Levi is not his hair…

Levi has had thick black hair since birth. He came into this world with his hair, fried, dyed and laid to the side! As he has gotten older, his hair has taken on a personality of its own. Initially it was slick down and laid close to his hear but it soon became curly and thick. Now we are starting to see it take on new dimensions and what we can expect his hair to look like.

His unique hair has made him stand out especially as we have settled into our life on the African content. People always comment on his curly Afro and how it stands up on the top of his head. At Christmas, we were visiting with cousins in Kigali and one cousin was really fascinated with Levi’s hair. He pulled at Levi’s curls and rubbed his fingers through his curls. Eventually he asked, “why is his hair like this and my hair is like this?”, pointing to his own head. After we laughed at this comment, I tried to explain that Levi‘s ancestors not only include Rwandans, but Nigerians, Ghanaians, English, Scottish, German and French. So all those genes have come together to produce this curly Afro. The cousin looked at me, not fully understanding what I was saying and moved on to play with the other cousins.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, various countries have a word for white that is often used when they see a white person. As a black person from the US, that word has been often directed at me. Not because I have white skin but my mannerisms and speech are reminiscent of their interactions with white people. This has created a long agonizing relationship with being called white, especially in Rwanda and in Nigeria. I have gotten use to it and have now started doing the same thing. I now have to face reality that Levi will face the same of often being called white. It happened a few times when we were out for a walk with Levi in his stroller and the children called him Mzungu (white in Swahili). To stop and engage will only make it worst with my Americanize English and few Kinyarwanda works (the language of Rwanda).

When I think about Levi, what people say of his hair, that other Africans call him white, I’m reminded of his complicated ancestry. He is the descendant of enslaved people, the enslaver, refugees who fled their homeland, proud African tribes as well as European clans. His skin tone and hair reflects these diverse ancestors. But we live in a world where color defines who you are before where you are from. I will start early teaching Levi about his ancestors and his homelands.

Moving is stressful! Anyone who has ever had to pack up their house and move to a new location knows how stressful moving can be! And moving between countries has its own level of stress and challenges. Sheila and I moved out of our apartment in South Africa on December 13, 2021, and we (or rather I) moved into our Tanzanian apartment on January 12, 2022. Now, in all honesty, there was not much Sheila and I had to do regarding the move out process. My organization hired a moving company that showed up at our house and packed our things. Our role was to direct the movers and to separate our items into three categories – items for air shipment, items for sea shipment and items to travel with us on our flight out of the country. Now, I know you are asking yourself, “where is the stress?” The stress is in deciding what goes where and when. And each item category has a weight limit. What makes this process rather difficult is that you don’t know what you will need when you arrive at your new location. When we moved into our apartment in South Africa, the apartment was fully furnished. The apartment had kitchen items, sheets, towels, laundry items, WIFI and DSTV (satellite TV). It was the type of furnished apartment that could easily double as an Airbnb rental. On the other hand, our new apartment in Tanzania has nothing outside of furniture and appliances. While the Tanzanian complex likes to rent out apartments on a nightly basis to make money during the pandemic, complaints on booking.com and other travel sites have focused on the lack of kitchen items needed to use the appliances. The other night I had to go buy pots and pans (even though we have pots and pans in our shipment), cutlery, pillows, and towels.  

The moving process is even more complicated with a child. Trying to decide what to send by air, what to ship by sea and what to bring with us has its own challenges with a 15-month-old. If we put his clothes in our sea shipment and we don’t receive that shipment for three to six months, then he could outgrow his clothes. In addition, we struggled with where to put Levi’s crib? Levi lived the first year of his life sleeping in a travel bassinet, a Graco pack & play and at times, sleeping in the bed with us when we didn’t have a bed for him. When we arrived in South Africa, he finally had a bed to himself. But that was short-lived because three months later, we were on the move again. We decided to sacrifice our air shipment allotment to include his crib and related items. This ensures that when he does arrive in Tanzania, he will have a crib that is familiar and belongs to him.

Levi seemed more interested in removing items from the luggage and exploring on his own.

It is also safe to say that we under packed our sea shipment and over packed the bags that traveled with us to Tanzania. We left South Africa with ten bags to start our new life in Tanzania. However, I have since come to believe that we left some very important items out of our travel bags. As I mentioned above, pots and pans, cutlery, pillows, and towels. In addition, we packed our iron in our air shipment. I have been trying my best to get by without an iron and I guess this is made easy as my office is still working from home.

