Arts + Culture

A Not So Different World: An African Student's Love Letter to American HBCUs

In this personal essay, Cameroonian writer Kangsen Feka Wakai recalls his time as an African immigrant at a Historically Black College.

DIASPORA—I sat with Wanyama on the staircase in front of the Granville Sawyer auditorium watching a group of girls giggling in the distance. We were both hoping against hope that we might somehow catch their attention. Maybe, we fantasized, they’d give us their numbers or invite us to the Kappa beach party in Galveston.

So it was a mild shock when two of the girls broke off from the pack and started walking towards us laughing. I focused my attention on the shorter of the two, her bright teeth shining even from the distance.

When they were within spitting distance from us, she said, “Dayyum, y’all some dark chocolate niggas!”

“Fine too,” her friend chimed in.

A few shades darker than me, Wanyama—an aspiring painter, six-feet-three wearing sunbaked brown twists—had been on campus a semester longer, so he spoke to them.

“What’s up with y’all?” he asked, his Nairobi lilt shining through.

I remained silent, worried that my expression would betray my anxiety.

“Nothin’, what y’all doing here?” responded the taller girl with the calmer disposition.

I forced a smile, “Hey!”

“We chillin,” Wanyama said.

The shorter girl, arms folded across her chest, curled her lips in mock disapproval. Lips still curled, she leaned sideways, left leg forward.

“Why y’all so black and where y’all from?”



“Holla at your girls,” the shorter girl said.

Wanyama did most of the talking. They were freshmen from the same high school in Kansas. The shorter one lived in a dorm while her friend lived with an aunt off campus. She hated the bus ride. Neither of us had cars.

Between pauses, I mined for the appropriate lexicon to translate my new friend’s posture and tone, which despite its foreignness felt familiar.

We parted ways with our new friends, delighted. For me, another boundary crossed.

When I received my admission letter from the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater at home in Cameroon, I had never heard of Texas Southern University nor had I heard of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. But after surviving a midwestern winter, I did not need much convincing when a friend who was enrolled there suggested that a transfer might not be that complicated. She pointed out it was a quarter of the cost at Wisconsin, and warmer than both Bamenda and Yaounde—the cities of my youth.

“Dr. Perkins, the international student admissions director will practically drag you in,” she said.

She was right. Within a matter of days an admissions package arrived in my brother’s mailbox. One look at the beautiful black faces smiling at me, and I had cast myself as the protagonist in my rendition of “A Different World” where I navigated the school’s cafeteria, hallways and residence halls like Dwayne Wayne without the flip up sunshades.

TSU was not the Hillman College of Bill Cosby’s imagination. Though aspects of it seemed recognizable—unfolding like scenes from the lives of Jaleesa, Whitney and Ron—it lacked the coherence of a scripted television show intended to normalize the lives of African-American strivers. Hillman College did not prepare me for the barnstorming of bowtie wearing Black muslims, dreadlock wearing Hebrew Israelites, fatigue wearing recruiters and student preachers plying sermons on the yard.

On the surface, nothing about this shady campus in the heart of Houston’s Third Ward revealed the giants that had strode its cobblestone pavements. While nothing about the cluster of students cloistering the DJ in the “pit” playing a chopped version of Southside Playaz’s You Gottus Fuxxed Up by Houston’s own Screwed Up Click hinted that a Chloe Anthony Wofford—now known as Toni Morrison—once walked the hallways of the Thornton M. Fairchild building as an English instructor; if one looked closely, the evidence pointed to a far richer narrative than what met the eye.

In fact, what did meet the eye were clues to the oratorical roots of political luminaries like Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland, their portraits adorning the walls of the Traditional African Arts Collection gallery leading to the Charles F. Heartman Collection on the ground floor of the library.

And for those who listened closely enough, what met the ear was the legend of how an unknown affable defensive end named Michael Strahan who used these grounds to write himself into American football lore.

