Tag: African identity

‘Afro-British’, ‘African American’ – what’s in a name?

(Pic: Reuters)
(Pic: Reuters)

I’ve lived in the United States for over two decades. If I were in my fifties, perhaps that would not mean much. Since I am currently basking in the naïve sunshine of my mid-twenties that means a lot.

I left my country when I was three. After immigrating to the west and having my accent beaten out of me, I opted for a neutral tone, and very big vocabulary. I excelled in school, went to college, then graduate school.

As I venture into the years that will define my life, those marked by career, marriage, and family, I come across identity issues every day.

When my sister calls my hair “nappy” instead of “kinky”, I think of the ever-boiling natural hair debates. (What is good hair anyway?)

When I struggle with some skinny jeans with no interest in going past my exceptionally wide hips, I am sadly reminded that consumer fashion is not made for me.

When I scan the pots and pots of foundation in the drugstore, because let’s be real I can’t afford the good stuff yet, all I see is a sea of peachy, creamy, pale-ish muck.

When I fill out a job application form I bounce back and forth between African-American, and other.

I am not of this country.

Yes, I was raised here, my skin has adjusted to the climate here, I bought my first pair of glasses here, made friends, fell in and out of love here, but I am not of this country.

Everyday I am reminded that as an immigrant I am merely tolerated but not accepted. My presence is monitored, examined, and suspect because I left another country, a place where I was born and deigned to cross onto American shores.

I am told I am not entitled to anything, not just because my skin is dark, but also because my name-sound is unfamiliar.

So, if I am not of this place, and it is not mine by birth, why does my homeland treat me like a second-class citizen? I have been gone so long that my conversation is seasoned by my American accent. My skin can’t figure out why there is so much heat around me, and my complexion looks like I’ve been on vacation my whole life and everybody can tell.

Being a member of the “lost” diaspora, marked by the features of my homeland, driven by the guideposts of culture I have clung to, makes self-identification hard. While I believe to my core that I am African, Africa does not embrace me.

So, if I am not American, and not African, then how can I be African-American?

With so many children being sent, and taken abroad for education, a better life, are they still African?

Is it enough to say that we are African, even though when we go back home we are told that we are western?

What characteristics count as African?

Are there characteristics, no matter how invested you are in your culture, that will revoke your African-ness?

Does being African-American, Afro-British or Afro-Italian mean that we are just not African?

Chinwe Ohanele is a lawyer in training by day, and a writer by night. Born in Nigeria, raised in California, and now living in New York, Chinwe hopes to merge her love of words, an insatiable curiosity, and dedication to the mother continent in a way that challenges the way we experience the world. She writes for Rise Africa, a blog written by a group of individuals who seek to create an atmosphere that encourages conversation between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. Connect with them on Twitter@riseafrica

I am an African first

(Pic: Flickr)
(Pic: Flickr / Pali_Nalu)

“Hi my name is Keith and I am African.”

This is how I choose to identify myself. Although I am Zimbabwean, Shona, black and Christian, I am an African first. I see myself as an intersecting set inside a Venn diagram.  I am too diverse to be an isolated set.

As people, we have an innate desire to belong. First we belong to our families, then our friends, our religion for some, our tribes, and our countries. When Africa was first colonised it was divided and land was shared like pieces of cake. A people who had been living together without any borders were now separated. They were separated in an attempt to keep them from communicating and standing together against the coloniser. Today, after decades of claiming our independence, we still cling on to the physical and superficial boundaries that were meant to divide and conquer our ancestors.

The colonisers did not only divide us by physical boundaries, they separated us with anything that made us different. The Rwandese were separated by skin complexion, the Zimbabweans by language, the Kenyans by tribe, and the Nigerians by religion. Our differences were used against us as a method of oppressing us.  We focused on identifying with our tribes and took pride in our own language. Because of that we did not have time to stand as one and say, “Hey brother, let’s kick out the oppressor!”

