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.
At first, I was amused when people referred to me as an African. It was sometimes, both exasperating and infuriating when I saw how some people struggle to pronounce the name of my country of birth correctly or sometimes even question its existence.
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 and I have become proud to say that I am African.
So, now I am simply, an “African”.
The fact that I am accepting this broad identity delightfully and with pride does not in any way excuse or justify the ignorance that has informed it. The act of acknowledging this 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 that I am, in fact, an African, not minding the fact that it is a continent of about 54 countries of which I have only been lucky to know just a few. I am wearing the badge of “an African” and very proudly so, irrespective of the fact that I have spent a good part of my life outside Africa.
And, I am an 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 began to watch 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 proved impossible to describe and defied all tags over the years
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.
You see, Africa is a phenomenon.
An amazing continent; the hearth to humanity, the cradle of creativity, filled with a beauty, warmth, energy and physical strength that is inexplicable. 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.
However, one thing is common to all of Africa: it is subject to entirely different standards. 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, like in the Western 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 start when the participants arrive. You might criticize 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 Africa 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 by her generosity as well as her extremes.
Some are fascinated by the states of mind, way of life and the essential beliefs of the myriad people called Africans. It is true that there are some Africans that are still obsessed with ancestors, traditions, religions and spirits, and there are also those whose outlook on life equals or goes beyond the non-African.
But, there will always be people who are stuck with their ideas of Africa as a place of darkness, poverty, sickness, hunger and evil. But the truth is that Africa, just like the rest of world, is evolving. Africa is changing and growing beyond the stereotypes she is stuck with.
It was trenowned African novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who said in her TED talk titled “The Dangers of A Single Story”, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete”. Sadly, the world cannot be bothered to dispense of their single story of Africa.
I am African, and I stand tall and proud.
I’m neither poor nor wretched.
I have had a good education.
I wear good shoes and 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 full of love and miracles. And I take joy in life and living.
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 such 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 an African.
As a non-African, when 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 what some have described as their 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 possess. You will be blown away and astounded at not only the beautiful sunset, but also the warmth from the heart of the African. And their strength. And their wisdom. And their grit.
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. And, probably nobody will ever be able to find the words to describe the continent and her people.
The diversity and the richness of Africa easily shatters all stereotypes about the continent. Its landscapes, its cultures and its people make it absolutely impossible to put this beautiful continent and her people 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 African, it is with equal ease that they concede the same citizenship and identity to darkness, strange things, wild animals, and recently also the Ebola virus.
But, I am not fazed. Because, you see, I am an African.
Being an African qualifies me to define for myself what I want to be.
So, I constantly choose 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 soar. And I wear the badge with pride.
I am proud of Africa and I am proud to be an African.
I am, indeed an African.