Telling the Stories of the People of African Descent

June 6, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

by Nick Ogutu (MSW’17)

Human Rights Activist

The United Nations General Assembly, through resolution 68/237, proclaimed 2015 to 2024 to be “the International Decade for the People of African Descent” (UN, 201I). This followed the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, which acknowledged that people of African descent were victims of slavery, the slave trade and colonialism, and continue to be victims of the consequences of these ills.

As an African international student from Kenya and a community organizer, I have struggled with questions on what role people of African descent (POAD) play in the face of discrimination, marginalization and oppression around the world. To address this, I choose the tool I have used since growing up as a small boy in Kenya: storytelling!

That has not been so easy, though, in the United States. When I first arrived here, I wanted to get to know everyone—whites, Asians, Latinos—but was constantly reminded that I belong to the black community. For the first time in my life, I realized that I was black—and suddenly being a tall black man was not something to be excited about as many women in Kenya had led me to believe. In the United States, black men, especially black youth, are widely perceived as criminals, drug addicts and lazy people who do not want to work.

Contrary to what is promoted in Hollywood films and mainstream media, the United States is not a melting pot as we know it; it is a very segregated country.

I was pleased when Northampton Community College put my face on the school billboard, and people started asking me about my story. I have several identities that I wanted to share with them; I am a father, student, human rights activist and storyteller.

Likewise, I relished the opportunity to share my story when Lehigh Carbon Community College asked me to be the student speaker for the graduating class of 2015.

Since then, I have spoken in several schools and churches as well as at cultural gatherings, sharing stories of my life in the Ombeyi village in Kenya. I would tell them how we would make soccer balls using old polythene bags and organize our own World Cup and Olympics. I recounted how my siblings, cousins and other villagers would sleep on one mat, sharing jokes and puzzles and teaching ourselves about the history of the Luo people from Sudan to Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The stories that we told each other at night in my village have helped shape my work as a human rights activist with Amnesty International and other social justice organizations.

The Amnesty International chapter at Cedar Crest College, to which I belonged, organized a peace rally in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 2016 to create awareness of the potential genocide in Burundi. The event’s promotional video showed Burundian women telling their heart-breaking stories of death, hunger, and despair in Burundi and of their dangerous journeys crossing the border to the relative safety of neighboring countries.

The testimonies were so powerful that the president of Burundi wrote an email to us complaining that we had misrepresented his country. We received similar reactions when we organized peace rallies for the Oromo people suffering from oppression in Ethiopia and against police brutality in Kenya.

My search for stories in different parts of Africa opened my eyes to the many forces working in cahoots to undermine even the very existence of Africans and people of African descent around the world.

Black people comprise almost half of Brazil yet only one black person serves as a cabinet minister and there are no black chief executives in the top 500 largest companies in Brazil. The French team that won the World Cup in 1998 was 90 percent black, yet black people face discrimination in their daily lives in France. There are countless other examples.

How can POAD be encouraged to tell their stories more frequently? Can we make even greater efforts to research, document and tell stories that demonstrate our greatness, resilience and power? Can community organizers like us use these stories to mobilize, organize and unify the black people and POAD to claim their rightful place in the world and seek justice?

We need to tell the world how the slaves sweated and died in the cotton farms in South Carolina, how they built the South, how their descendants fought in WWII and how without minerals like those found in the Democratic of Congo, we probably would not have iPhones and TVs. People of African descent must be empowered to tell their stories, just as I have been attempting to do, in my own small way, in this country.