The Road Taken
By Harris Bostic II, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Guinea, West Africa, 1988-1991
Following my graduation from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, I left the quiet of this Peachtree town and headed straight toward a fruitful grove of skyscrapers in the Big Apple. The mid-80s found me in New York City, with its bullish markets and opportunities for money to be made from IPOs, LBOs and even a few “oh nos.” I was in the fast lane, in search of all the material and hierarchical trappings stuffed in the pot at the end of the financial rain.
After a few years of chasing the golden carrot up and down Easy Street, I was left feeling worn and frantic and less interested in its acquisition. I had reached a fork and was unsure where to head. One path was crowded with wealthy folks carrying weary souls, while the other seemed to promise nothing and everything in just one single step. Was this my proverbial yellow brick road – the path that would lead me to the riches of personal giving, not taking?
Yes, that one divergence took me from Wall Street to the dirt roads of Guinea, West Africa. My plan was to leave home and the business world behind to create a new “career” for myself in my original homeland thousands of miles away. Overnight, my plan came to fruition, and I found myself – a college graduate, investment banker and schmoozer extraordinaire, a mere kid of 25 – serving as a business advisor in the Peace Corps.
In November 1988, by way of a wooden canoe, I arrived on Kassa Island, Guinea – my home for the next two years. I was anxious about living in a “foreign” environment so far from the ways of life that I had always known. But the moment I stepped onto the shore of this tiny dot of land in the Atlantic Ocean, I heard three simple words that cut through my nervousness and doubt: Welcome home, brother. After hearing this proclamation, I scanned all of the beautiful, bronzed faces beaming at me. Then it hit me: This was the very first time that I, an African-American, had ever been part of the majority.
All of my life, I had survived living in the United States as a black man. Until recently, I had been immersed in corporate America, where I was the exception and not the rule. Now I had arrived in a remote West African village where my face blended into the crowd. I hadn’t just come home to my people in sub-Saharan Africa; I had come home to my very own people in Guinea. Each day of the more than two years that I spent there, locals said how much I resembled the Guineans from the Fouta Djallon region. Not only did they say I had the facial features, hair texture and body form of that region, but they were convinced, as long as I didn’t speak and reveal my Western accent, that I was indeed a native Guinean.
One day, the elders and others in the village came up to me and said, “Get ready to go home.” This confused me since I was sitting on my doorstep at the time. I soon realized that they were planning to take me to the village where they were convinced “my people” originated. They took me to Dalaba, about three hours from the capital city, far from any paved roads. As we approached this village, the scent of oranges and palm wine greeted me. I saw scurrying chickens and bleating goats and grains of rice that villagers had spread along the side of the road to dry. Several traditional houses with mud walls and straw roofs hid in the trees.
This was my home, my people, my land, my culture. I slept well that night but awoke with questions flying around my head. How could this be my home if I knew no one? Who were these people whom I look like but with whom I otherwise have little in common? Was this really the land from which my ancestors were snatched so long and really not that long ago? These queries consumed me until some of the villagers motioned to me to follow them to the riverbank, where we sat in near silence. Close by, several women washed clothes while children splashed each other. On the walk back, we picked oranges and gathered firewood and water for the women so that they could prepare the evening meal. We ate and played dominoes; then the men retreated to drink palm wine. The whole time, I had been accepted into these villagers’ everyday lives as one of them. It was unceremonious and unconditionally welcoming.
Although I wasn’t the first American the villagers had seen, I was the first African-American that they had laid eyes on and generally accepted into their community. Was I a novelty? Indeed. Was I thought of as different? Of course. Were they curious about me? You bet. Occasionally, my life there was akin to that of a rock star in America. Children followed me down the streets everywhere I went, chanting my name. Women continually sent me fresh fruit and plentiful meals, certain that this young, wife-less American would otherwise starve to death. Villagers twice my age would give up their seats for me or serve me the best cuts of fish and meat. Young girls giggled innocently, some coquettishly, whenever I walked by. Boys asked question after question about life in the United States. Did I know Michael Jackson? Was I rich? And my favorite inquiry: Does your mother know that you’re here?
As easy as it was to enter this village, I mistakenly thought it would be just as easy to slip out. Up until my departure, I had thought that, after two years, I wouldn’t say an emotion-filled “goodbye,” but rather a causal “see-you-later.” I was wrong. The day came for me to depart this home of mine on a tiny African island and head back to the large American city. I was intent on spending time with my local family and friends, sharing meals and taking photographs.
I wanted my goodbyes to be sincere yet in no way emotional. I succeeded in being relatively unaffected until an older woman, with whom I had rarely interacted, approached and stood in front of me. I smiled and extended my right hand. She shook her head as if to say “no,” then extended her left hand, grabbed my left hand and shook it solidly. This startled me because I knew that in many parts of the world, the left hand is considered unclean and even evil. It would be an intentional offense to use the left hand when passing items or shaking hands. Then I suddenly remembered the traditional local custom to only shake with the left hand when two people are bidding goodbye and will not see one another ever again. A single tear rolled down my face – I was moved. How could I have thought that my departure would be any other way?
During my brief stint in Guinea, I discovered a home I never knew I had. In a little-known African village, I forged connections with some amazing people – descendants of my ancestors – who unreservedly took me under their wing. My thinking transformed from “me, me, me” to “you, we and us.” For me, the path less traveled led me toward this more inclusive mentality, and the divergence has made all the difference.