I always like to tell people that when I arrived in Abuja, I was only supposed to be here for nine months. I was sent to Nigeria to fill a crucial vacancy in our Nigeria office as the country prepared for the 2015 General Elections. 1,825 days later, I am still in Nigeria and I have grown a lot (including the few pounds added to my waist line). When I woke up this morning, I went back to read the blog I wrote when I landed in Nigeria. I laughed because while some of it was a bit of a stretch, some of the words are still true.
One of my first outfits made in Nigeria. This picture was take in July of 2014.
Initial Impressions on Abuja from 2014 –
Abuja has a standard international airport unlike Juba. The Juba airport can best be described as a house. It is also important to note that the Juba airport does not have lights, so no flights in or out between 7pm-7am.
- Since my arrival in Abuja in May 2014, the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) has opened a new international airport. The fancy new international airport is a vast improvement over the previous airport but it still lacks the necessary signage to navigate the terminal.
The new airport is nice but the next step is ensuring that passengers are able to get their bags off the conveyor belt.
Certain neighborhoods in Abuja have sidewalks which I did not see in Kenya or South Sudan. I do recall seeing sidewalks in Rwanda.
- While it is true that Abuja has sidewalks, the citizens don’t seem to respect sidewalks. Just the other day, I posted a photo of Nigerians using the sidewalk to maneuver around traffic. Sheila and I like to use the sidewalk for evening and morning walks around town.
Abuja has massive expressways that whisk travelers from the airport to the city. The expressways are well maintained and new construction projects are everywhere. It is easy to see the influence of oil on Abuja.
- Unfortunately, the same construction projects that I saw when I moved here four years ago are still under construction. Many of these projects I like to call, “Monuments of Corruption.” Money was appropriated for the project but it was stolen before the project was completed. I have also been told that construction projects are often started to show that the money is being spent but the project is never completed.
The security threat with Boko Haram is real and people are aware of the situation. As people have welcomed me to Nigeria, they have apologized for the actions of Boko Haram.
- I would admit, for the first year I lived here, I was afraid to go to supermarkets, movie theatres and any event with a large attendance. I’ll never forget the day Boko Haram targeted a shopping plaza in Abuja just two months after I had arrived. It was a frightening day and for at least two weeks, I would not even walk down the sidewalks in Wuse II because of fear of being attacked on the streets by Boko Haram. Did I forget to mention that I blend in with other Nigerians so I don’t stand out like a typical American!
Bryon Cage, a gospel artist from the United States performed in Abuja on Tuesday night. If I would have been here longer than a night, I would have went to the concert. This would have never happened in South Sudan…
- Bryon Cage was just the beginning. Sheila and I have seen Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, CeCe Winans, Travis Greene and many others. In addition, each December, we travel down to Lagos to attend The Experience, free gospel music concert held at the Tafawa Balewa Square and hosted by the mega-church, House on the Rock. More than 200,000 people attend the concert each year. In addition, gospel artist are always coming in and out of Abuja. I believe that Nigeria is the lifeblood of gospel and Christian artist.
A photo from the experience in 2016. It was a crazy crowd!
My fifth anniversary day was quiet but the highlight was the church service we attended this morning. We were invited by our dear friend, David Young to attend the Aso Villa Chapel for worship service. For those of you who don’t know, Aso Villa is the presidential office and residence. David was the guest pastor this morning. In attendance was the Vice President of Nigeria. Sheila and I got to greet him and then take a photo with him. We hope to get the photo from his office this week so we can share. She was standing right next to him, which was a good thing because they are the same height. To be honest, Sheila was a few inches taller because she was wearing heels. It was a pleasure to meet him for the second time.
David and Diane have been great friends to us during their three years in Nigeria. They have taken us under their wing and included us in their family. We wish them well in their next assignment.
Sheila and I have no idea what the future holds and how much longer we will be in Nigeria but we have both been stretched beyond our comfort level but it has made us more gracious in dealing with other people and probably more aggressive in getting in our negotiation skills.
