After all we have been through, we still don’t get to define our own continent. This holds us back
Is Africa a place of opportunity and unimaginable wealth? Is it the land of our ancestors and forebears? Is it a shithole, full of corruption and violence that just won’t end? Is it a motherland for the African diaspora, the cradle of humankind, or just a landmass with no distinct cultures, people and languages? Really, what is Africa?
This may seem like a nonsensical question but the question itself is not the real problem. The problem is who has the power to ask and to answer it.
It was Pliny the Elder, writing in ancient Rome, who said: “There is always something new out of Africa.” In 2019, the statement still rings true.
Explorers came here looking for mythical lands and treasure. Colonisers came here looking for land, minerals and the expansion of empire. The Cold War superpowers came here to extend the reach of their economic and ideological power. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank used debt-ridden African countries as testing grounds for their lending policies, and now businessmen and technocrats come here looking for the next genius start-up to buy up and add to their catalogue.
With each new wave of interest, there’s a “reinvention” of Africa and what it really is. This also isn’t new. Africa was the birthplace of the first humans, the site of the Pyramids, the fabled land of Ophir and a long-lost white kingdom, the land of slaves, wide-open expanses and wild animals. All these understandings and definitions of the continent have at some point been the dominant narrative, intrinsic to Africa’s identity.
Most recently, Africa has become Wakanda, a fictional country that, for some bizarre reason, can become a stand-in for an entire continent. Why is this a bad thing, someone may ask? After all, seeing black Africans represented as powerful and uninfluenced by colonialism is a breath of fresh air, especially when we get either the primitive savage or Africa-is-a-country treatment.
However, as powerful and exciting as it is to see a representation of strong black African identity, it’s still a continuation of a centuries-old tradition of projecting what an African identity should be on to a continent that doesn’t have a say in the matter.
While researching African identity and representation, I have read mountains of academic journals and books, with a documentary thrown in here and there.
There’s one reading that stands out and sent me down this academic and existential path: Kenyan academic Ali Mazrui’s The Re-Invention of Africa.
“How Africa is defined has been a product of its interaction with other civilisations,” he argues, outlining a history of inventions and reinventions of African identity that came about as a result of black Africa interacting with Arab, European and American influences.
Mazrui also says that the very name of the continent may very well not be African in origin.
If our name, the word we use to identify ourselves and each other with, is not an indigenous African word, then what kind of foundation is our continental identity built upon? It’s a question that sparked my quasi-existential crisis over what African identity really is, and whether we truly own it.
Though it can be argued that I’m splitting hairs, calls to rename institutions, towns and provinces highlight that naming is important. That Africa inherited a name that may not be African symbolises a big problem: African global identity has not been created by Africans themselves. Rather, African global identity is a projection of how we are perceived by foreigners.
Although this process of projecting an identity on to Africa began in Roman times, it was colonisation that fully captured the creation of African identity. Colonial powers had the power and control necessary to tell Africans exactly who they were and exactly what they could be. Not only that, they spread that identity around the globe.
Before we could counter the often harmful and downright false ideas about who we were, African stereotypes were accepted as indisputable fact. Africa’s identity was dictated by people who had no vested interest in the continent’s improvement and no understanding of the continent’s cultures, systems, traditions and ideologies.
Africa’s identity was dictated by people who wanted to exploit and manipulate it for their gain. It was a psychologically violent act.
Fast forward a century or so and it’s an identity trauma that Africa is still grappling with. Although colonial administrations are gone, the African identity that they established stubbornly refuses to go away. The cycle of inventing and reinventing Africa with cool new packaging continues and the end result is still the same: African voices don’t have a say in the way they’re represented and understood on a global scale.
In cultural and social terms, we don’t own our histories. The production of West and Central African wax print fabric is slowly being taken over by Chinese manufacturers. Disney somehow found it appropriate to copyright a Swahili phrase. Afrofuturism, a movement aimed at reinventing blackness, draws heavily on African aesthetics and aspects of African cultures in a way that can still treat Africans and Africa as props.
In economic terms, we don’t fully own our land, minerals and means of production. Economically, the situation is the same. All too often, conversations and strategic planning for African economic development largely occur outside the continent, with next to no African economists or scholars involved. Africans still don’t have a seat at their own table.
Why should we care? After all, who cares about what the rest of the world thinks about us? But it’s not that simple. Ownership of identity — especially when global politics comes into play — is vital in negotiations and power balances.
In order to engage with other countries while maintaining our independence and bargaining power, we need to be firmly rooted in an identity that’s not at the mercy of someone else.
In a capitalist system such as the current one, ownership is important. Ownership of resources and means of production is crucial for autonomy, but it’s equally crucial not to overlook ownership of identity and narrative. When we have full ownership of who we are and what we’re capable of, no one can tell us otherwise.
There has been some progression towards ownership. Decolonisation movements, in part, understand this. So too are calls for stolen historical artefacts to be returned to their homelands. Academics such as Professor Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni theorise about decolonising higher education and creating truly African universities, not just universities in Africa. Wizkid has demanded equal billing and visibility at international awards ceremonies.
Although these are all different situations, they share a common theme — Africa, for too long, has not had the power to create its own independent identity. Africa is not a thing upon which hopes and dreams can be projected. There is not always something new out of Africa because it is not a site for endless plunder.
Identity is not organic. It’s not something that just springs up and exists in the world as is. No, identities are made. Identities are carefully constructed, tweaked and altered. And, ultimately, identity serves a purpose.
In the same vein, representation is not neutral. The way we human beings understand and make sense of the world is heavily linked to how that world is represented to us. Representation and identity are personal and they are political.
In terms of African identity, establishing and fully owning our identity is important for our political, economic and social progression. In the past, Africa hasn’t had control over how we’re perceived and how we’re represented. That is changing slowly but it is changing.
As the current cycle of African reinvention plays itself out, I can only hope that this time Africa’s identity won’t be created and controlled by others.
Mako Muzenda is a freelance journalist and master’s student at Rhodes University, researching media representation, semiotics and their connection to the creation and solidification of power