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Monday, June 11, 2012

on (not) being African


Am not sure I can turn this into a full blog post but here goes. My train of thought was inspired by reading this article about BET introducing a new category in their music awards for African music. It’s an extremely well written article. Cyber footnotes sprinkled all over the place so you know he’s not talking out of his ass. Then he goes on to make a beautifully complex point in such a matter of fact way that you can’t help but be left feeling slightly smarter for being able to follow it.

“It’s a daunting task to represent a continent with a billion people and a thousand languages and cultures” 

By the time you gets to this sentence in the piece you wholeheartedly agree and he’s right. 1000 languages seems like it’s possible. Kenya has 42 and that’s a paltry number with Nigeria’s 250 thrown into the works. With such an abundance of languages there is precious little holding us together as a continent. Our tongues trip are all over the place. Our cultures; vastly different, our religions; so split they seem to have come from a babel of bibles. The truth is for African countries that are not our neighbours the only thing holding us together is our colonial heritage. I can identify with Nigerians because they speak English like us. Because they fought the British like us. Because they seem to have moved all over the world like us.

Same with Ghana, except not really. Ghana evokes respect as the first to cast off the colonial yoke. That country was treated reverentially in history class. Kwame Nkrumah was a messiah. John the Baptist paving the way showing the rest of us what could be done, leading by an example shining so bright his name still defines a country for generations of Kenyan schoolchildren. Lumumba was a messiah. Cut down in his prime, we have heard the stories. Stories of a coup engineered by America a tragic hero, the only kind we can ever accept. If only he had lived things would be so different... that’s both the tragedy and the saving grace of leaving behind a good looking corpse. You are not marred by mistakes, camped in compromise, polarised if you stick to principle. You are still an idea waiting fulfilment. Some western philosopher am not sure which one, one of the Greeks, it’s been a while since I read Sophie’s world talked about things living in a perfect state in our minds, in the realm of ideas but that bringing them into our world messes them up. That’s probably why we remember JFK, Lumumba, and Tom Mboya. They are never the man but the potential they represented.

With that paragraph I almost lost my train of thought, or the logic of my argument. I wanted to write this to say that with the prevalence of so many cultures from all over, so many histories people from other parts of Africa seem more foreign to me than a European would, at least an English, French or German. But in making the point I was reminded that I knew about Lumumba, Sese-seko, that these names mean something to me. Then in the end to explain why being cut down in your prime leaves you there I turn to a western philosopher.

On being African: this comes up a lot.

I hate when I can’t find the link am looking for, the exact post that writing this post would be better if i could. I love to be properly annotated like the first post above, to have beautiful links all over the place upholding Wikipedia’s mantra that verifiability is better than truth. Anyway this guy wrote at some point about being African in America. Maybe he wrote about being Kenyan. But it was a complaint, well a question about why other people think they can lay a claim on him just because they are from the same continent. I wish I had the link; it’s an argument that makes more sense when followed in his words. Later on he seemed to have found the answer in the writings of Svetlana Boym it is...

"a pang of intimate recognition, a hope that sneaks in through the back door, punctuating the habitual estrangement of everyday life abroad."

On being African:

Yes I am. Of course I am. But it begins to get to me when I tell a girl I am from Kenya and she tells me about her friend, brother, lover who once went to Congo, to Cote d voir, to South Africa. "Yer I knew this girl from Poland once," I want to say. But that’s not nearly foreign enough for Norway; I want to throw someone from the other end of Europe in their faces at that time. "Ah, you’re from Norway?" I once met this great Italian girl, loved her pizza. I want them to look at me blankly and ask me why am bringing this up, why can’t I see that Norway and Italy have nothing to do with each other. I want to be able to leave it at that and see it dawn on her that am giving her the same look. It’s mean though, it feels like it would be angry so I soften it with a smile.

I don’t understand what being African means or if it does mean anything. What does our position on a piece of rock have to do with who we are and how we relate. Historical interaction, cultural similarities, religious influences, genetic swaps. These are important. That we are from the same rock doesn’t make me more like you does it? That our skin is similar doesn’t mean our souls are, that out hair is thick doesn’t mean our bond will be too.

But for some reason... people will lay a claim on you because you are both from Africa. The guys do I have  completely failed to understand African girls in Kristiansand. They nod at you on the streets(the guys). We don’t know each other but there’s a feeling that I should nod back. I would nod back to anyone but only they nod first. Even in the darkest winter they nodded. They stop and talk to me on the street and it feels natural to stop and talk to them. I told this girl about it, “do you have friends here?” she had asked itss a very common question in Norway. They are so unflinchingly honest with themselves about their country’s culture of blocking out anything new and unfamiliar . So honest I can’t believe they aren’t just lying to appease. To hear it from them Norwegians are cold and hard to make friends with:

“You just met them on the street? Did they just walk up to you and say you’re black, we can be friends?” She was really trying to grasp how two strangers get to know each other without the moderating influence of a binding common activity to carry out the introductions

That you can make friends on streets and street corners is a way of life for many, many people. But here I really do think they laid a claim on me just because I was black. I didn’t think it was anything to do with skin colour more a culture thing. I have tried talking to Norwegians on the street just saying hi, and that kind of reaction can kill the most outgoing soul in  a matter of months. However if I say hallo to this(black) guy, he’ll nod back, he’ll stop and talk, he’ll be interested in hanging out some time, he’ll…

Everyone does this though. Most foreigners hang out in foreign sets in every country. But this is supposed to be about being African, since am thinking as I write, it keeps rambling back and forth between all the things that seem to inform this internal debate am having. The feeling of otherness and foreingness isn't just an African thing its owned by anyone far away from home looking in every crowd searching for a "pang of intimate recognition."