Living in Nigeria, I have seen some crazy things, especially they way people drive on Nigerian roads. It is quite common to see drivers going against traffic on the freeway because they don’t want to be inconvenienced and drive to the next off ramp. I have also been stuck in several traffic jams caused by herders who are moving their cattle from one location to the next through the streets of Abuja…A Capitol city no less…
A few mornings ago I watched as hitchhikers hopped a ride on a slow moving truck in the middle of traffic. I only wish I was paying more attention to what was going on because I could have caught it on video but I was busy flipping through my email.
The two men were standing on side of the road as if they were looking to stop a taxi. As we slowed to clear the speed bump, the men entered traffic as if they were crossing the road. All of a sudden they took off running. I thought I was watching an early morning robbery. The first guy leaped onto the back of the trailer and held on to the straps holding the cargo.
The second guy had to work a bit harder to catch the truck but with assistance from his friend, he was now hanging on to the straps. It was really exciting to watch because it was if I was watching a movie where men were hoping a ride on a cargo truck or train. But this is not that unusual in Nigeria. Stranger things happen on a daily basis.
As the traffic in the road builds during rush hour, drivers often take to the sidewalks to maneuver around the traffic buildup. Drivers do this with little or no regard for the pedestrians that are walking in the streets. Unfortunately, the police do very little curb this horrible habit.
It has been too long since I spent time sharing my experiences on the African continent. I am just emerging from the 2019 Nigerian General Elections! In addition, what an ordeal it was. I’m sure I have mention this before but almost everything (ok, pretty much everything) in Nigeria is managed from the National level. All 36 states receive funding from the federal government. For some states, they receive as much as $47 million dollars of their allocation from federal coffers. This means Nigerian elections take on a life of their own because everyone wants to control the resources in the states.
In February and March, Nigeria conducted two separate elections. The first election was for the Presidency and members of the National Assembly (House of Representatives and Senate). Two weeks later, the country held elections for Governors and members of the State House of Assembly. Because of the level of illiteracy in the country, individuals are not listed on the party ballots. Citizens vote using party symbols. For the National level elections, individuals received three long ballots for presidency, House of Representative and Senate. Funny enough (not funny at the time), the electoral management body postponed elections six hours before the opening of polling units for the national elections. The elections were postponed for one week until the following Saturday.
A Senate Ballot in the Federal Capital Territory.
Elections are a do or die affair in Nigeria! The control over government resources and money makes elections so competitive that politicians hire thugs to disrupt polling units or intimidate citizens so they don’t come out to vote. This leads us to what Nigerians call, SUPPLEMENTARY ELECTIONS. Recently I traveled to Sokoto State (Northern Nigeria) for a SUPPLEMENTARY election. An election is supplementary in the fact that when the electoral management body held the gubernatorial elections on March 9, they CANCELLED some of the polling units because of violence or over voting (more ballots casted than voters accredited to vote).
(L) Women queue to vote in Sokoto Supplementary Election on March 23, 2019. (R) Elderly citizens wait their term to vote in Osun State during the gubernatorial elections in September 2018.
Many of the March 9 gubernatorial elections were declared INCONCLUSIVE by the electoral management body. The term inconclusive means, the number of CANCELLED votes are larger than the margin of victory. If you were to conduct an election of those cancelled votes (or polling units), the votes could change the results of the elections. Everything I just explained to you is exclusively Nigeria! Don’t try to understand it because as an outsider you won’t get it. Nigeria has a long history of election violence and rigging and this is a way of not allowing violence and rigging to influence the system. Other terms Nigerians like to use regarding elections and politics are
- INTEREST (kind of like your political interest in the US but more like personal interest. Meaning, I might get money if this person is in power);
- GODFATHER (this is the person that sponsors your political career. He or she does it to benefit himself or herself, usually financially);
- CROSS CARPETING or DECAMPING (this means to leave one party to join another. This is very common in Nigeria. As common as changing your clothes. The election I just observed in Sokoto, the Governor was in the ruling party until August 2018 when he left to join the opposition party to run for president. After he didn’t win the nomination, he came back to the state to run for Governor), and
- WINNING YOUR POLLING UNIT (this is like me winning my parents’ polling station in Mount Vernon. However, most time, this means using money to get people to vote for you. The money is as small as $3-5 but during the Sokoto election, I heard rumors of $50-75. That is big money for many voters. In Nigeria, Trump would be a failure because he did not win his polling unit in NYC or his state. HABA – Nigerian for “Can you Imagine”). There are a lot more but I will stop there.
