Tag: African identity

The Rachel Dolezal fiasco: Are we all just playing at race?

Rachel Dolezal. (Pic: AFP)
Rachel Dolezal. (Pic: AFP)

I am a Puerto Rican Jamaican of Chinese decent.  Well that’s not technically true but in a post Rachel Dolezal world it could be.

The recent ‘outing’ of the ex-NAACP Washington branch president who’s been accused of falsely portraying herself as a black woman has the world once again grappling with notions of race, culture appropriation and to what extent Elvis and Eminem stole black music.

After being ‘exposed’, Rachel Dolezal has said that she identifies as black. ‘I definitely am not white’.  She has said that she’s always seen herself as black to the extent she used the ‘brown skinned crayon ‘ when drawing herself as a child. However, her parents refute this claim, saying she probably had not even met any black people during this ‘artistic period’ of her youth.

Her past as a little white girl who possibly knew no black people did not stop her from becoming a pretty prolific ‘black woman’ who went on to lecture about the Black Power movement, release statements on movies about black history and hold a leading role in one of America’s top advocacy groups that champions the rights of African Americans.

Debate has raged on about what it is that can make a person change race – rather than what makes one engage in a gross act of appropriation.  What does it mean to be x race? When Micheal Jackson changed skin colour, was he still black?

When we speak of ‘white trash’ or ‘black excellence’ who is it that are included in these and other racialised categories?

We cannot ignore the fact that to some extent race is very superficial in nature: it is how you look. As much as I may want to be a pretty white blonde girl I cannot be because people will take one look at my mocha skin and be like ‘sugar honey bear you are not a white girl’. I may be able to possibly pull off blonde, but not white.

However, one must also consider the performative aspects of race, the behavioural aspects that are supposedly indicative of a race. For example, when Julius Malema once lashed out at a BBC journalist, saying ‘don’t come here with that white tendency’, many people instantly knew – or thought they knew – what he meant. Of course, not everyone would have the same ideas but the notion of a core group of ideas remains. Personally, I always think of white tendencies as the ability to go from zero to call your manager in five seconds flat, but this could be a side effect of having lived in Cape Town for too long.

Back to the Dolezal matter. What does having the ‘right criteria’ to belong to a certain race entail when there are so many ideas that come with it? To her credit, Dolezal embodied what it is to be a black woman to such an extent that no one called her out on it for over a decade. Her track record is quite impressive. She studied at the traditionally black Howard University and did her Master’s thesis in Fine Art as a series of paintings presented from the perspective of a black male, focusing on the journey of what went on inside the mind of a black male.

Not to mention she kept her hair game on fleek, as the youth like to say.  One friend went on record saying that ‘she would have fooled you too.’

(I haven’t managed three years without being called out on something that would qualify me as being a ‘white girl’, having only now been saved by my dreadlocks and love of smooth jazz.)

However the deeper question is:  has this need to keep the notion of racial traits pure left us with something lacking nuance and depth? For example, to say something is black in nature is somewhat tricky because is it African American or African? Is it Nigerian in nature or Rwandese or North African? Or does it have a Bob Marley Jamaican feel to it?

The Dolezal fiasco makes me question what it means to be a certain race. What does it mean for these fixed categories when some can blur the lines to such an extent?  For all intents and purposes Dolezal had all the makings of a black woman:  the integration into a community, the family, the academic credentials and the lived experience by being at the heart of the black struggle movement. Heck, she even had the hair and we all know how important hair politics are to the average black woman.

Thus in light of all this, did she lie by saying that she was black?

What we should be focusing on is not the way in which race can sometimes be ‘put on’ or ‘taken off’ but the way in which there are consequences to ‘wearing’ this supposedly ‘non-existent’ identity.  Race, like any other identity, does not exist in a vacuum as something one can simply don and or take off with no consequence or context. It exists within a larger framework that works to create a hierarchy, privileging some over others.

The Dolezal case has exposed the fundamental discomfort we all feel: the notion that some people can cross this line, and manoeuvre within this structure at their own ease whilst others remain chained to it, unable escape the consequences of racial societal forces.