We clearly overestimate space in our checked baggage and had to leave a few items in South Africa. On my way to Tanzania, I traveled to South Africa (from Rwanda) to pick up our final items. It was strange being back in a city where you once lived and had an apartment. Sadly, I had to get a hotel room for the two nights when I was in town. On my final day, as I was preparing to check out, I decided to take a late shower since I was traveling overnight. I closed the bathroom door in case housekeeping came into the room. After exiting the shower and drying off, I tried to exit the bathroom, but the door refused to budge. I thought, “hmmm, that’s strange.” I tried the doorknob again and this time gently leaned into the door but again, it refused to move. I then became more forceful with the door. It became obvious to me that (1) the door was not going to open without force and (2) I didn’t want to be blame for breaking the door. Lucky for me I had my mobile phone so I called the front desk to inform them that I was locked in my bathroom and unfortunately, the top lock on the outside door was engaged…which meant it would be difficult for someone to access the room. She was a bit surprised with my call and constantly apologized but told me that someone from maintenance would be there to help me. After about 15-20 minutes, there was a knock on my hotel room door. Before entering the room, the maintenance man knocked on my door to make sure it was ok to enter the room. I called out to him several times that I was locked in the bathroom, but he could access the room. Finally, there was a loud thud as he broke the top lock of the door my ramming it with his shoulder. He stepped into the room, looked at the door and with one twist of the doorknob, he opened the door. And just like that I was freed from my temporary prison and able to move on to our new life in Tanzania.

2021: A Year in Review

2021 was a very challenging year for the Barnes Family. We started the year in Mount Vernon, Alabama, eventually made our way to Kigali, Rwanda and finally returned to our home in South Africa in October. During this time, we made three trips to the US and took a much-needed vacation to Dubai. Sentell also had to travel to Tanzania for work twice. A baby dedication ceremony was held for Levi at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church (my dad’s home church) in January and Levi had two birthday parties to celebrate turning one. Levi began to crawl at four months and he walked at ten months. We had numerous flight challenges which included extensive delays, a missed flight, delayed COVID19 test and rental cars being left in the parking lot.  COVID19 defined our year and we tried to make the best of a difficult situation. These are our top memories from 2021.

Levi Meets the Snow

We were late getting on the road to Atlanta for our Turkish Airlines flight to Kigali. It had been a stressful few days as we were trying to get a COVID19 test within 72 hours of our flight. We found a clinic in Jackson, Mississippi (Trust Care Clinic), a six-hour drive round trip from our home in Mount Vernon, Alabama. The drive was even longer because we were traveling with a four-month-old. After securing our COVID19 test, we were off to Montgomery for a quick rest break before making the final journey to Atlanta. We arrived at the airport with exactly one and a half hours before our flight. When we entered the airport, the line at Turkish airlines counter was chaotic! I needed to check in quickly and then return the rental car. The closer we got to the ticket desk; it was clear that our flight was delayed. I was delighted as I would have time to return the car. However, once we checked-in, I was informed that security would be closing at 10pm, even though our flight was now scheduled to depart at 1:55am (the originally departure time of the flight was 10pm). I had a call in a favor from my brother to come to Atlanta to return the rental car on our behalf.  It was also clear that we would miss our connecting flight in Istanbul to Kigali. As the plane descended into Istanbul, we could see snow on the ground. Once off the plane, we were informed that the next flight was in two days so we had an unscheduled layover in Istanbul. Unfortunately, we left all our winter clothes in Alabama and all Levi’s items for sleeping. We decided to go to a hotel that we had stayed in previously during a stop over in Istanbul to wait out our flight. After two days we were finally on our way to Kigali.

A COVID break in the Desert

After living in the homes of others, we needed a break. COVID19 made it difficult traveling to many parts of the world and we didn’t want to make the long journey back to the United States (only to be back in other people’s spaces). Dubai was encouraging tourist to return for Ramadan so, after some discussion, we decided to jet off to the city in the desert. We spent an entire week enjoying time at the pool, hanging out at the enormous shopping malls, and enjoying some time to ourselves. We were joined on this trip with Sheila’s brother Bob and his wife Vanessa. It was one of the nicest visits to Dubai that I have experienced.

Levi Turns One

Levi turned one in October 2021. It is hard to believe that he is already one years old. They often tell you that times flies by…and it truly does fly by. I think we were so focused on responding to his needs that when we finally looked up, he was walking and almost talking. Levi had two birthday parties. Since we had spent so much time in Kigali, we decided to throw a birthday for him in late September. Because of his love of animals, we threw him a farm themed birthday party. We had a second birthday party once we returned to Johannesburg. The South African birthday party was small and intimate with Levi having a cake to smash. We also took Levi to the Johannesburg Zoo on to celebrate his birthday.