When I first came to Texas Southern University, I didn’t know the stories about how segregationist tendencies, a $2,800 dollar loan from the Houston Public School Board and the need to feel the vacuum in the city’s growing colored professional class had conspired during a summer seven decades earlier to create the Colored Junior College from which the Texas Southern University was born.

Instead, dazed by the infinity of beautiful Black women in our fields of vision, my friends and I mostly idled our days away on the wide front staircase of the Granville Sawyer auditorium gazing the throngs of students crisscrossing the courtyard.

Our anonymity assured in this ocean of mostly African peoples, we felt a measure of protectiveness in a city we were too aware was still coming to terms with its new identity. As Houston changed so did TSU, but what hadn’t changed was its core mission to train those whose historical exclusion from white society had once been the law of the state and city.

For those of us with no mother tongue to claim, or those with one but no one with whom to speak it, TSU provided a moment and platform for us to forge a new language out of the Yoruba, Swahili, Sheng, Pidgin, Igbo, Cantonese, Urdu, Hausa, Malinke, Wolof and Amharic that animated the walls of the Ernest S. Sterling Student Life Center. A new language that allowed us to transcend our individual, ethnic, class, linguistic and national selves. After all, on this landscape, the prominence of the “tiger” flag rendered invisible our national proclivities and flags instead binding us into a common narrative that married our collective triumphs with past and present struggles.

Weeks after the Galveston beach party, which we were too broke to attend, Wanyama and I reconvened at our favorite staircase to observe the runway. We laughed at ourselves for our lack of funds and our high-flying fantasies of taking our new friends out on dates.

We dissected Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s lyrics in “Black Star;” debated the cultural significance of Jay Z and DMX in a post Tupac-Biggie world; made a symbolic toast to Omar Epps and the prominence of darkskinned brothers. Then we dreamed of New York and LA. We always dreamed of somewhere else.

Kangsen Feka Wakai was born in Cameroon. His writings have appeared in Chimurenga’s The Chronic, Transition, Callaloo and Post No Ills Magazine. He lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @KfWakai

Cover of Isha Sesay's 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'

'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'—an Excerpt From Isha Sesay's Book About Remembering the Chibok Girls

Read an exclusive excerpt from the Sierra Leonean reporter's new book, which offers firsthand accounts of what happened to the girls while in Boko Haram captivity in an attempt to make the world remember.

Below is an excerpt from the seventh chapter in Sierra-Leonean journalist and author Isha Sesay's new book, "Beneath the Tamarind Tree," the "first definitive account" of what took place on the ground following the abduction of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in 2014.

Continue on to read more, and revisit our interview with the reporter about why it's important for the world to remember the girls' stories, here.


"We should burn these girls!"

"No, let's take them with us!"

"Why not leave them here?"

The men were still arguing, dozens of them trading verbal blows while Saa and the other horrified girls looked on. None of the men seemed particularly troubled by the fact that the lives of almost three hundred schoolgirls hung in the balance. Amid all the yelling, the girls had been divided into groups. Each batch would burn in a different room in the school buildings that were aflame just a few feet away. Tensions were escalating when a slim man with outsize eyes suddenly appeared. Saa had never seen him before. Like many of the insurgents, he too looked young and was just as scruffy. But when he spoke, tempers seemed to cool for a moment.

"Ah! What are you trying to do?"

"We wanted to burn them!"

"Why not take them with us, since we have an empty vehicle?"

His suggestion triggered a fresh round of quarreling. The same positions were expressed, and the newcomer continued to calmly repeat his idea of taking the girls with them, till he finally got his way. The girls later discovered his name was Mallam Abba. He was a commander.

"Follow us!" the men shouted.

