I stare out the window of the Isuzu Trooper as our driver careens through the streets of Dar Es Salaam, shocked. The pretty faces of women smiling back at me actually look like me. Now I should not have been so taken aback by this. After all Tanzania is a majority Black African nation, a fact I knew long before I arrived. My husband had explained to me that what Americans took as arrogance in him and other African immigrants was simply the natural outcome of living in a place where you are not the minority and treated inferior based on it. But STILL…to see what he spoke of with my own eyes threw me at first. Back home in the States sisters like me were invisible unless we were playing mammy roles or some other stereotype. Not the case in TZ.
It didn’t stop with the billboards though. In the Nigerian sitcoms and movies beamed in via satellite the wives and moms looked like me, my mom and my grandma. This was a change too as in America the norm was light-skinned and/or multiethnic women cast in such roles. I couldn’t help but gawk at the lovely Genevieve Nnaji onscreen and take pride in her popularity. And on the radio MCs didn’t utter slights such as “beautiful Black woman-I bet that bitch look better red!” No brothas like the East Africa Bashment Crew flowed in Swanglish with a Carribbean patois, boldly proclaiming the beauty of all women from their region and noting that they didn’t need fake enhancements to attain it. And then there were the times I’d hear my brother in laws and their buddies chat about marriage and the women they desired. East African women were their ideal. My brother in law spoke longingly of a the women of a particular ethic group from neighboring Uganda. “Their skin is just so dark and SMOOTH”, he swooned enthusiastically.
Eight years have passed since I visited Dar. My now former brother in law didn’t marry a dark Ugandan beauty but he found a stunning Ghanaian woman and wifed her. I smile when I see pictures of them with their princess on Instagram. Their love makes me smile and takes me back to those days in 2006.
I’m glad that little brother got what he wanted. I’m also grateful for those three months I spent in East Africa. As I find myself in acrimonious debates on identity and blackness that are based in America’s dysfunction I crave to make that 20 hour + flight and touch down at Julius K. Nyerere International airport again. For when I was abroad I ceased to be Danielle, the dark-skinned, African-American, heir to a history that my birth nation still struggles to face. No, in TZ I was Mama Zora, first wife brought home in my hubby’s immediate family, made part of the clan by the act of my mother in law slipping a copper bangle onto my wrist just as her mother in law when she married in 1977. Trying to define ‘blackness’ or debate it? There’s nothing to debate when you’re in a nation that is 35 million strong and over ninety percent are black. For the first time ever I could melt into a populace.
When everyone is black other differences become noticeable. This was apparent when I visited the villages of my in laws. My mother in law is of the Chagga ethnic group, who are of Bantu origin. My father in law is Iraqw-Mbulu, an ethnic group of Afro-Asiatic origin. Indeed while in the Iraqw town of Karatu I was struck by two factors: the homogeneity of the population and the fact that my daughter blended in so well. When held by her great-Grandma and surrounded by relatives it was like they were duplicates; they had the same bone structure and color. Friends would joke that the Iraqw-Mbulu genes overtook the other ethnicities in my daughter’s bloodline.
I don’t want to give the impression that Tanzania is a paradise and that I saw nothing disturbing while I was there. I don’t want to contribute to the trope of the Black American who views sub-Saharan Africa through rose-colored glasses. TZ faces many challenges, and some things I witnessed there hook me. I will write on that in the future when I devote a series to my travels. But yet and STILL, I’m happy that I went. In spite of the later issues we had I’m indebted to my ex-husband for giving me the chance to get out of and away from the United States.