Grammy-nominated musician Ari Lennox recently performed at Ghana’s Afrochella music festival and shared her experience in the West African nation on Twitter. “Wow it’s rare and [a] good feeling to consistently wake up with peace and happiness. I really owe that to Ghana,” she tweeted. “I’ll never forget suddenly crying the first time going to a beach in Ghana. It was so triggering. And I didn’t feel alone. My heart ached/aches for my ancestors.” The tweets were heartfelt, vulnerable and seemingly uncontroversial. But the backlash was swift.
One user tweeted (and deleted) “…this woman thinks she’s from Wakanda this is too cornyyy omg” and another asking “are your ancestors even from Ghana?” The Pressure songstress has since deleted the tweets and handed over her social media accounts to her record label, explaining on January 10 that “my heart hasn’t changed. Nobody can take the peace I felt away from me…”
I read this story and couldn’t believe so many people decided to troll Lennox for sharing her feelings. Most heartbreaking for me is that what she expressed sheds light on a transformative experience that I don’t think many people understand: the power of belonging. For those of us who have travelled back or moved to the continent, we know how powerful and what a blessing it is to live somewhere you feel safe and loved simply for who you inherently are.
When I was about eight, my parents decided to move our family from Denmark to Malawi, a small country in South-Eastern Africa, and I suddenly went from standing out as the only Black child in a private Danish school to being in a country where I looked like everybody else. As I’ve gotten older, I understand more what a profound effect this move had on my life, but it’s only in recent years that I have come to recognize that growing up without the daily pain of anti-Black racism conditioned me to walk a little taller and with pride.
For those of us who have travelled back or moved to the continent, we know how powerful and what a blessing it is to live somewhere you feel safe and loved simply for who you inherently are.
In Lennox’s deleted tweets she wrote, “Depression and anxiety is not fun. It’s truly nice to get a break from it.” I have heard family and friends say how much calmer they are when they visit Somalia and a cousin of mine recently shared how she felt when she first visited Kenya. “For the first time I didn’t draw people’s eyes, I felt normal. I was greeted with love and I could say ‘what’s discrimination and racism?’ I wanted to hug and kiss everyone, I was smiling from ear to ear.”
Lennox’s experience of finally feeling like she was at peace in Ghana is an example of one of the most human needs: the need to belong. From as far back as the era of hunter-gatherer communities, we have existed in groups and our children have always been raised by a village. In the book What Happened to You by Dr. Bruce Perry & Oprah, Dr. Perry explains that “a strong connection to community is as important today as it was thousands of years ago. The tragedy of the modern world is that community like this is harder and harder to find… Not everybody feels like they belong. There is a direct relationship between a person’s degree of social isolation and their risk for physical and mental health problems.” What I have come to learn through my childhood living in Malawi, Kenya, and different parts of the world is that the essence of belonging is acceptance — one doesn’t exist without the other. When someone looks at you for what may be the first time in your life and says, “I see you for everything that you are and you are welcome here,” it’s not only empowering but it can give you a sense of home that you may have never felt before.
In the 90s, Dr. Arline Geronimus proposed the “weathering hypothesis”, which she used to explain the premature decline in health that she was observing in young African-American women due to stress, socioeconomic disadvantages, racism and living in dangerous environments. Many studies have since supported this hypothesis. It’s manifested today in many ways –– the intense stressors and adversities of daily life produce physical and mental wear and tear in oppressed and marginalized people globally. There’s also generational trauma. Imagine the countless traumas that millions of slaves went through from the moment they left African shores. There are countless ways that this changed them, from their genetic expression to the myriad of health implications their trauma has caused us today.
Lennox’s experience of finally feeling like she was at peace in Ghana is an example of one of the most human needs: the need to belong.
Millions of people of color live in the West and are no strangers to feeling like they exist between two worlds: not quite fully accepted where you live and not entirely enough of the culture you are originally from. Now add onto that the heaviness of systemic and institutionalized racism and the rising popularity of far-right politics, it’s too much for any of us to live through every day alone.
When I put out a call on social media for people who understand this experience of straddling two identities, a young Somali man who was born and raised in Denmark replied, “I think for most of my life I had to build up a mental and emotional shield for when I went outside my neighborhood, which is made up of ethnic minorities,” he wrote. “Whenever I had to get on the bus to the [centre of town] or school, I had to put up this mental and emotional shield to completely detach from how symbolically violent the white Danish gaze [was]and it wasn’t until I started [travelling abroad] and visiting Africa that I understood how detrimental it was for my mental health.”
As heart wrenching as this is, it isn’t a unique feeling. The reality is that for millions of Black people in America, like Ari, they’ve been robbed of their history, identity and roots. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be constantly traumatized in the place you call home. But when Ari tweeted, “My heart ached/aches for my ancestors,” I knew exactly how she felt. That yearning for answers, for love of community, for belonging is a void that I can empathize with.
Even though I was raised in Malawi and Kenya, I didn’t visit my land of origin, Somalia, until 2018 and I remember an ayeeyo (grandmother) telling me “Dalkan waa dalkaagi, soo dhowoow” (this country is your country, welcome). I get goosebumps writing it now just as I did when it fell on my ears back then.
“I can describe it as feeling like I [was] entitled to this space,” someone, who wished to remain anonymous, shared with me on Instagram. Spending time in your homeland is knowing that you are inherently worthy of a space that protects you and nurtures you. When we know this, we can begin to move in this life without pretences. If that isn’t the power of belonging, I don’t know what is. And that is exactly why Lennox sharing her experience of belonging, simply existing on a beach in Ghana, was so beautiful to me.
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