When people talk about how race does not really exist they discount the reality that has been borne in notions of racial identity. To do so is to deny the historical and contemporary structure that makes skin bleaching a multibillion-dollar industry, the history that made slavery, apartheid and colonisation possible, and how this history plays out today. It is to deny occurrences such as #BlackLivesMatter and debates that stem from #JeSuisCharlie (or JeNeSuisPasCharlie). It has the possibility of discounting the fact that when millions of Africans die they are simply a number, but when one French couple is murdered it is international news.

It denies the nuances, inequalities and hierarchies in existence that affect people’s lives daily, that mean the difference for some between life and death, being afforded humanity or not.

The Dolezal case not only shows us the ghostly nature of the racial structure but also to what extent many of us are unable to escape this ethereal jail that we have built ourselves.  This is what scares us the most. We have realised we are trapped in something that fundamentally does not exist, but still we have no real way of escaping it. Those who sometimes attempt it do it extremely badly (here’s looking at you, Iggy Azalea) while those who succeed in blurring the lines are met with scorn and suspicion.

Kagure Mugo is a freelance writer and co-founder and curator of holaafrica.org, a Pan-Africanist queer women’s collective which engages in activism and awareness-building around issues of African women’s identity, experiences and sexuality. Connect with her on Twitter: @tiffmugo

On African unity

A man holds a placard as he and others attend a silent vigil against xenophobia, held at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on April 21 2015. (Pic: AFP)
A man holds a placard as he and others attend a silent vigil against xenophobia, held at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on April 21 2015. (Pic: AFP)

Much has been said already about the xenophobic attacks in South Africa and I fear falling into repetitiveness by merely echoing the sentiments others have already expressed. However, it is an issue close to my heart and I couldn’t completely exempt myself from this conversation.

I and fellow Africans stood united under the banner of “Je suis kwerekwere” and this highly influenced my philosophy of African unity. But instead of discussing South African discrimination, permit me to say a few words on the politics of African togetherness.

There is little co-operation between Africans and a lack of encouragement towards discovering ourselves and exploring, accepting and celebrating our diversity. I see Africans from various countries insisting on cultural individuality and lack of familiarity, sometimes with people from neighboring countries, reducing them to mere “foreigners”.

Due to South African influences, I have a certain agility in associating and communicating with southerners from Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana and Namibia.

I can switch quickly from greetings in Oshiwambo to Sotho to Zulu. We can talk about pap and vleis and connect through food, music, customs, parlance, and many other components of culture that bring us together yet when I say we are one, denial is common. I am not from South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia or Botswana but I have learned the things these peoples have in common and I can co-exist with them through my understanding of who they are as a people.

In my circle I also have West Africans, and they too deny their proximity. Classic examples are Nigerians and Ghanaians. They too speak of extreme differences yet my knowledge of one catapulted me into the world of the other with swiftness.

I am not denying individuality or stating by any means that African culture is uniform or perpetuating the myth that Africa is a country. What I am saying is that Africans have many similarities they refuse to accept. And although our distinctiveness varies from region to region there is something about being African that connects us all.

I blissfully switch from “jambo” to “mbote” depending on who I am addressing, and my articulacy and ‘chameleon’ personality always leads to this one question: “Clênia, where are you from?”

I have learned a couple of things with this frequent question. One is how we expect each other to not know each other’s culture and how much we have pledged to our countries but have not pledged to our identity. I say this because if we really knew and understood roots, we would be able to identify fruits. Our diversity is expressed through various forms but if we know origins we can understand that fufu, funje and pap are essentially the same concept translated in different ways. This realisation will aid us towards engaging with each other and stop seeing ourselves as mere “others” because we are under different flags.

Xenophobia is not only a South African concern, it’s a general African problem because we all have prejudices against each other, are ignorant of each other’s struggles and existence, and threatened by one another more than we would like to admit.

Time and time again I see impenetrable nationalistic cliques that are derided by people from certain countries – yet these same people cry out “South Africa why?!”…The hypocrisy!

Don’t use the hatred and confusion others have as a scapegoat to justify the just-as-filthy sentiments you harbour.

