On She Goes

Discovering the Meaning of Home in Tanzania

Falling in love with my Blackness in East Africa.

Renee Allums-D'Espyne
Renee Allums-D'Espyne
December 6, 2017
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When the opportunity to travel to East Africa presented itself in my junior year of college, unease came over me. I could not pass up this opportunity. Traveling to Tanzania was supposed to be about a lost kid finally returning to this preconceived idea of home, but instead it turned into an opportunity to fall in love with my Blackness—which has been my home all along.

Navigating East Africa with a mostly white student group put a whole new spin on this fairytale of homecoming. My identities as an adoptee, a queer, and a Black American don’t just intersect, they collide, battle, fight, and struggle every day. Many African American children grow up hearing, in one form or another, the rich history of Africa as the motherland. If you are among the lucky few who can trace their ancestry and are able to tie it to an ethnic identity, then the prospect of going home harbors an even greater sense of pride. However, for an adopted Black child in America, my notion of home has always been much more conflicted and complex. My own homecoming felt like it was ripped out of Barack Obama’s recollections about his first trip to Kenya in Dreams from My Father, when he writes, “I was a Westerner not entirely at home in the West, an African on his way to a land full of strangers.” 

My group arrived in Tanzania in the middle of the night. The only indicator that we were in a different country was the suspense of the bumpy landscape and the lack of road rules, which made it feel like we were on a roller coaster ride. After a night spent tossing and turning in our enclosed campsite in Arusha, I awoke to my first taste of a vibrant Tanzania. Before I could experience the people, the wildlife brought this country to life. I can close my eyes and still remember the sounds; the birds carry such a strong spirit that Snow White would be jealous of Tanzania’s very own fairytale paradise. The smells reel you in and get you hooked—the fresh aroma of God’s green earth, the chai spices that surround you and fill you with warmth. But the people and their smiles are what invite you in to stay.

Zanzibar corridors of original Arabic buildings from the slave trade, now current homes.
photo by Renee Allums-D’Espyne

I understand Obama’s feeling of being in-between, but when we were on the Zanzibar coast (a short 30-minute plane ride from Tanzania), which is one of the largest Indian slave ports in history, I finally felt heaviness, strength, and resilience resonate inside me, touring the narrow streets and wandering the renovated corridors, occupying the same path that those with my melanin skin were dragged by, in chains, to be sold. I thought I could never emotionally prepare for this moment, especially experiencing it with a majority white group with no one to relate to by my side. Visiting the skeletons of my ancestral past is never smooth sailing, but my vessel was built to pave the way. I felt their pain, I felt their strength. I channeled their pain, I channeled their strength, climbing the same treacherous tunnels, standing in the same chamber where they were tortured, and lying in the same underground caves that were meant to mentally break those with my skin into submission.

Yet they survived and have manifested through me, made themselves comfortable and kicked off their shoes. In a home that was crafted to weather any storm. Homeland isn’t a physical place, but it is me manifested into everything my ancestors could ever dream of. Standing, breathing, persistent, and strong despite the disasters that yearn to tear us down. In Tanzania, I found the real key to security, balance, trust, and self-acceptance because I stopped looking externally to create a sense of home and discovered it within myself.

Visiting the skeletons of my ancestral past is never smooth sailing, but my vessel was built to pave the way.

In East Africa, I finally realized that home isn’t a place or ideas; home is the skin I am in. My beautiful Black skin, which carries so much weight, significance, and power wherever I go, had so much value when I was surrounded by those who looked like me. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t speak fluent Swahili; the universal connection that our Blackness provided transcended that language barrier. It comes through our hair and the way our hips carry the same unspoken rhythm. My Blackness speaks for me before I even say a word.