I am African
not because I was born in Africa;
but because Africa was born in me.
This quote by Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, speaks to the heart of Cultural Reconnection’s travel missions to Kenya. Since its founding in 2000, the organization has helped participating women of African descent connect deeply with Africa, explore their heritage, and learn about themselves.
Dr. Maxine Mimms, the founder of Evergreen College’s Tacoma campus, went on her first of seven missions when she was in her mid-70s. For her, a Cultural Reconnection mission “…wasn’t a trip. It was an experience. It changed my life.” Mimms, who had been to Africa twice as a tourist, knew what tourists do: see exotic sites, stay in good hotels, take photos, and buy souvenirs. Yet tourists stay detached from the culture and, all too often, exude an attitude of cultural superiority.
A Cultural Reconnection journey, she discovered, is not that. The two-week missions are immersions into Kenyan culture, based upon mutuality, colleagueship, and respect for local rites and rituals. While tourists often go to Africa to see how different it is, mission members go to Kenya searching for commonalities. Through their conversations with Kenyan colleagues, participants make deep friendships and lasting ties. In encountering a piece of their ancestral homeland, they develop a stronger sense of self.
Cultural Reconnection was founded by Dr. Marcia Tate Arunga, a Seattle native who spent 11 years living in Kenya with her Kenyan husband and their children. While in Kenya, she started a business supporting local cotton manufacturers. After returning to Seattle with her husband, she began importing colorful cotton and traditional clothes from Kenya that she knew African-American women were eager to buy.
Through her business, Arunga found herself serving as a cultural ambassador for Kenya, answering clients’ questions about the culture behind the clothes. When her sister-in-law, Phelgona Okundi, visited, Arunga hosted a tea for her with clients and friends and Okundi graciously invited the group to visit Kenya. The idea of Cultural Reconnection was born. Eighteen months later the first delegation of seven women traveled to Kenya. Since then, Arunga has hosted 73 women on 11 missions, with some participants returning multiple times.
The spirit of welcome
Throughout their visits, delegates continually hear the words “welcome” and “welcome home.” They participate in Kenyan culture, eating the food, participating in local rituals and, if they desire, wearing colorful traditional garments.
Each mission starts out in Nairobi to give the groups time to acclimate to Kenya while enjoying the familiarity of urban life, with its congestion and conveniences. Then they travel to the city of Kisumu, where Arunga raised her children, before leaving behind both traffic and conveniences to visit rural sites and villages.
Throughout the mission, Kenyan and African-American women dialogue about their lives, professions, families, and concerns. Mayet Dalila, a community organizer from Seattle, was initially intimidated when Arunga asked her to address Kenyan health leaders. Knowing the trip was stretching her to grow, she made a presentation describing her work with HIV/AIDS. Dalila says, “You get thrown in and you rise to the occasion.”
When African-Americans travel to Africa, they sometimes meet a response they don’t understand. To the Kenyans, these strangers are “negroes.” As an elder asked the Cultural Reconnection mission, “You keep calling yourself African-American but where do you come from in Africa?” Kenyans know their lineage, often 10 generations back.
Arunga recounts a magical moment during the first mission when her group tried to explain their culture to a group of Kenyan elders, describing how African-Americans had come from many parts of Africa before they were captured, taken to the coast and shipped away, leaving few, if any, records of their lineages.
Listening to this story one of the elders lit up with an epiphany. She said simply, “Oh, you are the Stolen Ones.”
This elder had been taught, throughout her life, to include prayers for the “stolen ones” when she prayed for her ancestors. The Stolen Ones were children who had gone to a village market and never returned. Legend had it that one day a traveler revealed how, when he was on the coast, he had seen hordes of children being boarded onto boats. He suggested to the villagers that their lost children might still be alive.
The elder shared that she had never fully understood the significance of the Stolen Ones. Now she did. The descendants of the Stolen Ones were sitting before her. These women were her family.
No longer strangers
For many in the Cultural Reconnection group, including Arunga, this moment was life-changing. They learned that people had been praying for them for many years. They had been remembered. They were no longer strangers. They belonged. They had a homeland.
Now as the groups travel in Kenya, Arunga says “People treat us as if we’re home.” Delegation alumni have gone on to participate in joint social ventures with Kenyan communities in areas like education, healthcare, water, and income generation. The alumni contribute, not to provide charity, but because they care about their ancestral homeland.
When the missions travel, African women leaders often accompany them for portions of the trip. The groups are honored and welcomed wherever they go. In Kisumu, the mayor always greets them. On one visit, she announced a surprise: Barack Obama’s grandmother, Sarah, who lived in a village two hours away, wanted to meet them. Several of the groups have now met with Sarah Obama and she has told them, “I’m so happy to meet Barack’s sisters.”
For Maxine Mimms, now 89, watching older African women changed her relationship to aging. In America, Mimms said, older people are “conveniently dependent” and spend a lot of time complaining. In Kenya, elders are not accommodated when they board a bus or walk long distances. Yet they don’t complain. In fact, many live with joy. Mimms says elders are “inconveniently independent,” suggesting that this might be a better model for aging here as well.
On her trips, Mimms learned to roll with inconveniences like bouncing over large potholes while riding on buses. Yet in so doing, she experienced her own joy. She made permanent friends. Mimms says, “Kenya is what is helping me live in America.” For her, the most important gift of the missions was personal growth. Cultural Reconnection “caused me to live longer. It gave me life. It’s what has kept me alive.”
Even today, when she can no longer travel to Africa, Africa lives in her. In Kenya, she says, “I reclaimed myself.”
Sally Fox is a coach, speaker, podcaster, and owner of Engaging Presence, a firm that helps individuals and organizations develop and share their best brand stories. She is currently working on a book about finding your creative work in the third act of life. Find her blog at engagingpresence.com and listen to her podcasts at 3rdActMagazine.com.