but it’s been beautiful to meet and get to know the people here.”

“It hurt my heart to hear you say you don’t know where your ancestors come from,” she said. “Have you ever thought about taking a DNA test to find out?”

“I have. I’m hoping someday I can complete a DNA test and add that information to my family tree.”

I had thought about it many times. After watching the new version of Roots released by the History Channel, I had started tracing my ancestry. I was able to make it back to my fourth great-grandparents on both sides of my family, most of whom were enslaved. Between the documents on the ancestry site and interviewing my parents and grandma, I had learned about my sharecropping great-grandparents, about the church furniture my great-grandfather and his sons built in their small North Carolina town. I saw the marriage certificates of my second great-grandparents, and through the census, I learned how they took in extended family members during Reconstruction. I learned that some of my third and fourth great-grandparents were free before the Emancipation Proclamation.

Before that, the paperwork trail on them gets lost. I either find no information or I find a slave schedule, a census document where slave owners accounted for their slaves as property, where they are only listed as Negro, male/female, and their age. It is a certain kind of heartbreak to know at some point my ancestors were nameless and not considered to be people, that they were only their race, gender, and age. I know now why saying names and pronouncing them correctly is so important, because at a certain point, the names of my ancestors didn’t matter. One of the last steps left for my family tree was to take a DNA test and find out where in Africa my ancestors were from.

“I hope I’m not out of bounds, but I’d like to pay for your DNA test,” she said.

The next day, she and I sat in front of her laptop, browsing around on an ancestry site as she paid for my DNA test. After the confirmation went through, she turned to me and said, “I’m sorry for what my ancestors did to your ancestors. I know this is small, and it doesn’t change or make that better, but it’s one thing I can do, and I want to do it.”

I didn’t really know what to say. I’m so used to saying the equivalent of “it’s okay” in conversations like this. I’m so used to stuffing down the hurt and woundedness and loss I sometimes feel when I think about the roots of my ancestry. So used to shrugging my shoulders as if it’s not a big deal when it is. But that day, I sat with her words a few moments, I took in an apology that was too big for one person to truly give, but a necessary apology and acknowledgment nonetheless.

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Several weeks later, on a Friday night, my DNA test results arrived, and I stayed up half the night looking over them. Eighty-five percent African heritage, mostly from Benin and Togo, some from Nigeria, and some from southeastern Africa right in the region where Botswana is. No Native American ancestry, despite what my great-grandfather’s family believed about his mother with the high cheekbones and ropey braided hair. Little to no English or Irish ancestry. Only 11 percent European, and most of that was from Norway and Scandinavia.

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I still search for home in Africa, wondering what the villages were like where my ancestors lived before they were taken and brought to America. Wondering who was separated from whom. Was it mother from daughter? Husband from wife? What is my tribe like? Would I be able to make more sense of myself by knowing them?

My roots are full of hard things, sadness, loss, trauma, grief. The roots of nations and of families are not that different. They are both difficult to wade through, and it can be so challenging to see the strength as well as the weaknesses, the brave choices as well as the cowardly ones. But all those roots make me who I am, and I want to honor that with who I grow to be.

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Excerpted with permission from How to Fix a Broken Record by Amena Brown, copyright Amena Brown Owen.

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Your Turn

Honor your roots with who you choose to grow to be. In Christ, we can be assured that God can and will work all things for the good of those who believe in Him (Romans 8:28)… even traumatic roots and painful pasts! Come share how that has been true in your life on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full

Amena Brown

Amena Brown is an author, spoken word poet, speaker, and event host. The author of five spoken word albums and two non-fiction books, Amena performs and speaks at events from coffeehouses to arenas with a mix of poetry, humor, and storytelling. She and her husband, DJ Opdiggy, reside in Atlanta, GA.

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