Brenda and Freddie’s 50th Wedding Anniversary

On November 5, 2021, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. When we initially started planning for their celebration, we wanted to go all out and host a gala. However, COVID19 forced us to change our plans. In the end, my parents requested that we all be home for their anniversary. While Sheila and I did not want to travel back to the US for a second time in three months, we also did not want to miss this momentous occasion. It turned out to be a beautiful day, joined by family and friends. And in the end, my parents spent their anniversary with their two children, their spouses and three grandchildren.

A Wedding in Uganda (Round Two)

Sheila’s brother Bob and his wife Vanessa were married in September of 2020. Unfortunately, it was doing COVID19 restrictions so many important people were unable to attend, including Vanessa’s parents. They planned to hold a second ceremony in Uganda for Vanessa’s family to attend. After some discussion and waiting to see how the various COVID19 variants would play out, a wedding date was set on December 18, 2021. Despite the rise of the Omicron variant just weeks before the wedding, the happy couple decided to continue with their wedding date. It was a beautiful affair with family and friends in attendance.

Our New Home in Tanzania

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

After two years in South Africa, most of it spent outside of South Africa, my organization decided to transfer us to Tanzania. We are sad to leave our home in South Africa. We really enjoyed our brief time in the Rainbow Nation. South Africa is a unique place. For an American, you can easily create a life that reflects a western style life. Fancy shopping malls, Michelin level restaurants, internationally recognized wineries, and exotic animal parks. But behind all of this is violent crime, poverty and racial divisions that continue to fester from the apartheid days. We only wish that we could have had more time to experience all that South Africa has to offer. However, Dar es Salaam is located along the Indian Ocean with breathtaking ocean views and sunsets. In addition, Zanzibar, is a short flight or ferry away from Dar es Salaam. Our offer still stands for visitors!

447 Days…

Sheila and I left Johannesburg, South Africa on July 12, 2020. We spent 447 days away from our house, sleeping in other people’s beds and having little to no personal space. July 11, 2020 was the last time we ate dinner in our own space and watched people walk up and down our treelined street. Let me say this again, for 447 days we lived with other people and slept in someone’s spare bed. Some of you may read this and think, what’s the big deal? Others may say, at least you had somewhere to say. But it’s challenging living in other peoples’ space, especially during a pandemic and with a new child! When we arrived in the US in July 2020, it was just the two of us. Now, there are three of us and one in particular is not concerned with respecting the rules of the house!

We are grateful that we have family that allowed us to take over their house. Our families have been gracious in taking us in, feeding us and providing free baby care. But we are happy to be back in our home in South Africa.

We attempted a return to South Africa in May 2021 but I had to travel to Tanzania for work. When I returned to Kigali, Sheila and I planned to return to South Africa. But each day we watched as Covid19 numbers increased in South Africa. South Africa begrudgingly went into a level four lockdown. In addition, other countries were putting restrictions on South Africans or those who had been in South Africa. The United States put in place a restriction that if you had been in South Africa in the previous 14 days you were not allowed to enter the US. Now Sheila and I were exempted from the restriction but we were concerned if other countries would establish a similar type of restriction. However, the US Government recently announced and have implemented rules for passengers arriving in the United States. International visitors must present airlines with a paper or digital certificate that shows they are fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Travelers must also provide a negative Covid-19 test result taken no more than three days before departure. Travelers under the age of 18 and those from countries where the vaccination coverage is below ten percent due to vaccine shortages will be able to enter the United States without being fully immunized.

I know that Levi will not remember any of this…he won’t remember the four months we lived in Mount Vernon, Alabama after he was born and he won’t remember the seven months we lived in Kigali…he won’t remember the snow delay that forced us to spent two nights in Istanbul or a recent stay inside the Brussels airport (blog loading). All this seems temporary in this brief world that we live in…again, we are thankful for family and friends that have tried to make our time outside South Africa comfortable and pleasant.

