By Molara Wood September 18, 2010 01:19AM “For years and years, I used to have two nightmares – you know, a bad dream,” Runoko Rashidi says at the beginning of my conversation with him. We are at the International Colloquium on Slavery, Slave Trade and Their Consequences. I first heard Rashidi speak at the Global Conference of Black Nationalities in Osogbo on August 23. The African American - the world’s leading authority on the African Presence in Early Asia - had declared on the podium, “You are not African because you are born in Africa, you are African because Africa is born in you.” Now Rashidi discusses with me his Africa awakening, and it begins with a retelling of “disturbing” dreams. “One of the dreams was: I would be somewhere near my home, but I could never find my home. I would go down this street, around this block, but I could never find my home. The other dream was: I would go visit my family and they wouldn’t want me to be there. They would laugh at me; they wouldn’t eat with me; they would make me sleep on the floor when they had these nice beds. So, I started travelling to Africa – first to Egypt – and then I started going to so-called Sub-Saharan Africa, Black Africa.” The first Black African country he visited, was Namibia, followed by Zimbabwe, where he did “a bunch of lectures, big lectures in front of a lot of people.” Rashidi’s voice is breaking seriously and he is fighting back tears as he recounts: “I would tell about those dreams in the middle of the lecture. I would get emotional; I would almost start crying and I realised those dreams had a much greater significance. “Because we were taken away from ‘home’, a lot of African Americans have a sense of homelessness. We really don’t know where home is, because we were separated from our families, there is a sense of rejection and alienation. And [the African lecture audience] would say: ‘This is your home, and we are your family!’ And I never had those dreams anymore.” By the time Rashidi, now a veteran of trips to “53 or 54” African countries has finished narrating the dreams and the epiphany they inspired, a lady on our table is in a flood of tears. “This is what slavery did to us: it gave us a sense of homelessness and an absence of family,” he reiterates. “So, coming back to Africa is very important to a lot of us. Because when you come back, you feel connected again. You feel like: I do have a home, I do have a family, and it makes a big difference.” His voice is recovering its usual verve when as he declares, “That’s the greatest thing about coming back to anywhere in Africa; to know this is where your ancestors came from. And the moment you set (your feet) down, aw, it makes a big difference.” A concern for women He describes the process in terms of healing. “We are trying to heal again, we’re trying to become whole again. And our ability to become whole, our ability to heal, will directly affect the ultimate liberation of Africa,” says the historian, who worries that Africa is not liberated. The colonisation of the mind, external control of African economies and uncaring leaders, are some of the problems he says bedevils the continent. He is also concerned about the condition of the Nigerian woman. “Gentlemen of the Press” – is one of the regular conference-speak that bother him (“Men of the press - and yet, you are a journalist!, he tells me); although he is conscious not to impose his African American values on others. But is the condition of the African American woman as it should be? I ask. “No, it’s not as it should be,” he concedes. “Much too often, the African American woman is viewed as a sexual object; she is viewed as lesser than a man. But at the same time in the United States, the Black man has been castrated, his masculinity has been denied. And so the African American woman has had to take on a greater burden, a greater role and a greater responsibility.” We talk about the trend of African American men denigrating Black women, increasingly shunning them for white females. Rashidi points to Tiger Woods, all of whose women, from the wife to the countless mistresses, are white. He says categorically, “I can only be with a Black woman, and the reason for that is: I think of all those sisters who went through the Transatlantic Slave Trade, all of my ancestors who were raped and who were assaulted. And for me to be with anything other than a Black woman, I think, would be disrespectful to my African ancestors. I have a great respect for Black women… I view them as my equal at every level.” On naming We talk about his name, and he informs that, “Actually, my name is Runoko Rashidi Okello. I got ‘Runoko Rashidi’ when I was a university student and I wanted to reconnect with Africa and I wanted an African name. But I was told that it would not be proper for me to name myself, that somebody had to give me a name.” And so someone named him Runoko Rashidi; the first, a Shona name from Zimbabwe and the second from Swahili. Okello was added about three years ago. “I was in a war zone in Northern Uganda. I brought some school supplies – just papers, pens and things – and gave them to the school. They were so happy that they called me ‘Okello’: he who brings [gifts].” The name, he says, is one way of reconnecting with his African roots. “I love Africa and I don’t think of myself as an African American. I think of myself as an African Living in America. What we want – I can speak for many brothers and sisters – we just want to be embraced and loved by our sisters in Africa (voice wavers with emotion again). We feel like Africans don’t