Out of Africa: What connects us and what we must learn

MIGORI, Kenya _ Had anyone told me 10 years ago that I would be on a compound outside this small town in southwestern Kenya, I would have laughed. Ten years ago, I had never been to Africa.

As a columnist since 1996, I would laugh at the occasional racist who would tell me to go back to Africa because I was writing about what we sometimes refer to a “black” issue. I could not go back to where I’d never been.

But two years ago, I visited Dakar, Senegal. And I was forever changed. I stood on the banks of the Atlantic facing an ocean that, for me, had meant camping not far from the Outer Banks and running the dunes at Kill Devil Hills. Yet, two years ago, in that moment, I stood on the other side looking in the direction of an America built by the ancestors of people I had met: rice farmers whose ancestors’ expertise helped raise South Carolina; builders whose expertise raised Virginia.

What a conversation we should have been having – my hosts and I – about what Africa did for America’s East Coast, what it contributed to America’s founding. But instead, we talked about poverty and the challenges Senegal shares with America.

Two years later, I am on my third visit, this time to a place where the poverty is so overwhelming, it chokes you. I watch people walk everywhere carrying heavy physical and emotional loads. I see want and need in the eyes of children who know nothing else, but who recognize that strangers may have possible answers. I see armed guards protecting the few who have wealth.

I will be writing about my adventures in Kenya, in a compound seven hours west of Nairobi, adventures tied to an assignment for the newspaper. But for a moment, for me,I thought about where I was and where I might have been had my ancestors not been given away or taken away to America. I hate that I don’t know.

But I know this. As I stood in a tiny compound near a tiny town in a vast country famous for lions and coffee and watched children play at an orphanage where they are loved and renewed, I renewed my pledge to go to Africa, to some country, for more learning, every year.

No matter what.