But…we are thankful to be back in South Africa. We arrived in the country on October 2, 2021. The transition back to our life in South Africa has been challenging. As I mentioned above, we left the Rainbow Nation as two and returned in October as three. In Kigali, and to a certain extent in Alabama, we had people that helped us watch Levi while we got an extra hour of sleep or needed to make dinner. In South Africa, it is just the three of us…And we realized that Levi is an energetic little boy. We were overwhelmed after our first week in Johannesburg. However, we now have a routine and a schedule that helps us manage our time and manage Levi. Being back in South Africa doesn’t mean that our period of uncertainty is over. There are new changes coming to our lives. So we prepare for the unexpected…

It has been a stressful eight months! Levi Fletcher Nikuzwe Barnes arrived in October and has completely changed our lives. We once would sleep in on Saturdays, would take leisurely walks in the afternoon/evening and plan our day as the hours ticked away. Those days are done and dusted! We now count our days in three hour blocks and celebrate if Levi takes a two hour nap! And we are still working to get him to sleep through the night.

In July 2020, we “repatriated” to the United States from South Africa because of the COVID19 pandemic and in preparation for Levi’s arrival. We spent nearly three months with my parents before Levi entered the world. Because of COVID19, we lived in a nearby house for two months in an effort to practice adequate social distancing. We would spend the evenings sitting on my parent’s sundeck exactly six feet apart. Before Levi’s birth and as Hurricane Sally was threatening the Gulf Coast, we moved in with my parents. After Levi’s birth, we waited for three months for Sheila and Levi’s passports to return from the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, the passport were stuck in the United States Postal Services (USPS) because of the pandemic and the political games played with the USPS. This delayed our trip to Kigali Rwanda from December to February.

We finally departed the US in February for Kigali, Rwanda. We spent two nights in Turkey where Levi experience his first snowfall before continuing the trip to Kigali. I will talk more about our airplane woes in a different blog. Levi has been meeting with and getting to know the Rwandan relatives.

I say all this to illustrate that unlike other babies who have beautifully decorated baby rooms; Levi has been either sharing a bed with us (we know that it’s not recommended but he had his own bed that sat on top of our bed), sleeping in a portable bassinet and now sleeping in a borrowed pack & play. Levi already has four country stamps in his passport!

It has not been easy raising Levi in the midst of so much uncertainty in our lives. Our time in Rwanda is dwindling as we will be heading back to South Africa soon where we will be on our own raising Levi. We have started early training Levi how to sleep, play and eat. While the training has been successful in giving Levi a daily schedule and helping him sleep better at night, we are still working on sleeping through the night. This has also created some challenges as we know that any move or change of scenery can disrupt Levi’s schedule.

Since Levi’s arrival, I have learned that everyone has an opinion on how the baby should sleep, eat, spend their time during the day, the clothes he should wear, how to manage immunizations, etc. Africans are probably more vocal in their opinions and advice than Americans but Americans love to share their opinions too. As I mentioned, when Levi was born we were staying with my parents, my mom and dad often laughed at us that we used a book to schedule Levi’s days. They were always quick to remind me that they raised me 40 years ago and I turned out ok. We tried our best to navigate our book training with my parents’ experience raising children.

We were out at a shopping mall and had recently fed Levi. At the same time, he needed a diaper change. We had no choice but to lay him down and change his diaper. When we finished, we lifted Levi up and he spit up. At the same time, someone walked up and told us that we are not supposed to lay a baby down after eating! Thankfully, I had a mask on my face so the person could not read the discontent on my face!

Friends often tell us that the time will pass quickly so we should enjoy each feeding, each snuggle, each cry. Very soon, he will be telling you what he likes and what he does not like. He is already showing a desire to walk. He has learned to hold the sides of his pack and play and take wobbly steps. Sometimes when I see other children walking with their parents, I try to visualize Levi holding my hand walking down a sidewalk. Then I wake myself up from the daydream to try to appreciate the time I have with him now.

It has been quite the summer in the United States. As we mentioned before, we came to the US in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. With rising reports of COVID19 cases in South Africa and a desire to be near family as we wait out the pandemic, we decided to return to the US. It was a challenging decision to make as we had developed quite the routine in Johannesburg and had created a ‘firewall’ for ourselves against the virus. But after three months in the United States and spending time with family, we are happy we made the decision. Unfortunately, in these difficult times, Sheila missed her brother’s wedding that took place on September 25. We knew that the coronavirus would probably prevent us from attending his wedding but we were able to follow along online.

Our summer in the US was also marked by three hurricanes that made landfall along the Gulf Coast. The Alabama Coast had two indirect hits, Marco and Delta and a direct hit with Sally. Sheila and I have been coming back and forth to the US since 2016 and this is the first time we have found ourselves in the direct path of a hurricane. For Sheila, Sally was her first experience with a hurricane and I don’t think she knew what to expect. Hurricane Sally made landfall at Gulf Shores, Alabama, a place where Sheila and I like to go to get our feet wet. An interesting hurricane face, Sally made landfall on the 16 year anniversary of Hurricane Ivan, coming ashore in the same location in 2004. I grew up about 60 miles from the coast so we often get wind damage but never the storm surge. The area between Mobile, Alabama and Pensacola, Florida took the brunt of the storm experiencing widespread wind damage.

