America: It’s Just Like Us

Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash

American Exceptionalism

The idea that America is by all intents, constructions and purposes different from the rest of the world. America, simply by existing, having been forged into democracy by great homesteaders, stood beaming in front of the world as the newest country that could. If these European serfs could cross the Atlantic, defeat the great Navajo warriors, the Mexicans, the Spanish and the British; build a new country where everyone was welcome, and a culture based on liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness, what could stop them? They were an exceptional nation in the New World

Until recently, I truly believed this. After 242 years, America has taken its halo off and proven to be just like the rest of the world.

Let me walk you through the formation of my belief…

In Form 2 (9th Grade), I had two American teachers — Ms. Burgees and Mr. Johansen. They were part of the American Peace Corps, and my first contact with Americans. To understand the context of the encounter and subsequent experience with these Americans, it might help to describe the setting.

Gokomere High School is a parochial Catholic co-ed boarding school which at the time was arguably one of the most academically challenging schools in Zimbabwe. To be accepted into Gokomere, meant going through two or three rigorous rounds of entrance tests. Only the cream de la crème was invited to attend the high school. From this vantage point, the school discriminated against average students. An average student at Gokomere would have been a valedictorian at any average school — or so the teachers said.

The school is in a rural poverty-stricken area, in the low veldts of southern Zimbabwe. The same Province that hosts the national monument and pride of Zimbabwe, the Great Zimbabwe ruins, hosts the school — Masvingo. A place whose people are so proud and so tribal, my father had to adopt a local name just to operate a business there. The source of pride? they are the custodians of a great national treasure, and before it was renamed Masvingo, the British settlers named the town’s fort after the British monarch — Victoria. Fort Victoria. what a royal colonial honor.

The school was originally a Jesuit institution, and in true Jesuit fashion — GRAND. The campus holds three other institutions — a training center, primary school and off course a medieval gothic church inspired by the Reims Cathedral.

Gokomere High School Catholic Church

Ms. Burgees and Mr. Johansen were Angel’s on earth, and American. They were not the only white teachers on campus. We had two European teachers as well — Mr. Eggert (German) and another whose name I can’t remember. We also had an Indian husband and wife duo who were beloved. The husband was a chess master and the wife — she never wore the same saree in all my 4 years at Gokomere. But, it was the Americans who left an indelible mark on me. They were the nicest human beings I’d ever met. I wasn’t the only one who thought this — they invited an almost cult like following from students. We hung on their every word and marveled at Ms. Burgess’s dark flowing hair that seemed to go on forever.

Teacher feedback to student, “Your parents are wasting money on you”

What did they do? They saw the humanity in us. They saw us just like themselves. There was never a feeling of “we are mightier than you” (the German teacher took care of that), or “holier than thou” (the Nuns made sure we knew that) — just two Peace Corp volunteers looking to teach impressionable students the best way they knew how. And it worked. Where local teachers pandered and told us how stupid we were for asking questions we should already know the answers to (see pic above), the Americans were patient, said there were no stupid questions and taught by discovery. At the time, I didn’t have words for the type of teaching, I just knew it was innovative, different and made understanding concepts simple.

When birthdays came around, the Americans would celebrate them. It was a special day, and they made sure it felt special. What did the local teachers do? they made sure we knew there was nothing special about us. Speak out of turn, and they were more than happy to send us to the Principal’s office for a good ole beating. The Americans found this horrifying. The boys in class would create havoc just to hear the Americans trying to reason with the trouble makers. We all laughed at the naivety of the Americans, but we loved them because they SAW us.

I was sad to move on to the next grade and lose contact. I had been touched by angels — Americans. I would not meet an American until years later when I was researching U.S. colleges at the United States Information Service (USIS) in Harare. In between that time, I immersed myself in all things American and learned about liberty, equality and the country that was so “self-sustaining it could close its borders for 1000 years and still be okay” — My A Level history teacher.

United States Information Service

The United States Information Service (USIS)had an office in Harare. The first time I went there, it felt like a pilgrimage. I had finally made it to an American “mecca”, and now I could pay homage to those two wonderful human beings. My idealism was off the rails.

I loved hanging out at USIS. To be fair, I hung out at the British Council and Alliance Françoise too, but the Je ne sais quoi was with the Americans. It was like a continuum of American greatness discovered in Ms. Burgess and Mr. Johansen. Not only was the staff helpful, ALWAYS smiling and polite, it was a showcase of great Americans and their culture. The walls of the stairs leading up to the main floor were lined with glamorous photos of Hillary Clinton. This was the 90’s, the Clintons ruled the world. Hillary ruled my world with her pantsuits and head bands. I had read all the criticisms about her and her pantsuits. I loved that she wore them all the same. A woman who chartered her own course. I was on fire!

