A Trick Reflection: How I Handled Being Black in Africa

David Curtiss, American University

“Webale nyo. Webale nyo.”

That means “thank you very much” in Lugandan. It was all I could think of to say to Mr. Nelson, the most loved teacher at Kiira Primary School in Jinja, Uganda. He greeted me with a hug, struggling to hide the beautiful cloth in his hand. He unfolded it to reveal a decorative dashiki. Full of popping colors and odd-looking shapes.

I had known Mr. Nelson for six years. We met for the first time when I was a kid in high school visiting Kiira Primary School on a service trip from California. I was sixteen. I was enamored with all the other kids I met, who looked like people I knew and loved in my own life, but beyond that, lived very polarized lives. I realized that service trips were not just about Facebook pictures and college essays. After learning more about the challenges children face in Uganda, I decided that no child, regardless of where they are, should go without an education.

Because of that experience, I soon afterwards created Building Hope Project, an organization that sponsors students in Uganda. BHP covers all costs related to the student’s time in school until they reach the end of their primary education and offers additional support to select students pursuing secondary education. We also provide hands-on support for every student to help solve local problems that go beyond school, as well as offer leadership training throughout the school year for all participating students by a local team of citizens and community participants. We invite people from the US to come to Uganda to partner with the program and engage in ethical, human-based service that empowers and centers Ugandan children at the core of their own life’s narrative.

Spending time on the continent as a young boy radically complicated my worldview. Before visiting Africa, the earth was only wide enough to spin around my trivial adolescent angst and the troubles that I encountered in South Los Angeles as a black boy. After going to Uganda, the world from that point on felt bigger. Heavier. I, for the very first time, saw the possibility of being able to call myself African and believe it. It allowed me to step into a world where being black could mean focusing more on being African than American, or at the very least, to the same degree. Being African was something I could claim as a tangible identity and not an obligatory or obscure label. Being an African-American no longer had to be an anchor to a coiled history bottled within my genes, but a direction I can choose to follow. I often felt that way when I was around Mr. Nelson, who is the heartbeat of Building Hope Project and Kiira Primary School.

“This cloth belongs to my family. I want you to always have something that connects you to us and Uganda. You are a part of my family.”

 David Curtiss with Mr. Nelson, the most loved teacher at Kiira Primary School in Jinja, Uganda.

David Curtiss with Mr. Nelson, the most loved teacher at Kiira Primary School in Jinja, Uganda.

I remember putting on the dashiki so that Mr. Nelson could get a photo. Although it was a proud moment for me, when I saw the picture on the camera, us enveloping one another in matching garb, I was filled with these conflicting pangs of elation and tension. Something about the picture made me feel so identical but utterly divorced from him. A suspicion I held in my chest. An unspoken gap between us. And I wondered: is the line thick or thin that holds us together?

As much fulfillment I have received from embracing my place within the African diaspora, the journey has not come without strain. As an African-American, so far removed from the daily realities of living anywhere in Africa and without a rooted ethnic lineage to claim as my own, there is sometimes an unease in attempting to stand and shoulder the title of African in the way that my mainland brothers and sisters could. Even while in Uganda, there was this oxymoron lingering behind me wherever I went. Whether I was at a local church where hundreds were looking at me or I was one in a crowd of hundreds on a mobbed street, my Africanity felt different. Mired with ambiguity. Sometimes, even cheapened. I would exchange glances with strangers on the street, brief pauses in our lives where we would share a moment of discovery about the paradox that is the African diaspora. A lesson in which we are all always learning. As a member of a diaspora that reaches every place and culture in the world, how can I learn to welcome what appears to be a trick reflection, someone that is undoubtedly a part of me that I barely recognize?

How I move throughout the world, how I respond to the beating sun hitting my back, how I dance when no one is looking, and all of the other little things that never cross my mind: those subtle differences inform every part of who I am. Yet, that is the fascinating thing about the African Diaspora. The ways in which we are unalike can be invitations for connection rather than warnings to disengage. My time in Uganda reminded me that despite all the variables that set me apart from Africans on the continent, we are never fully separated. Even in the midst of such difference, the sheer chaos of the world that seems to divide itself so neatly between us, from Accra to Oakland, Durban to Detroit, Ecuador to Eritrea, we are all sitting at the same table. No matter how long it is.

When it comes to diaspora I have learned at the bottom of every mountain of differences between us, there is a valley in which we share, at the core of who we are, a common experience. As a descendant from the continent, I take it as my responsibility to continue to have these conversations and invite others from the Diaspora to join in. There is a larger story being shared between us all. Don’t forget to write your page.