The xenophobic attacks that occurred in South Africa last month are beyond shameful and it’s painful to see the loss of respect for human lives. I applaud the media and the citizens of the internet for keeping us informed. However, the dexterity and rapidity with which we personally spread calamity leads me to believe that tragedy is sadly met with normalcy. The appalling images of dead bodies were shared far and wide on the internet. I saw it with the Garissa attack and now I see it with xenophobic violence. Our inability to cringe over such shocking depictions of fellow human beings reveals a sad truth.

The protagonists behind these killings have no respect for life, and in our act of “keeping others aware” by spreading graphic depictions of atrocities, we are showing that we have no respect for death. That is just as deplorable because if we do not respect these deaths we are unfit to defend and fight for these lives. So excuse your “We are one” speech when you are quick to broadcast a picture of someone being burned alive.

The anti-xenophobia marches and attitude that manifested are a fine example of African resistance, something we often believe is non-existent when we consider pacified African citizens and governments. This time, we also saw a rare example of solidarity, a harmony that seems to be imaginary; mere ideology and theory.

Let’s face it, we are scattered! As nations we all have experiences unique to us – apartheid, ethnic cleansing etc. – that affect and influence our philosophies and policies, but for the sake of our future let’s begin to recognise and seek similarities. Familiarity will lead to some empathy; in this empathy we will find tolerance and tolerance will help us walk together in unity.

My sincere condolences to people who have lost loved ones and my support to the people living the struggle stories that are in obscurity.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. God bless Africa.

Clenia Gigi is a a student, avid reader, poet, spoken-word artist, Pan-Africanist, feminist and eternally a child at the face of education.

Being Kenyan and Indian

(Pic: Flickr / teachandlearn)
(Pic: Flickr / teachandlearn)

In January, a group of Langata Primary schoolchildren protesting that their playground had been illegally grabbed, were tear-gassed by police. Nothing like this had happened in our recent memory as Kenyans, and the manner in which it was broadcast to the world helped amplify our outrage. There were loud demands for these land grabbers to be publicly named. I was in the car, sitting in the infamous Nairobi traffic when I heard Charity Ngilu, the cabinet secretary for the Ministry of Land, announce the identity of the alleged land grabbers. They included four brothers named Singh, a name of Southeast Asian/Indian origin. And like thousands of other brown people in the country, I shook my head.

What is the sound of thousands of Indians rolling their eyes?

I remember thinking to myself, did they really have to be Indian? As if suffering through Kamlesh Pattni (the Kenyan Indian tied to the Goldenberg scandal of the 90s, estimated to have cost Kenya the equivalent  of 10% of its annual GDP) wasn’t enough. This was just another nail in the coffin that is the familiar narrative, ‘Indians are thieves and stealing this country’.

Yet for every Pattni there are thousands of Kenyan Indians who work hard to elevate Kenya every day. The Sunny Bindras, Zarina Patels, Farrah Nuranis, Shamit Patels, Nivedita Mukherjees, Shailja Patels, Rasna Warahs, Zahid Rajans.

Predictably, the witty Kenyan Twitter community reacted with breakneck speed, delighting in their discovery of the versatility of the name Singh. A new hashtag was born, which was trending within an hour: #NgiluSinghJokes.

A lot of people raised eyebrows at the identity of the land grabbers, claiming that Ngilu’s naming of the private developers was unconvinSINGH. That the real culprits were being protected.

Others murmured apprehension that this hashtag would go too far and end up ostracising an entire community for the actions of four individuals.  Another hashtag from last year was revived – #KenyanNotIndian – where Kenyans of Indian origin asserted their nationalism. It says something about us as a society when your gut reaction is to distance yourself as far away as possible from a part of your identity for fear that it will be used against you in some way. I suspect this has some visceral effect on an individual, deep inside where memories nestle. I hear the exhaustion of feeling the need to apologise on behalf of an entire skin colour for the actions of a few individuals.

But we don’t see other Kenyan communities apologising for their rogue individuals who have pillaged, eaten and vomited all over the shoes of Kenyans. And yet. The Somali community in Kenya are individually and personally being made to pay a traumatic price for our hypocrisy when it comes to this. Divide and rule. We learned from the Masters.