None of it made any sense to Saa. Why? To where? As the insurgents shuffled her out of the compound, she felt as if her whole life were on fire. All Saa could see was the ominous orange glow of flames consuming every one of her school buildings. With every step, the fears within her grew. She struggled to make sense of the competing thoughts throbbing in her head. This isn't supposed to be happening. The insurgents had asked about the boys and the brick-making machine; they'd systematically emptied the school store, carrying bag after bag of foodstuffs and loading all of it into the huge waiting truck. With everything now packed away, Saa had thought the insurgents would simply let the girls go home. After all, that's what had happened during their previous attacks on schools—they'd always let the schoolgirls go, after handing out a warning to abandon their education and strict instructions to get married. Saa had simply expected the same thing to happen once more, not this.

She scanned the crowd of faces surrounding her; the creased brows and startled expressions of the others made it clear that everyone was equally confused. Whatever the turmoil they were feeling, they kept it to themselves. No one said a word. Saa fell into a sort of orderly scrum with the men corralling and motioning her forward with their guns, each weapon held high and pointed straight at the girls.

Saa and Blessing moved in unison, along with the hundreds of others, snaking along in the dark through the open compound gate, past the small guard post usually occupied by Mr. Jida, which now sat empty. Yelling came from nearby Chibok town. Saa could smell burning, then heard the sound of gunshots and people running. It was bedlam.

Just beyond the compound walls sat a crowd of bushes. As she and the men moved out into the open, Saa felt their thorns spring forward, eager to pull at her clothing and scratch and pierce her body. Careful not to yell out in pain, she tried to keep her clothes beyond the reach of the grasping thicket with no time to pause and examine what might be broken skin.

Saa retreated into herself and turned to the faith that had anchored her entire life. Lord, am I going to die tonight, or will I survive? Desperate to live, unspoken prayers filled her mind and she pleaded, repeatedly, God save me.

She was still praying as they walked down the dirt path away from the flaming school. The shabby-looking men with their wild eyes gave no explanation or directions. They simply motioned with their heads and the sweep of their rifles, making it clear to keep moving. As the reality began to sink in, Saa felt her chest tightening. Her heart was going to beat its way out of her body. But she couldn't allow herself to cry or make any sound. Any kind of display would make her a target, and who knew what these men might do?

The insurgents walked alongside, behind, and in front of her; they were everywhere. Every time Saa looked around, their menacing forms filled her view. Initially, all the girls were steered away from the main road and onto a rambling path overgrown with bushes; the detour was likely made in an attempt to avoid detection.

Parents lining up for reunion with daughters (c) Adam Dobby


This excerpt was published with permission from the author. 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree' is available now.

Wizkid in "Ghetto Love"

The 12 Songs You Need to Hear This Week

Featuring Wizkid, Stonebwoy x Teni, Thabsie, Sampa the Great and a classic Funána compilation.

Every week, we highlight the cream of the crop in music through our Best Music of the Week column.

Here's our round up of the best tracks and music videos that came across our desks, which you can also check out in our Songs You Need to Hear This Week playlists on Spotify and Apple Music.

Follow our SONGS YOU NEED TO HEAR THIS WEEK playlist on Spotify here and Apple Music here.

Check out all of OkayAfrica's new playlists on Spotify and Apple Music.

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South Africa has Ruled that Spanking Children is Now Unconstitutional

The judgement was unanimous.

Back in 2017, the South African High Court ruled that it was illegal for parents or guardians to spank their children i.e. use corporal punishment in the home setting. The ruling arose after a father allegedly beat his 13-year-old son "in a manner that exceeded the bounds of reasonable chastisement". Today, the Constitutional Court has upheld the High Court's 2017 ruling and declared that the spanking of children is a violation of the constitution.

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Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Nigerian Women Have Taken to the Streets to March Against the Serial Killing of Women

"The women in Port Harcourt no longer feel safe," the protesters say.

Hundreds of Nigerian women have taken to the streets in protest of the the spate of murders that have taken the lives of eight women in various Port Harcourt hotels thus far. Dressed in in black clothing and holding placards denouncing the femicide in a scene quite similar to the protests led by South African women last week, Nigerian women are demanding that the police as well as the government do more to protect the women living in Part Harcourt especially. The BBC reports that the police have arrested two individuals who are thought to be suspects in the killings.

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