Community Spotlight with Jordone Branch
“Being an “African” and an “American” while living in Africa: Where do I fit in?”
Living in Africa as a Morocco Peace Corps volunteer has been an insightful learning experience that has taught me the dramatic effects of stereotypes about people of African descent. This adventure has been especially unique for me as an African American woman as Morocco is a country that has yet to fully acknowledge and embrace it’s African identity. This is likely a result of colonialism and negative media portrayals. When I first applied to the Peace Corps, I told my recruiter that I had the definite desire go to Africa. I mentioned to him that I was interested in connecting with the part of my heritage that I never got to personally experience. As I said this statement, I somewhat imagined myself building relationships with people in Africa who would both cheerfully commend and easily understand my desire to pursue such a connection. I would soon stand corrected.
The majority of Moroccans I encounter eagerly thank me for my decision to sacrifice my life in America. However, they sometimes retract from agreeing that they, too, are of African descent and live in Africa. Many African-Americans’ attitudes towards color complexity create social divides between people of lighter and darker skin tones. Similarly, some Moroccans assume superiority over other African nations simply because of their differences in skin tones. As a person with brown skin, the initial perception I receive from some Moroccans, who are generally much lighter than me, is fear or arrogance. I can recall one particular conversation between a Moroccan man and myself, which went something like this (translated from Arabic into English):
The Moroccan man asked me: “So what made you join the Peace Corps?”
I then responded: “I was interested in volunteering and motivating students of African descent while giving nations abroad a more positive representation of my race than what they are exposed to in the media. I also want to contradict many Western stereotypes about Africa by discussing my experience in a positive way when I return to the U.S.”
The man then replied: “Oh that’s nice. I have never been to Africa before!”
I refrained from allowing my facial expression to reveal the ignorance of his response. Of course I was stunned, but not completely surprised, because it was not the first time I had heard a Moroccan express a statement like this. For example, after I shared my reasons for joining the Peace Corps with my host mother, she boldly told me “This is not Africa!” As my host sister overheard our conversation, she quickly stepped in the room to arrogantly say, “Let me tell you something, this is not like Africa because we are not like the ‘African Africans’.”
What did my host sister mean by claiming that living in other parts of Africa make you more “African” than others? Requirements make traveling outside the country difficult for Moroccans. Therefore, the majority of what Moroccans understand Africa to be comes from the media images they receive from a Western perspective. These images, which usually include people of darker skin tones in poverty, war, and protests, tend to be both stereotypical and a huge contrast to the realistic image of Africa—especially Morocco. Unfortunately, like many other parts of the world, many Moroccans define Africa according to these images drawn from a narrow viewpoint. This causes Moroccans to either naively believe that they truly don’t live in Africa or draw away from being defined as African because of the negative connotations associated with the continent.
So, where does this place me? Since taking my first empowering “African Diaspora in the World” class at Spelman College, I always thought I would gain an immense connection from living in the continent of my ancestors. At home in the U.S., I could never recall one moment of my life where I felt “American.” This is because of the many situations where being a person of color caused me to be excluded. Likewise, I could never recall a time where I felt “African” because I knew very little about the continent from a perspective of personal experience. Lost in somewhat of an identity crisis, I traveled all the way across the Atlantic Ocean hoping to feel the connection I yearned for, only to find myself an outcast amongst people who don’t understand me or my motives yet again. Only this time, it’s from people I thought I would have no problem relating to.
I should note that this has not been my experience with every Moroccan I have encountered. On the contrary, some people I have met here have welcomed me with open arms and, like the true nature of Moroccan hospitality, have invited me over for a meal only five minutes after meeting me. Others have been tremendous supporters and advocates that have positively guided me through my time here and without them my pathway towards cultural adjustment may have been a bit more difficult. The relationships I have built with these people are ones that I will carry on with me forever. It is these people that make my new life in Morocco easier as they remind me that my time here can have rewarding moments. I look forward to connecting with people like this because they make my goal for coming here easier to accomplish. However, it is unfortunate that even they too evidently deal with the desire to separate themselves from the label of “African.”
Despite the fact that my quest for cultural identity fulfillment has yet to be found in Africa, there is one truth that keeps me going: as proud members of our race, we have a responsibility to educate the world about who we are and the positives we represent. What foreign countries think about my race matters to me and I know we can change negative opinions by traveling, joining diplomatic programs like the Peace Corps, and developing personal relationships with people abroad. No, we may not be able to change the entire world but there is much potential that can result from interacting with one person. We can teach one person, allow that one person to teach two people, allow those two people to teach ten people and so on and so forth. Words and images may develop impactful misconceptions but they are no comparison to the power within relationship building. No matter which culture you represent, aim to be the best you at all times and don’t hold back to tell the world your story.
Jordone is a writer, journalist and former CNN intern currently living in Sidi Kacem, Morocco as a Youth Development Peace Corps volunteer. Her writings currently focus on racial issues and stereotypes amongst people of African descent. To view more of her pieces you can contact her at Jordone.Branch@yahoo.com or view her blog at www.Jordone.wordpress.com.