The Young and Disenchanted

“I be African man, original” – On Identity

Posted on: 13 January, 2010

Le sigh – and another stay at home comes to an end. In 3 days time I’ll be sitting in the Atlanta airport after a vigorous patting-down and grilling by airport authorities (thanks, underwear bomber) waiting for my flight back to NYC and my last semester of college. Although I’m excited for this final stretch and to see all my people back on campus, I’m really going to miss home. The thought of trading jollof rice and the heat of the equator for greasy pizza and North-Eastern snow is wild depressing, especially because this trip home has been particularly enjoyable. My father, feeling adventurous, decided that we should make a trip to Senegal. Yesterday we returned home after spending 6 days in Dakar, which is officially one of my new favourite places in the world. It’s where the French Riviera and the West African savannah had a love child raised by a North African nanny. It’s considerably less chaotic than Lagos, and much more of a walking city. I loved the fact that the buildings were so close to the roadside that you could reach up and touch one of the brightly coloured shutters. It was fun practising my (rusty) French with market traders. And poulet yassa with un peu de pili pili? Heavenly.

Of course, it being a city, the hustlers were out in full effect. Every time we walked out of our hotel, we would be approached by an Abdul/Amadou/Yuyu who would smile and hail us with a “Bonjour!” hoping that we hapless tourists would be persuaded to take him on as our guide (for a few thousand CFA, bien sûr). If only they’d known that we were Nigerians: mon cher, you can’t scam the original scammers. But that was the interesting thing – they didn’t seem to know that we were Nigerians. I got asked if I was everything from Senegalese to Ethiopian, but never my home country. Given recent events, I’m sure most would tell me to be grateful that people don’t think I’m Nigerian. It’s been an interesting pattern since I’ve lived abroad, people thinking that I’m not from West Africa. I’ve been asked if I was from the USA, Kenya, Botswana and even Fiji (yeah, that right there got the side eye). I don’t think there’s anything about the way I look that suggests that I’m not a Nigerian. And as I grew up here, it’s even more baffling to me. Maybe motherfuckers just aren’t that perceptive. Or maybe I have a “non-African” air about me that throws people off – perhaps I don’t come across as your average African.

This is something that has plagued me increasingly throughout my life. What is it about me that makes people think I’m from Brooklyn rather than Ofagbe? Why don’t I come across as “authentic”? I guess the ideal place to begin answering that question would be to figure out what the “typical” African is like. Let’s begin with appearances: according to an African-American security guard at my college, African people are black.  As in, we’re all on that chocolate/ebony/midnight type skin tone. I guess my brown skin fails the first test – thanks, Scottish great-grandfather. Second of all, African women don’t wear their hair the way I do. In Lagos, I stand out when my hair is fro’ed – most women here have their hair relaxed, in braids or in weaves. If they do wear it natural, it’s cut short like a man’s. Second fail. What about the way I dress? West African women are supposed to wear ankara (traditional cloth often sewn into dresses or a skirt and blouse), and love them some gold jewellery. I guess my skinny jeans and wooden bracelets fail this authenticity test. Other ways in which I don’t measure up: I don’t speak any African languages. My accent has lingering traces of South-East England and New York City. I didn’t go to secondary school in Nigeria. I’m not poor. I like Russian literature… the list continues. Everywhere I go, from the streets of Dakar to the sidewalks of NYC, people seem to enjoy reminding me how I’m not really African. Yes, I have a Nigerian passport, but because my appearance and experiences are not typical, I’ve somehow lost my African-ness (if, indeed, I ever had it) and fallen into a no-man’s-land (after all, with a name like mine I can’t possibly pass for a real Westerner or as being from any other part of the world but West Africa). As a friend once told me, my “bourgeoisie” background which enabled me to fly home 3 times in as many months for my sisters’ weddings undermines my claim to being a “real” African. Mon Dieu! – I am, vraiment, in the position of being a member of the colonised elite that Fanon and so many others have written about. Caught between the world of the colonial power, which my education has given me some level of access to, but to which my skin tone denies me full entry, and the world of the colonised subject which my socio-economic status has moved me out of reach, what am I to do?

Following along this reason, I guess Leopold Senghor, Chinua Achebe and other intellectuals like them are also not legitimate Africans. Neither are any of the Africans that attend my university. Although some of them pass more “tests” than I do, surely their failure of others means that they too are condemned to flounder in the frustration of being an undefined hybrid, of not being fully able to “belong” to their respect homes.

Just in case you haven’t noticed, I think all of this right here is bullshit. To all the people who have questioned the authenticity of my West African-ness: are you fucking serious? The fact that you define “true African-ness” just highlights the extent to which your mindset is dominated by colonialism. In case you forgot, when the British, French and Portuguese came it was them who drew a line between the “native” and the “citizen.” Your denial of my African-ness is you repeating the exact same ideology. Here’s the wonderful thing about identity: it’s fluid. This means that it doesn’t follow a set of rules or fall under a single list, especially in the context of Africa. I have the freedom to shape my own African identity, to accept what I was given, change what I don’t like and embrace the new. Just because it doesn’t match up to your personal definition doesn’t make it less valid. If you tell someone that their Western education makes them un-African, you are suggesting that Africans can only learn within the context of Africa. If you tell someone that their clothing makes them an outsider, you are saying that Africans can only dress in an African way. If you tell someone that speaking English instead of Wolof highlights a colonial mentality, you are claiming that Africans are only truly African when speaking “native” languages, and underscoring your own colonial mentality.  In other words, you are making a monolith out of the people of this incredibly diverse continent and reinforcing the very stereotypes that are keeping this continent down.

I think it’s important to make it clear that I am in no way, shape or form privileging my own experiences as an African to those of others: my American education doesn’t make me “better” than someone who went to the University of Lagos. Although I’m not going to engage in the “Western” vs. “non-Western” debate here, I’m definitely not okay with the privileging of Western ideals and standards over the many African ones. What I do what to emphasise is that difference – even when that difference comes from outside of the African context – is what makes Africa so vibrant and beautiful. Part of what I love about being African is the fact that you can see so many different cultural influences at play within our societies – for example, the way Dakar is a totally different kind of African city to Accra because of their histories.

In summary, I don’t believe judging people according to how “African” you think they are in order to make yourself feel better is doing anyone any favours. We’re ALL African, period. And especially to those who tell me these things as we both sit in an American university classroom – c’mon son. Fuckouttaherewiththatshitson. Africans, “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery” and fucking do better.

And with that said, let me go find some rice and beans to eat. I’m starved.

P.S. Title is from Fela’s “Gentleman.”

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