Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels. (Heb. 13:1-2)
A few years ago, our service team at Action Africa organization in Washington DC held an in-house seminar to reflect on some of the challenges that many African immigrant families in the DMV were facing. Most of the challenges indicated were common with other families in the region irrespective of their ancestral and historical origins. Washington, DC, is, after all, the nation’s capital. It is the political crossroads of the nations of the world. The cost of living here is very expensive. Then, there is the multitude of cultural experiences that this international city offers. Here in the DC region, we constantly wake up to marches and protests, to rallies and processions, often with political, social, economic, and cultural biases. These are shared experiences of families around here, whether of Asian, African or Martian origins.
Beyond the shared experiences, we looked deeper into how new immigrant African families raise their children here. I call these families, American Africans. The parents were born and bred on the African continent but who have immigrated to America as adults seeking further education, better life, or were admitted as refugees. These parents live here but still pay their village dues. Some return to Africa to be initiated into traditional societies, and take chieftaincy titles. Many hoped to return to their home countries for work and retirement. Few have returned and stayed; most have stayed back here. Those who have settled down here still have so much of Africa inside them.
American Africans are great story-tellers. Their children hear stories from their parents and grandparents of life in African villages that sound so glorious and serene; a value system of the past that portray strong family and community virtues; a life that although was always lacking in material wealth and supplies, but nonetheless abundantly rich with inner satisfaction, peace and joy. Many Nigerian parents tell of village life where everyone cared about everyone else; where children were cared for by the entire village; where elders commanded an abundance of respect and honor; where village celebrations of the various highlights of life (birth, adolescence, marriage, chieftaincy, harvest and thanksgiving, and even death and burial), were marked with music, dances, and ritual celebrations. Uncles and aunts; teachers and catechists; farmers and elders; all were the pillars of traditional village life. Books written and published well into the 20th century depicted and celebrated such narratives.
While so much of these lifestyles truly existed and continue to exist in some measure here and there, so much has been changing, and very fast too. With time, the family structures were breaking apart. Communal life began giving way to a more individualistic lifestyle. The elders were losing their grip on community order as younger members of the community traveled out and got wealthier; some, too fast and sometimes not by honorable means. Soon, authority was shifting from the wise elderly to the got-rich-quickest philanthropists. Today, many young men still living in villages are either scarred of traveling abroad to seek wealth, or unable to gather the resources needed to travel and live abroad. Some end up forming village gangs and would participate in kidnapping or forcefully taking over properties belonging to relatives who now live abroad. The tragedy of physical insecurity in many villages of Nigeria, for example, and other countries is now making it difficult for many American Africans to plan to visit their home countries. It is especially worse for people from the South-eastern section of Nigeria where a resurrected Biafra nation movement is once again very active.
American Africans who told the glorious stories of a beautiful life in African villages are now faced with the task of telling that story in its current version, and it is not easy to tell. We cannot honorably keep telling our children the outdated story of our beautiful home countries when they have the tools to access the facts that we are so sad and ashamed to share. Behold the internet! And the cell phone too! Today, information that used to travel so slowly by snail mail is available instantly worldwide. Was the village chief once accorded honor and respect? Yes, of course! Today, however, that chief may be kidnapped for a huge ransom and may not regain freedom alive. A butcher who slaughters cattle for meat is these days paid to cut the throat of a political rival. Confirmed images of people being burnt alive, buried alive, beheaded in broad daylight, and the like, all defy human dignity and honor and surely do not support the wonderful images of village life of decades ago.
Fewer and fewer American Africans are still discussing “returning home” to Africa when they retire. Some who retired recently and moved back have mostly come back to America, often for human security reasons. The village is no longer safe, and living in the crowded city was not what they hoped and planned for.
Where is God in all this? What part is religion playing in people’s lives today? Traditional African religion is almost entirely overtaken by Christianity and Islam. The elders have been baptized and village shrines have been built over with modern houses and local highways. Pastors who know how to wrap their messages with threats of unavoidable hell are somehow thriving; preachers who found their way into social media have become the wealthiest and very powerful, while those who entangle their messages with local politics are hunted and killed or burnt by adversaries.
American Africans are realizing now that America is the new home for real; there is no going back, certainly not for the things we counted on before. The DMV is our new village, except that this time, we do not have our many uncles and cousins all over the place. One family recently lost their four-year old son in a sudden death incident. The family lives in a densely populated housing estate in Maryland. While mourning and getting ready for funeral, they look outside everyday and see all their neighbors get up each morning, dress up and leave for work as usual (and other kids taken to school as usual). This would not have been happening in an African village of our memories. Life would have stopped: the market closed; schools closed; playgrounds closed. Mothers and fathers, uncles and cousins, all would have gathered in consolation and mourning. That was there, and that was then; but today, the story is fast beginning to look more like neighbors in Maryland. America is our children’s country. American Africans now have children who are becoming African Americans. Our special calling is to help our children grow fully as Americans.
Author: Dr. Chris N. Egbulem, President, ACTION AFRICA, INC
www.actionafrica.org 2903 Mills Avenue, NE Washington DC 20018. USA. O (202)529-8350 F (202)529-1912 C (202)365-8637 Connecting People to Create Sustainable Solutions. . . . . . . .