Are you an African?
By Ato Bob
“My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t end there.
At least that's what I would choose to believe.” - Barack Obama, American President in “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance”
Most of my readers, being African Diasporas in Europe would think or say: What kind of question is that? You know I am from Kenya (or Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Benin, Rwanda, Burundi, South Africa, Madagascar, Tanzania…) so I am an African. O.K. then let me ask the question in a different way: How African do you feel or better how much closer does your country feel, compared to how you feel about Africa?
Does that keep you thinking for a while or can you answer straight away? Here are some thought provoking words on who is an African.
Who is an African?
Is the answer simply: anybody born in Africa or is there more to it?
In the book “Who is an African? Identity, Citizenship and the Making of the Africa-Nation@ edited by Nigerian scholar, Jideofor Adibe, columnist and editor of the multidisciplinary journal, “African Renaissance”, published by Adonis & Abbey Publishers Ltd., he writes:
Who is an African? At face value, the answer seems obvious. Surely, everyone knows who the African is, it would seem. But the answer becomes less obvious once other probing qualifiers are added to the question. How is the African identity constructed in the face of the mosaic of identities that people of African ancestry living within and beyond the continent bear? Do all categorised as Africans or as having an African pedigree perceive themselves as Africans? Are all who perceive themselves as Africans accepted as such? Are there levels of “Africanness”, and are some more African than others? How does African identity interface with other levels of identity and citizenship in Africa? And what are the implications of the contentious nature of African identity and citizenship for the projects of pan-Africanism, the making of the Africa-nation, and Africa’s development trajectories?
In the May 2012 issue of The African bulletin I wrote (again) about the AU and the African Diaspora http://www.mediablackberry.com/index.php?oid=12869 if you missed it, which includes the issue of Pan-Africanism on which our Jideofor Adibe in the earlier mentioned publication says the following:
Though the projects of pan-Africanism and the making of the Africa-nation have not achieved the desired levels of success, some of the contributors found sufficient grounds for optimism: These grounds include the deepening democratic ethos in the continent, which is believed will unleash a love of freedom that will supersede the fissiparous tendencies that underlie the various notions of Africanity; and the rise of new economic powers such as India and China, which are increasingly looking towards Africa as the next big destination. The emergence of Barrack Obama, whose father is Kenyan, as the President of the United States of America, also appears to be unleashing a new wave of can-do attitude. It is argued that for many Africans, Obama is both an African name they can relate to, and a metaphor expressing that anything is possible if you strive hard for it with the ‘right attitude.’ This ‘right attitude’ is an attitude that is post-chauvinism, for it is only by being post-racial and a reconciler that a Blackman, with an African Muslim father, who was not born into privilege, could emerge president of the most powerful country in the world. This lesson is not lost on Africans and it is a powerful boost to the African unity project.
I think that a positive attitude towards Pan-Africanism, while not overlooking the idealism that often overshadows reality is the thing to do. To name a spade a spade, the AU is not that successful yet to establish unity in political and humanitarian issues and often shies away from firm criticism or concrete measures. However, being Dutch and a European, I am proud of how far we have come in the EU to have countries work together, but it also took us a very long time and we are not there yet! So we should give the AU due credit and more often benefit of the doubt.
On the blog site Conversing Unrehearsed labelled as ‘spirituality on the road’ blogger Curtis Love posts “White Africans: Africans of the Soil by Adoption”
I think that along the journey of life, through circumstance and experience all of us have particular questions awakened within us. The beauty of life lies in the fact that many people will pass through the same (or at least similar) experiences and yet come out with different questions which they desire to be answered. These questions become a driving force within us as we seek to navigate the path of life.
One of the key questions that have been awakened in me and that I continue to wrestle with is, ‘what does it mean to be a white person living in Africa?’ While it is true that I have European (British and Dutch) ancestry, Africa is the only place worthy of being called my home. My first breath was taken from the mouth of Mother Africa and God willing my last will be taken here. My first step was taken on African soil and my wish is to one day return to the soil I first stepped on.
