Sankofa: Going back and returning

Imagine a bright-eyed, brown-skinned girl from a small, country town in the southeastern region of Georgia.  She has an insatiable desire for learning and possessing knowledge.  She dreamed of seeing and experiencing places that were considered to be faraway lands in fairytales.  That little girl was me and the little girl reemerged during this study abroad trip to Kampala, Uganda (with Professor Monica Swahn).  I grew up in a military family and have traveled and lived in numerous places; however, I would have never imagined that I would step foot on the soil of Africa.  Despite the consistent relocations for the first half of my life, I have never felt such an instantaneous connection to a place as I did when arriving in Uganda.

With so many timely and appropriate cultural movements and trends surrounding Africa – the highly praised Marvel’s Black Panther, AfroPunk, the various DNA and ancestry kits, and the embracing of natural hair and Afrocentric lifestyles – it felt more and more apparent that this was the right time to venture out and embrace all that Uganda would have to offer.  As a young, black woman, I felt it was necessary to take advantage of – what can arguably be called – a once in a lifetime opportunity.  Prior to the recent surge in interest and admiration of the African culture – I became more aware of my culture and the effects of transgenerational slavery and all of the wonders that truly stem from Africa from African Diaspora classes that I took during undergrad at Kennesaw State University.   

In those courses, we discussed the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful surrounding the rich history of Africa.  One of the main concepts that was discussed in the class was Sankofa, which is a  Ghanan term for “going back and returning.”  It was usually used during the time of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in that slaves would want to return to their ancestral roots.  Additionally, it is apparent through post-slavery and modern narratives and accounts for feeling as if there is a missing piece or identity or an inexplicable sense of hollowness and emptiness.  As I reflect on everything that I’ve learned about returning to where you are from, I realize that I have had existential crises in that I did not know about my story, history, or culture.  There have been many times where I have had projects, assignments, or mere conversations about family lineage and I feel like the outcast for not knowing my history.

I say all of this because I’ve witnessed and had a culmination of thoughts, feelings, and actions while in Uganda.  I was able to see how the various tropes are based on cultural norms that originated in Africa and are still apparent in present-day Africa and in the black community.  I was able to see how resilience and pride are worn as badges of honor and are passed down through tradition and stories.  I was able to see all of the beauty that both the continent and the country have to offer.  Not once did I feel nervous or out of place while in Uganda – even if I was considered to be a black muzungu.  Our professor, Dr. Swahn, made a point to tell us that once we landed in Uganda during a late hour that it would sound and smell different; however, it did not for me.  As cliché as it may sound, my initial welcome to Uganda was that it smelled just like home.  When describing it to family and friends, I tell them that it smells like home in that it smells and sounds like my hometown of Vidalia, Georgia.  That moment alone made everything so much more tangible and concrete.  The fact that a bright-eyed, brown-skinned girl from a small town in South Georgia was able to be a positive statistic, experience the Motherland, and create long-lasting memories.  A young girl who was often teased for her darker complexion, coarse hair, and collagen filled lips was able to embrace the beauty of herself – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – while in Africa and seeing herself as the majority rather than the minority.