I fear is that my generation has not broken free of the chains of the oppressor. If a Nigerian and Kenyan are having a conversation in which the Kenyan says he likes to swim and the Nigerian asks if the Kenyan likes to run as well, the conversation tends to end with an air of animosity. People take offence or suddenly feel the urge to stand up and be patriotic when another African comments about stereotypes related to their country. We feel we have to represent our people.

I recently asked one of my Kenyan friends: “Would you be offended if I commented about the tribal violence that occurred during the post-election period?” He said yes – without even hearing my comment. However, if a non-Zimbabwean had asked me about Robert Mugabe and the situation in Zimbabwe, I would have reacted with equal hostility. But why? Are we all not Africans? Do we not all go through difficulties? Why would I feel a sense of hostility towards someone who wanted to share their opinion with a fellow African? I smiled and realised that our underlying problem as a community and as a people in society is that we want to hang on to the very things that hold us captive.

When I meet someone from Africa, they must tell me what country they come from. I would rather meet you and know your name and that you are African. The rest is irrelevant because by being African I know you understand how our parents will not hesitate to scold us, I know you understand the value of storytelling and vibrant African music. I know you understand the rot of corruption. Because you are African we become one. We are like puzzle pieces – different yet complementary.

I really hope people let go of mental barriers and borders because we will honestly never reach where we aspire to be if we keep reciting our passport nationalities. Tribes, languages and religions should not separate us. Instead, as Africans we should unite behind our diversity.

The more we keep fighting among ourselves the more easily those from outside can come and loot.

After reading Kwame Nkrumah’s Africa Must Unite, I believe his message showed true Pan-Africanism. Although his plan could have been improved, his fundamental aim of unity was nothing short of visionary. I was surprised when I heard my peers say how they hated the idea of a borderless Africa. The very people who wanted to change Africa and make a positive impact did not want free travel and trade in Africa. If we think as Tunisians, South Africans and Ivoirians then we will never be completely free. The day the white man convinced us that him being of a fairer skin meant that he was superior is the day black people became slaves.

We need to realise that by virtue of us being African, we ride in the same boat. GDPs may be different but as far as I know all countries on the African continent are developing countries. If we worked and traded more among ourselves maybe we would stop being beggars of aid, maybe we could actually put together our resources and pay our debts. The issue is that we have fallen into the trap of a ‘crab bucket mentality’.

Crabs are caught from the sea alive and put into buckets by fishermen. The fishermen do not bother closing the buckets or killing the crabs because if one crab tries to climb to the top and escape, the other crabs will pull it back in. Africans are like crabs in a bucket. We will forever be in a perpetual cycle of poverty if we keep pulling each other back instead of lifting each other up.

The economists and the realists will then step in and say that if we focus on improving ourselves we will inevitably improve the continent as a whole. Improving ourselves does not mean keeping what is ours tightly clenched in our fists, because ultimately we complement each other. I am proud of being a Zimbabwean, but I am African first. My roots stretch from Cape to Cairo.

Keith Tinotenda Simbarashe Mundangepfupfu is a student at the African Leadership Academy. He blogs at theblogwithnopurpose.wordpress.com. Connect with him on Twitter: @whiplash16 

Black girl privilege

(Pic: Flickr / epSos.de)
(Pic: Flickr / epSos.de)

When I was a kid, my mother told me I would have to work harder in this life because I was black girl – a warning I am sure many others of my gender and race have received. I should mention that, at the time, I was living in a country where the majority of people were white. As I grew up, I heard the same message in the media – on the news, blogs, in songs and films – it was clear that everyone believed that at the top of the economic food chain were rich white men and at the very bottom were poor black girls.

I moved to my country of origin, Rwanda, when I was 22. It is a small developing country at the heart of Africa that has been recognised for its impressive economic grown in the last decade. As a young adult, I found myself in a world full of charities and NGOs that had pictures of girls that looked just like a 10-year-old me, only no one had brushed their hair or got them to put on their prettiest clothes before taking the picture. I read disheartening statistics that told me that most girls my age and from my region had already given birth to their first child, had dropped out of school, had been subject to sexual violence, domestic abuse – do I need to go on? So what happens to me – a university-educated, single, entrepreneur with a face that world believes belongs to a victim?

