Migration and Development – Africana roots with American fruit
For many adolescents in America High School is richly shaded by unending self-exploration and identity development experiences. These can either provide clarity and insight into one’s sense of self or can result in an unhealthy perception of self. As an African immigrant, my experience was further intensified by taunting remarks that sometimes left me feeling isolated, dejected, and questioning my ethnic identity. My classmates were often surprised after learning of my Cameroonian heritage when teachers would attempt to pronounce my middle or last names. I became accustomed to many quizzical exclamations such as “How can you be African? You don’t look or sound like one!” or “She’s the African”. Such statements preoccupied and consumed my thoughts for most of my Middle-school and High-school years in America. I became the frame of reference for anything African-related. Oftentimes, I was either accepted out of cultural curiosity or the outcast for being different.
Over the past five months, I have had an opportunity to embark on an exciting and inspiring introspective ethnic identity processing journey as a Voices of Our Future Correspondent. The assignment requirements for each article sent me into various African immigrant community hubs to get the pulse on the life experience of Africans in them. Through the course of examining these communities, I was equally drawn to the voices of amazing change-makers in the African Diaspora and those expressing the intense personal struggles of young Africans in search for their place in American society. Some of these women shared horrifying first-hand experiences of racism because of their skin color and African heritage that left them longing for their homes in Africa. There are some people who perceive Africans as uneducated or predominantly refugees; an opinion that is perhaps heavily influenced by the media’s ongoing presentation of unending wars in Africa. I often find myself quite puzzled that with the instant access to information afforded by the World Wide Web, there are still some people who are baffled when they meet the non-stereotypical African, speaking eloquently, fashionably dressed, and expressing strong personal ideologies. The saliency of confronting misperceptions and stereotypes about the African culture became rather evident during many conversations and interviews.
The profound impact of migrating to new surroundings is not only experienced by immigrants but their families and communities in their countries of origin. During our relocation to America, my family lived in separation for ten years (1996-2006) before being reunited once more under the same roof on American soil. Most people associate immigration with an influx of illegal aliens, economic pressure, reduced wages, competitive labor, and confusing visa classifications. But they fail to recognize the enormous personal sacrifices made by individuals, the heartbreaking fracturing of families that occurs during the process, or the opportunity to form more balanced and accurate views of Africa through interactions with Africans.
The years spent living in separation were some of the most difficult years of my life and entailed taking on new roles. When my mother departed, I was the only female in the house and naturally became mother to my then 5-year old brother. It is never a parent’s desire to place such hardship on one’s children, but the realities of limited educational and professional opportunities forces them to make difficult choices that promise long-term security. I learned at a very early age to be self-reliant, motivated, ambitious, and strong. After relocating to the United States of America, these traits were further refined and encouraged in an environment that supported women’s liberation and gender equality. The strength of my sense of belonging and place is now equally divided between two worlds – Cameroon and America. I am fortunate to have roots in two distinct cultures and have developed beneficial skills. Over the years, I have learned to be a chameleon in many social and professional worlds while preserving that which is uniquely me – a passionate idealist. I believe African immigrants have remarkable traits that are great assets such as resiliency, determination, endurance, and bi-cultural understanding. It is poorly misguided to qualify someone as being African or not based on superficial attributes. There is no correct definition of a “traditional” African. I have yet to find an accurate comprehensive description of one that does not promote overly generalized negative stereotypes. There is increasing representation of foreign-born and second-generation Africans in America who characterize an emerging new community of Africans, young adults with direct African roots yet evolving in and blending into the American society.
African-born and second generation Americans continue to significantly change the demographic profiles and cultures of the communities into which they integrate. In the past 20 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 American Community Survey, the population of African-born immigrants in the U.S. increased by 60%. Many second-generation Africans are taking advantage of resources that were previously unavailable to their parents. In America, access to federal student school loans is restricted to citizens. The Migration Policy Institute’s “US in Focus: African Immigrants in the United States” report uncovered that this emerging Black sub-population tends to be highly educated with more than two-thirds having English language proficiency and approximately one-third are home owners. It is common to find a myriad of African-owned churches with an enormous African congregation or owning flourishing real estate, supermarkets, or publishing businesses, particularly in gateway communities such as New York, California, Texas, Maryland, and Massachusetts.
Most host countries of trans-Atlantic African immigrants are increasingly wondering how to modify existing systems to better serve the needs of this growing unique population with untapped consumer potential. I am equally curious to see how these systems will address the powerfully influencing dynamic force of cultural heritage. With the arrival of new community members, there is also particularly an increase in spending power and demand for ethnic goods. When shopping for groceries, I usually have a choice of specific cultural African supermarkets – Cameroonian, Ghanaian, or Nigerian. In some schools, the celebration of Black history month has been adapted and takes into consideration the influence of Africans who have had an impact on American History - most notably, President Barack Obama, the first African-American president and a second-generation African, whose father was Kenyan.