Like many Somali Kenyans, there is a feeling among the Indian Kenyan community of always having to assert our legitimacy as citizens of this country. But we belong. Yet, if you look at the history books of Kenya, you won’t hear our stories from our mouths. There is so very little that has been written and is being written about the community, by the community. We have largely put our heads down and worked away industriously, but where are our voices when it comes to the narrative of this country? So I am claiming this space. I want my story, my existence to be in the cataloguing of Kenyan history. Because it’s not just mine, it belongs to thousands.

Back to #KenyanNotIndian. Here is the thing. It unsettles me. Doesn’t fit snugly on my skin. If anything it feels like uncomfortable Spanx underwear that you squeeze into to hide the parts of yourself you don’t want to subject to the World’s gaze. Never mind that you can’t breathe and your stomach is spooning your oesophagus, at least your lumps aren’t showing.

I am Kenyan AND Indian. It is quite simple really. I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive. They sit very comfortably together in me. There is no contradiction and one doesn’t take away from the other. My nationality is Kenyan and my ethnicity is Indian.

What does that mean?

My loyalty, allegiance, heart, patriotism and soul belong to Kenya the country. But I embrace and am proud of my Indian heritage.

What does it actually mean?

I would go to war for Kenya (if I believed in that sort of thing), but if I was hit, my last words would come out in Gujurati.

My blood, sweat and tears belong to Kenya. But the sweat probably smells a little like curry.

What makes me Indian ? I don’t really know the answer to this. I can’t trace my ancestry very far and I don’t have a shags (ancestral home). It makes me feel deeply unsettled. Not knowing my roots. I envy you who have your forefathers buried on soil that has tasted your blood. What’s my lineage? Who were my people? What did they stand for? What was their legacy? What were they known for? When they talked of the Kassams, did they extol us for our virtuous nature or mutter under their breath in disgust?

A few years ago, I went to India for the first time. It was like going back to the Motherland. Aside from the bizarre sensation of being surrounded by brown people, and for the first time not being the minority, it felt rather comforting. I was curious to see if I would feel a tugging. A belonging. And I did a little. It was in the Indian sensibility. An intangible something I couldn’t put my finger on. Yet, it was clear we didn’t belong. Everywhere we went, Indians asked us where we came from, which was entirely discombobulating.

But I speak Gujurati (very badly). I cook chicken curry (not very well). I dance to Indian music (terribly). I wear punjabi suits (as often as I can) and the ultimate test; I live in a mad huge household spilling at the seams with family who are always in each other’s armpits.

I mellow out my father’s fiery chicken curry with mounds of Ugali. When I want music that will squeeze my insides I listen to Nyadundo and Nusrat. My favourite sari is made from an emerald green kikoy. My family enthusiastically infuse Sauti Sol’s Lipala dance with Bhangra moves.

What makes me Kenyan? I don’t really know the answer to this either. I was born here. Surely that in itself is enough. I have been known to use my mouth to point out directions. My language is peppered with Kenyanisms. Wololololo. Ngai. Ati. Kumbe. Kwani. In fact, half the time, I am not sure whether the word I am saying is Kiswahili or Gujurati, they feel so interwoven. Which is only fair, considering Kenya stole chapatis. Ultimately, I am only as peculiar as the next Kenyan.

And the question in itself is a loaded one. I am no less Kenyan than the Bukusu who would have been Ugandan had the Queen sneezed when she was tracing the borders of East Africa.

I love being Kenyan. The camaraderie, our ridiculous sense of humour…and personal space. The sense that we are in this together. And what an enormous privilege it is to be afforded the opportunity to participate in the shaping of your country. Don’t take this lightly. To be able to make a meaningful impact on the country you will pass down to your children is not something every citizen of the world has.

So here is my challenge to anyone who feels the understandable visceral need to assert your Kenyan-ness. Let it not be a reaction to a perceived threat. If you give a shit, and frankly none of us has the luxury not to anymore, then make your voice heard and your actions felt. Participate in the shaping of society. Actively. Jostle for space. Don’t hold yourself at a distance. Get involved. Participate. Building yourself is not enough. It is time to build the Kenya you want your children to inherit.

