Why I Decided to Move to Africa (It’s Not Because of Trump)

It’s been twenty-one days since I moved to Uganda. So I decided to answer a question that I’ve been asked over and over again: “What’s it like living in Africa as an African-American?”

IMAGE ABOVE: My parents on vacation in Hawaii visiting the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (2013).

“So — what’s it like living in Africa as an African-American?”

Since moving to Kampala earlier this year, it’s a question I’ve been asked over a dozen times.

And yet, I’ve struggled to answer it.

So much so, that when Sam Floy (London startup guy turned East Africa startup aficionado; Host of The East Africa Business Podcast) asked me the question over breakfast in Nairobi last weekend, I filled silence with some convoluted comments about ‘the Black Mzungu’ stereotype and an immediately forgettable anecdote about my struggle to speak Luganda to a boda driver.

But still — I like the question because my answer is linked to the story of how my parents (pictured above) once decided to immigrate in the opposite direction.

And that’s a story worth telling.

Not least because I owe it to them to remember their experience and to appreciate their sacrifice, their labor, and their love. But also because our parents’ immigration stories are essential. I genuinely believe that it is their objective re-telling of the past that allows us to make sense of the present.

IMAGE ABOVE: I’m not exactly sure where or when this photo was taken, but it feels pretty 80s and my parents are looking great.

My parents are first-generation immigrants who married in South Africa, where they grew up. Come December 2017 — my parents will have lived in the United States continuously for 30 years.

I have no doubt that in that 30-year time-span, each of them will have been asked the question, “What’s it like living in the United States as a black South African?” a countless number of times.

So — here’s my hypothesis:

If I can make sense of what it was like for my parents to immigrate from South Africa to the United States way back when, then perhaps I can answer the question of what it’s like for me to move to Africa now.

Here it goes.

What am I doing in Uganda?

I moved to Kampala on January 7th to join WeFarm, an agri-tech startup that allows farmers to share farming knowledge via SMS, completely free-of-charge.

With no internet access and poor infrastructure, farmers often fail to receive the information they need to improve their lives. Worse still, it is not uncommon for farmers living just a few miles away to carry this information.

WeFarm enables farmers to quickly share this information with one another.

WeFarm gives farmers a voice.

Everyday, ‘WeFarmers’ ask questions like “How can I increase my yield of tea with drought?” and “What can I do to prevent my cabbage from splitting?”

And everyday, WeFarmers support one another by answering these questions.

With 90% of smallholder farmers now able to access a basic mobile phone, WeFarm can connect millions of farmers with the information they need to continue feeding the world.

When I moved to Uganda earlier this year, I joined Justus Byarugaba, our Field Manager and resident ‘powerhouse.’ In 2016, with zero co-workers on the ground and little budget whatsoever, Justus recruited 20,000 smallholder farmers from across Uganda to use WeFarm.

Talk about hustle…

My job is to make sure that more Ugandan farmers know about WeFarm and use it. To make sure that more farmers share their knowledge via WeFarm. And to make sure that more farmers benefit from getting information fast.

I don’t really know anything about farming yet (however, I have my hero). And I’m still figuring out the best ways to effectively market a product to rural Ugandan farmers. But I know why I’m here.

I’m here because I have an opportunity to contribute.

I’m here because I have a chance to move forward.

This past November, after an incredible three and a half years, I decided to leave my jet-setting job at MassChallenge for WeFarm.

I had been helping set-up accelerator programs around the world, I had been supporting hundreds of entrepreneurs at high-growth startups, and I was having a blast along the way.

When I left MassChallenge for WeFarm, my departure was bittersweet. But I think I’m on a good path. A scary path, for sure, but an exhilarating one. Exhilarating because it is one that reminds me of my dad.

My parents’ immigration story

My dad immigrated to the United States in December 1987.

My mom and my oldest sister had no choice but to stay behind. The country in which they remained was an ‘apartheid-confused’ and quickly evolving South Africa. They were to remain in South Africa until they themselves were granted visas to join my dad in the U.S.

And so my parents agreed to live apart for as long as was necessary so that my dad could complete his education.

Worth noting: My mom is Wonder Woman.

IMAGE ABOVE: My parents only had to spend one year apart (1987–1988). Here they are playing a game of checkers on that same vacation to Hawaii (2013).

My father was going for his M.Sc. in Analytical Chemistry at the University of Witwatersrand (called ‘Wits’) in Johannesburg, South Africa. He had plans to pursue a Ph.D. in the States.