I met black Americans for the first time, and immediately I thought of my A Level high school literature class. We had read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. I had struggled to understand the book and its characters. The book had challenged my perception of America, so I convinced myself that it was purely fiction. What I had encountered in real life was nothing like what was described in Song of Solomon.

At USIS, there was a black man named John, and a black woman named Virginia. Normal names. Not loke the names in Song of Solomon. Names like Guitar and Milkman. They looked very happy and I assumed lived normal lives in Harare. They were just as wonderful and so full of American pride like Ms. Burgees and Mr. Johansen. They served us coffee and pretzels for free. I would sit in the theatre and watch Newshour on PBS all day long while pondering what life for blacks was like in the land of milk and honey. I assumed it was mostly like the music videos I saw. Blacks living largesse lives, with witty family members like in Family Matters and Living Single. Living Single — Queen Latifah, plus size, rapper, black female magazine owner — I was on fire again.

I learned a lot about American politics and government from PBS. In a nutshell, Americans were not like us. Americans were transparent, strong, moral, loving and always made the right choice in the end. Their country was a beacon of hope for humanity. Lady Liberty to me was an extremely strong symbol of American hope and promise to the world — if you can make it there — life was a success. Nothing more, nothing less. Just making it to America was a complete success, for nothing was impossible in America. All dreams came true.

To a young non-conformist girl like me, that symbolism was powerful. America seemed like a country I could really belong. See, all my life, I have never felt I belonged in any of the neat and tidy boxes I was supposed to belong to. I liked hanging out with guys because we could talk politics all day long. Shopping numbed me. I didn’t have one group of friends in high school — I belonged to all of them, a source of pain because the cool kids would refuse to hang out with me after I’d been hanging out with the “poor” kids. I was drawn to careers not traditionally meant for women in Zimbabwe. My first career choice was in Hotel and Hospitality, but that was an unacceptable choice to my dad, “only prostitutes have careers where they hang out in hotels and work till late” he said. In choosing Journalism, I had rebelled. I initially told him I was majoring in English. In a somewhat xenophobic culture, I dated a Nigerian guy for years.

So, America was very appealing to me. It was the one place in the world where people were nice, the women had equal rights as the men, and the country was a melting pot of people from all over the world. I often had goose bumps just thinking of the multiculturalism and cosmopolitan nature of this country.

First Amendment Guarantee: Freedom of the Press

At the time of my USIS galivanting, I was in my final year at Harare Polytechnic College studying Mass Communication. The department of Mass Communication was revered among anyone with journalistic aspirations. When the enrollment season opened, the department received thousands of applications. It selected only 20 students every year to join the department. I got in at first try — probably because a story I had wrote for BBC Focus on Africa had been published. I had also volunteered as a story researcher for the national daily’s regional bureau in Masvingo. Once or twice, I got a byline in the national daily — Herald. I was probably the only person in that class who got in without pulling any strings (sorry DIMCO).

Dr. Tafataona Mahoso was the Head of Department and taught communication theory. “As journalists…” he would say, “…it is your duty to shape dialogue. Before democracy can be attained, a country needs the media to work with government to advance the government’s agenda”. Journalists were therefore, FOR the government or AGAINST the government. A young budding country like Zimbabwe could not afford a contrarian press. It was therefore critical that the press supported the government 100% of the time. A free press was vulnerable to outside forces. Outside forces like the British and the Americans who were vested not in the success of African countries, but their failures so they could continue to ruthlessly exploit Africa’s natural resources without accountability.

This theory was soon tested before our very eyes when a famed Journalist and Author, Ray Choto was arrested and tortured for publishing a story about unrest and tension within the military (in November 2017, a coup would happen in Zimbabwe). This signaled a descent into the demonization of journalists in Zimbabwe. As a young journalist, I was embedded with seasoned journalists and enjoyed gallivanting in and out the halls of power, business conferences, glamourous dinners and basically the kind of access enjoyed by well-connected journalists.

We would cover a story, go back to the newsroom, edit, and run with no problems. Things took a dive when a new office was created to approve stories before they could run on TV. A lot of stories were killed, and a lot of important events went uncovered. I remember covering a story about an affair between people none of the news crew had ever heard of. We had reached rock bottom and were scrapping around for minutiae just to fill the evening news. Journalists who worked for the State broadcaster had decided they were for the State. What better way to make people feel better about their condition than to cover the worst salacious stories happening in the townships. One can argue the same with the popularity of reality TV shows. It was during the hardships of the economic downturn of the 2000s that reality TV captured the minds of Americans. For an hour, we could marvel at the craziness of those seeking their 15 minutes of fame and be consoled that our own lives were “normal”. Little did we know that like anything consumed in excess, we will soon be addicted to the poison and end up electing a President because we want to “watch what happens next”.

