African-Americans are just familiar strangers to Africans

Africans who arrive America soon find out that there is a big gulf between them and African-Americans. They only share skin colour, not a lifelong kinship.

By JOYCE K. MWANGI

African Americans are strangers who would not understand why you want to say hello and make small talk when you meet. They do not want to acknowledge you and do not want to say hello and they would wonder why you think they are like you, from Africa.


The clock on my bedside table read 6:35 Monday morning. I checked my watch and the corresponding time was 5:35pm Monday in my homeland. This was my first morning in the United States.

I got out of bed and opened the window blinds. It was dark outside, that darkness of midnight in rural Africa. I could see street lights a short distance away from my bedroom window. Everything was very quiet except the humming of the electric heating system that was on at 24 degrees Celcius.

I got overwhelmed by the same feeling I had years ago on my first morning in boarding school, only this time as an adult, and the feeling was greater and scary.

My host family had promised to show me around Seattle. I didn’t remember what time we were supposed to leave and was torn between waking up and sleeping some more. At 7am I got ready and went to the main floor.

There was no one around, so I sat and waited for my hosts to wake up. I had feelings of excitement that I was finally in the US, and fear too, as I was alone in a foreign land and had no idea of how and where I would begin my new life.

Communication barrier

At 7.45am, Craig, the husband of my host family started brewing coffee. I like the smell of coffee but I’m a tea person. Terry, the wife, joined us shortly.

She fed Ziggy, the big black family cat with some milk and cat food. We all stood by the kitchen sipping coffee as they told me about the plan for the day.

We would leave as soon as we were all ready and would go to the big fish market, the waterfront, and then take a ferry boat to Bainbridge Island, 16 km from Seattle and is a 45-minute ferry ride.

I was in Seattle in Washington State on the Pacific northwest. Washington State has a population of less than eight million people and borders Canada to the North. The state capital is Olympia.

I studied English and did my schooling in English from Class 1 to university in my homeland. However, my hosts and I had a big communication issue. We spoke in different accents, pronounced words differently and had different meaning for same words.

As a new immigrant, you keep repeating your sentences in order to be understood, or you just decide to keep quiet and listen more and talk less. When you talk less, Americans try very hard to explain even the simplest stuff. The more they explain simple stuff the more you withdraw, and the more you withdraw the more they will continue to explain and I guess at this point they may even think you are kinda dumb.

When you are away from home, you really want to meet someone who looks like you with the hope that they will understand you which would make your settling-in process easier.

The family in Bainbridge was black. They looked like folks in my homeland, but they were African American. The only thing we had in common was skin colour, so they were familiar strangers.

Their Green Card

African Americans would not know how long it takes for a legal immigrant to get their Green Card or what your next steps are after you receive it. They would not understand your confusion and vulnerability as you try to settle in a foreign country. They do not understand your English, your way of dressing or why you came to their country.

They are strangers whom you want to say hello to when you see them on the streets of Seattle because they look like you. But they are strangers who would not understand why you want to say hello and make small talk when you meet. They do not want to acknowledge you and do not want to say hello and they would wonder why you think they are like you, from Africa.

They are just familiar strangers.

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