The brilliant Tendai Marima roped me into a fascinating conversation on identity, Africa and the curious space of Africans in the contemporary.
“Digital Tongues” is a series of Skype and email conversations between myself and four other Africans from Egypt, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa. I can’t bring myself to shred any major parts of this digital chat, so I’ve decided to publish this as a series of posts over three days this week. I hope readers will also participate in dialogue by posting their thoughts below. Here, the five of us discuss African politicians and social media, perceptions/misperceptions of Africa in the international media, in African politics and the effect that dividing north and sub-Saharan Africa has on perceptions of the continent. We also discuss how the national and nationalistic politics of our respective countries impacts on the construction and understanding of our own identities. In this first part, the conversationists are: myself and Sophia Azeb, an Egyptian living in the US. Sophia is studying for her PhD and moonlights as a superheroine exorcist dashing out the Orientalist demons of Dubya in Americans. Tolu Ogunlesi probably belongs to that rare breed of human beings who go to bed muttering must … send … one … more … tweet and though I’ve never met him, I’m sure he’d appreciate an “On Twitter, do not disturb” sign as a Christmas gift. In between his musings about Nigerian politics and daily life, Tolu is a writer and journalist, currently working as features editor of 234 Next, a Nigerian newspaper. If there’s a Twitter-coloured dreamcoat out there somewhere, I’d like one shipped to Johannesburg, South Africa for Khadija Patel. Surely her efforts as a global news aggregator have not gone unnoticed by the good Lord. When she’s not tweeting about world events, Khadija is an opinionista for the Daily Maverick. Last but not least, is Sonja S Uwimana, a Rwandan American working in international development who, if she’s like me, cares as much for Hollywood’s “help starving Africa” humanitarians, as stinky piss on concrete.
Tendai: (Zimbabwe) Welcome, everyone. I hope we’ll have an interesting discussion where each can enlighten the other about how we each see identity issues and political relations on the African continent.
Sonja (Rwanda): Cool. Any leading questions? I’m on deck for Rwanda then.
Tendai: Can you tell us when Paul Kagame will be back on Twitter after that entertaining exchange with the journalist Ian Birrell?
Sonja: He still is! Even when he was in Chicago recently.
Tendai: How have I missed his tweets???
Sophia (Egypt): Beloved leaders need their own twitter list. I wish at least one of the Hosni Mubarak twitter accounts was actually the man himself.
Tolu (Nigeria): It’s Facebook for Mr Jonathan in Nigeria. Well over half a million fans as we speak. I think only Obama’s got a higher number. I’m fascinated by how the new bunch of African leaders are taking to social networking. Even Zuma recently had a page set up for him as president of South Africa.
Sonja: How much is it actually them though? I find it hard to believe that Kagame tweets for himself. Seems to me it’s some overzealous editor of Rwanda’s New Times newspaper, state-owned of course.
Khadija (South Africa): Zuma’s recently taken to Twitter. We do wish his timeline would be as lively or newsworthy as Kagame’s but alas we’re stuck with a Twitter presence that someone in the presidency is using to give Zuma an affectation of social media prowess. But like all things in recent South African politics, the real story of social media among our bigwigs is with the ANC Youth League. After threatening to close down Twitter (forgive their delusions of grandeur), they’ve recently taken to social media platforms with some gusto.
Tolu: I’m curious to know how the Idi Amins and Mobutus (were they alive) would have handled Twitter and Facebook. Would Amin have tweeted from exile in Saudi in a bid to rehabilitate himself (reputation-wise)?
Tendai: Idi Amin might. He had a charismatic enough side to his twisted personality to try Twitter. With followers, he might imagine he presided over a kingdom of Scotland.
Sophia: Amin and Gaddafi would have almost exclusively DM’d each other, I think.
Tolu: Sophia, so do you think social networking played any significant role in Egypt uprising?
Sophia: I do, yes. I wrote a brief post about my perspective on it for the blog Sonja and I both contribute to. But I do think the West crediting social networking as inspiring a “shift from the typical Egyptian apathy” (or similar stereotypes) has been a desperate attempt to rationalise these large-scale uprisings that are not just against dictatorships, but also incredibly corrupt and devastated economic structures and US imperialism.