This is what happens: rather than suffering the negative discrimination I was promised, the opposite has happened. People want to help me – not because they think I’m intelligent, or driven, or skilled – but because they believe I must need it, being an African woman. I can’t tell you how many times I have been approached (often by white men), with offers to invest in my business or with other valuable opportunities before they’ve had had a chance to get to know me or my business – to know if I really need it or even deserve it. On top of the freebies thrown at me, I often get asked to represent groups that I am a part of, because having a young black woman on the cover will give the impression of diversity and goodwill. You see, as an African woman, there are many people who want to help you through “the struggle” (or at least be photographed helping you through it).

Contrast this with the issues faced by the young white men here in Rwanda and in other African countries. The prejudice they face is that they are all rich, hard working and of course, very generous! I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked by some of my African friends to ask my white friends to help them out financially – a scholarship, a job, a gift, etc. On top of this, white men (and women, too) are often subjected to “muzungu prices” – inflated prices believed that only a white person can pay – no, should pay, because, after all, they have more money than they know what to do with, right? Interestingly, many of the white friends I have in Rwanda are missionaries and volunteers (a few are business people but I don’t know if they are rich… and if they are, they haven’t told me!). The other day, a friend of mine, a white woman, visited Rwanda from the UK. Soon after I was seen with her, I was asked by a Rwandan friend to get my British friend to sponsor her child’s education. She did not ask me if my British friend could afford it or if she was the kind of person to do that – she had seen enough when she saw the colour of her skin.

Many Rwandans have a glorified image of white people – and why wouldn’t they? After all, when we Rwandans visit Europe or America or Australia, we take photos in the capital cities, in front of gleaming skyscrapers, expensive cars, and posh houses. To pose with of a random child playing in the dirt or a homeless man in rags sitting in the street and make that our Facebook profile picture would seem ludicrous!

As a result, white people visiting Africa continue to suffer under the stereotype that they all live on 100 dollars a day. Meanwhile, rich – well, okay, I’m not rich so let’s say “financially stable” –  black girls like me must continue to have money thrown at us. So, I guess you’re wondering – what’s the secret? How can you know whether or not a white man that just walked by is here on an expensive holiday or a missionary trip? How can you tell if that black girl is wearing torn jeans as a fashion statement or because she can’t afford new ones? Well – here’s the secret: get to know them!

Akaliza Keza Gara is the founder of a multimedia company called Shaking Sun, a member of Girls In ICT Rwanda, the Kigali Global Shapers hub and kLab, an ICT innovation hub. She loves open source technology, animated films and chocolate milkshakes. Follow her on Twitter: @AkalizaKeza

Dispelling stereotypes about Africans

(Pics: Gallo)
(Pics: Gallo)

What makes an “authentic” African? Who is an “authentic” African? I often spend hours asking myself : Will I be an “authentic” African if I put away my biological individualism and refer to myself as one? Will I be an “authentic” African when I become familiar with all her countries? I speak fluent Hausa (the most common language spoken in northern Nigeria), I wear pants from Senegal, walk in Moroccan slippers and eat South African pap, yet I am not starving. I did not witness genocide. I have never suffered from drought. I do not cook using firewood and I do not live in a shed. I’ve had malaria more than three times and I am still alive and healthy. Am I not “authentically” African?

Upon my arrival at the African Leadership Academy, between feelings of excitement and expectation, I carried my single stories bundled in a sack, imprisoned, yet striving to get out. In this fictional sack, a South African was demanding an HIV test to declare her negative status and a Nigerian was swearing upon his sister’s grave that he had never been in possession of drugs. Also in my bag was a Kenyan, whose entire life was spent trying to get a long-distance medal because, apparently, true Kenyans have speed in their DNAs. Then, the all too familiar prey: a Muslim woman was caught up between covering herself as the  Qur’an instructed, or wearing less clothes so as not to be referred to as a terrorist.

