Over the years, I have taken up a new identity. I have embraced a wide and broad title. A title which sometimes feels bigger than I am, but one which nonetheless I am carrying with the utmost pride and dignity. Now, I am African.
At first, I was amused when people referred to me as an African. It was both exasperating and infuriating when I saw how some struggle to pronounce correctly, the name of my country of birth or sometimes even question its existence. Then, I’d get mildly irritated when non-Africans assumed that there is actually a country called Africa, when they talk about Africa and Africans as if they have no individual presence.
As a matter of fact, there are people who don’t know where my country is, and even though it is sometimes still extremely annoying, instead of wasting time explaining where I am from, it has become convenient to simply say that I am African. So, now, I am simply, “African”.
The fact that I am accepting this broad identity delightfully and humorously does not in any way excuse or justify the ignorance that has informed it. The act of acknowledging this identity does not excuse the off-handedness with which non Africans reach the sweeping conclusion that I am just “African”.
I still call a French French, an Italian Italian, an Irish Irish, etc, before I call them European. Actually, unless I am referring to the European Union, or to the continent in general, I do not use the term “European”. I understand individual identities and people’s right to them. But then, I am an African. So, I’ve come to accept and embrace the fact that I am, in fact, African, not minding the fact that it is a continent of about 54 countries of which I know only a few. I am wearing the badge of “an Africa” and very proudly so, not minding the fact that I have spent a good part of my life outside Africa. And, I am African.
As I laid claim to my new insignia, I got curious and started reading everything I could lay my hands on about Africa and Africans. I started watching documentaries, even You-tube videos and the variety of information are as mind-blowing as some of them are bogus. In the process, I have discovered things and I am still discovering more…
So, now, I am African. And, I have never felt prouder. Not a conceited and uninformed pride. I am just simply proud of an identity that has, over the years, proved impossible to describe and defied all tags. I have therefore become proud of a supposedly inexistent status. Because, I found that Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish journalist, was probably right when he said in his book “Shadow of the Sun” that Africa does not in fact exist.
Then I ask, who really is an African? What is Africa? How do you begin to describe or define this phenomenon? For, Africa is indeed a phenomenon. An amazing continent, the hearth to humanity, home to over a billion people. Covering all four hemispheres, with oceans, highlands, mountains, jungles, deserts and even a glacier. Africa is a place of superlatives, a continent of such extraordinary diversity that almost anything you say about it collectively is both true and untrue, depending on where you stand literally and figuratively. However, one thing is common to all of Africa: it is subject to entirely different rules. What is true in Europe and indeed in the rest of the world will probably not hold waters in Africa; and what is an article of faith in Africa will be totally incomprehensible for the rest of the world.
Africa is different and Africans are different. They seem to operate by a different set of rules. For an African, time is not, in the European sense, a master to which one is enslaved. On the contrary, time only exists when things happen. Thus a bus will leave a terminal when it is full, a ceremony will take place when everybody turns up. A meeting will be declared open when the participants arrive. You might criticise this notion all you want, but it is Africa. Not necessary right or wrong. It just is what it is.
Hospitality means different things to different people at different times, but the door of an African will be permanently open to the stranger, not minding the time of the day, when mostly the rest of the world is hospitable only when it’s convenient (and I’m not in the least saying this wrong).
Marriage and family life is different and the confines are as wide as the excesses that abound. Every child you see in African is your own and you see people being generous with food as well as with instructional discipline towards every child they encounter.
Most people who have visited Africa are overwhelmed by both the beauty and the squalor of the continent, and puzzled both by its generosity and its extremes. Some are fascinated by the states of mind, the essential beliefs, of the myriad people called Africans: some have obsessions with ancestors, others with portents, others with cattles and some with religions and spirits. There are some people who are stuck with their ideas of Africa as a place of darkness, poverty, sickness, hunger and evil.
I am African, and I stand tall and proud.
I’m neither poor nor wretched.
I have a good education.
I wear shoes and I wear clothes.
I might not yet claim to be a millionaire in monetary terms, but I have a full and very rich life and I have enough to take care of myself and my own.
My life is so full of love and miracles and I feel both grateful and blown away.
I have the heritage of a rich and diverse culture.
I do not have HIV nor Ebola.
And, I am African.
When people write about Africa, they depict it as a place and a people to be pitied, abhorred or dominated. There seems to be an unwritten agreement between most authors and writers, and indeed most media houses when it comes to writing about Africa. An agreement to make Africa a place of gloom, of barbaric people and of untold hardship.
I have personally felt enormous pity for Africa as I devoured books and articles. I have also been engulfed by an anger, rage, and indignation as I perused some of these write ups. I have gone from exasperation to a feeling of forlornness as I saw the picture that is still being painted of Africa. But, I am African.
As a non-African, as you explore information, all sorts of emotions will be stirred up in you every time you hear about Africa. You will be made to cringe in both horror and embarrassment. You might be appalled and mystified by the bizarre and outlandish ways.
But, if you ever get to visit Africa, you will be taken-aback by the smiles on the faces of most Africans. You will be witness to the joy they express in simple things. The happiness and a sense of contentment they still posses. You will be blown away and astounded at not only the beautiful sunset, but also the warmth from the heart of the African.
Undeniably, there will be lots of sentiments about Africa. But, I find that, no matter how strong or fleeting they are, these feelings and emotions are usually only half-informed. They never tell the whole story. Because, nobody has been able to describe in words what or who Africa and Africans really are. The diversity and the richness of Africa easily shatters all stereotypes about the continent. Its landscapes, its cultures and its people makes it absolutely impossible to put this beautiful continent and its countries in a tag.
And today, as I lay claim to this identity, as I accept the bold title of “an African” I am aware that when people refer to me as an Africa, it is with equal ease that they concede the same citizenship to leopards, and lions and elephants and the black mamba and the mosquito and recently also the Ebola virus. But, I am not fazed. Because, you see, I am African.
Being an African qualifies me to define for myself what I want to be.
So, I constantly chose my own identity.
And I rise above the negativity, the condescending attitude from others, the patronising and complaisant way some people look at me.
And, I stand tall, like the eagle. I wear the badge with pride.
I am proud of Africa and I am proud to be an African.
I am, indeed an African.
Contributed by Jane Oma of My Ruby Heels. Jane writes from the heart and is a coach, teacher, business communications consultant and motivational speaker who currently resides in Madrid, Spain. You can also find Jane on Facebook.