I had this amazing professor in college who was from Nigeria. His class was a blissful story hour for me. Each week I could sit back and listen to tales of a far off land. It wasn’t like reading the bland pages of a textbook. He was animated, racy and hilarious as he relayed first hand accounts of his life and culture in Nigeria.
What fascinated me the most was when he spoke of the strong family and community bonds. Generations of extended families living together in a compound. People rarely left home and if they did, they always returned. Everybody knew everybody else and they loved and protected each other. When the British came and colonization threatened to tear families apart, they had to fight to stay together.
America on the other hand is an extremely individualistic society. At the age of eighteen we are encouraged to go out, get an education, make a lot of money, and start a family of our own, maybe coming back to our home town every once in a while for a long holiday weekend. But it isn’t that easy. When we pack up our bags and wave goodbye to mom and dad, we don’t always realize how overwhelming it can be. Thousands of careers, thousands of universities, thousands of cities, and people, and temptations to choose from. In America, it’s easy to get lost and go unnoticed because everyone seems so worried about themselves.
My Nigerian professor pointed out that although America’s focus on individuality and freedom can lead to wealth and prosperity, it can also leave us feeling empty, lonely, inadequate, left out, and lost. He raised the question of; although Americans have the most money and the highest standards of living, are they without roots? Without a sense of community history and belonging? He raised the question leaving only our selves to answer.
Many Americans do know their roots, but I don’t I’ve heard that my last name is Lithuanian and that one of my great grandfathers was from Mongolia, but that’s all I really know. And I have a family, but they are spread across the country from California to Florida. After I moved to college my parents both moved out of the state and I realized that besides my dorm room., I didn’t have a place I considered home. Maybe my professor was right, in America we were on our own.
I could picture my professor’s African village in my head. Little barefoot children, old smiling grandmothers, stories around a fire at night. Everyone belongs, everyone knows where they came from, and tradition, ritual, and wisdom are passed down unchanged for generations. I was so enthralled with this vision of simplicity and connection that after graduation I decided I would move to Africa, to see and live this lifestyle for myself.
I ended up living in Swaziland, a tiny country in Southern Africa for two years. I lived in a secluded rural village on a homestead with a big extended family. In many ways it was like the village from my imagination. Self-sufficient, close nit, few distractions. No electricity, no shopping malls, no high expectations, or ideals. Life in that village was probably very similar to the way it was thousands of years ago.
I moved there to find out what it would be like to live in a land where people relied on each other, a place where people bloomed where they were planted instead of running off to bloom where they were offered a better job. I wanted to know what it would be like to live where everyone shared the same history and are united in every way. Where people stick together instead of inevitably drifting apart. I left home to find out what I was missing, but what I found out was I was missing home.
Not a day in Africa went by where I didn’t feel a pull in my heart. It wasn’t a pull towards a particular house or town, but towards people; my friends and family scattered as they were throughout the U.S. And I realized I did have roots however hidden and twisted and deep down they went. Perhaps they were spread over the whole world. But they were there and it took my coming to Africa to finally feel them pulling me back.
America has become such a melting pot that it’s hard to sort it all out. It can be difficult to find yourself or where you belong. But I think after coming a long way, I finally know. My home, my community, my rightful place and my roots lie directly in my mother’s eyes and my best friend’s hug, my dad’s smile and my niece’s little giggle. Connection comes through conversation and the only place we TRULY belong, is in each other’s hearts.
Life in America is different than life in Africa, there’s just no doubt about that. And life anywhere is different anywhere than it was a hundred years ago. And every family and every community is different. I could spend a lifetime naming what keeps us apart, But there is only one thing that can always bring us back. Love is the light that will lead the way home.