The University of Notre Dame has been hosting a group of 25 ‘Fellows,’ young African leaders in business from a wide variety of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s been a wonderful and enlightening 5 weeks, and the group is getting ready to travel to Washington, DC, to meet up with the other 475 Fellows who’ve been similarly engaged at other colleges and universities.
The experience got me thinking about how many African natives live in and around South Bend, and the ways that I’ve had the chance to get to know individuals and families. Though the overall population is quite small in Indiana, as well as the rest of the country (between 1 and 1.5%, according to statistics I found), there are pockets of vibrant communities of individuals from a number of countries. Some of the members of the local African community came to the area fleeing war back homes, as refugees or asylees; our local Rwandan community has grown in this way. Others came due to a religious ‘draw,’ such as the Malawian connections between First Presbyterian Church and their home communities. Our town is big enough to have groups from Liberia, Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well. Kenya has been the homeland for many in our area, and there are undoubtedly other groups that I’ve not have the pleasure of meeting yet.
As a whole, these individuals have quietly made their way to South Bend, and then become quite proficient at things that American society tends to reward: entrepreneurship, home ownership, education.
As important, I think, are the ways that transiting culture and one’s home practice from one’s former land to one’s new home occurs. For example, hospitality tends to be very important. A check-in visit to a friend from Rwanda always included at least a cup of tea or a small snack. A drop in to a party that was mostly members of the local Kenyan community always meant taking an honored seat and being introduced to everybody in the room. If I ever need an ego boost, and I hope I don’t, I know where it would be easy to be accommodated!
I am of the firm mindset that South Bend will be greatly enriched in years to come by deepening connections between Africa and our region. The Fellows came up with a great list of exchange ideas, and think our city should host an annual African Festival to promote the ties and our own tourist identity. My first reaction: us? But after some cajoling, they had me convinced that we should be out front of other cities and become known for this kind of affair. I think it’s a great idea!
South Bend’s a community that is turning its old strengths that became liabilities, such as unused buildings, into newly purposed assets. Its collection of people, increasingly diverse in many ways, will be the important human catalyst to make it a great city in the future. Maybe that sounds cliché, but the warm hospitality that the Africans among us show to all visitors will make South Bend a better place.
John is a South Bend, Indiana, consultant and salsa maker who works with a variety of public, private non- profit organizations. email: email@example.com