Irungu Hougton recently declared that there are legacies to be grabbed. Don’t be left behind. As he said, “If you can’t do something great, do something small in a great way.”

Let us reshape the narrative of what being #KenyanAndIndian means.

Aleya Kassam is a Kenyan writer and performer. She blogs at www.chanyado.wordpress.com. Connect with her on Twitter: @aleyakassam

The African identity crisis

(Pic: Reuters)
(Pic: Reuters)

I have recently been pondering the legitimacy of what we consider to be African. As the colonisers stripped off our identity and gave us new ones, much was lost and intertwined and influenced by their philosophies. I chuckle to think that the African diaspora sometimes thinks that Africans in Africa don’t have identity issues. Hah!

Our brothers and sisters of the diaspora are sometimes utterly oblivious to the struggles of the Africans who stayed behind. Indubitably, a lot was lost in slave ships, and staying granted us the privilege of immortalising many cultural aspects and traditions that they lost in the seas and upon arrival to new shores. Knowing which tribe I belong to and being able to emulate certain practices is one of such privileges. But although we were not stolen (or sold) from Africa, Africa was stolen from us…right here in Africa.

Our languages were stolen. How many African countries have indigenous languages as official languages, next to the language of their colonisers? Amongst our youth (the future), how many of us can speak the languages of our forefathers? I know quite a number of us can, and therefore this reality is not true for all of us especially in countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe, where there are multiple languages stipulated in the Constitution and where people commonly speak indigenous languages besides English. But, how many of us can boast of such (especially the so-called educated populace, the driving force of society)? And how much is being done to push this cultural agenda in countries/societies?

Our minds were stolen. How much do we learn about pre-colonial Africa? Our former civilisations have gone into obscurity.

How much Black literature do we teach in our schools? Who is sponsoring our best-selling authors and where are they being educated? The scientists, archeologists and anthropologists that explore Africa, where are they from?

Many are the books we read about us that were not written by us. “The most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed,” Steve Biko reminds us.

Our pride was stolen. The images the rest of the world sees of Africa are the same images Africa sees of Africa. W.E.B Dubois was beautifully articulate when he spoke of double consciousness, this “…peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others…“. In our own minds, Africa is associated with distress and anything we deem to be “too African” is considered backwards, ugly.

Our resources were stolen. We paid a high price for freedom, and we all see the flag of independence that went up but never saw the negotiations that went down in exchange for liberty. The colonial powers did not just leave without making us sign lethal contracts and treaties that continue to harm us today, giving them 10% of this and 30% of that. French presence in francophone Africa is, for instance, well documented through Franceafrique, and there is clear economic, political and military control. In the words of François Mitterrand: “Without Africa, France will have no history in the 21st century“.

Looking at a continent that was and still is highly controlled and influenced by foreigners, I think it is time we challenge the authenticity of the African identity. Our view of Africa and the politics of our existence are not dictated by us. Upon independence, political leaders launched “Africanisation” initiatives to bring us back to our roots, renaming places amongst other things. The Republic of Upper Volta became Burkina Faso (“the land of upright men”), Northern Rhodesia became Zambia – and if there were initiatives to “Africanise” Africa then I think we have to consider how we became “un-African”. Aren’t we African bodies with European minds? So, when you say you are African, what do you mean?

We are often told about the privilege of having been born in the motherland. But I see no benefit in knowledge one is not aware of.

Harriet Tubman did say she freed so many slaves but could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves. In essence you are still in slavery if you don’t know you are free. Africa is perpetuating the legacy of its captors and in various aspects we have become mere relics of colonialism, unaware of our identity. What good is being African if you don’t know you are African?

Not only do we have to seek but we have to understand our roots, because what good is perpetuating traditions without understanding origins? There is no value.

We cannot change history but we can study it, learn from it and appreciate it.

And nothing will make you appreciate your African identity more than having it being stolen, feeling lost and finding it again. These minute findings are gigantic steps towards dealing with our crisis.

Clenia Gigi is a a student, avid reader, poet, spoken-word artist, Pan-Africanist and feminist.

