Redefining and Understanding my ‘Africanness’ Today Part 1: The Realization
At just 24, I have been fortunate enough to have lived and worked with communities in three East African countries besides Kenya; Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda. I acknowledge that this is not common for many people my age, for which I am ever grateful. These experiences have gone on to shape who I am today and unintentionally, helped me redefine what it means to be a millennial African.
So, what defines being African for you?
Most people refer to themselves as Pan-African on their social media descriptions, but what does this allude to? In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, being Pan-African was strongly tied to the fight for independence as led by the first generation of African leaders, Kwame Nkrumah, Thomas Sankara, Julius Nyerere among many others.
So what defines ‘Africanness’ in the 21st Century? Is it natural hair, dreads, Maasai shukas, traditional African wear or local languages?
Well, like most of my generation, this was an issue I constantly grappled with. By traveling and working in different African countries, my perspective was challenged and the experiences took me to a point of reflection. Throughout my journey, I learned a lot but I would like to share the 3 key stages that shaped my understanding of the African society and culture. These stages directed my journey towards clarity.
1. Uganda: The Realization — Battling the ‘African Inferiority Complex’
A couple of years back I decided to move to Nakawuka, Uganda to work as a volunteer engineer for some months. I was pretty excited to be working with an amazing organization that was making water filters for needy communities. Nakawuka is quite a rural setting located around 30 km from Kampala. On arrival, I requested a white colleague (for purposes of this story), to give me a short tour of the town. As we were walking through the town, kids starting running after us shouting “Mzungu! Mzungu!” Even more interestingly, young children in this remote area who could not speak a word of English knew to run and say ‘Give me money’.
I remember feeling utterly embarrassed and extremely saddened by the situation. At the time, I understood it to be a representation of myself and the whole African race, and I hated it, to say the least.
However, reading Wangari Maathai’s book, The Challenge for Africa, opened my eyes to the root of it all. It helped me get a better understanding of the ‘inferiority complex’ among Africans, arising from the effects of years of colonization. After years of being told you are less than human, as a people, we have been conditioned to view race very clearly attached to its stereotypes.
In chapter 2 of the book, she describes the cracked mirror….
“Lack of self-knowledge that comes from Africans cultural deracination is one of the most troubling and long-lasting effects of colonialism. Like other people who experienced not only physical colonization but also what might be called colonization of the mind, Africans have been obscured from themselves. It is as if they have looked at themselves through another person’s mirror-whether that of a colonial administrator, missionary, teacher, or political leader-and seen their own cracked reflections or distorted images if they have seen themselves at all.”
The chapter goes on to describe the excellence that was pre-colonial Africa with kingdoms by the Ashanti, Kongo, Songhai (and the University of Sankore at Timbuktu), Mali Empire and many more. She then went further to explain how failed leadership in most countries in the years that followed since the power handover had further perpetuated these ideologies, be it our heavy reliance on donor aid and lack of basic amenities for the populace.
Fun fact: You can learn more about ancient African cities here.
Least to say I was astonished, amazed and then inexplicably angry wondering why these stories had not filled and shaped my learnings as a child in Kenyan schools.
This understanding of who I was, who we were as a people, was empowering to me. I could see more clearly what years of oppression had done to us as a continent.
It will take years to undo this ‘slave mentality’ but with us working every day to empower each other mentally and economically, the inferiority complex will be overcome!
Part two featuring Tanzania and Rwanda will follow.