ONE BIG QUESTION: WHO IS AN AFRICAN? WHAT YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BEFORE YOU SAY YOU’RE AFRICAN.
Sserubiri Africa Uhuru – A proper definition of any people must relate them to their ancestral land, their culture and their history. The central factor in the formation of identity is the interaction of people with their environment, especially an interaction with their land, which produces culture. At the very basis of culture are commonly held values that historically arose from the interaction between people and their ancestral land.
A people’s history is their story, the record of what they did and how they did what they did. The combination of all of these factors produces identity, which is the primary marker of origin, belonging and distinctiveness and the major factor in the proper orientation of a people in the world. An Afrikan is therefore a person who shares with others a common geographical origin and ownership of, and spiritual attachment to their ancestral land known as the continent of Afrika, certain physical characteristics, a common history, a common set of cultural values and consequently a common worldview, a common heritage and common economic, political and social interests. These core characteristics which amount to a specific identity set Afrikans apart from other peoples.
The search for an African identity began with Pan Africanism, a movement, which spread out to take different forms. The young generation, and perhaps the rural population of Africa might conceptually know little about the upsurge of the movements for promoting Pan Africanism, African personality, African Humanism, Ujamaa, Negritude, Consciencism, etc. Different disciplines, such as African Theology, African philosophy, African History, African literature, African art, to mention only a few of them, are a historical product of the search for an “African identity”, and are related to Pan Africanism. Communal and personal developments in Africa are threatened. Greed for wealth and misuse of power, individualism and so forth, could become the death-knell of our African values and identity.
The content call by African leaders that Africans ought to strive after creating a society that respects its cultural values has been heard many a time. To be able to do this, Africans must first discover themselves so as to be able to venture into the future as a respected people. Africans find themselves in turmoil, and a painful one for that matter. Africans are searching for a future, based on their traditions, but one which at the same time is open to changes and to a new worldview. The African of today is a modern person and feels the full impact, if not the blast, of modern civilization. Many Africans are torn- apart; in some sense, they are “falling apart.” The sense of being double, a split personality, of being half, is felt by many Africans who are influenced by such dualities as; two cultures, two value- systems and two worldviews, African and the Western.
The Pan- African Movement sought to find African roots and to restore African dignity and identity, which had protractedly been shattered during the slave trade and the colonial period. The different movements for promoting African socialism, African Humanism, Negritude, Black Consciousness, Ujamaa, etc. definitely have some of their roots in Pan Africanism. They form part of the inevitable search for an African identity and orientation, that earlier had been emphasized by different African leaders.
The drums and the death toll of African traditions, and African identity can be heard at a distance; hence one another have courageously declared “the death of African tradition.” Any meaningful talk about inculturation, Africanization or indigenization must, and should consider the African identity and worldview seriously, for though history has passed we can learn from it. African traditions convey certain values and some of these values could be useful for modern Africa.
The search for Africa’s contribution to world civilization has had a strong impact upon the academic and religious fields. The different disciplines which have cropped up, such as; African History, African literature, African Art, African philosophy and African Theology, to mention just a few, clearly underline the point. Such attempts need to be understood within historical contexts; the pre-independence period in Africa made it necessary to have hopes and aspirations which were in a sense expressed in the movements for promoting African Socialism, Negritude, etc.
At stake here is the survival of African values and identity. Some Africans are running away from themselves and their traditional past. This has been caused by the rapid intervention of some aspects of western culture i.e. cultural imperialism. Many Africans today believe that the Western value system and world- view are of universal validity, which, as such, must be applicable also to Africa. Many believe that Africans can catch up, and be like people of the “developed” countries. Such mental enslavement is the worst side effect of colonialism and of the uninculturated missionary activity.
A conscious corrective endeavor is required because; whilst it is necessary for us to tell Westerners to develop a less self- centered view of the world, which inevitably places them in an undue position of superiority, we Africans must struggle to come out of our negative ethnocentrism. During the period of the slave trade, colonialism and missionary activity, as well as in the earlier post- independence era, terms like; ‘savage’, ‘pagan’, ‘native’, ‘primitive’, ’tribe’, ’uncivilized’, ’underdeveloped’ were introduced and used in references above all, to Africa and Africans. Such terms, even if they might have had neutral connotation or meaning, are today regarded as being emotionally loaded and as implying a value judgment.