Some people would argue that my white skin excludes any claim I might make to being African. This is a kind of mortal wound to my soul for if I am not a child of Africa I am an orphan, homeless and without a mother. Generally these people equate Africaness with black skin. To be fair most of our immediate response to what constitutes Africaness would more than likely include having black skin. The problem is that if this is true then most of Northern Africa (Egypt, Morocco, Libya etc.) would be excluded from any claim to African identity. So if black skin is not the mark of Africaness, can I in any meaningful way call myself an African and on what grounds?
My good friend Mzi has posted a truly beautiful and insightful comment on this question (read here http://curtisamongfriends.wordpress.com/2009/03/06/everyone-is-african/#comment-16. Mzi is someone who has taken the time to understand the identity struggle many young (and old?) post apartheid white South Africans are having. He has been a helpful and supportive companion as I have wrestled with these questions. Quoting from Prof. Ali Mazrui’s essay called “Africans of the blood…Africans of the soil”, Mzi draws out two definitions of what it means to be an African• Africans of the Blood are defined in racial and genealogical terms. They are identified with the black race. As far as I am aware I would not fall into this category Africans of the Soil are defined in geographical terms. They are identified with the African continental in nationality and ancestral location.
Mzi concludes by saying that ‘white South Africans are Africans of the soil by adoption’. This statement is pregnant with the potential to bring much healing and restoration to many whites who feel alienated and often unwanted in Africa, especially South Africa. I would probably add a nuance to what Mzi has laid out as a definition of being African by saying, to be African is to be committed to the future and fate of Africa and all her people.
In other words I might argue that though you might be living on African soil and may have African nationality, if you are not committed to the future and fate of Africa and all her people you exclude yourself from a claim to African identity. This is where I think many of us whites fail, we are more concerned about our particular interests in South Africa as opposed to the fate and future of all South Africans.
The AU and the African Diaspora
The African Union defines the Diaspora as “People of African Origin living outside the continent, irrespective of citizenship and nationality and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and building of the African Union”.
I think you will agree with me that this is very broad definition which includes people in Europe, North and South America, the Middle East and not to forget parts of Asia.
Whether all those do see and feel themselves as African, apart from being nationals of countries where they actually live is another question.
While the attention is on African Diasporas in Europe and North America the numbers of people of African origin in South America are far larger. According to Wikipedia, the total population in the Caribbean is 39.1 mln of which 73.2 % is from African origin. In South America with a population of 388.5 mln it is 28%7, while in North America out of 491.8 mln just 9% are Afro-American. In Europe less than 1% of 738.8 are of African origin., while in Asia numbers are not known or perhaps negligible in comparison. Adding these figures up gives a huge number of potential African Diasporas or Africans.
Yes I deliberately used ‘potential’, because as I wrote before: Is there really a broad genuine interest in the AU or Pan-African issues among the African Diaspora? Having found oneself in the (European) Diaspora, one first worries being able to stay, next about food and shelter, then to send money home to the family, before considering doing something for one’s village. Dedicating oneself to Africa’s development comes after investing in one’s country including building a house at home. Then again many remain in one of the earlier stages and are too busy with their life and following what happens in their home country to consider the AU or Pan-African issues.
There should be however plenty of others left, who do want to answer the call of the AU and ‘who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and building of the African Union’.
When you will read this, on Africa Day the 25th of May, South Africa has hosted the ‘Global African Diaspora Summit’ at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg will have happened. Look at the following sites for information: The Global Africa Diaspora link on the AU website: http://au.int/en/summit/diasporasummit2012 and the South African Website for the Diaspora Summit: www.dirco.gov.za/diaspora
The result of the Global African Diaspora Summit in South Africa should be an inspiration to all Africans and their non-African brothers on the road to a greater Africa!
“Once seen as unpromising and overly risky, Africa is now one of the world’s fastest-growing emerging markets and an increasingly sought-after investment destination.” Mr. Erastus Mwencha, Deputy Chairperson of AUC in his foreword in ‘Invest in Africa: Towards 50 Years of Progress and Development, 2012’
*Ato Bob is a former Dutch Diplomat who now consults with various NGO’s on African issues. He lives in Rotterdam and may be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org