Africa is their classroom

Ryan Loew

Professors travel to better understand heritage, culture

Professor Mwatabu Okantah of the Pan-African Studies department went to Africa to study his heritage and poetry.

Credit: Andrew popik

Mwatabu Okantah went to Africa in 1990 — a poet trying to experience the African part of his African-American heritage.

Diedre Badejo went to Africa in 1975 — a student trying to learn about African history, politics and culture.

Christina McVay went to Africa in 2003 — a teacher trying to see and feel what she is teaching to students.

The three, all members of the department of Pan-African Studies, describe it as a life-changing experience.

The Poet: ‘The traveler has returned’

During his second trip to Africa in 1990, assistant professor Mwatabu Okantah was commissioned by James G. Spady of the Philadelphia Black History Museum to write an epic poem in honor of the late Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop.

Okantah traveled through Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal to work on the poem that would ultimately be published in three languages in his book, Cheikh Anta Diop: Poem for the Living, in 1997, he said.

“I was overwhelmed by this commission,” Okantah said, “and that was an awesome task for me. It’s like having an equation you don’t know how to solve. My assignment was to place our experiences as African-Americans in the history of Africa.

“So I wanted to be a griot (storyteller) in African-American terms. I knew just being in Africa would open me, allow me to hear the voices of our ancestors.”

While traveling in southeastern Nigeria, Okantah returned to a small village near a trading center named Aba. There he spoke to Great Grandmother, a woman in the village who was more than 100 years old.

The woman, not recognizing him, questioned him about his origins, Okantah said. His hosts reminded Great Grandmother that he was descended from people taken from the village during the slave raiding period. She looked deeply into his eyes, touched his face and told him he was “a son of the village returned home after a long absence.”

As a result of his encounter with her, the village elders gave him a traditional Igbo name — Onyeije, meaning “the traveler has returned.”

“It was one of the deepest moments I’ve had in my life,” Okantah said. “I never knew what it was like to feel at home in a country until I went to Africa. We should not understand our relationship to Africa as some fragmented people but as a people that can embrace it.”

Okantah made his first trip to Africa as one of five young men who were sent to Nigeria as Rotary International Group Study Exchange Fellows in 1988. He spent four weeks traveling around Nigeria as guests of Nigerian Rotarians, visiting places such as factories, coal mines and ports.

Okantah was struck by the faces of African people. He said by seeing himself in their faces, he could “put to rest those nagging questions about identity.”

“We’ve been taught in this country that we aren’t African people, and we accept it as some kind of Gospel truth,” Okantah said. “When you look in a woman’s face and you see your mother, you don’t need someone to tell you you’re an African.”

Because of his experiences, Okantah feels an African journey is necessary for Pan-African professors.

“It’s like walking out of a dream, literally,” he said. “To me it’s only logical, if you teach Pan-African studies you should go to Africa. I go to Africa to learn those stories that black poets are born into this world to tell.

“As griot in this country, people want to know certain things. It’s part of my job to provide that information. My preferred medium is my art, my poetry, my music, but my practical medium is the classroom.”

The Student: Becoming Empowered

Badejo, who is the chair of the Pan-African department, was a graduate student at the University of Ghana in 1975. There she learned not only history and politics, but also African culture.

“I was a student, and I loved it,” she said. “That’s the whole point of going overseas — that you learn other people’s cultures. I had to learn to adjust to a different learning modality.

“I started seeing people who looked like people that I knew. People thought that I was one of their relatives. I felt very at home.”

Badejo’s experience studying in Africa provided a sense of “academic organization and intellectual integrity,” she said. She was trained in African and African-American studies and started field research in Ghana, studying community festivals and oral history.

“When one goes into the field in Africa, or anywhere in the world for that matter, one has to have knowledge about how a particular society preserves its own history, its sense of being,” Badejo said. “My approach to the work that I did and continue to do is ask the people who owned the material (history and culture).

“I interviewed people who were the cultural custodians and looked at the structure of the festival. These are knowledgeable people in the community, the people who maintained the culture, people who have the knowledge about those communities.”

One such festival Badejo studied was the Osun Festival in Nigeria. The festival, she said, took place over 16 days, and each day held a particular meaning.

“Probably one of the most interesting days is the procession through the town by the political and spiritual leaders,” she said. “It speaks to the cohesiveness of the community, the township.”

She also participated in an archeological dig at a 50,000-year-old site in Ghana.

“You don’t find anything in a day,” Badejo said about the day-long dig.

The experience was empowering for Badejo, “especially as an African-American woman,” she said. “It opened up a different set of questions for me. It’s exposing you to a variety of ways of looking at the world.”

Badejo was able to take her experiences in Africa and apply them to her scholarly publications, she said.

“I was a student; I was studying. I was learning, and that factors into my approach to scholarship and academic experiences,” Badejo said.

One such publication Badejo recently contributed to is the book, Writing African History, which will be published by the University of Rochester Press.

Of her travels to communities such as Oshogbo in Southwestern Nigeria, Krobo in Central Ghana or Dakar in Senegal, Badejo said she gained a great deal of knowledge of the “African world view, the significant role of women and affairs of the state.”

“Basically it gave me another point of reference in the world, both professionally and personally,” she said. “Because I grew up in New York City, I had a lot of exposure to other cultures. This gave me another point on my compass.”

The Teacher: Exploring the slave coast

“I hate flying,” said lecturer Christina McVay, noting that it took her 26 years to work up the nerve to get on an airplane. “That’s how bad I wanted to go to Africa.”

McVay, who teaches African and African-American literature in Oscar Ritchie Hall, said after teaching the material for so long she eventually needed to make the journey in 2003.

“The more I became interested and the more I read in African-American literature, the more connections you see to Africa,” McVay said. “I became more and more interested and decided I needed to go see this place. I needed to feel it.”

McVay spent time in Accra, Ghana’s capital, before heading to Cape Coast, a center for British slave trade in the 1600s, she said.

Despite the stunning beauty of the coast and forts that line it, McVay said, the history of the area is tragic.

Slavery “was a huge, huge business. It was a real money maker, clearly. What just kept running through my mind was, ‘How can such horrible things happen in such beautiful places?’” she said.

The “door-of-no-return” was a particularly emotional and historic part of one fort, McVay said. The door was the last one the slaves would pass through before being loaded onto ships to cross the Atlantic.

“You would have to be pretty callous not to be touched. A lot of people cried,” she said.

McVay also visited the village of Tafo, where she attended a “yam festival.” The festival, she said, was a procession through the village that eventually led to a sacred spot where yams were prepared and eaten.

“These festivals are described in a lot of African literature,” McVay said. “That was about as close as I can get to a traditional African ceremony that I read so much about in African literature.”

The African marketplaces and countrysides were like a trip into her curriculum, McVay said. For example, a silk cotton tree is a plant found in African literature.

“I know what that looks like know,” she said. “I think it’s lent some authority to my reading of African literature. It was really a learning experience.”

Contact ethnic affairs reporter Ryan Loew at [email protected].