The tendency of some Africans to so generally speak for and on behalf of all of Africa’s inhabitants is, in my view, a sad development. In fact, I have had personal misgivings with the term “Africa” itself which, as an already large consensus has held, negates and dehumanizes the specific and contextual experiences that characterize the lives of distinct African persons. This position is clear and I need not speak on it further. I, however, wish to speak somewhat more on what I think is an additional problem with the term or the idea of “Africa” and even “African”. These considerations will finally lead me towards the comments I wish to express about problem with the tendency of some Africans to so generally speak for and on behalf of all of Africa’s inhabitants.
Firstly, I will contextualize my argument within my own experiences so as to avoid speaking generally. I have found from my own experiences – when I have been able to travel around the Southern African Development Community (SADC) neighborhood of Southern Africa – that the term African, in spite of all its historical heaviness accrued from the experiences particularly of colonization, remains a hollow and blunt political term that adds no real advantages, accords no real benefits or privileges, nor provides guarantees in both the formal and informal spheres of social life for many people. It would appear to me that to be African really entails an affordance to identify directly with a particular era of time – but without necessarily participating in any deliberately inclusive and fulfilling way in the practical contemporary issues of today’s Africa. In fact, the question about today’s Africa is largely left hanging, perhaps for the purposes of maintaining a permanent distraction away from “what is really going on – you know, the wealth amassed virtually overnight, the appalling states of governance and so on” – or maybe for the sheer enormity of the effort it would take to comprehensively encapsulate all of the African experience – historical and contemporary – into a beautifully worded definition.
And yet, this would be the problem, wouldn’t it? After all, hasn’t the struggle for African independence and African renaissance been characterized by its proponents as a struggle towards “African self-writing and self-profession”? Hasn’t one of the great atrocities against the inhabitants of the African continent been their total absence in the telling of their own stories, their histories – expressing and experiencing their cultures without external processes of moral vetting? (Speaking about themselves with someone else’s consent and permission as it were). In fact, more recently (perhaps more so in the last 2 decades), we have seen renewed calls, rallying Africa’s inhabitants to pursue and generate knowledge that is drawn out of “authentic” African experience: the assurance of authentic being the local persons themselves actively involved in the articulation of their own experiences.
Additionally, there is a definite call for scholars to turn away from an over-reliance on knowledge produced elsewhere, and to become emboldened to speak authoritatively about their own African-experience-centered research – and with this, the definition of Africa as a black continent has seen some extension affording non-black Africans as well the freedom and space to convey and channel their own sense of African-ness. Implicit within both these moods is the basic and fundamental rationale that every “African” gets to the place where they have the courage to raise their own voice and for that voice (among millions of other voices) to be counted a legitimate and a right voice airing the legitimate and valid opinion of its owner and her outlook. This in itself has greatly blurred the traditional view about what Africa’s cultural boundaries are or ought to be.
And yet these authentic voices are treated as a nuisance or even silenced by the tendency to grand-narrate about what being an African entails. As such, Africans remain under a similar stranglehold of objectification when today, they still hear self-appointed authorities, most notably in but not exclusive to governments, begin to proclaim what the definition of African-ness is, and with it, what the rules of engagement should be with regards to those who do not ascribe to those definitions – and even towards those who do not fit within those definitions (that is, who is a non-Africans). This is also where the problem of citizenship creeps into the picture.
I will illustrate this complex matter in a very brief and crude adumbration as follows: Upon this slippery culturally derived definitional basis of African-ness, which is almost always applied in order to safeguard and police political spaces, the various duties, responsibilities and obligations that States have to their citizens are accorded or denied to individuals and even groups of nationals. (Keeping in mind also that many African States see themselves as custodians of authentic African culture which then forms the canvas upon which other formal arrangements such as constitutions are written and ratified. This was their natural reaction to colonialism after gaining independence). This is also why, in the past, I have argued that while most “Africans” are nationals of various countries, they are not at all times always citizens of their countries, especially if they are seen as transgressors of this unwritten cultural-political code.