Today, the African continent finds itself in a challenging and critical situation. Pan Africanism, the OAU, African socialism, sensitivity to African personality, African Humanism, Ujamaa, Negritude, Consciencism, and such like, have lost something of their initial pertinence and thrust. Some Africans tend to identify themselves with their ethnic roots, others with their nations, a few with the African continent, others with their political parties, and others with ‘religious belongingness’. Many Africans get confused, when it comes to the question of loyalty; should one be loyal to the state, to the ethnic group, to African traditions, to the family, to a partial form of religion, to ‘modernism’ or to oneself?
Who is an African?
As the cradle of life and the starting journey of humanity everyone can claim to be African. Even the racist Apartheid architects called themselves and their language Afrikaan while they oppressed the black South Africans. The Arab countries of North Africa are full members of the various African continental and regional organizations, while they create exclusive, only Arab Organizations like the UMA (Union of the Maghreb Arab establishment in 1990). What about the Asians of East Africa? To what extent do the Europeans of southern Africa, the Arabs of North Africa and the Asians of East Africa feel African like the black Africans of the continent and in Diaspora do? The answer to this question differs according to which perspective one wants to underline. Some would claim that an African is a person born in or originating from Africa. Others would trace the Africa’s history to the distant past, including the era of slavery and colonialism. Others would see their Africannes in their ethnic and cultural roots; as Igbo, Akan, Ashanti, Galla, Gikuyu, Gandi, and so on.
People define themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs, and institutions. They identify with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations. … In coping with identity crisis, what counts for people are blood and belief, faith and family. People rally to those with similar ancestry, religion, language, values, and institutions and distance themselves from those with different ones.
As a first step out of that costly error, we must Afrocentrically limit the African identity to those from Africa who have, over the centuries, been singled out as targets for enslavement by the black color of our skins. Hence, whites, European as well as Arab–the very predators who decided to target blacks for racialised chattel enslavement– cannot be legitimately included with us, their prey, just because they‘ve forcibly made themselves our neighbors on the African landmass.
By the Africans, Pan Africanism can legitimately mean only the members of the indigenous populations of Africa who were, for the last 20 centuries, targeted for enslavement by Arabs and Europeans on account of their black skin color. That is the fundamental historical factor. Anybody who is not a biological descendant of these blacks cannot qualify as an African. Perhaps we could make our usage sufficiently distinctive by reserving the term Afrikaan for such indigenous populations and their descendants – until we adopt a name for ourselves from an Afrikan language. In which case, we are interested in Afrikans and after that in Afrika their homeland, and not first in Africa, the continent, and then in Africans those populations of any race whatever that are now located in the African continent, whether black or white, indigenous our exogenous, imperialist predators or their prey. Pan Africanism must therefore, with Black Consciousness rigor, limit its constituency to Afrikans, i.e. Black Africans and their global Diaspora and, provisionally, rename itself Pan Afrikanism. Black Consciousness historical considerations aside, it would be scientifically incorrect to define Afrikans without including the biological/racial factor of black color/phenotype.
Furthermore, just as it is the indigenous Chinese who define who are Chinese, and the indigenous Arabs who define who are Arabs, and the indigenous Europeans who define who are Europeans, so too do we indigenous Africans, a.k.a. Afrikans, have the right and duty to define who are Africans. And if it is in our interest to include a phenotype factor, black skin, in our definition, we must do so, regardless what anybody else thinks. In this regard, we need to note the Chinese example: To the Chinese government, people of Chinese descent, even if citizens of another country, are members of the Chinese community and hence in some measure subject to the authority of the Chinese government. Chinese identity comes to be defined in racial terms. Chinese are those of the same ―race, blood, and culture, as one PRC scholar put it. In the mid- 1990s, this theme was increasingly heard from governmental and private Chinese sources.
For Chinese and those of Chinese descent living in non-Chinese societies, the mirror test thus becomes the test of who they are: ―Go look in the mirror is the admonition of Beijing-oriented Chinese to those of Chinese descent trying to assimilate into foreign societies.
Yes indeed! Arabs and Europeans may be settled in Africa, but that doesn‘t make them Afrikans! Just because a snake has crawled into your bedroom and settled down to rear its young doesn‘t mean you should now count and embrace it as a member of your family. It would be extremely irrational and Afrocidal for Afrikans to accept a non-racial, continentalist concept of their identity.
Sserubiri Africa Uhuru is a columnist with Africa Thisday. He writes from Uganda. All correspondence to: email@example.com