My expat journey is shaped by my early adoration of such cultural giants as Nina Simone, James Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois, and Kwame Ture (a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael). I never expected to emulate their travels or their activism, but they opened my young mind to the possibility of expansion. I always admired the activism and artistry of Black people who traveled beyond America and seemed to harness some unknown strength to expand their passion, to know themselves. I wanted to be that, to do that, to feel that.
I didn't board an airplane until I was 21. Selected by my beloved mentor, I was sent on an all expenses paid trip to Ghana in 1997 with a group of about 50 middle school students from African centered schools. We were there for a study tour and to witness the enstoolment of an African American chief. When I stepped off the Ghana Airways flight and the wall of hot air hit my face, I expected to feel different. I expected to feel new. I didn't. I felt comfortable, at ease. I felt as though I had come home.
The next time I traveled abroad was to Senegal, 2 years later. The trip was even more fulfilling and exhilarating because I was alone. My boyfriend at the time had arranged for me to stay with his family in Parcelles Assaines. I wanted to visit Senegal because my shaykh lived there. I wanted to see this place that my friends raved about. I wasn't convinced that Senegal was some magical place; I went there to prove my friends wrong. Again, I felt at home, but even more so than in Ghana. The people greeted me in Wolof or Halpulaar. I went unnoticed in the marketplace. The customs official eyed me with suspicion as I told him my name. He asked for my real name, not the one on my papers. He wanted to know if I was Fall, Sy, Diouf, or Seck. He asked for my father's name, expecting me to say Modou or Babacar, not Pharnell. I didn't stand out; I felt included. As my trip neared its end, I couldn't bear to leave and, as luck would have it, my ticket was inadvertently changed. I was forced, by some unknown hand, to extend my stay. When the time came to go, I found it difficult to leave. A piece of my heart still lies in Dakar.
Some time later, I had another opportunity to travel to Accompong, Maroon Town, high in the mountains of Jamaica. Except it wasn't Jamaica. The land, the air, the trees, the food, the beautiful brown round faced men and women were indubitably African. This could not be Jamaica; these were the mountains in Aburi, even the morning fog was the same. I was struck by how identical everything, and everyone, was. So this is what it means to be a part of the diaspora. The Jamaican tour guide, a proud Maroon, took us to the back of the village, away from the annual homecoming festival we had arrived to see.
Accompong was flush with visitors from all points on the globe, a melange of colors, languages, and nationalities. But we, a small group of Black educators from independent African schools, were being treated as though we were locals, long-lost relatives who had come home to visit. He showed us the Ashanti and Coromantee graveyards. He showed us plants that I was sure I'd seen along the Volta River when we had stopped at a Fanti village. It was incredible to see Africa in the West. That's what Accompong was, a misplaced African village high atop a mountain in Jamaica. The guide looked at my arms, riddled with mosquito bites after a long night sleeping near an open veranda. He grabbed leaves from a bush and rubbed them on my arms. "This is Kweku bush. Here, rub this in and tomorrow, done." I didn't believe him. I had counted 36 bites in total. They were red and swollen; some had broken open and were oozing small bits of bright red blood. When I woke the next morning, though, all of the bites were healed, as though erased by the same unknown hand that had extended my trip in Dakar.
And then, there was Jeddah, the jewel of the Red Sea. I didn't want to go there, but I arrived with two children, 9 suitcases, and 4 boxes, all filled with my life. I tried hard in the first months to remain unchanged, to be myself. But over the years, who I consider SELF has changed. My identity had grown. I absorbed the language and the souks, the kabsa and the Khaleeji drum. I became enmeshed with the beaches and the simultaneous calls to prayer. The hole in my heart left by Dakar was
filled with the rapture of Madinah, the Illuminated City. I couldn't bear the thought of living there, but when it was time, I couldn’t imagine leaving. Jeddah was as much my hometown as Detroit and Accra and Dakar and Accompong. It is a pivotal part of my personal diaspora.
I do not travel because I love beaches (I do) or because I crave adventure (I certainly do). I travel because I have found bits of myself strewn all over the globe. Every place that I have been has left an indelible mark and has brought me closer to myself. Each destination has made its mark on my personal history and I will never 'leave' these places, at least not in my heart and mind.
Maybe this is why the genius of Baldwin seemed magnified during and after his time abroad. Life is not meant to be lived in just one place.