care about us,” he says. The “poor” relationship between African Americans and their brethren on the mother continent may be due to “some degree of resentment” that Africans sold them into slavery, he suggests. “And then we are taught that Africa is the worst place in the world.” He asks his American lecture audiences what they think of when they think of Africa, and the answer, invariably, is: Wild Animals, Poverty and Disease. “So, we have a very, very negative impression of Africa, because that’s all of Africa that we see on television.” He suggests that Africans who come to the United States don’t interact with African Americans and so there is no sharing of stories. “And so, it’s very important to me that African Americans or Africans Living in America have a better impression of Africa. I think of myself as an ambassador. I try to give a good impression of African Americans when I come [to Africa] and I try to go back to the United States with a good impression of people from the continent of Africa, because the relationship is not a good one.” It’s not an easy task. He reels out some of the terribly ignorant questions he gets asked about Africa when he returns to the US. “We have a very negative image of Africa and that is deliberate. That is just designed by Europeans to keep us separate from Africa because they know that when Africans in the Africa and [those] across the water unite, we’d be unstoppable. And so there is a deliberate effort to keep us ignorant of our African heritage, and I’m trying to help change that.” An ambassador On how he became this ‘ambassador’ between Africans in America and the continent, the 56-year-old says, “What started me was, I wanted to find out what happened to those Africans who left Africa a long time ago.” His paper at the Slavery Colloquium centred on Africa before Colonisation and Enslavement, what Rashidi calls “The First Diaspora – Africans who left Africa 100,000 years ago. I wanted to know what happened to them, where they went. And so, that led me to begin to search for Africa… I’ve been doing this since I was 18 years old and it’s been my mission in life.” Yet he has not always been this comfortable with his Africanness. “When I was a kid, if you had called me ‘African’, we would have had a fight: that was an insult! But now, if you call me an African, ohhhh, I’d do anything for you.” The change started when the young Runoko began to learn about Africa. “I began to read books and eventually I went to Africa itself. I’m a lover of Africa. I cannot say enough good things about Africa. I love Africa. I love Africa more than I love America,” he declares. He has talked about African Americans not feeling loved by Africans. But now I raise the flipside: that of Africans not feeling loved by African Americans, who racially denigrate those on the continent. “It is self hate. It works both ways,” Rashidi says. “The problem is ignorance; and I think that the major problem we’re fighting as a people is ignorance – a lack of knowledge about our past.” He expresses the wish that every African American would come to Africa at least once in their lifetimes, especially the young generation. “Come and see it for yourself. See it and touch it and smell it and eat the food; you’ll never be the same. [It will] change everything.” But is there a need for African Americans to identify with an ancestral homeland in a world that has seen the ascent of Obama? Rashidi says: yes. “We were talking about a Post-racial America over a year ago: that now that we have a Black President, everything was going to be different… But what we are finding is that racism in America is uglier than it’s been in a long time,” says the author and editor of more than 11 books. He loves Barack and Michelle Obama but expresses disappointment that America’s First Couple has not reached out to Africa more. Long live Africa Runoko Rashidi says West Africa holds a special significance as a major departure point for enslaved Africans who were taken to the New World. Visiting the Ghanaian slave forts of Elmina and Cape Coast was a numbing experience for him. “Then I went to the beach and had a libation ceremony and I cried a little bit. And after that, I just fell in love with West Africa. And as much as I like Ghana, I think I like Nigeria more. And it’s important for me to like Nigeria, because Nigeria is the powerhouse,” he says. Visiting the slave dungeons on Goree Island in Senegal, was also harrowing. “It’s difficult but every African American should go and see that, because it gives you a better appreciation of what your ancestors went through.” He longs for a bond of kinship between African Americans and Africans. “In the US, you are not allowed to say anything against the state of Israel, [no matter] how badly the Israelis treat the Palestinians. If you’re a public figure and you say something regarded as anti-Semitic, you lose everything. My point is: you can say anything about Africa and nobody will object.” African Americans are key to the desired change, he suggests. “If African Americans felt a sense of bond or kinship with Africa, we would be just like the Jews. We would be ferocious defenders of Africa. And that’s what I want us to be. I want us to love Africa with our dying breath. As God is my witness, I hope my last words on earth are: Long Live Africa.” Runoko Rashidi is one of the speakers at the Conference on ‘Global Africans, Pan-Africanism, Decolonisation and Integration of Africa - Past, Present and Future’ – holding at the International Conference Centre, Abuja, from September 21 to 24.