Brian Wheeler, an African-American native of Cleveland, Ohio in the United States, does not see himself leaving Africa ever again. An advocate of black consciousness and rights, Wheeler tells Managing Editor Toivo Ndjebela that in Namibia, he found a place to call home, as he always harboured returning to the land of his ancestors.
Toivo Ndjebela (TN): Where were you born and who were your parents (what did your parents do for a living)?
Brian Wheeler (BW): I was born in Cleveland Ohio, in the Midwestern United States, to a single mother – Karen Lockhart who worked multiple jobs while raising my brother and me, in urban America. My mom is a retired school administrator, who instilled in my brother and me a sense of self-worth and pride, and she taught us not to limit ourselves to our immediate surroundings. By far, my mother was and remains one of my biggest inspirations and support systems.
TN: What are the origins of your family?
BW: When trying to assess our origins as it relates to the diaspora – we are challenged to pinpoint exactly where we come from in terms of the African continent. My father’s family’s American struggles originated in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in the rural South and my mom’s American struggles are based in South Carolina. I am hesitant to frame my family’s origin as being in America, because history tells us we did not originate in America. Most people in America, except for native American Indians whose origins include North America, are immigrants, or the descendants of forced labourers (slaves). All of my family that preceded my grandparents, post-slavery, were sharecroppers in the American South. Sharecropping can best be described to some degree as indentured servitude that came about after enslaved Africans were freed in America, soon after the Civil War.
Considering this, we who I would characterise as the “forced diaspora” can’t identify an actual country per se in Africa where we can say we originate from. I will say, however, when I lived in Kenya, people thought I was Kenyan, in Namibia many people think I am from Zimbabwe. When I travelled through Gambia – people looked at me as if I was Gambian, when I was in Ethiopia several people thought I was South African – so the overriding message of my origins is that I am African, and everywhere I step in Africa is home; irrespective of my nationality, and accent, being that of an American.
TN: You seem to embrace Pan-Africanism/Black Consciousness. How did that come about?
BW: I think all African people, those at home and those abroad, have internal characteristics that can be described as Pan-African and Black Conscious; although some of us manifest it in our lives in different manners. Having solidarity with African people irrespective of where we find ourselves is being Pan-African. Supporting black businesses in Katutura, Ongwediva, Keetmanshoop or Swakopmund is Pan-African. Being conscious of the plight of our brothers and sisters brutalised by the police in North America is Pan-African. To have solidarity with our African brothers in Puerto Rico after devastating hurricanes is Pan-African. Being conscious, sharing commonality, and working to bring about sustainable change for the landless of Namibia is Pan-African. Supporting our sisters in their plight to gain equality in the workplace and their struggles against GBV is Pan-African and Black Conscious. Supporting our brothers and sisters in Somalia or Sudan, with works, deeds and prayers is Pan-African. Such attributes are natural and to some degree I think, is an in-born African trait that is either nurtured and strengthened, or diminished by our upbringing, environmental awareness and personal commitment. Personally, my mother raised me to love and honour myself; and to do so effectively, I must love and honour my fellow Africans – which of course empowers me to respect all deserving people, irrespective of race or ethnicity.
TN: Who are your role models in that regard?
BW: I am a student of and an adherent to the teachings of Haile Selassie, Marcus Garvey, Edward Wilmot Blyden (an early proponent of repatriation for the African diaspora), Kwame Nkrumah, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Dr Frances Cress Welsing, His Excellency Sam Nujoma among others; all of whose life lessons and legacies instilled in me the reality that I am in fact an African; and as such have a responsibility to Africa and Africans – irrespective of where I was born.
TN: In your own perspective, what is Pan-Africanism and is it still necessary in the 21st Century?