After arriving in the US, we quarantined in my uncle’s house down the street for my parents. Even after our two week quarantine, we continued to stay in his house. As it became clear that the hurricane was making a bee-line for Mobile, Alabama, we decided to move in with my parents. The day before the hurricane made land fall, we packed up our items and moved in with my parents. It turned out to be a very good decision because the next morning I was informed that a tree had fallen within inches of my uncle’s house. It looked as if someone just came along and pushed down the tree. The roots were standing out of the ground.

Levi, while not a hurricane, arrived very similar to Hurricane Sally. He was slow and methodical and when he finally entered the world, left our lives changed forever. On October 5, 2020, we welcomed our first child, Levi Fletcher Nikuzwe Barnes. He arrived at 12:29pm weighting in at 6lbs 7oz. One of the most important reasons for returning to the US during this time was to be close to family as we expected our first child. The name Levi means joined together/harmony and speaks to that God has joined together and added to our harmony. In addition, in the Bible, Levites were descendants of Levi, a son of Jacob, priests dedicated to serving God. In the New Testament, 1 Peter 2:9 calls all of us “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” Fletcher is a name that has been passed down throughout my family since 1883 spanning over four generations. The name has been carried by my great-great grandfather, grandfather, uncle and first cousin. The name now continues into the next generation. Nikuzwe is a Kinyarwanda name which means “may he be glorified.” We are excited to welcome little Levi to the family. Like any new parent, we have been suffering from a lack of sleep and disruption to our routine. However, the coronavirus pandemic has already taught us that there is no such thing as normal so we are looking forward to our new life with baby Levi.

It’s hard to put 2020 in worlds. And it’s not even over. And November will bring its own surprises and suspense.

Sheila and I have been in the United States now for six weeks. I was recently telling someone that after four months locked up in our apartment, we developed quite the COVID19 response plan for leaving our house. It included sanitizer, antiseptic wipes and a mask. Whenever we entered a business place in Johannesburg, we would have to sanitize again because every business required you to wear a mask and sanitize before entering. We were shocked when we arrived in the United States and businesses were not requiring masks. Sheila and I stopped at a Wal-Mart in Newman, Georgia and were shocked when only a handful of people were wearing masks. I quickly gathered supplies and darted out the door. We were relieved when Alabama Governor Kay Ivey issued a mask wearing order five days after we arrived.

Since arriving in Alabama, we finished our two-week quarantine and tested negative for COVID19. We even spent an evening at the beach watching the sun set. We made sure that we were socially distancing from others on the beach. We were not really interested in water but just a different scene and an amazing sunset. We had always planned to come back to Alabama during this time but when the COVID19 pandemic hit, we were unsure how we would make it back to the states. South Africa closed its international airport and restricted movement in the country. We began to watch for repatriation flights that would take us back to the US. In June, we began tracking a KLM flight and in early July purchased our tickets home.

Daphne Beach

Enjoying an evening in the sand and sun at Dauphin Island Beach.

When I returned to the US in February, Sheila was unfortunately unable to return with me. It was difficult as we had plans for our time in February that were interrupted. Our priority was to get Sheila a resident visa to South Africa. When she was unable to travel, it changed our plans. I returned to the US for some work events and then rushed back to South Africa before the borders closed. And now we are in the US, enjoying some family time with my parents, brother and sister-in-law, niece and nephew-the newest member of the family. We have been also catching up with cousins and friends via phone and socially distanced.

(l) My work from home attire, business at the top – leisure at the bottom! (r) Visiting with my niece and nephew. 

(l) Catching up with friends from Auburn (the old crew) and (r) catching up with friends from TN2020 network.