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said: “To create a single story, you show a people as one thing and only one thing over and over again and that is what they become.” Of course we cannot say that these widespread stereotypes are completely fictional, but they are just pigments of the truth. As I unpacked this sack during the course of my first term, I made friends with Kenyans that were proudly Maasai, who spoke fluent Swahili, but never even attempted to run. I met many South Africans who were HIV negative, but had in mind that Nigerians were drug addicts. I was born a Nigerian Muslim, and so I represent all the perceptions about both Nigerians and Muslims. However, I am neither a drug addict nor a terrorist.

People of my generation are defacing their natural forms just to feel accepted into the society. In Nigeria, it is very conventional to think that the noble people come from the Hausa tribe, while the people that seem to be after almost nothing but money are of the Igbo tribe. Stereotypes are the over-generalisations created towards a particular group of people due to class, race, gender, country, religion, looks and any other feature we may not openly relate to. This behavior comes with a belief that whatever we do not immediately identify as “normal” should be recognised and, possibly, corrected. It emphasises how different, rather than similar, we are from one another. Stereotypes can be used to create or destroy us, but we must not let them define us as a country, race, gender or class.

During my African studies class, we were asked to conduct research on African countries we had never heard of and observe the image and information being given to people that have never been there. The dominant images were of indigenous people, mostly naked or half -dressed women with black, sagging bosoms who lived in huts. Natives who suffered from famine and many easily identified diseases such as malnutrition, malaria and HIV and Aids. There were images of African mothers, in tears, deciding between which child to feed and which one to let go. Child soldiers, genocide and slums represented the “accurate” definition of what our beloved African continent is really all about. And of course there were pictures of wild animals, which many in the West believe are the only appealing thing in Africa.

I did not see a picture of Wole Soyinka, the first black man to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, or Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison for the freedom of his country. I looked for Haile Selassie, who resisted the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in the 1930s and saved the country from colonisation, but not a picture of his was found. What of Dr Christiaan Barnard, the South African who performed the first heart transplant in 1967? Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry that produces more movies annually than Hollywood, striving to promote the African culture, was not even acknowledged.

Mandela once said: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes even more naturally to the human heart than its opposition.” It is very easy for us to intensely dislike people for the stereotypes that they have, but we must also understand that they are only acting upon the single stories they are exposed to. What if they had heard differently? What if we give them the truth, rather than pigments of it? What if they learn about the earlier civilisations of African countries before the ruthless arrival of the British? As a society, we can seek to dispel stereotypes through education and a social action. We can seek to give the world the full stories of Africans – how many children actually attend schools and sit for both the SATs and the Cambridge International Examinations, for example.

Another Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, said: “If you do not like someone’s story, write your own.” I will write my own stories because I do not condone the oversimplified image of Africa. Stereotypes divide us as countries, continents, cultures, nations and most importantly, as individuals.

Khadija Sanusi is a first-year student at the African Leadership Academy.

Being African abroad: Are we a lost generation?

A few weeks ago, I was approached by an elderly Somali man who asked about my ethnicity. I responded that I was Somali. He then began to ask for help in Somali. As he described what he needed, I stood there blank-faced, staring at this man and trying to figure out how to explain to him that I could not understand Somali. I mean, yes I am Somali. But I do not speak the language.

When I finally mustered up the courage to tell him, a wave of frustration appeared on his face. He was dumbfounded. “You do not understand,” he said. “Your language is your passport. Without it, you are just a Somali by appearance and nothing else,”  he protested rather poetically. I realised he made a very valid point. I truly had nothing that separated me from my fellow Canadian peers besides my skin complexion. I could not speak my language and the older I became the more I realised I had picked the ‘westernised’ card over the ‘embracing my ethnicity’ card. It was time I found my roots.

