Just the mention of the word Africa brings to mind sickness, disease, poverty, slavery…colonialism — that is if you happen not to have originated from the continent. In fact, for quite a long time now, Africa has not only suffered the ills of Western exploitation, but also bore the dreadful tag “the dark continent.”
South Africa’s former President Thabo Mbeki remarked on what it means to be African at the adoption of the Republic of South Africa’s Constitution Bill:
“Today, as a country, we keep an audible silence about these ancestors of the generations that live, fearful to admit the horror of a former deed, seeking to obliterate from our memories a cruel occurrence which, in its remembering, should teach us not and never to be inhuman again. I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still, part of me….I am an African!”
But is being African a matter of color or is it a matter of choice?
I remember posing this question to my History teacher in college. She was an expatriate from Canada who had come to Ghana on an exchange program. To what seemed to be a tough question, Ms. Brenda answered sharply, “I think it’s by choice. Despite the legal and historical attributes to being African, I must say that just as being a vegetarian or atheist remains a choice, so is being African.”
Ms. Brenda may have a point in her above statement, but I guess she may not have had it so easy if I had asked her what it meant to be African.
When I posed this question on social media, I received varied answers that I believe are worth sharing: Tinashe Michael Tapera tackled the question from two perspectives, where being African means A). You were born on, or lived for a significant amount of time on the African continent, such that you identify with the subculture of the region(s) of Africa you lived in. B). You are a permanent resident of an African nation; this allows you to be African and live in the diaspora.
Aside from the argument of geography by Tinashe, the question of what it means to be African garnered a different answer from South African insurance broker Xolani Segwatlhe. For him, being African is a matter of race.
“Being African in simple terms means being a Black person though some may argue that we are more brown as opposed to being black.”
You may disagree with Xolani, but his viewpoint represents many Africans whose experience with Apartheid creates a stark contrast between the identities of Black and White.
My quest to find more answers brought me to Jean Barnard who cleverly sums up his perception when he argues that to be African means:
“To accept that you will be misunderstood by the rest of the world and that’s OK
To arrive at a local airport and feel like you have arrived home
To spend 14 days in Europe (or anywhere) else and get homesick – but not experience this in any other African country.
To identify with Africa’s history and struggle for freedom
To recognize and value Africa’s contribution to the human race and culture
To make a contribution (in any way you can) to making Africa a better place today than it was yesterday
To know in your heart that, despite your time anywhere in the world, that Africa is where you belong
To celebrate Africa’s victories (in any field)
To accept Africa’s faults and do what you can to mitigate them.”
Be that as it may, being African may include maintaining African ideals. Former Burkina Faso President Thomas Sankara summarizes Africaness as, “We must learn to live the African way. It’s the only way to live in freedom and with dignity.”