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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Coming Home to Africa

Black Americans are resettling in ancestral lands, embracing a heritage and looking to the continent's potential as a way to fulfill dreams.

September 10, 2002|ANN M. SIMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Two years ago, David Robinson caved in and bought a television set. A telephone followed shortly after. But Robinson still lives in a backwater where solar electricity is the norm, public transport is limited and cell phones don't work.

Walking, sometimes for up to three hours, is often the only way to get a message to someone.

The son of baseball legend Jackie Robinson regards the sacrifice of a few modern conveniences as worthwhile. His dream, ever since setting foot in Africa as a tourist in 1967, was to settle down, connect with his cultural heritage and help develop the continent's economic potential.

In 1986, Robinson put down roots in Tanzania. He says he has never looked back.

"It has exceeded any expectations that I had," said Robinson, 50. "One could never know the opportunities, the beauty, the pleasure of living here until one does live here."

Robinson is just one among a stream of African Americans who have come to Africa to exercise what many consider an ancestral right: To make the continent their permanent home.

Many are attracted by the ideal of solidarity and the prospect of being part of the racial majority. Others seek business opportunities that will both contribute to Africa's development and lead to personal gain. Still others want their children to appreciate their cultural heritage and to grow up in communities where their role models are people of color. Some come to retire.

Some newcomers have African spouses who can help ease them into their new environment. Many have both the education and money--along with the patience--to make their dreams of a new life on a new continent come true. In the process, these Americans believe they can help shape Africa's future.

"Logically, the African American tribes outside of Africa have something to offer and can play a role in Africa's global development," said Robinson, a onetime fisherman and exporter of African art who has been a coffee farmer for the last decade.

There are no concrete statistics on the number of African Americans who have decided to settle in Africa. U.S. embassies do not register Americans living in individual countries by race. However, Tanzania, Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa are among the countries that have welcomed African Americans.

Estimates by those who count themselves among this new breed of settler range from as few as 15 permanent black American residents in Tanzania to more than 1,000 in South Africa.

For many, the transition has had bumps. In many African countries, communications and roads are poor. Public services are often unreliable. Tardiness and other annoying work habits frustrate many newcomers.

Such challenges did not deter the Connecticut-born Robinson. For him, moving to Tanzania felt natural. He was inspired, he said, by the example of his father, who broke major league baseball's color barrier in 1947.

"When you are faced with the negatives of racism, to be supported by the personal courage and success of one's parent is a tremendous barrier against the negative attitudes of society," Robinson said.

Robinson, who married a Tanzanian woman after he arrived in Africa and is father to nine children, owns a 120-acre farm in the northern mountains about 550 miles from Dar es Salaam, the capital. Called "Sweet Unity Farms," it is part of a 350-farm cooperative, of which Robinson is director of marketing and finance.

To buy his land, Robinson had to state his case to regional officials and village committees. In the end, he played the race card--in keeping with the views of Tanzania's revered founding father, Julius K. Nyerere, who preached unity and welcomed blacks born outside Africa.

"My ultimate presentation was that I was a black person who had lost my nationalistic and tribal ties [to Africa] and I wanted to come back," recalled Robinson, who now speaks fluent Kiswahili, Tanzania's official language.

He was offered as much land as he could clear and use. A novice, Robinson relied heavily on his neighbors to learn farming. Today, he exports coffee beans to the United States. Tanzanian coffee is considered to be among the best in the world, and the beans fetch a premium price.

Robinson maintains that such success would have been harder to achieve in the United States.

"I still believe the psychological barriers and calluses and bruises that we sustained throughout our American experience continues to block us from taking advantage of the opportunities that we can have," said Robinson, who retains a U.S. passport but expects to become a Tanzanian citizen. "We are not the normal American immigrant but the descendants of slaves. We have to recognize that."

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It was business as well as the prospect of helping to develop a country governed by black people that led Victoria Cooper in 1993 to the West African country of Ghana, across the continent from Robinson.

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