I’ve been following blog posts from the wonderful group of young Africans at Rise Africa. The focus this month has been on how we fall in love with our “Africaness” and there have been insightful posts from young men and women from all across the continent talking about how they came to accept and bear their African heritage with pride.
A common theme which has arisen in the posts is that idea that the enthusiasm with which many Africans are embracing their heritage is because it is now “cool” to be African. To rock natural hair and tribal prints. To know your culture and traditional language, to know your music and to know the writers who tell your stories, is the latest trend and self respecting hispter of African origin should know. So in addition to the Starbucks and black framed glasses and knowledge of all the cool rock bands before they were cool, we now have colorful headwraps, speak with that ever so slight inflection which hints at knowledge of another tongue, we wear beads, keep natural hair and listen to Wizkid.
This echoes a question one of my sisters asked me recently. “Where is all this new found zeal for all things African from?”
She asked this in response to the fact that I now listened to PSquare who I usually made fun of. (Never mind that I reserved my sharpest criticisms for their songs which merely mimicked American singers. I have a deep abiding love for genuine traditional African music, from whatever country)
Where is my (not so ) new found zeal for Africa from?
It comes from a place of anger and frustration. I’ve always been African. I’ve just never had to put conscious thought to being “African” until I moved to the US. Since moving to the US I’ve found myself having to tell the story of my Africa over and over. I’ve had to redefine it’s image in my daily interactions, facing massive ignorance only fueled by the images of the continent so well loved by the mainstream media. We all know that image: that of a helpless , hapless continent, trapped by it’s history, mired in it’s corruption and violence, abandoned by it’s children, whose only salvation lies in the hands of foreign intervention. The Africa that knows only pain and disease and suffering. The Africa that many of our leaders carry on their heads as they jostle in line for international dollars that regular Africans never see and have learned to live without. That Africa that many of us never knew.
I’ve heard African art referred to as rudimentary and its music and dance as unsophisticated in their expression or vulgar (too much bum bum shaking). My reply that comparing our dances, art and music to western versions was like comparing apples to oranges fell on deaf ears. It all came to a head during a heated argument in which I was arguing for more of an investment into training locals to provide the healthcare needs for Africa rather than shipping in volunteers and expertise from abroad. To which an American friend said “But they can’t even count… they barely can go to school. They need volunteers to at least count the pills. ” I wondered who he meant by “they” for a moment then it struck me that he meant “us” Africans. Of course, I blistered his ears with what I thought of his patronizing attitude but later that day, I broke down and railed and cried bitterly because my protestations rang false even to my ears.
“What do they even know?” I asked my then boyfriend. To which he simply replied “They know what they see on TV.”
But it was more than that. It wasn’t only what they did or didn’t know, it was also what I had failed to show. I had to acknowledge the part I was passively playing in promoting that sad image. How can our music be powerful when I am all too eager to listen to foreign music, leaving my own music for the privacy of my home or when in gatherings with other Africans? How can our clothes be beautiful when I can’t wear them with pride despite the stares? How can our cuisine be diverse and delicious when I am too embarrassed by the strong aromas to take them to work? How can our languages, our history or culture be worthy, when I am willing to cover my accent, adopt new traditions (Baby shower vs. Bornhouse)? How can my country be worth my dedication when leaving it was my dream for so long?
There is a high price for true assimilation as America would prefer. Assimilation that would require either that I forget the cradle of my fathers or at the very least that I push it to the very back of my life, in order to fit in. An assimilation that would need me to develop a double personality almost. A price I find myself unwilling to pay as each day goes by. For me, my protestations to Africa’s beauty and value, were betrayed by my reluctance to hold high her pennant in a foreign land.
Does it really matter why anyone is now African?
I say it isn’t. As long as we can find something to be proud of in our homelands, I say go for it. Fly the flag high. Even if the thing that we are proud of is the fact that other people are proud of their homelands, it works for me. It is my firm belief that the transformation of the continent has to come from within each one of us Africans, where we find something worth fighting for and saving in our individual countries or tribes, be it our art, music, languages, philosophies, natural remedies, manner of grooming, way of life and community interaction, the health of the people, their education, their economic development, whatever it is, find something to fight for. Some thing to be proud of.
To echo the sentiment over at Rise Africa : Africa is Done Suffering.