Land. Language. Stories.
These are the things that connect people to their culture. The passing down of stories from one generation to another. The history lessons that allow us to know where we come from, how we became who we are, why we speak the language we speak and how that language developed. Our connection with the land of our ancestors and the struggles and joys that build traditions. These things are the lifeblood of culture.
Many of us, Americans of African ancestry, are familiar with the tradition of oral history. Telling stories of our past to keep that history alive allows us stay informed of our own struggles and connect to our heritage. I’m certain that this comes from the oral traditions of many African cultures.
On my recent trip to South Africa I had the pleasure of traveling up to Zambia to enjoy the beauty of Victoria Falls on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border. One added bonus was visiting a local village in that area, the Mukuni Village. We (a friend that I made while visiting the falls, a driver, and guide from my local guesthouse) were welcomed and taken on a short tour of the village located near the town of Livingstone, Zambia. Our guide, a young female, took us around the village where we met a few families that my guesthouse guide knew personally and interacted with local wood workers who were fashioning elephants and other pieces to be sold in the local market.
We learned that it might be possible to have a meeting with the chief. We waited as our female guide made her way into the palace grounds to inquire if there was someone to greet us. After a few short moments we were summoned and brought into a courtyard where there was a sitting area covered by a thatched roof. We wouldn’t be meeting with the chief but with one of his right-hand men. There was a sort of ceremonial protocol that had to be performed before entering the sitting area to chat. We all knelt with our heads bowed, clapped three times and waited for our host to respond and usher us in. He welcomed us most graciously and led us to another small hut reserved for the chief.
This was not a space covered in gold and jewels, but it was no less full of the grandeur you might expect in a place where the ruler of a village sat to hold court. Before entering we knelt and repeated the ritual again, then entered to sit. The space was adorned with animal skins, elephant tusks, flags and pictures on the walls of the chief and his family. In that space we sat for quite some time to hear the history of that village and stories about the language and how the rulership had been passed down through the generations.
There’s no way that I could ever retell all that I heard in that time. There was truly so much information shared that I couldn’t possible remember it all. But one thing that struck me and left me a bit contemplative (even sad) as I listened to this oral history was the fact that many African-Americans, and probably others of the African diaspora, might never be able to recount our history in such detail. Sure, we may be able to trace our ancestors back to a certain state or plot of land or even take a test that will give us a breakdown of our ancestry, country by country. But the stories, the traditions, the very essence of who we are and where we come from lies shrouded in obscurity, beginning somewhere in bondage and going no further back than that. There’s little, if any, connection to ancestral land or original language that we can proudly hold on to or share with others.
Personally I believe that this may be one reason why some of us have such a desire to visit or re-settle in African countries. There is definitely a soul connection that cannot be denied. I feel it when I chat with friends from various parts of Africa. I felt it on my first trip abroad to Ghana and I felt it while visiting the Mukuni village in Zambia and traveling through South Africa. It’s stronger than a skin color, although that is a thread that binds us together. For me there’s a knowledge that in hearing stories and history a deeper connection is being made. The connection may be so small that it’s not immediately recognized but it does provide an inkling of grounding. A knowledge that yes, people who look like me have a home somewhere. Not just a place where our bodies reside but a space where we have always been celebrated, honored, protected and loved. Where we have been able to freely fight for and protect what is ours, to move about and claim new territory, to live and engage in our customs freely and with pride rather than create new customs from fragments of survival. That’s the soul connection. That’s home.
I love having these kinds of realizations when I travel. Although this one made me a bit sad, the longing that it leaves behind is one that will propel me to continue to explore the world for as long as I can. It’s not just about collecting passport stamps or taking the coolest pictures. It’s about finding those threads, those soul connections that bind me to the world and God and something larger than myself. It’s about sharing those threads and connections and revelations with others. That is the quest that is never ending.