I’m an African African-American

(Pic: Flickr / CPOA)
(Pic: Flickr / CPOA)

The term “African-American” is controversial and highly debatable. I have stood on the sidelines firmly glued to words that sprang up from Africans and African-Americans (or Black Americans as some prefer) as both groups expressed their opinions in regards to the term. “African-Americans are classless”, “I cannot trace my roots back to Africa, hence I am Black American” are only two of the countless sentiments that chronicle the tension between Africans and African-Americans. As inciting as the discussions we can derive from these perspectives are, I will focus on another dimension: African African-Americans; my generation who has quickly embraced this American culture which permits me to dare say that although I am African-born, bred and raised sans ever gracing the Land of the free and Home of the brave, I am African-American.

I and my fellow equals to whom this identity can be attributed to, can be labelled as such by virtue of having adopted the African-American culture. Let us have a brief look at the definition of culture.

In eighth grade during a lesson of Arts and Culture presented with the task of defining culture using the minimum words possible, we agreed that “culture is a way of life” and it is upon this very definition that I present my opinion and concept here today.

We know that The Media is a powerful tool and plays a vital role in not only shaping but dictating our world during this Information Age era. It is also no secret that America is a giant in this arena and has its culture being consumed worldwide through the various platforms of mass communication.

What are the implications? The perception is that as we consume American culture more and more, we forget and occasionally disdain our own.

As a Black woman, let me talk about my personal relationship with Afro-American culture specifically.

I grew up with Afro-American influences from art to religion, and despite having a strong sense of my African identity due to leaving my home country and being prompted to mix with other Africans for the camaraderie of being foreigners, I loved African-Americans. I loved them more than me, I knew them more than me.

I discovered hip-hop and it was my daily bread. The genre exposed me to ideals, sentiments, names and to the lives of Black Americans and although I was conscious of my African identity I was oblivious to it. The walk and the talk of the African-American was what I esteemed to be the epitome of “cool” and “Black success”. The likes of Will Smith and Bill Cosby graced my screen before I was convinced to trust the African film industry. With arguments like “Why so much witchcraft?” and “Why is the quality awful?” I boycotted our industry. I was not only drawn to mainstream culture and entertainment but also to less general aspects so do not deduce this to be a mere result of the Afro-American culture epidemic. It was a choice, a preference and now reflecting, I am sorry I knew Malcom X before Patrice Lumumba, James Brown before Miriam Makeba and even my beloved Maya Angelou before Wole Soyinka.

I knew them more than me due to Africa’s failure to talk about Africa. Our inability to narrate our history and our incompetence to document, chronicle and praise our identity and reality.

Now in my young adulthood a self-titled unapologetic Pan-Africanist, I vividly see the challenges and feel both Africa and African-America in my spirit. We preach the same gospel thus I identify, although I witnessed no Middle Passage I am Kunta Kinte, my heart bleeds for Sharpeville and Ferguson with the same intensity. This spirit not only certificates me to stand in solidarity but also outlines my interpretations. And conflicts arise confronted with the “conservative African ideals” versus the “modern African ideals” fundamentals. This in addition to the incapability to wholly connect to my African roots due to the “de-africanisation” of Africa during colonial rule.

I grasp the little identity left and to the horror of my elders pollute it with African-American ideals that are intertwined with diverse and vast philosophies from the melting pot that is America.

And so here lies the dilemma: We are proud of our roots and connected to it within our capacity but shy away from it due to our ignorance birthed from not knowing and comprehending enough, defensive about our alterations as we consider our adaptations to be “progression” and “modernism”. Then we are left with teaching our children that they are African and telling our parents that we are American. African-American…

I treasure the philosophies of the yesteryears that shaped me and simultaneously uphold the enlightenments of the todays that mould me.

If culture is indeed a way of life, then my days that were packed with Black American thoughts, Black American music, Black American dance, Black American clothing, Black American mannerisms and Black American talk among other Black American things do not dismiss me without a label.

I am African but I am “also” African-American.

Clenia Gigi is a a student, avid reader, poet, spoken-word artist, Pan-Africanist, feminist and eternally a child at the face of education.