Reflections On Being a Black American in Africa
February 14, 2000By Katrina Mathis
Becoming a Peace Corps volunteer had been one of my most earnest desires since the 8th grade. So when I arrived in Guinea, West Africa, in 1994, I felt as if I was embarking upon the beginning of my destiny. I can honestly say that my 27-month experience was one of the most colorful experiences of my life.
Just like all Peace Corps volunteers, I was warmly welcomed by my community from the minute I arrived. As an African-American, I found serving in West Africa exciting and educational. Many people in my small village of Bantignel, Pita had heard of black Americans. They were aware that many slaves taken from the west coast of Africa hundreds of years ago eventually ended up in America. But most of them had never seen a black American, so I was a novelty.
Various members of my community sought me out just to discuss our common ancestry and to talk about what being a black person in America is like. Conversely, I questioned them about life in Guinea, world politics, and many other topics. One of my fondest memories is walking thorough the local open-air market and hearing people whisper to one another as I approached, "Americaine Noire, Americaine Noire" (Black American, Black American). After all the back and forth, someone would finally muster up enough courage to ask me if I was really an American. My affirmative response left them awestruck.
On one occasion, a man approached me to tell me that he had never met a black American and was very honored to be standing face to face with me. Although I was saddened by the number of people who had never seen black Americans, I was simultaneously inspired that my two years in Guinea gave vast numbers of people the opportunity to see a different face of America. It made me feel good to know that I was able to shape the way others viewed both America and black Americans.
I cannot speak definitively about other African Americans' experiences in the Peace Corps. Most who served in Africa and elsewhere have told me that they were just as warmly received in their communities as I was in Guinea. Serving in places that are not accustomed to hosting African Americans can be challenging at first, but after a while, Peace Corps volunteers are embraced like family.
In an effort to educate Americans as well as those whom we serve, the Peace Corps is committed to increasing the diversity of its volunteers by sending out groups of volunteers who more accurately reflect the diversity of America. As minority numbers in the Peace Corps increase, the communities we serve will come to learn about the people of all ethnic backgrounds who make up the population of the United States. Those communities will be more accepting of volunteers who do not embody what they previously believed America to be.
But you have to take the first step. Do you have any plans for the next two years?
Katrina Mathis served as a community health volunteer in Guinea from 1994 to 1996. She is currently a recruiter in the Atlanta regional Peace Corps office.