Nigerian elections are very complicated and have various steps in an effort to protect the integrity of the ballot. All voters must has a permanent voter’s card with ID, use fingerprints to authenticate them at the polling unit and have their fingernail painted to show that they have voted. Once they vote, many Nigerians hang out at the polling units to ensure that local officials count votes and report votes to local collation centers. This also reflects the lack of trust that exist in Nigeria and its institutions.
This is Nigeria as they say!
Young Nigerians watching the voting process from outside the school premises in Sokoto State.
Our review is a bit late this year as we were traveling through the United States and found ourselves in Turkey after the New Year. But 2018 has come to an end. The year began on a sour note as Sheila had just departed for the United Kingdom where she was starting a masters program in Psychology. However, the end of 2018 finds us back together again in our cozy Abuja apartment. Here are some of our top moments for 2018.
Celebrating the fact that Sheila is a Master Student
In November, Sheila completed her studies at Coventry University in Coventry, United Kingdom and graduated with a Masters in Psychology. It was a long and challenging year for both of us but we are happy to be back together. It was a difficult time as Sheila was adjusting to a new environment in the UK and I was overwhelmed with closing a program and starting a new one. But we are thankful for all the support and encouraging notes during our year of separation.
The Barnes Family European Vacation
2018 also found the Barnes family taking over London, Paris, Abuja and Accra. To celebrate Sheila’s graduation, my parents and brother and sister-in-law all traveled to the Europe to watch her walk across the stage and visit the European continent for the first time. We were also met by Sheila’s mom who traveled from Rwanda for the graduation ceremony. It was a trip of a lifetime (in so many ways). This trip has been ten years in the making and thanks to Sheila for making sure my parents would travel across the Atlantic Ocean. My parents experienced left side driving (UK), fish and chips, using “funny money” (my dad’s reference to Pounds and Euros), the yellow vest protest in Paris and multiple long haul flights across the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea. It was an experience of a life time!
Return to Africa
After our European vacation, my parents traveled back to Abuja with us for a week. It was their second trip to Nigeria (Give it up to Freddie and Brenda for making a SECOND TRIP to the African Continent). After a busy trip in the U.K. and then Paris, we decided to treat my parents to a low-key visit in Abuja. We gave them five days of rest before we started again. AND As if the U.K., France and Nigeria wasn’t enough, we took my parents to Ghana to visit the slave castles where millions of Africans were sent to the Americas. It was a sober end to our trip but I am happy my parents visited the slave castles and learned a little bit more about our family’s voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. In 2016, I took them to Badagry, Nigeria to visit the slave museum, the former Portuguese settlement and the “point of no return.”
Meeting with the President and Vice President of Nigeria
This year, my organization started a new responsive political party program to strengthen political party development in Nigeria. It has been an insanely busy year! However, I was honored to meet both the President and Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria discussing our new political party program and the upcoming elections in Nigeria. It has been quite the year and will only get busier in 2019.
“The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.” ―
I love this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Family and friends have truly made our home in Abuja a very special place. We were blessed to open our house to family and friends who came to visit us in Abuja or were passing through to other destinations. We love that our house is always open for visitors, family and friends. We hope that you will come to visit in 2019. We would love to show you around the neighborhood.
Sightseeing in the Merry Ole England…and Scotland…
Thanks to Sheila’s program at Coventry University, we did a lot of sightseeing during my trips to the United Kingdom. Funny enough, in all my trips, we never traveled to London. We decided to use this opportunity to experience other areas of the United Kingdom. We traveled across the Island visiting the Roman “baths” of Bath, the industrial city of Birmingham, the university villages of Cambridge and Oxford, the ancient stones of Stonehenge, the medieval castles of Edinburgh, Salisbury, Warwick and York. Salisbury has become infamous for the poisoning of Russian/British dual citizens. We arrived in Salisbury less than a week after the incident and could not understand why the town was so quiet. It was Sheila’s former boss and friend who reminded us of what was happening in Salisbury. Edinburgh is by far my favorite city in the U.K. I loved the history and the university population that just gives it a very cool vibe. I told Sheila we should find a home in Edinburgh to retire to in our sunset years.
