Real Talk About How It Feels to be a Black Peace Corps Volunteer in an African Country
I will never forget the night I walked home from my sitemate Erica's house, gazing up at the stars and thanking God for the opportunity to serve in the Peace Corps. It's never been lost on me how totally epic it is that I actually get to live one of my life's dreams as a two-year resident of Mozambique.
I've always been very in touch with and proud of my heritage. I was an African American Studies minor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, I was enamored by the black authors and thinkers from around the world and the rich history I was never taught in mainstream public school. I was the 16-year-old president of Black Heritage Club at my suburban high school until my graduation. I composed talent competitions and theater productions with my classmates, celebrating our culture and unique art in a school where we didn't feel terribly recognized. But still, it wasn’t until that night, over a year into my service in Mozambique, that I completely understood the gravity of what I am doing. I had an emotional, transcendent experience on that dirt road in the darkness.
“I love you so much and cannot wait for you to be here,” I texted my mother later that night. She was less than a month shy of her first visit to Africa and we had an ambitious, multi-country, multi-city trip planned. It was all we talked about for weeks and the importance of what we would experience together overwhelmed me with joy.
From the second I landed on this continent, I felt it. My guardian angels, my ancestors, whatever you personally call it: they knew I was here. And I was overcome with emotion and elation. I also felt what many of my colleagues of various backgrounds were going through in those moments, I’m sure: shock, excitement, fear, doubt, jet lag, and exhaustion. But this feeling that I was fulfilling some type of ancestral life dream never left me in those hours we waited collectively inside of Johannesburg’s airport to make our final descend into Mozambique.
"I feel the most happy, at peace, and anxiety-free that I've felt in a long time," I wrote in my journal as I sat on the floor with a pile of luggage containing all my belongings.
"By tonight, I'll be in Mozambique, the country I will serve for the next two years and three months. It's exciting and scary and brave and life-changing. What will I do without my family, my friends, my city and my favorite foods!?”
I could envision my great-great-grandfather in a field, wiping the sweat from his brow and wondering what it felt like to feel dignity as a man. To farm and sell from his own land. To protect his woman and his family. To build his own company as opposed to being forced to building another man’s for free. Or how about generations before his own? Packed in tight on a slave ship. Weeping for the land they lost and in a state of anxiety we can only imagine today as human beings. A complete terror for where they were going. This is what runs through my veins. I do not come from a family who kept close historical records or passed down stories or businesses or earldoms.
I come from the average black family in America who’s had, at minimum, a couple of generations who “did it right” and rose above poverty and have shown their children and grandchildren another life.
I watched my mother wake up at 5 p.m. three evenings a week, working as a night-shift nurse to pay for our expenses. She took me to museums and cultural festivals and plays and churches hoping to open up the world for me. She did an amazing job. She succeeded and raised a daughter unafraid of the world or the challenges of the unknown. I didn’t thank her enough. I still don’t thank her enough. She is the living example to me, my elder sister, and my three beloved nieces that anything is possible with a lot of effort and prayer.
I graduated college with honors in her name. I now serve in the Peace Corps and do everything in my power to be the woman she and my grandmother and others have raised. I mentor children and teens, plan hospital campaigns to improve the lives of locals, and continue to seek new opportunities to bring confidence and self-esteem to everyone around me. What would my ancestors think of this ambitious black girl they eventually brought into existence?
I will be the first to admit: I do not have the problems of other, non-black volunteers. I am not stared at and if I simply shut my mouth on public transportation or at a local market I am easily mistaken for a host country national and ignored. Sometimes this is awesome!
But other times, its not. Like when I need a little leniency and understanding on a bad language day. Or if want to sit in the front seat. Or if I’m hungry and need a little empathy. Or ask for help in general. People act as if I’m lazy, stupid, or plain invisible. It hurt a lot at first, especially when I saw fellow white Volunteers get that compassion, or that front seat, or that general help and attention. It hurts to know that, no matter where I live on this earth, I will always be considered “less than.”
Then again, it’s a double-edged sword. I relish my alone time when locals assume I am one in the crowd and no one bothers me. I like that I rarely get overcharged. And I love the look of confidence in young girls’ eyes when they run their hands through my natural curls or along my cheeks and I can proudly proclaim, “We are the same! You are beautiful, too!”
I live in an African country where supermarkets only sell baby dolls with bleach blond hair and locals watch Brazilian novelas (soap operas) with characters they cannot physically identify with. Simply my presence demonstrates I am a foreigner who cares about their community.
Being a black girl serving abroad, specifically in an African country, is a rare and wonderful experience. Nothing and no one could have prepared me for this. I am blessed to have had the experience and I look forward to experiencing more—both the good and the bad. And as I look up at the stars and talk with my relatives and ancestors from time to time, I hope they hear my gratitude for the struggles, degradation, and injustices they fought. I am the product. And I am living a pretty charmed and incredible life. They didn’t fight in vain.