BW: Being Pan-African in my opinion is simply a way of life. My success depends on your success. I am because you are; you are because I am. Although we as Africans are individuals, we are intrinsically linked and our destinies are intertwined. How can I be satisfied in my brick house when my brother just 10 kilometres from me – works just as hard as I do – or harder – but does not have decent shelter? How can I be at peace holding my precious children in my arms, when I know that there are women in our country that don’t have access to pre-natal care that ensures that their babies will be healthy? How can I be truly 100 percent happy with my own children’s success in school – when I know there are children in rural areas studying under trees with inadequate access to learning material – that would enable them to achieve just as well as a child in a private school? Can I truly enjoy the peace and stability in Namibia, when there are still schoolgirls missing in Nigeria? For me, this is the crux of Pan-Africanism – empathy for the conditions of our fellow Africans; wherever they may be. Having the ethical wherewithal – even if one cannot make a direct impact or contribution to ease the plight of our people, to agitate and advocate on their behalf, where and when we can; and should we have the resources, be they financial, human, intellectual or otherwise – to contribute in a manner that builds the capacity and dignity of our African family. Further to this, my lived experience of Pan-Africanism has led me on the journey of repatriation, settling in Africa.
TN: It is sometimes argued that Pan-Africanism is the same as the far-right nationalist ideology, the only difference being that one is driven by blacks and the other by whites. What’s your take?
BW: I would suggest that Pan-Africanism is driven by a love of Africa and Africans, and a desire to strengthen economic, cultural and spiritual bonds between people of African descent; not xenophobia, racism or reactionary politics that are often characteristics of far-right nationalists. When reflecting on the nature of Pan-Africanism, it is best viewed holistically, taking into account strategies to uplift and maintain the dignity, prosperity and equality of Africans – wherever, they may be found in the world; and not in narrow terms of a singular loyalty to individual nations based on extremism, which is perpetuated by some far-right whites and others. In my opinion, a true Pan-African is too busy promoting unity amongst ourselves, to waste precious energy preaching hate or divisiveness towards others.
TN: When did you come to Namibia and what’s your mission here?
BW: My spouse, two children and I came to Namibia in 2011. My mission, if I would call it as such, in Namibia is simply to live a dignified life on the continent of my ancestors, where I am judged by the content of my character, deeds and actions and not the colour of my skin; in an environment where my family and I can reach our full potential unencumbered. I hope to contribute in a meaningful way to the social fabric of the country in whatever way I possibly can.
TN: Why Namibia, amongst all 54 African nations, and how long do you intend staying here?
BW: My spouse is Namibian. After serving as an international volunteer in Kenya for 18 months, we made the decision to remain in Africa – and Namibia was the logical choice, as there was and is a support system here which welcomed us.
TN: What do you do for a living and what is your field of specialty, if any?
BW: Currently I do data analysis and monitoring and evaluation for an international development agency and I have a consultancy business that specialises in editing and strategic communications for students, businesses, civil society and government agencies.
TN: What is your impression of race relations in Namibia, compared to America, both socially and economically?
BW: I’m hesitant to compare race relations between two distinct countries, with such varying difference and such a wide gap in total population. The entire population of Namibia is smaller than the last American city I lived in. However, both Namibia and America have areas – cities and towns – where racial tension is more prevalent than in other areas of each respective country. I have experienced what I would characterise as racism both in America and in Namibia – however, I initially could have never imagined such an issue in an African country, but considering the history I was not surprised. There is a distinct nuance in the types of racism one might encounter in America than in Namibia – for example, racial profiling by police, criminal justice systems and so on.
The economic disparities between the races in Namibia are well known and, from my observation, targeted interventions focused on empowerment are the key to bringing sustainable economic equity to all Namibians. Similar economic challenges are faced by minority groups in America, however – because of the vastness of the country, different economic realities in different states and cities – poverty isn’t as visible, although it widely exists, when one views it from the outside looking in.
TN: In light of your convictions, which country do you consider your home at the moment?
BW: Home is where your heart is – and my heart is in Namibia/Africa. My eldest daughter and the majority of my family still reside in the United States, so there remains a connection to the country of my birth and the conditions of the people there are still a concern to me. However, my destiny and legacy is tied to Africa. My motivation is to be remembered as a returned son of the soil, who heeded the call of Africa for Africans. I hope that my works will contribute in some way to helping create an Africa where our children and their children can achieve their greatest aspirations.