Booking a flight when the international airport and land borders closed is difficult. We had to wait until the US Embassy announced repatriation flights. At the end of June, the US Embassy released a list of flights through mid-July that included a July 11 flight to Amsterdam on KLM. We initially tried to book the flight out of Johannesburg but was too late. By the time I could talk to Sheila about the flight, it had sold out. The other option was from Cape Town. Again, after prayer and discussion we decided to add another leg to our flight and go through Cape Town. All in all, the flights were okay. KLM treated us as if we had Ebola and refused to interact with passengers on the plane. They provided a box meal with no options and only water. Theycame back through the cabin two hours later and gave us a bag of snacks, water and a Coca Cola and told us that they would not be coming back through the cabin. The cabin was packed and just uncomfortable. I think at the end of the flight, Sheila and I both thought we had COVID19. The Delta flight from Amsterdam to Atlanta was worlds apart from the KLM flight. The flight attendants were warm and friendly and even commented on my Auburn attire. The flight was half full so Sheila and I got a row of four seats to ourselves. The flight attendants came back and forth through the aisle serving food, drinks, snacks and more snacks and drinks. After the KLM flight, it felt like we were in first class. By the time the flight ended, the flight attendants and I were on a first name basis and we were sad to leave the flight. We rented a car, Sheila spent thirty minutes wiping it down with disinfectant wipes and we were on our way to Alabama. A social distancing stop in Montgomery to visit my brother, sister-in-law, niece and new nephew and then we were off to Mount Vernon, AL. We entered quarantine in my uncle’s former house and prepared for our two week isolation.

Masked up on our flight from Joburg to Cape Town.
KLM’s snack bag! Where do you put this bag when you are already crammed into your seat?

It’s really hard to write blogs these days. The more responsibilities I take at work, the more challenging it becomes sitting down at my desk and sharing my life with the family members and friends that follow our lives around the African continent. And then add COVID19 to the mix and writing for my blog is like a second job. A lot has happened since my last report. Sheila and I are in the United States of America. With rising reports of COVID19 cases in South Africa and a desire to be next family as we wait out the pandemic, we decided to return to the US. It was a challenging decision to make as we had developed quite the routine in Johannesburg and had created a ‘firewall’ for ourselves against the virus. The idea of getting on a 24 hour flight (20 hours actually in the air) to the US was daunting. However, after much prayer, discussion and loneliness, we decided to pull the trigger and book a flight.

Flash forward to August 16, 2020. In addition to writing a blog in COVID19, it’s also difficult celebrating your birthday in the age of COVID19. Today I turned 41. My 40th year was a challenging one where I had to come to grips with middle age, sickness and death. In addition to COVID19 holding us hostage in Johannesburg before we were able to establish a routine or meet friends, we have experienced a number of deaths this year that have left us stunned and reflective. In February, we lost one of my favorite uncles. Uncle Dan, as he was known went off to fight in Vietnam in the 1960s and came back a changed man. He never really talked about his time in Vietnam but it was clear to his nieces and nephews that he came back with some lingering issues. Anytime we fired off fireworks he was quick to leave the scene. But he was nothing but nice to me and he will be sorely missed.

The flag draped casket of Uncle Dan.

In July, just as Sheila and I were arriving in the US, my dad’s twin sister passed away. She and my dad looked nothing alike but they were both kind hearted and friendly. It’s difficult to lose your twin sibling so her death has left a void in our family. Two weeks later, we got the news that we had been hoping and praying would not come. The beautiful soul that was Sheila’s grandmother, her last grandparent, breathed her last breath and entered eternity. She was an amazing strong woman having survived civil unrest, life in a refugee camp and the Rwanda post genocide adversity. She loved Sheila and by proxy, loved me. She often talked to me as if I could understand what she was saying and didn’t hesitate to cram food down my throat. She couldn’t understand how I was so big but yet always politely turning down her food offers (she didn’t understand Americans). She will be greatly missed.

Grandma!

And then, just the following day of digesting grandma’s departure, we received the news that another relative of Sheila had passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. Ambassador Kamali Karegesa passed away on August 11. He served in many positions in the Rwandan government including High Commissioner to South Africa and Uganda. While in Uganda, he and his wife would often provide Sheila with rest break from university. For our traditional wedding, he filled the role of my uncle (umusazamukuru) because, as an American, my dad would have no clue what he was doing. He was successfully able to negotiate a good bride price and send Sheila and me on our way into marital bliss.

Ambassador Karegesa embracing Sheila at our Gusaba (traditional wedding).

It has been a difficult year celebrating my 40th year. But at the same time, I am thankful that each of the individuals entered my life and left an imprint on my journey. Someone once said, “Middle age is the way you would feel about summer if you knew there would never be another spring.” A positive situation of this pandemic is that after being away from Mount Vernon, Alabama, for nearly twenty years, I have been reacquainting myself with my hometown, spending time with my parents and showing Sheila around the town. A lot has changed but upon closer inspection, a lot has stayed the same. Happy Birthday to me!

