It Matters, Even When We Think It Doesn't

This week, I have been thinking about the stories we tell about the impact we are making. As young Africans in the Diaspora, we often fear that work we do for our respective African countries and the African continent as a whole does not matter. Change isn't fast enough, conversations are stagnant, bureaucracy and corruption appear incorrigible. Yet, time and time again, I am reminded that our work matters, even if no one acknowledges it, and especially when we ourselves do not think it does.

This week, two events made this perspective especially clear:

At Work

Over the last month of my short stay in New York, I have been substitute teaching at a public school in the South Bronx. Last Friday was the last dress down day of the school year. A fellow teacher and cartoonist at the school wanted a picture of me in a duku (an African headwrap) for a drawing he had done of me. I took the opportunity to dress casually and to have my cartoon in duku as an invitatio to wear my most vibrant duku to work.

And, I was surprised by the reception. While the kind responds from students and staff members about my African headwrap was heartwarming, it was the reaction of the female African students in the school that left an indelible mark on me. These 10 to 13 year old African girls were so excited to see me wearing a duku. The ones I taught and a lot more of the ones I didn't came up to me and asked, “where are you from?”. When I responded, "Ghana", they turned to their friends with wild enthusiasm and said, “just like me”. I could tell that it meant a lot for them to see a teacher from their country. More importantly, one who proudly embraced and celebrated the culture publicly, and not only in "culturally accepted" spaces.

Their reaction meant so much much to me.

At Sade's Skincare Shop

Yesterday, my friend Bee took another friend and I to buy makeup from an African owned beauty shop in Harlem. I did not know of any beauty stores owned by African women in New York prior to this trip. To be fair, I did not think that buying makeup from and by an African woman mattered. But it did and the experience was impeccable and unlike anything I have ever experienced. 

In fact, Sade, the owner and namesake of the company, was there. She walked in while we finished our purchase, introduced herself, and told us that we are beautiful. She then spent time getting to know us, ultimately sharing some traditional African skin care products, beyond shea butter and black soap, with us.

Sade also spent time massaging some of her oils into our skin. You can see our videos with her below.

But ultimately, it was my friend Bee's story about getting her makeup done at Sade's stall at a mall in Brooklyn that left moved us all. Sade never knew that Bee would appreciate and remember her experience there, so much so that she would return a decade plus later, with friends to the shop Sade now owns.

I remember the look of awe and memory in Sade's eyes as Bee shared her prom makeup story. As Bee trailed off the end of her story, Sade turned to me and said, "Wow! I can't believe she was there for that. I started in that mall 40 years ago".

These stories are reminders that some 10 year old African girl in the South Bronx is watching; she is looking at how you wear ankara, batakari, duku, kente, agbada, beads, and Africa emblazoned jewelry and shirts.  He is seeing you connect, write, document, move. She will remember your story like Bee remembered Shea’s.

The next generation of young Africans in the world are watching us ever more intently. We may not know it individually now, for decades to come, or ever. But perhaps the most meaningful way to change perceptions about the continent is to through living our lives more freely and doing our work in spite of what the moment looks like.

Time and time again, history shows us that the continent, the world, and posterity does not take this gesture of faith for granted.