Monthly Archives: March 2012

Being African in the 21st Century

Being African in the 21st Century

It’s interesting, this word ‘African’. The images and representations that pop up in one’s mind when one hears it. Reads it. Or thinks about it. I know what I think when I think about being African, but I’ve always wondered if others shared the same ideas. It’s funny, when you meet people in the street and you ask them what they think about being African, everybody has a different idea. For some being African means being black; or coming from a country on the African continent; or having particular opinions on culture, ethnicity and tradition; and/or having a heightened sense of family and community. To others being African means having a shared history of oppression and domination; being marginalized; and/or being inferior to a so-called developed other, who is more often than not lighter-skinned. To others yet again being African conjures images of Safaris, wild animals, colorfully printed outfits, music, sunsets and so on and so forth. While some celebrate this idea of being African, others shy away from it, almost with shame. Others see it merely as a political and ideological agenda carved out over the centuries by a wide range of individuals in order to satisfy one or other politico-economic interest.

Coming back to this idea of equating being African to being black, Chinua Achebe, for example, speaks of himself thus: “I’m an Ibo writer, because this is my basic culture; Nigerian, African and a writer…no, black first, then a writer. Each of these identities does call for a certain kind of commitment on my part. I must see what it is to be black – and this means being sufficiently intelligent to know how the world is moving and how the black people fare in the world. This is what it means to be black. Or an African – the same: what does Africa mean to the world? When you see an African what does it mean to a white man?”[1] Does Achebe mean that those North of the Equator, or the white people in Southern Africa or even the mixed races across the continent are not African? What about Afro-Americans or the Antillais? These and many other questions come back constantly in research and debates on African identity.

There is this common saying about how one needs to know where one comes from in order to know where one is going. I wonder how most people interpret this, whether they think about the country they come from or maybe their ethnic appartenance or even about their immediate family background. I doubt many people would think about the continent they’re from. It seems difficult to understand why anyone would expect one to think of this wide geographical expanse; with so much cultural, linguistic, economic, social, political and religious variety; as the one and only place that an individual comes from, and should identify with. It seems like such a waste, almost an insult to this rich tapestry, to subsume these myriad realities into one dense idea, which, rather unsurprisingly, no one seems to have pinpointed exactly. Perhaps we are all just African because we are expected to identify and commit to certain modes of life and/or assumptions that have stood the test of time. Until we start questioning these assumptions in our everyday lives, they will keep following us for generations to come, and this I assure you, is not to anyone’s advantage.

To me, being African means so many things. It means originating from a continent rich with a variance in culture, music, food, sense of being and the list goes on. It means sometimes feeling certain awkwardness from being treated differently because of a set of assumptions, stereotypes and value judgments. It means sometimes having to defend an entire continent full of people with whom I do not necessarily identify. More than anything else, it means realizing that social constructions influence our lives deeply though we recognize them as constructs. We may be products of society, but I believe we also make the society we are products of. To all Africans trying to position themselves as part of this complex entity, it would be easier to simply be. Be African, be proud, but most importantly be unique.


[1]
      [1]      As quoted by K.A. Appiah “In my Father’s House. Africa in the Philosophy of Culture” (1992)

 

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