Rocking in the Music City with the Auburn Football Team
Auburn started the 2018 football season as the #6 team in the nation. There was a lot of expectations for the season. However, those expectations were quickly dashed with losses to LSU, Mississippi State and then Tennessee. Additional losses to rivals Georgia and Alabama closed the season with a 7-5 record. Auburn’s consolation prize was a trip to the Music City Bowl. We were not extremely excited about going to Nashville for the Music City Bowl but its not every day that we are in the US to attend an Auburn game. So Sheila and I drove up to Nashville for the big game. It turned out to be a pretty awesome experience. For one, not only did Auburn show up to play but scored a record number of points in the first half of a bowl game. Second, we spent the evening/morning with a dear friend Susan. Susan traveled all the way to Kigali for our wedding in 2016. Finally, I got to catch up with fellow Auburn Alumni that I haven’t seen in more than ten years. It was great to see Sanford, Glennis and Horatio at the game.
I have been told by some friends that they miss my periodic updates from Nigeria. I told them that we have been insanely busy with work and school and unfortunately, the blog has taken a back seat. Anyway, while life will only get busier as Nigeria prepares for its 2019 General Elections, I will try my best to highlight the fun, interesting, shocking, disappointing, etc. moments from our time in Nigeria.
This past week, Sheila and I had two black tie events. On Wednesday, November 7, I was the keynote speaker at the NCMG Peace Awards in Lagos, Nigeria. The event was a black tie event so it was an opportunity to get dressed up and strut our stuff. During my keynote, I talked about the work IRI is doing in Nigeria and around the continent and what we should be looking out for in 2019. It was a fun opportunity to share my political analysis, my knowledge of the African continent and really talk about the good work IRI is doing in Nigeria. I tried to tell a few jokes about how I am often mistaken for a Nigeria. Recently I was told that the shape of my head and the gap in my teeth make people think I am Igbo brother from Imo State. The Igbo tribe is one of the tribes in the southern part of Nigeria. I was told at the end of the awards dinner that I would get an Igbo name! I told them that an Igbo driver once called me Onyedikachukwu, which means ‘who is like God!’ You can call me Chuks for short!
On Saturday night, we attended the 243rd birthday celebration of the United States Marine Corps. This was the second time that Sheila and I attended the birthday celebration…also known as the Marine Ball. We attended the 2015 birthday celebration, just two weeks before we became engaged. Somehow, it was a topic of conversation at our table. https://fredayinafrica.com/2015/11/15/dancing-the-night-away-at-the-2015-marine-corps-birthday-ball/ My dinner jacket and Sheila’s dress was the talk of the table and the ball. I picked up my jacket in Thailand last year during our anniversary trip. Sheila has an amazing dress designer here in Abuja that designed both the dress for the Marine Ball and the dress for the NCMG Peace Awards. You should check her out @WoorahCreations on Instagram.
I recently published an article on my organization’s blog about the political happenings in Nigeria. I have included it below for your reading pleasure.
It has been an interesting few weeks in Nigeria. For those of us that have been watching Nigerian politics for the past four or five years, it feels very much like Déjà vu.
When I arrived in Nigeria in 2014, the country was reeling from what many Nigerians were calling a gale of defections that was threatening the house that the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had built. In 2013, five governors (from Adamawa, Kano, Kwara, River, and Sokoto), 37 representatives and 11 senators left the PDP and joined the All Progressives Congress (APC), giving life to a newly created opposition party. Many of the same individuals that left the PDP in 2013 are involved in a recent move to PDP. Earlier this month, 15 senators, 37 representatives, and three state governors left the APC and joined other political parties— PDP picked up a majority of these disaffected politicians.