Sonja: It’s all anyone wants to talk about and I’ve given up trying to change the narrative and then, of course, come the “what about sub-Saharan Africa” questions.
Sophia: Oh yes, we’ve discussed this before. “Sub-Saharan”, “Middle East”, “Middle East and North Africa” etc. These terms are so incredibly problematic and totally neglect the nuances of identities through Africa and Asia.
Tendai: I think there is a tendency to oversimplify things within the mainstream media — just as we want to speak of Twitter revolutions, we draw permanent yet imaginary lines in the sand to distinguish north from south overlooking the centuries of complex encounter in these spaces. I suppose in today’s world of easy, convenient discourses, to begin to understand Africa as a whole and the sum of many parts would be too difficult for those who produce the dominant narratives on Africa.
Khadija: Hey, over here [in South Africa], we’re still getting used to the fact that we’re not an island floating somewhere off the coast of Blighty somewhere. We actually have a whole continent attached to us. Seriously though, South Africans are becoming increasingly insular and our media caters to this predilection.
Sophia: Internationally, it’s certainly faulty media coverage. It’s almost totally focused on South West Asia and North Africa — when politically convenient, I mean — and a reliance on the imperial borders we all live under and our former/current colonial masters still propagate (including a depressing number of scholars of colour in the West) that make impossible fair and thorough coverage of uprisings, protests etc.
Tolu: I wrote a piece for CNN about “sub-Saharan Africa” [protests] and realised how tough it is to be very nuanced in an 800-word piece that tries to cover sub-Saharan Africa. Damn! At times like this you realise that Africa is a BIG place and that no theory covers two countries, every situation is different.
Tendai: Even within one county like Sudan the media trips up, badly. The constant references to “black African” versus “Arab” read like woeful misunderstandings of the context-specific politics of race and identity in Sudan. Khadija, does the South African media trip up with South Africa’s identities?
Khadija: For sure! But then as South Africans we’re still working out what it means to be South African. We continue to reel from the effects of being a severely fractured population so opportunities to share experiences and construct a sense of “South Africanness” through shared experiences are scarce.
Sonja: I’m actually more interested in the ways we (as “Africans” — whatever that means) also propagate these “Arab” vs “African” / “Middle East” vs “sub-Saharan Africa” divisions.
Tendai: That’s a good point, Sonja. How “Arabs”, “Afro-Arabs” and “Africans” see ourselves — politically and culturally — feeds off of and feeds into how others see us. In Zimbabwe, we have a violent kind of nativist politics that is tied to the notion of being an indigenous African and Zimbabwean ie black. But when the Chinese and Europeans come with their cheque books, it all goes eerily quiet on the frontiers of indigenisation.
Sophia: Just a few months ago I heard several black American and Canadian scholars at a conference definitively conclude that Tunisia and Egypt have the US Civil Rights Movement to thank for their uprisings and then declare Egypt and Tunisia to be “non-white but not black African” nations. A sentiment many in South West Asia and North Africa also ascribe to, but one many of us are working against, given the complexities of our identities — racial, ethnic, religious, gender and otherwise.
Tendai: But what is it that makes us racialise everything? Why are we still hung up on colour?
Khadija: I recently participated in Michelle Obama’s Young African Women Leaders Forum. I was one of 76 women from across sub-Saharan Africa who had been identified as “young women leaders”. Now, without delving into what exactly what all of us had done to merit a place there, what perplexed me was that these were 76 women exclusively from sub-Saharan Africa. We’re all trying to reach across our borders and find a sense of Africanness but the absence of “Arab” Africans was not at all questioned. If we are indeed to discover a sense of pan-Africanness then we have to look beyond linguistic and racial divisions. Or, is it easy to clump together the [north] Saharan block because they share a linguistic heritage? Or is it indeed racial?
Tendai: I wonder who did the choosing for the Michelle Obama Young African Leaders and what kind of view of Africa informed their choice. Concerning the Saharan north and south, I think there are very good reasons there are these linguistic, cultural and racial determinants creating the imaginary divide, but it also has negative effects especially when it seen as a raced division.
Sophia: I think we’re hung up on colour because it is precisely how neo-colonial and authoritarian powers keep us separate. The divide and conquer trope is very real, but it has shifted in dramatic ways.
Tendai: And we too have become the dividers and conquerors.
… to be continued on Tuesday.