Aliquippa, Pa., is quite a long way from Soweto, South Africa – roughly 17,000 miles.
But for Alison Crumb, a junior in the School of Communications and Theater, her journey to South Africa in 2002, though long, was a trip worth taking.
“I felt connected to something, to a history in a sense,” she said.
Though a success, Crumb’s journey was all but smooth.
After her father, Alphonso Wesley, a minister who lives and works in the country, invited her to visit with him in Soweto where he leads faith-based ministries catering to those afflicted by AIDS, Crumb could not refuse.
She went with an “open mind,” having never really experienced Africa, outside of her schooling in Boston, where her family moved and she was raised and attended school with students from Somalia – who didn’t look the way she imagined.
“I viewed them as different, never made fun of them, but they were still different … they didn’t look the way I expected them to look. … I didn’t have that connection like to see them like we were brothers and sisters,” Crumb said.
So Crumb admitted that she had stereotypes that blurred her perceptions of the continent.
“I had no idea what Africa would look like. … It’s industrialized, it’s civilized. That to me was probably the biggest surprise. It was so different from what I could’ve ever imagined in my head,” she said.
Before the trip, “I really thought Africa was full of disease and hunger,” Crumb said.
But “to see Africa for what it was, the people of Africa … to at least have something that was concrete, culminated the whole thing,” she said.
Others shared her misconceptions about the continent, Crumb said.
As she prepared for her trip, she was not immune from comments about the continent, such as ‘oh you’re going to Africa, you better get your shots,’ or ‘why would you want to go to Africa?’
“People wouldn’t believe that you wouldn’t have to get a shot to go to South Africa,” Crumb said.
Rather than take offense to those comments, she said she embraced the fact that everyone had their opinions of the continent, but were not as fortunate as she was to travel there.
When Crumb was in eighth grade, her mother married Souliy Wan-tani, a native of Cameroon, West Africa.
That experience played a role in her finding herself and defining herself as an African, she said.
But even so, Crumb said she grapples with labeling herself.
“What makes me African, African American or American?” Crumb asked.
“All these titles, I don’t think they mean much.”
They are “used to categorize and separate, and a lot of people impose them on themselves because they may not want to be associated with what they think those titles represent,” Crumb said.
One can have a shared history with another even though their histories are not identical, Crumb noted. For example, South Africa’s turbulent racial history with apartheid paralleled the African American struggle for civil rights in America.
The only difference is “with apartheid, it’s more of a recent history. Here it was 40 [plus] years ago,” she said.
“I realized that as an African American, I took a lot of things for granted” before going to Africa.
“… If I lived in Africa, I may not have been able to go to college.”
There’s a lack of understanding and a failure to realize the struggles that Africans of the Diaspora living in America and continental Africans share, she said.
“I think if there’s a way to understand the African struggle, or at least to make the attempt to see the struggle, I think that will be enough to make the difference” in easing the tension between the two groups, Crumb said.
Therefore, Crumb said, it’s a lot about individuals taking the initiative to learn their history – picking up a book, searching on the Internet or asking questions.
“You won’t learn about Africa until you want to learn,” Crumb said.
“Any person who wants to see the relationship, they’ll know it’s there,” she said. “If you find nothing else, you’ll see the common oppression and poverty.”
Charmie R. Snetter can be reached at email@example.com.