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In 1991, Richburg carried the spirit (if not the bright eyes) of an optimist. At the time he touched down in Kenya, I was in college & my pro-black Pan-African racial identity phase was just dawning. Even with above average academic & personal interest in Africa while attending a historically black university, I can’t remember ever discussing what Richburg documented for 3 years as the Nairobi Bureau Chief for the Washington Post.
From the moment Richburg arrived, Africa began to dismantle his personal hope to reconcile with his ancestral homeland. He wasn’t prepared for the real Africa - its deceit (I got my first lesson in Africa... I learned how to lie), its frenzied episodes of senseless violence (watching the endless cascade of human carcasses toppling over a waterfall downriver), its brutal & corrupt leaders (they are good at saying what others want to hear then do whatever the hell they please), and the ironic fact that his blackness made him more likely to be killed (I’ve got a guy leveling a machine gun at me because I’m black and he thinks I’m an African).
But God bless Richburg, he remained reluctant to admit that he would never be able to bridge the cultural gulf between him and native-born Africans. He got there eventually, but it took a while.
As Black man wanting to patch the hole in his identity and document the rise of Africa, timing just wasn't on his side. As a journalist, his timing couldn't be better. The 100 days of bloodlust in Rwanda ranks as the most grotesque convulsion of savagery on the continent in the 20th century. And Richburg was there to cover it, as well as conflict in Somalia, Liberia & Sierra Leone.
Although his chronicle is fueled by anger, I connected with it on a personal level. I too have longed to reclaim an ancestral homeland. I too have wanted to attain some missing piece of my identity so that my search would be over, my journey complete, and I would be whole.
Like Richburg, I too have been frustrated & wondered why the same story keeps getting told over & over again across the African continent. Poverty. Violence. Tribal conflict. Over and over again, power-hungry strongmen keep playing the tribal card to hang onto power. And the people keep falling for it. Why do they keep falling for it?
I too can admit that I have experienced a guilty sense of gratitude that my ancestors were captured into slavery so that I was born in 20th century America not Africa. I have been to a "museum" owned by a man who claimed to be descended from a chief who sold other Africans as slaves. In that little hut located near a beach in Nigeria, the man put shackles & chains on his wrists & neck & we took a picture together. Next to his scruffy leanness & ill fitting clothes, I imagine few would guess I was the descendant of slaves, not he. I wondered where I would be today if my ancestors hadn't been kidnapped & sold to slavers.
And so I understand why Richburg’s journey lead him to turn his back on the continent where his friends & colleagues were violently murdered by a mob in Somalia, where he was repeatedly at risk of being killed because Western security forces & native Africans frequently mistook him for a Tutsi or a Hutu or a rival Somali clan member.
If he was conflicted at all before going to Africa, by the end of his stint, he wasn't conflicted one bit. He was American & damn grateful for it. And that was that.
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Earlier this year, I sent a letter to a missions pastor working for an American charity I support. The pastor was en route to Uganda. I wanted assurance the charity didn’t support native pastors who incite violent homophobia. I wrote, “evil doesn’t always hide its face in Africa.”
Unfortunately, the naked face of evil was something Richburg witnessed first hand. And most unfortunately, that evil has not ended. Since his memoir was published, Darfur, Joseph Kony, rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and piracy off the coast of Somalia are familiar topics to viewers of the American news cycle.
Although Richburg lived to tell the horrific tale, he suffered a fatality. His optimism is in a grave in Africa.
I wonder will he ever reclaim it?