I often imagine Harford Tate was a tall, strong man whose presence filled a room. Born in 1803, in Georgia, Harford was brought to Alabama by his slave master, former United States Senator Charles Tait in 1819 who was taking advantage of available land in the new territory. In 1813, the US annexed West Florida after the Spanish surrendered Mobile to the American troops. This opened up millions of acres of Creek Indian territory to white settlers, including Senator Tait and his son James.  James Asbury Tait originally came to Alabama in 1817 with three slaves to start preparing land for the arrival of his father. Senator Tait sent 60 additional slaves in January 1819 to help clear the land and plant corn and cotton. Intriguingly, 40 of the slaves that arrived in the territory belong to the Senator and 20 were a wedding present to James. It is hard to know if Harford was one of the 60 slaves that came to Alabama to work under James but we do know he eventually settled in Alabama with Senator Tait and James.

Harford was of fair complexion because it is believed that Senator Tait was his father. This was common on plantations. Harford was a smart man who unlike his fellow slaves, could read and write. Maybe because he was the son of the slave master, he received a very basic education and became a trusted confidant of Sen. Tait. This is evident in a letter Harford wrote to the Senator in 1826, providing an update of life on the plantation.

Life and Labor in the Old South

The letter was included in a 1929 book entitled Life and Labor in the Old South by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips.

There is not a lot of information about Harford other than a few mentions in the letters of Senator Tait and his son James. He is mentioned in Senator Tait’s will along with another slave named Howard (also believed to be Senator Tait’s son). Harford was to be freed after the death of Senator Tait and Howard after the death of his wife Sarah. There is no information about whether Harford was freed after Senator Tait’s death; however, in June 1836 Sarah sold Howard for $1,000.

Charles Tait Will

The will of Senator Charles Tait

Howard Tait Sold

The document above reads, “On or before the 1st of December next I promise to pay Mrs. Sarah Tait or heir in the sum of one thousand dollars for a yellow man [illegible] named Howard. This 8th June 1836.” This image is the property of the Auburn University Libraries.

This is the history of my family. Harford is my fourth great-grandfather. The line goes, Harford, Harford, Jr., Homer, Carlia (Williams), Sarah (Roberson), Brenda (Barnes) and me. Its amazing to think how much life has changed since Harford’s birth in 1803. The Civil War ended slavery in 1865 and the 1960s brought about full citizenship for American blacks. However, what continues to survive 176 years after Harford’s birth is the institutionalized economic disparities that exist between blacks and whites in the United States. When Harford came to Alabama, he wasn’t able to benefit from the land made available to white citizens. He was forced to work the land that did not belong to him. His university educated “half-brother” James Asbury Tait took advantage of his status as a white citizen and built a large plantation in Wilcox County that reflected his wealth. A document I was reading from the National Park Service (NPS) states that “the Tait family of Wilcox County, Alabama was one of the wealthiest and most influential in central Alabama. At the time of his death in 1854, James owned plantations and lands in Alabama and Mississippi, and approximately 360 slaves. Upon his death, he provided his eight children with the means to live as royalty. Robert Tait inherited approximately 3,250 acres and part of his father’s stock in the Wilcox Female Institute. With this inheritance, son Robert Tait built the Tait-Ervin House in 1854.” Harford on the other hand toiled the land and supported the plantation of Senator Tait. He and his descendants became tenant farmers on the land of white landowners barely making enough to get by.

Senator Charles Tait (l) and his son, James A. Tait (r). Photos from myheritage.com. 

Today, there is a lot of talk of institutional racism. It is a deep and highly charged subject because few people in power want to admit that the system that they have excelled in is systematically stacked against certain individuals in society. However, we should think about it like this, institutions in the United States were built when the country discriminated against blacks, women, Native Americans, Japanese, Chinese, and the list goes on. Article one; section two of the US Constitution of the United States declares that any person who was not free would be counted as three-fifths of a free individual for the purposes of determining congressional representation. Even our beloved Constitution was written with racial bias. The 14th amendment which was ratified in 1868 changed this provision and removed the bias from Article one. Harford was considered three-fifths of a white citizen when it came to political representation. He was unable to vote and exercise any rights as an American citizen.

When the second wave of American founding fathers in the 1960s came along, they fought to create a “more perfect union” demanding civil and voting rights. Instead of tearing down these institutions and rebuilding them to be inclusive of all Americans, we made cosmetic changes to the system and declared ourselves a “post-racial society.” Even up to today, we have been adding laws and regulations to a “house that was not designed to support these new additions.” In other words, the foundation that was laid in 1776 and 1789 can never create “a more perfect union.” We are coming to term with the fact that many of these institutions have legacies steeped in our racist past.

