When I left Zimbabwe to go to study in university in Australia, to be honest the only thing I was excited about was that I was leaving my parents house. No more curfew, no more “My House, My rules”. That long flight over the Indian Ocean was my very own long flight to freedom.It was my independence. It seems trivial and laughable now,but you did not break curfew in my parents house. Ever! ( which was usually 6pm for me). On top of that I had spent the entirety of my teenage years in an all boys Catholic boarding school. To say I felt like had been missing out is an understatement. So yeah this was freedom. On a scale I had never experienced before. It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that I wasn’t fully prepared for the challenges this new found freedom brought with it. Aside from being vaguely aware of Aboriginals, the only other impressions I had had formed of the place and its people was based on re- runs of the soap Neighbours , Around The Twist, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and who can forget the Crocodile Dundee movies. However hardly anyone I met dressed like Steve Erwin and of the many barbacue’s I attended I never once ate a shrimp that had just come off the Barbie. Thinking back on that initial experience I am confronted by my own glaring ignorance and to a certain extent hypocrisy. In my defense though I did come across Kangaroo’s on several occasions near the halls of residence on campus. True story.
This was the first time I realised that I was capable of prejudice and guilty of stereotyping. Funnily enough though this realisation did nothing to curtail my own hypocrisy on the matter. No sooner had the disappointment of not getting to have barbecued shrimp set in was I being inundated with ignorance, levels of which I had hardly experienced in the sheltered environment that I had grown up in. To much irritation I was constantly and patronisingly complemented on how articulate I was. “How come you speak English so well?”. To which I often would calmly try and explain that in Zimbabwe, English was the language of instruction in schools as well as the official language. What caused the greatest annoyance was the often made reference to Africa as a country. In case you didn’t know,its not it’s a continent with 54 different countries and over 900 million people, who speak over 2100 different languages, with very diverse cultures and races.
This was further compounded by other seemingly innocent inquiries along the lines “Do you know Ade from Nigeria?” based on the the misguided notion that everyone In Africa knew each other. Either that or requests for lessons on how to speak “African”. Ignoramus’s. But I digress.
I recently came across a brilliant article written by a Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina,, on How To Write About Africa. A satirical piece which the author has since admitted was born out of frustration at seeing the negative stereotypes that were being perpetuated by the major media houses about what Africa is. Whilst it did a brilliant job of highlighting the stereotypes assigned to Africa I couldn’t help but feel this well intentioned article at some base level still perpetuated the stereotype. By responding on behalf of Africans, he had aided and abated the stereotype rather unwittingly that Africa is a country. It also served as the catalyst that would help me make a concerted effort to address this misconception of Africa as a country. Whilst I am aware of my own hypocrisy given my initial misconceptions about Australia , I appreciate that I was fortunate enough to leave my sheltered environment, which in hindsight was pivotal in breaking down the stereotypes that blinkered my view.Thats not always the case and this blog is my small attempt at helping others leave their sheltered cocoons.
In the process of writing this blog I realised that as Africans the way we relate to our Africaness is not simple. Its complicated. On the one hand Africa is too big too say anything about. Should I just talk about Zimbabwe, you about South Africa, Kenya etc. On the flip side its folly to deny that there is an inherent beauty and pride associated with identifying as an African, and to share that with other Africans, well that too is a form of specificity. Quite the paradox.
This might explain why Binyavanga Wainaina in his brilliant satirical piece was sticking up for Africa as a whole. He felt (Like most of us do) that he had an obligation to the Motherland. He was not writing out of frustration from what was being written about Kenya, but the continent as a whole. There are are many different ways of being African, some complimentary, others contradictory, but all are legitimate. In other words what is African culture to some Africans is un-African to other Africans. Africa is diverse and complex. The different nations on the continent are more like brothers and sisters in Mama Africa’s family. As much as these brothers and sister’s are different, they are still part of the same family.The African family.
This sense of family that we have as sons and daughters of the Motherland is entrenched in our shared history, struggles and destiny on the continent and its wider diaspora. Its in the scars of slavery, racism, colonialism, neocolonialism that bring us together as Africans. These historical links are the very blueprint of this identity and the backbone of this unity. So in instances like that of the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina we set aside our cultural differences, therefore asserting the principality of these shared experiences to foster solidarity and resistance to exploitation and oppression.
Today ( 25 May) is Africa Day. On this day 49 years ago, the Organisation of African Unity, the precursor of the African Union, was established in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, by 32 representatives of African countries. Today all African countries with the exception of Morocco are part of the African Union. Africa Day acknowledges the progress that we, as Africans, have made while reflecting upon the common challenges we face in a global environment. On this day I will join my brothers and sisters and celebrate being African. Africa lives in me and that’s why I love Africa.I embrace this identity. Before my Australian experience I had always identified primarily as a Zimbabwean.The same way I assume a guy from France identifies as French or from Germany as German as opposed to simply identifying as European. Ironically the many years I subsequently lived In Australia helped me in many more ways than before to identify with the African in me. To quote the former President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki in his famous speech I Am African “Today it feels good to be African. I am born of the people of the continent of Africa. I am African.”