By 1987, my dad had already come a long way by standards of any other black South Africans at the time. He was one of only two black students studying chemistry at Wits that year. Like others before him, my dad had ambitions to create a life for himself and for his family that other black South Africans before him had only ever dreamed of.

Because — you see — for as long as my parents knew, their education was the official property of the South African government. Then Minster of Native Affairs, Hendrik F. Verwoerd (the so-called “Architect of Apartheid”) made sure of that.

“There is no space for him [the ‘Native’] in the European Community above certain forms of labor. For this reason it is of no avail for him to receive training which has its aim in the absorption of the European Community, where he cannot be absorbed.”
— Hendrik F. Verwoerd (A proper douche)

But my dad was focused.

He and my mom grew up in a lush, mountainous, and remote homeland called Venda — South Africa’s northernmost Bantustan. It is a truly breathtaking part of the world. Venda is situated in a region of South Africa that borders Zimbabwe and is adjacent to Kruger National Park.

At some point before immigrating to the States, my dad lived in Soweto — a Johannesburg township most famously known for laying host to the 1976 student uprising. This uprising resulted in the deaths of 150+ students. 1,000+ students were injured at the hands of armed police.

It was this event that intensified the internal resistance movement against apartheid, but that I think also steered the course of my family history.

In spite of school closings that were meant to curb the internal resistance movement (but that also barred many students from attending school at all), my dad knew he needed to finish his education.

So when he was about 19-years old, my dad’s dad (my late grandfather) offered him virtually all the money he had so that my dad could pay to go to another school.

My dad never forgot about that sacrifice.

And so when my dad’s chemistry professor at Wits sat him aside and told him that he would be leaving South Africa indefinitely in order to teach and continue research in Idaho, my dad’s first thought was, “Well…if you leave, how am I going to finish my degree?”

But my dad was resilient.

He applied for dozens of scholarships until he was finally awarded a scholarship to complete his studies in the United States. He completed his Ph.D in Analytical Chemistry at Emory University in 1989. He celebrated his 25th consecutive year working at P&G Gillette last month.

Now here’s the thing. I only learned of this story in July 2014 when I was 22-years old.

I knew, of course, that my dad had received a Ph.D in chemistry, but how he did it was mostly unbeknownst to me.

My dad told me the story in specific detail while we walked together in the summer sun for several hours in my hometown of Framingham, MA.

My entire life, I had always been too scared to ask for the details. But my dad told it to me because I came to him looking for advice (and frankly, affirmation) on whether or not it would be a good idea to leave my job at MassChallenge in Boston for an opportunity to live in London and help open MassChallenge UK.

I’m glad that he did.

I’m in Uganda on a year-long contract. And in spite of trepidation, doubt, and fear, I know that I must continue to learn more about where I come from. And I know that I must contribute — in whatever way I know how — to improving a part of the world to which I owe everything.

What with everything going on in the world right now, a move to Africa may seem a beautiful, millennial, escapist, even ‘Marcus Garveyan’ dream come true.

Because — I’ll be honest: living in Africa in 2017 is refreshing simply because it provides a welcome intermission from the epic titled “Donald Trump’s America.”

But as I reflect on what I’ve accomplished in recent years and on what my parents have achieved over the past 30 years, I think that my decision to move to Uganda has very little to do with Trump at all.

It has much more to do with a personal conviction that we all share:

To make our parents proud.

IMAGE ABOVE: My parents at my oldest sister’s graduation from Georgetown Law (2013).

So when I think about my answer to the question (“What’s it like living in Africa as an African-American?”) I think about my dad’s story of immigration. And I cannot help but feel grateful.

Grateful because if it weren’t for my dad, I wouldn’t be here.

Grateful because if it weren’t for my dad, I’m not so sure I would have what it takes to keep going every single day.

Grateful because I have been passed down the courage to consider the question, “What’s it like living in Africa as an African-American?” and start asking myself the question, rather than wait for others to ask it first.

So Sam (or anyone else reading this for that matter) — if you want a more concise answer, I’ve got it.

As an African-American, I’d say that living in Africa is exhilarating.

I’d say that it is motivating.

But I would also say that it is my privilege.

Thanks Dad.


P.S. — Mom, you can expect the next post to be about you.

IMAGE ABOVE: The WeFarm Uganda launch event at Kayonza Growers Tea Factory in Kunungu, Uganda, December 2015. My colleague and first employee of WeFarm in Uganda, Justus Byarugaba, is standing at the far-right (Photo by Camilla Gordon, courtesy of WeFarm.)