But my point was I have almost nothing in common with the guys from the west of Africa, the guys from the south are equally faceless. The names of their great leaders and the personalities of their great struggles are what I hold in my mind as a place map for entire countries. I know South Africa as Mandela and De clerk. As Mbeki and Zuma as the ANC and diamonds, as Shaka Zulu and the Boers as the world cup and rugby. At the same time I know France as their revolution and that she probably did not say “give them cake.” As de Gaulle and the resistance he led. As Zidane's famous headbutt, as wine and the Eifll tower, as Sarkozy and Holland. As an IMF director who… well he has sex problems. As painters and writers and holidays taken  in the south of France and… and …. And…

 The difference is that one is closer to home right? But in reality Europe is much closer to home than West Africa is. In terms of economic distance I mean. It costs more to go there than it would to come here. Add t to that the information I have about nearly all of these places is second-hand. Someone saw, someone heard, someone knew.

 This issue of identity. Am not sure that other continents aren’t struggling with it. Maybe it’s my lack of width when it comes to internet reading, American and British magazines and Kenyan bloggers seem to fill up my time. Maybe if I read more English blogs from Taiwan and Vietnam I would see the same seeking, the same searching for an identity. The same repulsion of a shared one, the same need to be different fighting the yearning to belong.


1,000 cultures seems to preclude any notion anyone would have of declaring an African identity of owning something that could be said to be the same for everyone. I read a lot about the quest though. The struggle for definition as an African. To have our own dress, and literature, to have a culture that defines us. If we go this way though I wonder if I’ll be able to tell the girl that I know someone from Spain too when she brings up Angola.

The article that got me writing this comes from a site called Africa is a country. The title is well, pretty sarcastic and it holds in it a lot. It says Africa is not a country peopled by one people. It holds more diversity in it than any South American jungle could boast. We know this but the search for identity continues. You have to belong somewhere and the world is too connected to belong to just one country. Incidentally that brings up something else. Kenya is a country. Yes it is. But what does it mean to be a Kenyan? We have no identity as a country. It doesn’t mean being able to speak Swahili because take a walk to Tanzania, Congo, Rwanda, or the richer parts of Nairobi, the prouder parts of Nyanza where the national language isn’t spoken due to ignorance, a misplaced contempt that makes me angry to think about because it’s not a mark of pride to be unable to speak another language, and various other reasons. It’s not religion, it’s not history. What really defines a Kenyan is that they lived inside borderlines drawn up by the English a hundred years ago.

An imaginary line separates us from our neighbours and the human mind used all its will power to turn this line into reality. Because there is such a thing as a Kenyan. We still have a long struggle for identity ahead of us. While simultaneously asking  ourselves what it means to be African. Not everyone with black skin is African, so we fold that into a subset of what it means to be black. Not everyone downtrodden and screwed over historically and economically is black so we have to ask ourselves what it means to be powerless. Not everyone who is human and struggling with the harsh realities of life without happiness and meaning and the important questions of substance and purpose is powerless. So what does it mean to be human?

On being African: I like it but I do say am Kenyan. I insist on that separation if the subject comes up. Searches for identity begin and go on for hundreds of years. Europe has almost uniform cultural and historical bonds within the same country and that makes it easier for them to define themselves. We don’t. It makes it harder that we live in a much more interconnected world than the Chinese did when they were in the infant stages of their struggle. There is no great wall to be built to stop outside interference and allow us all the space and time that’s needed to find an identity. There is no quiet contemplation, philosophical mumblings and ramblings don’t get very far. Right now the world is opening up for everyone and most of the people who really think about what it means to be African do it because they are far from home, or they are at home but with people who aren’t from home. An innocent query from a foreigner, a compliment even can send you down a hole of self-questioning. I am me. But that’s only true because I come from this rock and not that one so what does it mean to come from this rock? Is there a divine purpose to it? Or am I just seeking out meaning in places without. In dead rocks?

You know the worst thing about these kind of questions(love when I can quote the bible)”vanity, oh vanity all is vanity.” What if that’s all this is. Is it important? Is it really? There was a time when your state mattered. That’s where you derived protection and that’s all you knew but everything is breaking up now. The internet, television, books, travel make it all less important. Myself in relation the state, to my state was important a while back, much more important. It’s important now but I feel it much less. Also there is all the noise in the background, no great wall, no great time, no great influence from great thinkers and… well it’s too complicated. I still think it is important though to craft an image, an identity. A national one is definitely more important than a continental one. and for fear of never stopping here is where i drop the pen…

If anyone stuck to the end am sorry for the rambling nature of this post. And this makes the “am not sure I could turn this into a full post" part absolutely ridiculous too. Writing usually makes me think things through and helps me arrive at conclusions and I really tried with this but alas I am words and worlds away..