May 05, 2003
Vol. 59
No. 17

Fields of Dreams

By Pam Lambert
Dreaming of Africa, Jackie Robinson’s Son Found a Wife and Way of Life in Tanzania


First you ford the rushing river. Then you jounce down a rut-filled dirt road past what passes for a town this far into the boonies of Tanzania—a few brick houses and a single modest store. Thirty bone-jarring minutes later you’re there. “Welcome to my home,” says David Robinson, 50, youngest child of baseball legend and civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson, as his Land Cruiser lurches to a stop amid a compound of faded brick buildings with rusted tin roofs. “If you had told me at 12 years old in Connecticut that I would end up growing coffee, or even living in Africa, I would have never believed you.”

Remarkable as it may seem, Robinson is doing just that. While his Hall of Famer father spent his life fighting for equal opportunities for blacks in the U.S., earning a place in history books as the first African-American to play in the majors, David chose a very different path. Since 1989 the son of this social trailblazer has become a literal one in Tanzania. Clearing away the forest with only hand tools, Robinson and his team of workers have managed to cultivate a 120-acre coffee farm. Other farmers have joined his now 700-family-strong Mshikamano cooperative, whose Sweet Unity Farms premium coffee is making its way into the U.S.—and boosting the area’s standard of living. “He came back to mother Africa to help,” says local official Darry Rwegasira. “He opened the way for others to come and see that there are opportunities here.”

The seeds for Robinson’s journey were planted when he was a teen, still living on his parents’ six-acre spread in Stamford, Conn. (where they were the only black family in the neighborhood). At 15, David went on a seminal trip to Africa with his mother, Rachel. Jackie, who had retired from baseball when David was 4, did not make the trek. “My father wasn’t big on Africa,” Robinson says. “He couldn’t look back to Africa, because the American reality was confronting him.”

But for his son it was another story. Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana—David was mesmerized. The trip “was life-altering for David,” says Rachel, 80. “He began to develop the notion that the destructiveness of slavery was that we were all torn apart as a people, that we wouldn’t be whole until we reconnected with our African roots.”

Although Robinson spent several months in Africa at 19 after dropping out of Stanford, family concerns drew him home. Earlier that year his brother Jackie Jr., 24, who had struggled with drugs, fell asleep at the wheel of David’s MG and died in the crash. The blow, Robinson believes, worsened his father’s heart problems and diabetes. In October 1972, Jackie suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 53. “I saw my brother, my father and grandmother dead in a three-year period,” Robinson says. “It made it clear to me that I couldn’t live a frivolous life.”

Robinson married. He also joined with other black activists to start a grassroots housing organization that rehabilitated brownstones for Harlem residents. But his eye remained on Africa. “I would spend three nights a week dreaming of getting back,” he says. “I had an emotional attachment.”

Robinson divorced and then, at age 32, made the move with his 4-year-old daughter Ayo in 1984. It was initially tough for him to decide which country to settle in since, “like 99 percent of African-Americans, we didn’t know where our ancestors had come from.” But because of its economic and political stability, he chose Tanzania.

After trying his hand at a variety of jobs, Robinson began looking at the coffee-growing Mbozi district in southern Tanzania, where it was traditional for a man to be given land in his village. “Because of the slave experience, I had lost my tribe,” Robinson says. “But I was back. I had chosen Tanzania.” After lengthy negotiations, the council elders took Robinson to the edge of the forest and told him that whatever he could clear away, he could have. The area, to say the least, was remote. “When I took my mother here the first time, she told me that she hoped we might run into some bandits. Anyone.” David and about 15 local workers began the difficult task of turning forest into farmland. At that point Robinson knew nothing about coffee cultivation. “Ignorance is one of the greatest facilitators of doing things,” he laughs. “You don’t know what you are really up against.”

Besides his 27,000 coffee plants, Robinson would put down other roots in his new community. Deciding to marry in the Wanyamwezi tribe (“They took heavy losses in the slave trade…and the women were reported to be very beautiful”), he embarked on a traditional bridal search. A friend in the tribe adopted Robinson as a brother, then later brought him to the house of a cattle farmer with three eligible daughters. As is customary, the women did brief cameo appearances in front of Robinson—after which he had to choose or risk insulting the family. “I pulled myself together,” he says, “and went with the tallest.”

Then Robinson had to do his own cameo in front of the chosen daughter, Ruti Mpunda, before leaving the house. To his surprise, her first answer was a no. “She told me later, ‘Would you agree the first time a stranger asked you?’ ” Robinson says. “She had a point.” But Ruti, then 18, quickly changed her answer. “I really liked him, he was very handsome, I wanted him,” she says. “It was a good decision. He is a very good husband.”

During their 13 years together, the pair have had six children, who range in age from 12-year-old twins Rachel and Racheli to Nubia, 13 months. (Son Jackie died at age 3, in 1997, from malaria.) The farm’s solar panels generate enough power for four lights and a radio, but Robinson prefers candle-light. Until recently, the nearest telephone was a l½-hour drive away. “I could have a more physically comfortable life,” he says. “But that would not be emotionally comfortable.”