As the 2019 General Elections get closer political parties are trying to find an edge over each other. Political parties are important institutions for developing policies and platforms and providing critical oversight and accountability of government action. Through their elected representatives, political parties implement policies that reflect the ideology of the party. However, this is not the case in Nigeria. Moving from one political party to another is common and seen as a way of gaining an advantage over other political parties.
For example, Nigeria’s current president. While he was never a member of the PDP, he did move between various political parties in his quest to become the number one citizen of Nigeria. In 2003 and 2007, he contested for president as the candidate of the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP). In 2011, he was the presidential candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), which he founded. And we all know what happened in 2015, he won the APC presidential primary in the Fall of 2014 and was elected president in the March 28, 2015 elections.
So why do Nigerian politicians bounce between political parties? Political parties in Nigeria, and in other parts of the African continent, tend to lack ideologies and explicit messages that separate them from each other. Because of the country’s tribal, religious and geographic divide, political parties are driven by personalities as opposed to ideologies. For example, in the United States, political parties are defined by their platforms, or manifestoes as they are called in Nigeria. So, if a Republican candidate comes knocking at your door, you have a sense of where he or she stands on the current critical issues.
That is not the case in Nigeria. During a recent pre-election assessment mission conducted by the IRIand the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the delegation heard from numerous Nigerians who “expressed frustration with political parties, which are seen as personality-driven and lacking internal democracy. Emerging political alliances are based mostly on personalities and agreements among political leaders, and do not necessarily reflect differences in policy preference or ideology.”
When a politician defects, as they say in Nigeria, he or she usually moves with thousands of individuals, including officials of the party that he or she is leaving. While political parties are vessels to government and power all over the world, they are the only way to get into government in Nigeria. There is no independent candidature, so every person must contest under the logo of a political party.
This is where IRI comes in. The Institute is currently working to increase political parties’ responsiveness and representation and increase oversight and accountability of government programs. We help build the capacity of party officials and teach them how to better engage citizens in identifying their concerns and develop party policies and manifestos that respond to citizens’ priorities. Our work enables parties to develop an ideology that distinguishes them from other parties, thereby decreasing the need for party leaders to ‘defect’ to other parties. In addition, once ideology is established it enhances the political competition around elections as voters will be able to choose between varying ideologies and not just tribal, religious and geographic divide. Currently, elections in Nigeria expose the deep rifts that exist between tribes and regions because political leaders are unable to conduct issue-based election campaigns.
Parties also play an essential role in providing oversight and accountability of government processes and policies. By enhancing their manifestos and developing an ideology, political parties empower their elected members to effectively represent the citizenry and the party’s principles.
In the lead up to the 2015 elections, the APC got the upper hand by saddling the PDP with the issues of corruption, insecurity, and unemployment. The party used topics important to voters to paint the PDP as ineffective and out of touch. However, less than six months from the 2019 elections, neither party has clearly put out a message on why it should win the 2019 elections.
Nigeria is a dynamic country with one of the fastest growing populations in the world. The citizens deserve parties that are not only generating answers to the country’s complex problems but are also engaging its citizens about the best way forward. When the citizens go to vote on February 16, 2019, they will vote for the candidate and party that has put forth the best vision for the future of this country.
Where did the last 38 years go? Or is it 39 years? Or is it that I am getting to old to remember? I was reminded by a 52 year old friend that I am not even close to being old. It feels like yesterday I was packing my bags and heading off to Washington, D.C. to chase the fantasy of changing the United States of America and the world. But that was 15 years ago! Wow.
Today, I marked my 39th birthday! I am a believer that each person should celebrate their birthday. It’s the only special day that we will have to celebrate ourselves. This might sound conceited or selfish, but it’s my day! I might celebrate it with many other people, but it’s my day!
