Africa, who are we? Can we define who we are by comparing ourselves to where we’ve come from? And are we in danger of forgetting who we are as we rapidly grow and develop economically and socially?
It’s easy to forget because we’ve been ‘forgetting’ for a long time. During the Scramble for Africa we endured assimilation (an ideological basis of French colonial policy in the 19th and 20th centuries where the French were coerced into adopting French language and culture while abandoning their own) and the ‘divide and rule’ strategy that broke up the traditional power and community relationships throughout Africa while telling us our language, dress, culture and customs were inferior to that of the west.
“We were divided – by race, tribe, class, gender and skin colour and the poor African was at the bottom of the heap. We believed the lie that we were not good enough and forgot that we are a beautiful, hardworking, kind and loving people.”
I remember walking into a store in Nairobi in the early 90s where I bought a few groceries. Ahead of me in the checkout lane was a European lady with a packet of milk. The Indian clerk rang in her purchase, then politely and sweetly bagged her single packet of milk. When I approached, his manner changed, he rang up my purchases with a sniff of derision then followed on to decline bagging my 20 odd groceries. He even went as far as refusing to give me a worthless piece of plastic when I offered to do the bagging myself.
While Kenya was a free and democratic nation at the time, the hidden nuances, hints, and subliminal put-downs left me with an unspoken sense that I would never be as good enough as my fellow white or lighter skinned brothers and sisters – and all of it I was unconscious to, until I traveled outside of Africa.
It took 12 years of living in Australia, succeeding in my career and falling in love with my white skinned ‘pakeha’ Kiwi boyfriend who loves me for who I am, before I could accept that I was good enough. But the tears and frustration during the years when I and my fellow diaspora Africans questioned my identity crisis still blaze vividly in my memory.
It’s so easy to dismiss Africa’s problems with a shrug or perhaps distaste, but what is rarely spoken about is that many of Africa’s issues lie with our collective identity and self-esteem or lack thereof.
It is necessary to understand that one of the root causes of Africa’s social conditions is the tragedy of our past – our collective pain and humiliation under the terror of slavery and colonialism.
While there are other factors that have led to Africa’s past demise, we ought to examine the reality of our people’s modern income and poverty, participation and alienation, health and illness, art and science, public order and safety, social mobility and status rewards in the light of our inherited identity crisis.
From a psychological standpoint, when we’re not sure of who we are or when we’re stripped of all identity and forced to assume another , we then become vulnerable to taking on the identity of any stronger ‘character’ in close proximity whether or not that ‘character’ embodies good or bad values.
If one does not believe they are good enough then they rarely bother with trying to succeed or exert themselves to compete at the same level as the rest of the planet. Worse still, low self-esteem could lead to feelings of utter worthlessness where one abandons being a good, just and kind person and resorts to violence, power games, corruption – the list is endless.
Imagine when that happens on a continental scale.
Worse still, I believe that Africans have been historically (since colonialism) afraid of questioning authority because we’ve been groomed to believe that we are powerless, which has led to adopting whichever popular beliefs comes along our way without critiquing what we’re assuming in the first place.
I remember struggling with critical thinking in my first year of university. I could not wrap my head around a critical discourse because I had never been taught to think for myself, nor question the status quo. As a student in Africa you followed the teacher’s instructions to a T, you did not question authority and you never, ever critiqued those in power above you, in public, let alone in a thesis.
Africans today are asking harder questions of their reality – especially of their leaders, and countries like Senegal, Kenya, South Africa and Ghana are enjoying full and fair elections (albeit with some violence worked in as we flex our democratic muscles and learn to respect each other’s differences).
However we still have a mountain to climb before we’re ready to accept that we ARE just as good and on equal footing with the rest of the world. Even in this 21st century, reason and science are still perceived as western and not African values or aspirations.
Fellow African Leo Igwe says, “Whenever I try to fault or expose the absurdity of witchcraft accusations or the persecution of alleged witches or wizards, many people often urge me to set aside this my oyibo (white man’s) mentality. As if critical thinking is the exclusive cultural preserve of white people while mystical thinking is for blacks and for Africans. Personally, I am aware that the white race and the western world have recorded significant achievements in the areas of science and technology, in rational and critical discourses. They also have their own share of Dark Age nonsense, dogmas and superstitions.
But that does not make the values of science, reason and critical thinking western or white. The values of science and reason constitute part of human heritage, which all human beings can lay claim to, exercise, access, express, celebrate, cultivate and nurture. The progress which the western world has recorded as a result of their institutionalization of reason and science is one which any society can realize and supercede if it wants.
“Africans should stop hiding behind this misrepresentation that reason and science are unAfrican western values. Africans should embrace the enlightening matrices of critical mindedness and work to dispel the Dark Age and barbaric mentality that loom large on the continent.” Leo Igwe.
It’s not all bleak. I’ve been especially encouraged by just how much Africans are embracing our own music, arts and in 2012, our fashion industry. We’re also consummate tourism managers and we’ve had years of success in exploring our crops to the rest of the world.
My challenge to Africa, and myself is that we really begin to step up and begin to deliver more technological, social and business innovation, that we begin to lead the world more in the arts – publishing, music and culture – and that we begin to really be proud of our African history and most importantly our values.
Igwe states that Africans should rise up to the challenge of critical evaluation of issues. Let’s forget the lie and begin accepting that we ARE GOOD ENOUGH, that our identity matters and that embracing critical thinking could unlock more answers for our problems and elevate us into a new level of consciousness and self-esteem.