And if I may just add an extra point while I am on this important tangent – I have never been granted admission to any country in Africa on the basis of being an African. All admissions I have received have been based on my birth-acquired identity of Malawian or a national of Malawi. It, therefore, follows that to be African is merely to identify with a particular narrative which itself is very much under constant reconstruction and contestation – but it is not a status of any real practical use in contemporary African life. Africa is a wide contested notion that virtually anyone can claim to belong to, and to which no one, at least within such a state of flux, can claim exclusive rights to. Nationhood, it would seem to me, therefore is what is important for functioning across Africa’s countries, while citizenship is what is crucial for functioning within a given country provided that status is maintained by the State to the individual against some enabling cultural basis as already argued elsewhere above.
And so, when citizenship is denied, persons filter across borders and acquire various legal statuses accorded to them on the basis of them being nationals of a given country: which country has “quietly” denied or abrogated them of citizenship. At least this is what appears to be the case from my point of view. My speculation is strengthened even more by the fact that while I was in South Africa for about 4 years, I was able to make demands of the South African government which I would never dare to make of my own government at home. The stability of a citizenship status in South Africa was much more concrete than a citizenship status accorded by the Malawi state – this in spite of the fact that, legally, I was and still am a Malawian without having ever been a South African citizen at any time while I was there (and this is precisely my point – citizenship seems often to be culturally designated within the social and political arrangements that construct relationships between States and their people; it is as such often arbitrary: in such cases, it is faintly legalistic).
And so, with all this in mind, what then accords any particular person from the African continent the right to speak on behalf of us all? I ask this question in response to an interesting article by a British-Nigerian journalist about African-Americans and their “supposed” tendency to appropriate African cultural symbols in order to look trendy and to identify with the so-called motherland. We do not even know the boundaries of who an African is within the present soul-searching as we gradually emerge from a difficult and turbulent past. Who are any of us therefore to prescribe what aspects of “our” culture is exclusively ours. In other words, who essentially is this “us” to whom any particular aspect of “African” culture belongs? And what about cultural appropriation within the African continent? Is it okay for Malawians, some of whom might know very little about “Kenyan culture,” to appropriate Kenyan cultural symbols in order to look trendy in Malawi or elsewhere? What is the fundamental difference between Malawians and African-Americans with regards to a cultural artifact in say, Angola – a country that might be equally little-known to both these nationals? Or, is it that African-Americans are not Africans? In that case, and once more, who exactly is an African, and when does this African speak? (This question has already been problematized above in terms of some self-identification within some aspect of a historical narrative – which itself is potentially boundless).
And then, what about tribes within countries? Is it okay for one tribe in Malawi or Zambia or Uganda to take the symbols of another tribe in Malawi or Zambia or Uganda without knowing fully what they mean and then appropriate them? (Clearly these groups are both “Africans” and are within the same country). And furthermore, what about cultural appropriation within the tribe? Who exactly within the tribe knows the exact meaning of that tribe’s cultural symbolism in relation to other members of that tribe? And if only that person (him or her) knows exactly what this cultural symbolism means, how then shall the rest of them find space for their voices to tell their own stories? Does this not seem all too familiar? Were we not silenced in this fashion before in some turbulent and dehumanizing past when people stood before us and told us who we were and were not? This takes us back to our original problem: why is it so easy to speak on behalf of all Africans, especially in light of our history in which violence was often perpetrated through this very mechanism.
In my humble opinion, there is no further room for this type of policing of cultural life. African-Americans have as much rights as any “African” to appropriate any symbols of their choosing. This will enable all the rest of us so called “Africans” to also do the same. This continent has greatly influenced the world even from its historical position of disadvantage and has borne many children and their descendants in that process. It is time for all of Africa’s children to now speak and to do so freely.
Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.