My day started at around 5:00am. An unidentified number kept calling and calling. My first thought was, “Its 5:00am in the morning! Who is calling me?” After the third ring, I decided to look at my phone. I noticed that my wife had been trying to reach me. So I answered…She said that she had been trying to reach me because she had friends that wanted to talk to me…AGAIN, its 5:00am in the morning…who does she have that wants to talk with me this early in the morning? It turns out that she convinced some of my friends from the U.S. to stay up past Midnight (one friend told me that he set an alarm to wake himself up to be on the call) to wish me a happy birthday. I was touched by what she had went through to organize a surprise birthday party all the way from Coventry, UK. What an amazing wife and what amazing friends…
The Skype call organized by my wife with friends in the US.
My day continued to get better with messages from friends wishing me well on my birthday and beautiful messages from my staff. I’m trying not to let those messages go to my head. I even got a video from friends in Washington, D.C. singing me happy birthday. It wasn’t Aretha Franklin (God rest her soul) but it was the next best thing. It was touching…
Finally, I must applaud my Sokoto State staff. Unfortunately, I am not even in Abuja. On Monday, I had to travel to Sokoto State in Northern Nigeria. I often joke with friends in Nigeria that Sokoto State is like Alabama…religiously conservative and extremely rural. The two main differences – Sokoto is the home of the Sokoto Caliphate. The Caliphate was an independent Islamic Sunni Caliphate that at one time was one of the largest empires in Africa . And second, the black population of Sokoto is 100 percent. Alabama is a religious state – a Christian State (in every sense of the world) with a black population of 27 percent. Anyway, back to my staff, they surprised me with a birthday dinner, cake and drinks (the non-alcoholic kind). It was a fun evening celebrating my birthday and marking the end to a busy week of meetings and political activities.
With my Sokoto State Staff and friends from DevTech and USAID
On Friday, I finally head back to Abuja where I will have a celebratory glass to wine to celebrate the big 39. (Even saying I will have a glass of wine makes me feel old…)
Thank you God for another year, for an amazing wife, great friends, and experience this thing they call Nigeria! I am forever grateful!
Two Years and counting… You are probably reading this thinking, “how in the world has it been two years since the start of #Shentell?” I don’t know what to tell you but we are two years down and already planning our Diamond Anniversary (75th) celebration.
Abott Kinney Blvd., near Los Angeles, California (December 2017)
It has been an exciting two years of marriage for Sheila and I. I’m sure there were some frustrating days early on as we settled into a life together but it has been a joyous two years as we have learned to live together, outside of our home environments and in a country that provides its own challenges.
A few people have told us “a marriage without children is not a happy marriage!” This is a very traditional (and African) viewpoint. I was talking with my driver one day and he told me that Sheila and I needed to have a child. I told him that Sheila and I had never lived in the same place together so we needed to spend a year just getting to know each other. He thought about what I said and responded by saying, “what happens if you get to the point that you don’t like each other?” I laughed at his question because to him, what was the purpose of being married if there were no children?
It is not like Sheila and I do not want children. It is just that we wanted to wait. We read many books before we got married about starting your marriage off on the right foot. Several friends who had children in their first year of marriage encouraged us to wait and spend time getting to know each other. A friend told me that because his wife became pregnant so early in their marriage, it took two years for him to differentiate between the mood swing of his wife’s monthly cycle and the hormones of a pregnancy.
We credit three books for helping us start our marriage in the right direction. The first book was “Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married” by Gary Chapman. We really enjoyed this simple and easy to read book because it touched issues such as “love doesn’t pay the bills, that when we married our spouse we also married their family and sexual fulfillment is not automatic. The second book, “Right from the Start: A Premarital Guide for Couples ” by David and Lisa Frisbe provided real life examples of couples struggling to improve their marriage. The final book was/is His Needs Her Needs: Building an Affair Proof Marriage by Willard F. Harley, Jr. This is probably my favorite book in turns of good, practical information about what to expect from the other spouse. The chapters are step up based on what the husband/wife can’t live without. For instance, when a woman says she wants to talk, she doesn’t want you to say, “About what?” She is looking for you to share something about yourself. She wants you to be vulnerable. (But we men know how difficult that is).