About the only thing Robinson really misses is family. He tries to visit his mother, sister Sharon, 53, and nephew Jesse, 24, on frequent business trips to the U.S. to promote his coffee. “Both my and my father’s lives have really been about seeking out the road to freedom, equal rights and development,” muses Robinson as he surveys his plot in the sunset. “This,” he says, “is my Ebbets Field.”

Pam Lambert
Bryan Alexander in Tanzania

Bryan Alexander.

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  1. Vincent Silindile Mdidimba Says:

    Welcome home big brother. I had aways ask myself, Why African Americans are not coming to stay in Africa and have dual citizenship as the most whits do. Are they aware of possibilities. I am happy that man like you see these opportunities. Regards Pastor Vincent

  2. Phillipa Says:

    I would love to read more of these stories. AAs need to return to Africa. They are all welcome. For those who do not know, Africa=India+China+USA+Australia in size but its population is equal to that of India. There is lots of room for Black people to return to.

  3. David Bercutt Says:

    I am white with a black Yoruba ancestor. I am a Yoruba priest of Yemaya, and have a fantastic odu Ifa that people are determined to prevent me from making into reality. I have asked for a recommendation to a Babalawo several times, and it seems nobody has chirped up to talk to me. If I have money and can find hopefully an AFRICAN Babalawo who is not full of Machismo nonsense, it would really be nice. I never could understand who Osa G – 19 in 16 cowries caused me to break out in endless crying the first time I read it – and the second – and the third.

    I would be in a good position as an actor, because all I have to do is think of the first two lines and I am crying –

    “Brass stays home, and brass gets very dark ”
    Only lead can satisfy Orisha…………

    I later found out that this was the odu where Oya warned the Yoruba people that they were about to be taken into slavery, and this knowledge was so important in my ancestral blood, that I was overcome by it without a single clue as to why at that time. It “runs in the family”…

    I never understood this at all until I found out about my Yoruba ancestor. If I follow the ridiculous vision of the whites, that makes me Black. I was so proud to find out about her when a multi millionaire cousin paid a fortune for an extensive ancestry search. She was a G -g -g -g -g -g etc Grandmother of mine, and as such I have endless Yoruba ancestors.

    I need help with an awful situation that is ruining what could be the most productive years of my life. People have been covering me with what different Babas call “Igu” since I got my warriors and elekes 18 years ago. Because I am a “Jew” (with Yoruba ancestors)JUST INTERESTED IN LEARNING ABOUT THE RELIGION TO PROFIT FROM IT – IN BOOKS OR IN PRACTICE – in reality, it is extremely heart felt. Extremely, even after all this ruination caused by PEOPLE, Hispanics in the ATR’s.

    Tanzania is a fantastic country. If there was only one country to visit in Africa, I would make it Tanzania. Other goodies for our religious persuasion involve a true understanding of the much – more – ancient – than – is -widely known EGYPTIAN religion and past. But I remind everybody that IFA and AFRICA are the first great civilizations and religion. Nobody even considers Africa, for racist reasons or because there is not one word in any school in the US about great civilizations even having existed in ancient Black Africa.

    IFA to me is mankind’s greatest accomplishment. I grew up with babalawos as my padrinos, one for two years and one for seven. But I was eventually wronged in both houses, once by the wife of the baba, and once by the greed of a baba, both Hispanic ones.

    I need an AFRICAN Babalawo’s help. Pure and to the source. I used to be an almost daily corespondent with Baba Fashina Falade, years ago. He saved me from horrible witchcraft several times. But our relationship went dead as I live in other countries a lot, and now I need a very capable African Babalawo. How many times do I have to ask?

    I am sorry for using this site for personal reasons, I have much to generally share and report on, but first, I need help!

    Omi’T’Alade (I am a man but that is a made up personna for the sake of perhaps some increased privacy on-line, although it now appears that privacy on-line is completely gone)

  4. Mary Ann Says:

    I my cousin. Your grandmother, my Aunt Mallie, are all related. I spent a lot of time with Aunt Mallie as a child. Her sister, my grandmother Ellie, both lived on Pepper Street as did many other black families. I would love to taste your coffee

  5. Simone Joye Says:

    I’ve been trying to explain my own feelings on why I cannot stay out of Ghana…thank you for sharing this article. I too, would like to read about more stories, as it will help me in my work to take others with me to Ghana…….“I could have a more physically comfortable life,” he says. “But that would not be emotionally comfortable.” -Jackie Robinson, Jr. (his thoughts on why he would not stay living in America and moved to Tanzania).

  6. AvoidtheGroid Says:

    You Niggers should all go back to Africa where you belong!

    • The Truth Says:

      Since you feel that way, go back and ask your ancestors why they bought Blacks over here. If they would not have bought Blacks over her, they wouldn’t be here. LMBO! Go back to wherever you belong! Your ancestors were probably immigrants.

  7. Digna Says:

    I am a Tanzanian/African and this is great story, God bless you brother! @Avoid, you arent African. We know you white/pink people.

  8. Maurice Says:

    This is my first time pay a quick visit at here and
    i am in fact pleassant to read everthing at one place.

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