Further, federal government institutions now recognize the sizeable influence of the African Diaspora in bridging America and Africa. The key to negotiating and establishing this partnership just might lie in the harnessed collective strength and knowledge of the African Diaspora. We have diverse and strong ties to Africa. Congressman Rush of Chicago introduced the African Investment and Diaspora (AIDA) bill to the Committee on Foreign Affairs that promotes trade and development opportunities by America in Africa. Estimates project a $1.4 trillion increase in consumer spending power in Africa over the next 10 years. Additionally, Africa has 60% of the world’s uncultivated land and a sizeable portion of minerals and untapped energy resources. It is therefore critical to foster understanding and strengthen relationships between Americans and Africans.
Although it is exciting to see renewed heightened interest in African affairs, my concern is the installation of effective regulation for these economic interests. The African Diaspora has been placed in a unique position to significantly influence any investment strategies and define important restrictions around access to Africa’s vast resources that are being sought after by the global community. We need to be part of the discussions to secure Africa’s competitive spot as a leading profitable target among robust industrialized countries.
I have had some personally rewarding encounters with terrific activist grassroots approaches to bilateral education and empowerment between Africans and Americans through my work on the Threads of Our Fabric Project. This project is examining the ethnic and national identities of African immigrant women starting from their origins in Africa, tracing the journey to America, and culminating with their acculturation process. More specifically, two such women representing West and East Africa have demonstrated the importance of nurturing open dialogue that brings together diverse populations on a common issue. One woman is a seasoned financial analyst with deep Cameroonian roots, a natural community activist and energetic organizer who founded the Cameroon American Council in Washington, D.C (2010). Ms. Sylvie Bello envisions an “enriched world powered by global understanding, appreciation, and collaboration.” On March 12th, 2011, Ms. Bello spearheaded the inaugural National African Immigrants and Refugees (AIR) Health Advocates Training and Health Fair initiative in partnership with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services (CMS). When asked why she created the AIR Health initiative, Ms. Bello replied: “after a series of focus groups within the community, and reading several research conducted on our people, it became apparent that the National health messages do not reach us. So we partnered with CMS to customize their message for the African community, by training African Faith and Cultural Leaders who will in-turn take the messages to their smaller communities in a culturally sensitive way.” A simple solution that addresses the needs of the African community in America and presents information in a culturally sensitive manner. Ms. Bello has successfully brokered a partnership that helps CMS bring the resources to an under-served population.
Meanwhile, the other woman is a young eloquent visionary who impressed me with her beautiful idealistic outlook on life and her resiliency. Ms. Hiwote Bekele recently emigrated from Ethiopia to pursue higher education but is now educating her college campus community about Africa through her leadership as one of the founding members of United Africa Student Association in Collegeville, MN. The campus organization’s motto simply states “Everyone is African if they can claim it, you don't have to be an African to have love for Africa." Both women are relentlessly bridging the gap of understanding between host communities and the Africans residing in them. These women are championing the cause of empowering Africans in America to claim and own their two-sided cultural circumstances and use it as leverage for community education on Africa and African development in America.
The trend of promoting collaborative efforts in America that have an impact in Africa is becoming more popular. Youth-led organizations are at the helm of such efforts, including collective entities such as Youth Action Africa Inc, an innovative incubator of social impact projects implemented in developing countries. Many neo-Africans are tirelessly seeking new ways to make a large-scale social impact on Africa and promoting investments that spur sustainable growth in every sector of the continent. It is critical to bridge the gap between African Diaspora and the African continent. This can be effectively achieved by educating and empowering various stakeholders to implement and support new initiatives. In a few days, I will be traveling to Uganda to meet the partners of a newly formed partnership between the Threads of Our Fabric Project and the Sexual Health Improvement Project (SHIP). Its goal is simply to find new ways to empower Ugandan youth make better decisions with regards to their sexual health and share this effective model with the global community.
I believe that when we are emboldened to dream, create, and live from the fullness of our human potential, we are undoubtedly able to inspire others unto greater aspirations and accomplishments. Culture enriches a person’s life experience and their unique contributions to society. Diaspora Africans are uniquely placed in a position that can strategically influence and positively impact their countries of origin. The challenge before us is to unify, organize, and mobilize them to invest and develop the entire continent of Africa. As more youth with African ancestry are growing up in the United States, it is imperative to educate them about their heritage and nurture within them the desire to be more civic minded on issues pertaining to Africa. Working on the Threads of Our Fabric project has afforded me the opportunity to further delve into the unique yet varied life experiences of African women and girls. My goal is to share and invite others seeking new ways to participate in gender development efforts in Africa to contribute in a meaningful manner. As I embark on my journey to Uganda, my heart echoes with Horace Walpole’s infamous quote “Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion.”
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.