Royal Crescent, Bath, United Kingdom
Sheila and I have read numerous books, listened to various sermons and talked with several friends about the difficulties of marriage. We learned before our wedding that a good marriage requires effort. In 2017, I was working in Dar Es Salaam on temporary duty and having lunch with office colleagues. The conversation moved to marriage and I begin to tell the staff how Sheila and I prepared for our marriage. One of the women at the lunch said, “that’s a lot of effort, people have been getting married for thousand of years. Why all the work?” I told her that if I wanted the same marriage that people have been experiencing for the past thousand years, then I would just get married and settle down. I wanted a marriage that was different then the status quo. I wanted a marriage full of love, mutual respect and joy. While we may be only two years into our lifetime marriage, we “seem” to be on the right track but keep checking in and we will let you know. Like any child, we know that we are only at the beginning…
Taking in the majesty of the Grand Canyon in December 2017.
There has been a lot of talk about slavery lately. Kanye West’s bizarre comments about how slavery was a “choice” and then (for some reason) slavery became a topic around the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The BBC interviewed an American woman who said she was so excited for the wedding because Meghan Markle came from a family of slaves. That made me laugh and also think about slavery in my family.
I am a descendants of African-American slaves on both sides of my family. We have traced my father’s family tree back to the mid-1800s when the tree branched to include the white ancestors that “forcefully” entered our family. I talked about my father’s side of the family in an earlier blog. https://fredayinafrica.com/2015/06/16/confederates-in-the-closet/ For my mother, we traced one of her ancestors back to 1825. His name was Harford Tate and he is my great-great-great grandfather. Harford lived in Monroe County, Alabama and married a woman by the name of Alabama. A usually name but a name that would survive a few generations in our family. Their son Homer married Margaret Knight and had three children. Homer died between 1890 and 1900 leaving Maggie, as she was known, a widow and mother of three small children. Carlia, the oldest daughter married Andrew Williams and had ten children. The fourth child was my grandmother Sarah. This “was” all the information I knew about the Tates until a recent discovery about Harford Tate and his father.
I have always been interested in history. My undergraduate degree is in history. I will never forget sitting on our sundeck one spring day listening as my mother interviewed my grandmother Sarah about the family history. My mother and a few of her siblings and cousins decided to have a family reunion in 1989. It would be our first of many family reunions that would bring aunts, uncles and cousins from all over the United States together. In 1997, I picked up the family history baton and started tracking our family history. For the past twenty years, I have discovered that I am a descendant of a German Lutheran Scholar, a Confederate soldier and one of the largest black landowners in Washington County, Alabama.
A few months ago, I ran across a very interesting family discovery. I am not sure why I was chasing my family history down the internet “rabbit hole” on this particular day but it led me to an interesting discovery about my ancestor and his slave master. Harford Tate, my great-great-great grandfather was born in May of 1826. He was a slave in Monroe County, Alabama. His slave owner was Senator Charles Tait. Tait was a Senator from Georgia before moving to Alabama in 1819 to claim land in the Black belt region of southwest Alabama. During his time in the U.S. Senate, he was responsible for the admission of Alabama as a state.
Charles Tait was born 1 Feb. 1768 in Louisa Co., Va., to James and Rebecca Hudson Tait. The entire family moved to Petersburg, Elbert Co., Ga., in 1783. He attended Wilkes Academy in Washington, Ga. About that time, he was thrown from a horse and received injuries necessitating the amputation of his leg. He attended Cokebury College in Abingdon, Md., beginning in 1788, and soon became an instructor. While at the college, he married a widow, Mrs. Anne Lucas Simpson of Baltimore, Md., on 3 Jan. 1790. He remained there until 1794, studying law while teaching. In 1795, he returned to Ga. and was admitted to the bar. A few weeks later, he became rector of Richmond Academy in Augusta, Ga. Soon thereafter, future Senator William H. Crawford became his assistant. (Tait Family Papers http://www.archives.state.al.us/findaids/v2361.pdf)
In 1820, he was appointed to a federal judge position for the Federal District Court of Alabama and in 1828 was offered the ambassadorship to the United Kingdom. However, he declined the appointment to remain in Alabama. Senator Tait and his son became significant landowners acquiring property and slaves in both Monroe and Wilcox Counties. It turns out that one of those slaves was my ancestor, Harford Tate, Sr. (the father of Harford mentioned above). I recently discovered a letter that Harford wrote to Senator Tait in 1826. The letter was included in a 1929 book entitled Life and Labor in the Old South by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips.
