Bylines Thought Leader

Digital tongues: Africans in conversation 2

The second part of the conversation on identity and Africans.

A little later than promised here is part two of “Digital Tongues”. For new readers here is a brief recap of what this is about:

“Digital Tongues” is a series of Skype and email conversations between myself and four other Africans from Egypt, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa. As I lack ruthless editing skills, I decided to publish the as a series of three posts in the hope that those living on the continent and it’s diaspora, will read and participate in the dialogue in their own way by posting a comment below or blogging or tweeting their thoughts. This is one of many discussions young Africans need to be having in order to push forward the concept of Africa as a whole continent and bridge the perceived gaps between “North” and “sub-Saharan” Africa and the ethno-political divides within Africa’s five regions.

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 series, the conversationists are: myself and Sophia Azeb, an Egyptian living in the US. Sophia is studying for her PhD, Tolu Ogunlesi is a writer and journalist, currently working asfeatures editor of 234 Next, a Nigerian newspaper. From Johannesburg, the city of bright lights and fast cars, is Khadija Patel, 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 hot concrete. (For part one and a more colourful introduction to the participants, see thisprevious post.)

Tendai (Zimbabwe): Sonja, where do the Sudanese locate themselves in terms of their identity and the geopolitical labels imposed on us? Are they in “sub-Saharan” Africa or North Africa? Or the Middle East?

Sonja (Rwanda): I find it frustrating (and somewhat hilarious) that whether I’m in north or south Sudan, I’m told I could be Sudanese … and yet both sides don’t recognise each other in that way. [On location] they are all of those, and none of them.

Tendai: And what does being Arab mean in Egypt? I thought I knew, but sometimes I struggle with understanding what “Arabness” and “Arabised” mean.

Tolu (Nigeria): And then there’s the peculiar Libyan case — self-defining as Arab, but with strong Gaddafi involvement in the AU, and his dubious pan-African vision … not sure the rest of North Africa really cared that much about a pan-African ideal.

Tendai: All hail the King of Kings of Africa!

Sophia (Egypt)*: Arab is often used as a racial category — something I frankly think is akin to people claiming a “pure” heritage of (whatever).

Tendai: But are Egyptians of “pure” Arab heritage?

Sophia: Absolutely not! We’re talking about a nation almost precisely in the centre of the trading world of ancient times and today. North Africa and South-West Asia have been home to peoples of all phenotypes, racial and ethnic identities, languages and cultures. “Arab” culture, like other cultures, is built around language affiliations.

Tolu: So is it correct to say that what we call the Arab world is bound more by language and religion than by any racial homogeneity?

Sophia: Tolu, I would say so, but that doesn’t mean that the mythology of a racially homogeneous “Arab” world doesn’t exist in South-West Asia and North Africa as well as the West.

Tendai: So Arabness like Africanness is a social construction, made up of many cultural and political practices over time. Concerning Arabness, I don’t get it’s inclusions/exclusions. Why, simply because of their skin colour, are Sudanese Arabs “not quite Arabs” or “Afro-Arabs“, yet other Arabs in Africa are also of ethnic mixes indigenous to Africa? And similarly with Africanness in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Rwanda and Nigeria it is used for political and cultural convenience and power plays. What are some of the identity issues in your countries and how do young people — all generational differences therein — see themselves?

Khadija (South Africa): As I said earlier [in part one], we’re not sure ourselves what being South African entails. But what is really interesting is watching how the rise and rise of a black middle class with middle-class values and tastes are being “excommunicated” as blacks. But we must remember that social identities are inherently fluid and the thrill in studying them is founded mostly in watching them in a state of constant flux.

Sonja: Ha! Well if you ask our dear leader, Kagame, we are all Rwandan. My generation is very much still imbued with the myths of my parent’s generation, who are the ones who grew up under colonialism and came of age during independence.

Tolu: In Nigeria the major defining characteristics are ethnicity and religion. Hundreds of ethnic groups, a handful of major ones (each with upwards of 25-30 million people) and two main religions — Islam and Christianity. No wider-world identity ambiguities — all Nigerians regard themselves as black Africans. Plus we had no “settler culture”, unlike say Kenya.

