Tag: colonialism

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.

Miniskirt attack: This is not a Kenyan issue, this is an African issue

Women take part in a protest along a main street in Nairobi on November 17 2014. They demanded justice for a woman who was attacked for being dressed 'indecently'. (Pic: Reuters)
Women take part in a protest along a main street in Nairobi on November 17 2014. They demanded justice for a woman who was attacked for being dressed ‘indecently’. (Pic: Reuters)

It is a funny thing, the African’s relationship with his Africanness. Like the Christian discusses ‘the flesh’ when falling into the temptation to commit sins, the African brings up the question of Africanness when defending his anti-social behaviour.

When a group of men in Kenya put it into their minds to undress and assault a woman in public because she was dressed “indecently”, some African men defended this move and shrouded their argument in the opaque veil of Africanness. On Facebook posts of this story, top-voted comments included pleas to African women to remain “decent”.

Although it may seem perfectly natural for me to choose anger in such a situation, I decided to skip that step and muse on the meaning of “decency” in the mind of the modern African.

To whom shall we credit such a notion, but the missionaries? To me, it seems the term is only ever used to demonise some part of the African population. Whether it is homosexuals, or women wearing miniskirts, the question of Africanness is only ever brought up when violations of human rights are committed by Africans. But where did such an idea begin?

It is easy to surmise my previous conclusion, with an examination of even the simplest look into African history. With the introduction of European missionaries to African society came the idea of “decency” – more so the idea that the scanty attire of traditional Africans was indecent.

For how else can this notion develop organically in the minds of people who live in one of the hottest climates in the world? Surely, it cannot. We cannot claim that an obsession with covering up the bodies of women – a very Victorian obsession – could have developed naturally in the minds of African people.

I say “African” and not “Kenyan” because this issue is not confined to one African country. Just last year Swaziland talked about enforcing anti-miniskirt laws that were penned during, gasp, colonial times. Even in my native Botswana, there was a time when young girls were warned against wearing revealing attire at the bus station. This is not a Kenyan issue, it is an African issue.

To take it further, this is not a dress issue, it is an identity issue. More specifically, this is a crisis of identity. There must exist some conflict in the mind of a man deeming a woman in a miniskirt indecent when only a century ago his ancestors deemed even less clothing perfectly acceptable. Particularly when events still exist in the contemporary setting where African women dress in said traditional attire without protest from the very men happy to police the dress of women in urban settings. The disjoint in logic can only be rationalised by a mind in conflict.

In condemning the miniskirt, the modern African joins in the tradition of condemning his ancestors – a tradition inspired by the European missionaries of the 18th century.

I say this because even those that condemned the behaviour of these men used words like “barbaric” and “primitive” to describe them – in other words, they used the language of colonialism. Even in the minds of those that deplored this behaviour, there swam images of some immoral ancestors that went about undressing women.

This too is a symptom of an identity crisis, of associating decency with Other, and then going further to associate the immoral acts committed in the name of correcting indecency with barbarism, or quite clearly pre-colonial Africanness.

Both assumptions are founded in missionary teachings, whether asserters know it or not. It is this idea that pre-colonial Africans truly were morally bankrupt. This is incorrect.

Even in the most patriarchal societies (if there is such a scale), I doubt that undressing a woman in public would happen without consequence. The dignity of a woman may have not belonged to her, but it belonged to somebody (likely, a father or husband) and doing whatever it took to violate it would not have gone unpunished. Our ancestors were not a group of speaking baboons: they too, had standards of conduct.

Ultimately, when situations like this arise, it is necessary that we examine our thinking and then act accordingly. We cannot allow people to use African culture as a scapegoat. We must be able to see if anything is to be deemed “barbaric” it is the idea that enforcing European missionary ideals in modern Africa is in some way “right.” We must examine our beliefs about decency and dignity and reconcile them with a switch in thinking: with an embracing of the realities that we inhabit. It should be a priority for us in this day and age to correct mentalities that defend any violations of basic human rights and use understanding of history to inspire the creating of environments that nurture and heal our social, religious and mental conflicts. And for this to be done, we should know that there are no [insert african nation] problems, but African problems.

Siyanda Mohutsiwa is a 21-year-old mathematics major at the University of Botswana. She is currently slumming it in Finland. Follow her on Twitter: @SiyandaWrites