Philippe Wamba, Who Wrote of Life as African and American, Dies at 31
By RANDY KENNEDY
New York Times
Philippe Wamba, the son of a Congolese rebel leader, who wrote about his family’s complex and often disorienting dual existence as both Africans and Americans, died Wednesday in a car accident in Kenya while doing research for a book. He was working in Africa under an Alicia Patterson grant in which he was researching Africa’s new generation. He was 31.
Mr. Wamba, who had lived in Boston for the past three years and served as the editor in chief of the Web site Africana.com, moved to Africa in April to begin work on a book of essays about issues facing African young people. He had spent time in Johannesburg and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and was driving from Nairobi to Mombassa, in Kenya, when the accident occurred.
Mr. Wamba’s life was peripatetic from the start. Born in California, he was raised in Boston and Dar es Salaam and was educated everywhere from New Mexico to New York to Cambridge, Mass., where he graduated from Harvard in 1993.
In a well-received memoir, “Kinship: A Family’s Journey in Africa and America,” published by Dutton in 1999, the difficult conclusion Mr. Wamba drew about his life and those of many African expatriates was that being a citizen of two starkly different worlds could sometimes mean belonging to neither.
But his experiences provided him with a rare vantage point from which to write about being black in America and about the way Americans, both black and white, viewed Africa.
“Philippe literally embodied that space between two distinct but related worlds, the African continent and its diaspora,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department and one of Mr. Wamba’s mentors.
Mr. Wamba’s father, Ernest Wamba dia Wamba (his son used a shortened version of the family name), was born and raised in what was then the Belgian Congo. He came to America in the early 1960’s after winning a scholarship to Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, where he met and married Mr. Wamba’s mother, Elaine Brown, from Detroit.
The elder Mr. Wamba worked as a professor in the United States and then moved his family back to Africa. Years later, after Philippe Wamba had followed in his father’s footsteps, returning to the United States to go to college, Mr. Wamba dia Wamba rose to the leadership of a rebel faction in Congo, providing yet another unlikely dimension to his son’s life.
The elder Mr. Wamba survives his son, as does Mr. Wamba’s mother and two younger brothers, Kolo and James. Philippe Wamba was to be married next year to Marang Setshwaelo of Johannesburg.