Sophia: My father’s generation — Nasser-era Egypt — often identity as black, African and Arab simultaneously. And now my generation has the opportunity to revive that very pan-Africanist, Non-Aligned Movement ideal of cultural and racial solidarity. For now, all I have to offer to your question about Sudan, Tendai, is that it is as arbitrary as any racial classification is. The fight for racial solidarity is just one stepping stone on the road to a collective struggle against neo-colonialism and neo-liberal economic opportunism. In Egypt, Mubarak did not only depend on creating strife between Copts and Muslims — he also manipulated Nubians, Bedouins, light-skinned and dark-skinned “Arabs” to struggle among each other.

The same thing is happening in Palestine, much more successfully — Palestinians of African descent and Palestinians of Asian descent (and mixed Palestinians) are very focused on uniting with each other against Israeli apartheid. They are aware of the tactics Israel has used to separate them by race, not only religion.

Tendai: We also had a “settler culture” in Zimbabwe and as Mubarak executed his own ethnicity and religion-based strategy of divide and rule, we have it too in my country. Mugabe works on an insider/outsider and inclusive/exclusive strategy (Giorgio Agamben) and among the insider’s ie black Zimbabweans, there’s preferential treatment depending on tribe/race — but still ensure he presides over the nation. Zimbabwe’s tribal divisions are there, but thankfully they don’t run as deep as some African countries.

Khadija: It’s easy for me to say ‘”agh over here, we don’t do the whole tribal thing”. But then I’m a fourth generation urban South African of Indian descent. Rural realities are of course staggering in their contrast. And yet, we are dogged by assertions of Afrikanerdom everywhere in South Africa. And the often vitriolic rhetoric from the ANC Youth League has further contributed to a sense of ethnic polarities.

Sonja: Kagame’s Rwanda is one where we are all Rwandan. Where we don’t talk about that which has historically divided us, but behind closed doors, “Hutu” and “Tutsi” are still very much alive.

Tendai: So what happens if you need a national identity card, what do they write?

Tolu: Curious about Rwanda. Do forms bear “ethnicity” markings? Or is it a “We’re All Rwandan” policy, “Death to Ethnicity/Tribalism”? In Nigeria most forms you’ll fill (and even people’s resumes) will have “STATE OF ORIGIN” on them.

Sonja: Any mention of ethnicity means you are somehow leading us back down the road to 1994, which is why Kagame has instituted all those “anti-genocide ideology” laws.

Tendai: And what’s the conviction rate under those laws?

Sonja: So far it’s mostly affected journalists, who are receiving sentences of upwards of 17 years. You’ll be hard pressed to find private citizens who speak “out of turn” in Rwanda. On the other hand, in the diaspora, we do all the talking we want yet can’t seem to find a way to have meaningful dialogue.

Tendai: Seventeen years is harsh. So much for PK Mr Nice Guy, eh? About IDs for black Zimbabweans it’s like Nigeria, not for CVs, but for things like your ID you have to state your tribal village, animal totem, chief’s name and ethnic group.

Tolu: LOL. You’re kidding about the chief’s name bit right?

Tendai: No I’m not, it’s evolved from earlier forms of colonial bio-power. When I got my ID my mom wrote all the info down on a piece of paper for me. Note that I was born in a town and have lived in a city all my life. I go to the rural areas for holidays and don’t think I’ve ever met this chief and yet, without naming this stranger I could not get my ID card.

Khadija: I keep thinking back to the xenophobic riots that broke out in Johannesburg in 2008. Many of those killed were later found to have actually been South African citizens. Yet, that piece of paper that ought to have safeguarded them, was ultimately no refuge from a bloodthirsty crowd.

* Correction: In the previous post, Sophia Azeb had been asked about the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution and a link was posted to the wrong blog post. The correct link is to a piece called “We are not all Clay Shirky“.

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