People, led by the Black Lives Matter movement are demanding reforms of law enforcement in the United States. If we look at the history of law enforcement in the United States, we will see many examples of police officers, sheriffs and FBI agents targeting black Americans and their leaders. Many times, those selected to protect and serve were allowing mobs to kill innocent men and women.  From the very beginning, the system was that “law enforcement” was not designed to protect enslaved black people but rather to treat them as property and return them to their owners, no matter how cruel those owners were to their slaves. In the post-Civil War period, these same law enforcement figures turned a blind eye as black men and women were killed for just looking at a white person the wrong way. In 1893, a white mob killed four black teenagers in Monroe County, Alabama after a white farmer and his daughter were murdered and their home set on fire. Law enforcement officials coerced one of the accused into a confession that implicated the four young men. Once the community heard of their arrest, a mob surrounded the jail and demanded the teens be released into their custody. The mob hung the teens outside of Monroeville, Alabama. These teen faced no due process and were killed with little evidence pointing them to the crime. This case had eerily similarities to the Central Park Five case in the late 1980s. I used the example from Monroe County because Harford’s descendants would have been familiar with this case as they were living in Monroe Country, Alabama.

Rebuilding law enforcement in the US needs to be about removing the racist legacy and establishing in its place a system that truly serves, protects, and uplifts society. Context is important as we talk about race and understanding the ugly history of the US is important to understanding why institutional racism still affects the upward mobility of many in our society.

Harford Tait Family

Some of the descendants of Harford Tait (Tate) during the 2020 Williams Tate Sigler Family Reunion. 

Lockdown Day 82!

Lockdown day 82! Greetings from Johannesburg South Africa. It’s hard to imagine that Sheila and I have been sheltering in place since March 17. On March 17, I arrived in South Africa after spending a month in the United States. The world is a completely different place! Since that time, South Africa put in place a level system for managing COVID-19. Having started at Level 5, we are now in Level 3. Level 3 allows for exercise between 6:00am and 6:00pm (daylight hours), the purchase of alcohol between Monday and Thursday, limited travel in the country with the necessary permits, day trips in National Parks and a return to school for some students. However, Sheila and I have decided its best that we remain in our house during this time.

Being stuck in your house for over three months has its challenges. Working from home is not the problem. It is when you finish working and you have nowhere to go that is the problem. So I attempted a lot of new hobbies. I tried to make cauliflower pizza…a traditional pizza…a mask to protect me when going out…and I baked a cake using a new recipe. Unfortunately, the cake stuck to the pan and wasn’t so pretty when I removed it.

Under Level 4 guidelines, which started on May 1, the government allowed exercising between 6:00am and 9:00am. After being stuck in the house for over a month, I decided to go for a run each morning just to get some fresh air. So far, I have run each day since May 1 and have covered 220 miles (as of June 16). I am very slow (very slow), but I am running a 10K in 1 hour and 30 minutes, a personal best for me. For those of you that run, I know that sound ridiculous but I have never run a 10K. I am also down ten pounds…trying to get back to my pre-Nigeria weight. I ate too much jollof rice and pounded yam while living in Nigeria.

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In addition, I have been helping my mom conduct an inventory (sounds morbid) of the community cemetery. In addition to learning who is related to who in the Movico/Chastang/Mount Vernon area, I have learned a lot about the history of our community. The cemetery started as a “Colored Cemetery” for families of former slaves living in Movico and Chastang. While we don’t know when the first person was buried in Roper Cemetery, the cemetery has been an integral part of the Chastang-Movico-Mount Vernon area for 115 years. Lucy Hampton Jones was buried in the cemetery in 1905. Lucy probably died from complications from child birth. Many of the families in Chastang-Movico-Mount Vernon area can be traced back to Lucy Jones including members of the Hamptons, the Jones, the Daniels, the Millers, the Walkers, the Breeches, and the Pughes families. She is the great-great grandmother of Movico. Since 1905, the cemetery has grown to include over 500 graves, including members of my family and many of the community stalwarts that once worked tirelessly to ensure the cemetery was maintained as a proper place for the community. These individuals paid yearly dues which provided for the care and up keep of the cemetery.

One grave in particular that caught my attention is Leroy Hampton. Leroy was a Private in the 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division in the US Army. He was fighting in South Korea in 1951 when he was killed in action. Private Hampton was awarded the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal and the Korean War Service Medal. Leroy paid the ultimate sacrifice. He gave his life fighting in defense of American values at a time when the country considered him as a second class citizen.

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