During my college days in Zimbabwe, a class mate and I had a running debate about corruption around the world. We debated why corruption was so rampant in Africa. He did not think it was and I thought it was. That running debate is still with us. A few years ago, I was telling him about the efficiency of the American government. I believed I had cracked it. “Corruption exists everywhere”, I now agreed with him, “what makes the difference is that Americans deliver the goods, whereas Africans just pocket the money and do nothing”. “Well, he said, I still think it’s the same everywhere. America just hasn’t had people who are brazen enough to do it, but trust me, there are there”. “Well, the people here will NEVER stand for that”, I said indignantly.

I used to think that my American born twins were some of the luckiest kids in the world. They had a Mom who had lived in various countries and was pretty open minded about people. I mean, think about it- they are multicultural, and they have options. If there’s ever a nuclear catastrophe, or environmental disaster, or a virus afflicting the Western world, they had the option of quickly escaping to the other end of the world and assimilating with their maternal side of the family.

Author’s Sons

So, we did life happily and oblivious to the clear and present danger in our backyard — a neighbor who told his children they could only play with the black boys up until age 12 (because “teenage black boys will land you in jail”, was his warning to his son and daughter roughly the same age as my boys (they were 7 at the time); a private school that subtly tried to label one as having a defiance disorder because he refused to write (never mind that they started the day demanding to see the 5 pages of math homework. My son has dyscalculia), and most shocking as they grow older, I’m more worried that in their heads, America has already succeeded in letting them know that black is not good enough.

30 years before their birth, I got somewhat similar messages about various groups of people in Zimbabwe. We couldn’t interact with the Malawians because they were uneducated. They were mostly farm laborers and maids. We could play with their children, but they were never invited inside the house, or to the birthday parties. The Mozambicans we thought were just plain unsanitary and crazy. There was a war going on, and stories of limbs and ears being chopped off people’s bodies left in our imagination that these people were nothing more than animals. The Zambians were thieves, and the South Africans were uncivilized and illiterate (never mind that it was apartheid that ensured blacks had inferior education).

In 2016 I intuitively knew Donald Trump would win. It wasn’t rocket science, I just had to take a walk in my conservative neighborhood to know that. When I felt discouraged, I thought a drive through the liberal neighborhood my sons go to school would assure me, but it didn’t. There were a couple of Hillary signs here and there. Not nearly as much as the lawns boldly declaring TRUMP. Once I took a drive in Adams County — a rural community in southern Ohio. In the rolling hills of the county, I thought it odd that almost every house brazenly displayed it’s Trump pride.

So even as my gut told me Trump would win, my head said no. Americans would never ever elect someone whose lifestyle is straight outta black stereotype — 3 baby mamas, gold drippin like WHAT!@$, conspicuous consumption king, reality TV star, the grab ’em issue, ego so big…the world can’t contain it. He reminded me of everything wrong with the world and nothing good about America.

And then they did.

Fine, I thought. The reality and dignity of the Oval office will tame anyone. Nothing he campaigned on will happen because American’s WON’T ALLOW IT. Americans are different. And then came the travel ban. Then slowly, it became obvious with one Obama strike after the other that this administration was slowly and deliberately erasing the legacy of the 1st black President and most Americans were okay with it. Cold as January.

Victors write history, right? There is a reason most Americans believe black Americans were sold into slavery by Africans (that belief absolves the white kidnappers), or don’t know about Greenwood in Oklahoma, or that Lincoln did not free the slaves, and my personal favorite — redlining. It wasn’t enough to just erase Obama’s legacy, it had to be tarnished and his name had to be dragged in the mud so any mention of him is associated by fictional scandals. The vitriol reminded me of numerous dictators across the world whose first instincts are to obliterate whatever their predecessor did.

I never did understand the “lock her up” chants — except maybe as a way of getting to the President Hillary served under. If they could lock her up, they could build a whole case around Obama being a co-conspirator and lock him up too. Hillary is just roadkill on the way to an Obama destination. Crazy I know, but it’s happened in Brazil, Congo, Philippines, Liberia, Turkey and numerous other Countries — and America as we now know — is just like the rest of the world.

When Idi Amin came into power in the early 70’s in Uganda, he imposed a travel ban and deported most Indians in Uganda. They were stripped off their citizenship and given 90 days to leave the country. Before then, Uganda was a thriving economy; by the mid 90’s, it had one of the poorest economies in Africa.

I love America. I think it’s without a doubt the best country in the world, but sadly it’s not immune to the human stain like some of us thought. Americans, just like the rest of us did, are going through a period of reckoning and facing its mortality. The current President of the USA has decided to scrap the façade off the face of America. It’s like that phase in life when it becomes clear that your parents are not heroes — they lie, they cheat, they break promises and they are not strong. They are just like your friends’ parents. Ordinary.