Growing up, I was always the token black kid in most of my classes. I had the darkest skin, the roughest hair. To put it simply, I was always the “sore thumb” in all my class photos. Despite being born and raised in Toronto, I was still subjected to societal segregation due to my appearance. It was nothing drastic, but I was still bullied or stereotyped by my peers and teachers. However, over time, I learned to adapt. Like a turtle, I mastered the ability to live both in water and on land. Or, I should say, I learned to survive at home and outside of my home.

I was taught at school that unlike the United States and their forceful melting pot, Canada embraced all of our various ethnic descendants. Usually, when a teacher would discuss Canada and our ‘tossed salad’ analogy, he/she would make it a fact to point at my direction while enthusiastically claiming I was an example of this wonderful multicultural nation, then ignorantly ascribing me to a random African country of his/her choosing to prove their point. During moments like those I wished that I was not a case study for my social studies class; that I could fit in with the Rebeccas and Ashleys sitting around me. To me, fitting in was entirely different from belonging. I did not feel as though I wanted to belong as I understood that I could never truly belong in this society. Instead, I felt I needed to learn how to adapt mannerisms, so that I would avoid such situations in the future. Being westernised seemed ideal.

My parents made it a point to make sure I acknowledged that I was both Somali and Muslim, as these descriptors became almost entirely interchangeable. However, at school I was just the black kid so these descriptors truly meant nothing to my classmates. As Christian beliefs dominated throughout my schooling life, trying to explain an Islamic holiday or fasting during Ramadan became irritating as my classmates could not fathom why I was not eating during lunchtime. They would ignorantly assume I forgot my lunch – every day for a month. This explanation appeared to be more logical for them to believe, rather than to care to understand that I was fasting for God. The reality was that westernised values collided with my traditional Somali values.

A “double identity” was not easy to achieve. My parents were traditional Somalis living in Toronto; my peers were all Canadians. I spent most of the day with my peers rather than my parents, so as time passed I slowly began leaning towards my Canadian identity rather than my parents’ traditional Somali one. The task of forging an ethnic identity is compounded by opposing demands from the two worlds. At school and with my peers, the more “westernised” I was the easier and more relatable I became. I wouldn’t call my parents ‘hoyo’ (mother) or ‘abo’ (father) in public, I would address them as mom and dad. I would not carry any Somali food in my lunch bag,  I’d take a  peanut butter and jelly sandwich with suitable snacks that I could be able to trade with the other kids during lunchtime.

I highly doubt my parents or parents of other second-generation children would imagine that their kids would be put in a situation where they would have to deal with the clashing of values. As I grew older, I began to witness the extremes: some second generation children began rejecting their culture or even effectively removing themselves from interaction with members of that culture just to avoid the stigmatisation of being associated with their nationality. Others began to develop a heightened sense of ethnic pride, often in reaction to discrimination or hostility from the host society. Either way, both seemed extremely drastic to me.

(Pic: Reuters)
(Pic: Reuters)

The manner in which Somali youths, or even second generation African youths, understand their identity is complex. The majority of second generation Somalis struggle with the notion of identity simply because identity and culture are deeply intertwined – as religion is an identity, and nationality is an identity, and so on. It seems as though rather than incorporating various aspects of both the western culture and our traditional culture, the majority of Somalis seems to have lost the overall Somali culture in their process of attempting to assimilate into society. There are more of us, who are unable to speak the language, or who do not generally uphold our cultural values.

We tend to forget that we are the future of our cultures. We are the ones who will carry forward our language, and our traditions. However, if we are too busy attempting to assimilate into a society that essentially rejects us, who will continue to keep our traditions alive? I would like to think there is hope. We have a chance to change our situation. Rather than suppressing one’s identity, I feel as though it is time we began embracing the variety of identities.

If not now, when will we?

Iman Hassan is a specialised political science student at York University in Toronto, Ontario.