There are two important observations about this letter. One, Harford was able to read and write at a time when the majority of slaves did not know how to read or write. While it wasn’t against the law to teach slaves to read and write in 1826, after the Nat Turner Rebellion, states, including Alabama began passing laws that made it a crime to teach slaves to read and write. In addition, at the end of the letter, Harford mentions that he is now the father of a son who also carries his name – my great, great, great grandfather.
Harford was a trusted slave and confidant for Senator Tait because in his will, he granted Harford his freedom after his death. Another slave named Howard was granted freedom after his wife’s death. I found the page of the will that outlines Sen. Tait instructions (see below).
Interesting enough, Howard is another name that was passed down through the generations in our family. Homer and Maggie had a son named Howard who died in 1900 and my great grandmother Carlia named one of her son’s Howard. I don’t know if Harford ever gained his freedom after Senator Tait’s death in 1835. Those stories didn’t make it down through the generations. However, it is fascinating (and at the same time sad) to discover this new information about our family.
I haven’t lived in Alabama since April 2003. In March of that year, with no job or source of steady income, I packed up all my belongings and headed off to pursue my dream of working on Capitol Hill. What played out in my head as a picture perfect fantasy turned out to be a roller coaster reality. I struggled to embrace the changing weather patterns of the Mid-Atlantic, found it difficult to relate to the people who didn’t say Hello when passing and struggled to meet ends meet. It was a tough dose of reality. But I am glad I took the gamble and made the move. Since that faithful move, my work has led me all over the United States and even the world.
But those experiences have shaped my world view and even changed the way I speak. This has also made it somewhat challenging when returning to Alabama. I have found myself asking people to repeat themselves when ordering food or seeking service. The longer I stay away from Alabama, the more difficult it is for my ear to pick up the local accent. I constantly tell my wife that while Americans and British speak English, they are unofficially two different languages. Chips in the US mean potato chips – think Doritos, Lays, Golden Flake – while in the U.K. Chips mean French fries. I was visiting relatives in Alabama recently and they all began to comment that I had not only lost my southern accent but was also losing my American accent. The southern accent has been on the way out since my time in Washington, DC. While living in DC, I became frustrated each time someone asked me to repeat myself…
Another incident involved my wife during a recent trip to the doctor’s office. She was filling out the lengthy medical forms when she asked me what she should write as race. When I looked at the form, she had written African. I looked back at her and she was beaming from ear to ear. I told her that we are in the US, there are only a few classifications of race in the US…white, non-Hispanic; black, non-Hispanic; Hispanic, non white and Hispanic, non-black. Occasionally you will see Asian and Pacific Islander but once a black person arrives in the US, you are categorized as Black…when I lived in the US I use to count the number of black people in a room but now, I count the number of white people in a room.
You don’t realize how over the top Americans are when it comes to customer service until you live in a place where the customer is never right. Welcome to Africa where people tell you that the bad food you are eating is nice and that you’ll like it and the hot, sweltering room is actually cold! I’ve never forget my first experience in a restaurant in South Sudan. When I walked through the door, the people stared at me. After a minute or so, I asked, do you serve food. The woman mumbled and pointed to a table in the middle of the room. When she approached my table, she stood waiting for me to order but hadn’t given me a menu. I was thinking, this customer service sucks. What I didn’t know was, while this was really bad service, it didn’t get much better than this. To experience an overzealous waiter or waitress with an menu eight pages long and 12 ways to drink a fountain drink, it’s a tab bit overwhelming. Excuse me if I look like a dear in headlights when ordering a meal.
The global citizen life is not an easy one. You never fully fit in in the country you are living and never feel as comfortable at home as you use too. You live somewhere in between and you have to be careful not to offend your neighbors in your resident country and your home country when analyzing life. It’s not easy …but we try oooh (as my Nigerian neighbor say).