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Performing African Identities; Lessons From Florence

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He looked at me from afar, and our eyes met yet again. I kept asking myself, who is he, what does he want and why is he smiling so intensely. It was a hot day in summery Firenze. Not the kind of heat you would want on you on a Wednesday.

He made his way and asked, “Where are you from?”

“I’m from Mozambique, in Southern Africa.”

“My sister!” He could have hugged me, but my mother was visible, “I am also from Africa! I’m from Libya!”

I’ve once written about this encounter, and touched mainly on the beauty of such an interaction in that, it was outside Africa that my identity as an African was recognized, or perhaps the moment where two Africans abroad met and celebrated each other.

This piece, however, is an extended epiphany that African identities are not as fixed as I had once thought them to be.

It’s a growing thought, really, or a realization — or a fixation –, I’m uncertain.

The opportunity to travel and witness other kinds of living has exposed me to perceptions others have of Africa, and of Africans — especially those who travel. I’ve come face to face with both sides of the coin, with being an immigrant, and a tourist.

I’ve been confronted with brothers and sisters, if we will, who looked as lost as I, only without the privilege of an updated passport, or those who roamed the roads to Rome and didn’t stop for a snap, because their final destination was not as appealing as the Vatican. In fact it was the opposite. I met migrants, immigrants, who had spent a great deal of their time mediating and negotiating their identities as leverage, as a means to which, a currency that could sometimes render them certain freedoms, or block them from accessing the same.

So this piece has finally come to its birth. I hope to touch on a few things, a bit dispersed, the writing that is — as the thoughts in my brain, but hopefully orderly enough to follow and conclude that there is something interesting happening in the ‘African’ narrative, both in the continent and abroad.

Pluralism, The African Predicament

I’ve never really believed in a fixed narrative of what constitutes as African, but I’ve been quite hypocritical about it. I’m the first to interject the tourist when he says, “Oh, well, I’ve been to Morocco and Egypt — but that’s not Africa“.

What do you mean? You, my friend, have been to Africa. My condolences.

The first time I visited Kenya, I was scared. I thought to myself, “I’m going to Africa. No, like real Africa.” I didn’t feel guilty, or not immediately.

There is really little difference in these two statements. Both express the dissonance between the geographical and ideological (?) conceptions of Africa. Several times, speaking to friends from Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, they seemed quite, if not more, comfortable with belonging to a Middle Eastern identity despite where their countries stand on the map. Maybe being Middle Eastern is more profitable than being African, I thought.

So when the Libyan man approached me, declared our fraternity, and rejoiced at the fact we were both happily African, I was shocked.

Permeating, Appropriating, Negotiating

I was shocked that it came so naturally to him. I thought all North Africans had an inherent cultural distance to the continent. I thought only us, Sub-Saharan Africans, had the real authority to claim this identity. I almost stopped to ask him, “what happened? Did the Middle East reject you? Is this why you’re African all of a sudden?”

Let me unpack my reaction.

Not until so long ago, I was a vocal advocate of the notion that “African-” identities were byproducts of rejection.

I’ve never been particularly fond of recent ‘African-isms’, or ‘African-American’ dialectics.

Mostly due to the disconnection, though powerfully genuine intentions, of particular groups of people to revindicate an identity born out of marginalization. It pained me to see a group of people in a particular space, unable to claim and belong to that space, on the mere basis of appearance, or apparent cultural differences — and thus rely on ‘African-isms’.

I thought to myself, in that very moment, this man must have been severely mistreated, disappointed by his peers. His Middle Eastern identity must have collapsed in front of his very eyes, his appearance and language and religion must have failed him. He was probably rejected. His identity no longer advances him. As a result, he’s African — what else has he got to claim?

Performing Africa Abroad

Today, the soliloquy is softer. I must say that 6 years ago, when the man and I crossed paths, things didn’t seem so blunt. I still got to be a tourist back then, so I was performing under a veil. I was African, but the good African — the desired kind. The kind that has a VISA and buys online. I was not the kind that went in search of an improved livelihood, certainly not the kind that was perceived as a threat to a cultural system established centuries ago.

Today, as we sit in one of the world’s (alleged) worst migration crises, all us Africans are undesired. In fact, undesirable.

All our identities, whether Southern, North, West or East African are crumbled into one. There is no longer time nor will to disassociate, to create borders between the here and there, the continent and the diaspora. The movement grows transnationally, today’s efforts can even be said to resemble past attempts at pan-Africanism.

The feel and look and characterization of Africa is changing. A bunch of us are experimenting, trying, challenging and flickering our masks not to impress, but to expose and explore.

Africans continue to be on the move, whether as “immigrants” or tourists, we remain migrants — nomadic everywhere we go. Often not because we choose to, but because our identities are seen as either too strong or to destabilizing. So we cling to the mythical roots that power and sustain who we are.

It’s an attractive, and perhaps much needed narrative in a world that seeks to dilute the threat of a united Africa.

So 6 years later, that man’s words still echo everywhere I go. I’m not as forceful, and am hopefully somewhat more thoughtful and considerate of how people choose to identify themselves. I don’t necessarily see the African identity as a go-to when other “more desirable identities’ are not accessible — not anymore.

And it feels okay.

We Africans must travel more.


Lover of all things bright and yellow, with an unorthodox taste for neuroscience and politics. She travels in and out of herself, and enjoys getting stuck in transit while doing this thing called 'life'. (Mozambique)


  1. This is definitely deep. A well-written article, made me think about identities. What are we without our identities. You are right, all of us should travel more as travel teaches us what a book cannot.

    • Very true. Everything in life is an opportunity to educate and develop ourselves. So it is when we travel.
      Thank you for stopping by Swati & Sam!

  2. A very interesting read. When I went to Uganda in 2013, one of the first people I met asked me if I’d been to Africa before – when I told him Morocco and Egypt, he said ‘ah, so this is your first time in the REAL Africa’…

    I think trying to define Africa under a unifying identity is a tremendously difficult thing to do. It’s such a vast and patchwork quilt of countries with so many tangible and intangible differences – to try and define Ghana as being fundamentally the same as Somalia is a nonsense to me. A bit like saying British and Romanian people are ‘Europeans’ and so share the same cultural heritage, identity etc.

    But, as all travellers know, we all have a common humanity, and whatever the differences we may have from our upbringing, travel does much to teach us that those who seem alien and other are not as different as we may think. So yes, if you can, do travel more!

  3. Very thought provoking article. Nationalities vary so does character and tastes… we cannot generalize and label.
    Let the experimenting continue I am sure everybody will get recognition by their own might!

  4. I am reading this at 5am and it took my brain to some pretty deep places. Really well written.
    I feel like I am seeing more and more Africans travelling. I am seeing more African travel bloggers also.
    This is actually one of my favourites here. The site is under construction but I am pretty eager for it to return.

    Nice article. 🙂

  5. Was pleasantly surprised to find something like this while going through many usual travel blogs. You have definitely gone beyond usual travel blogging. Ethno-linguistic and cultural Identity is surely a delicate topic and I can see what prompted you to write this. I have also gone through such situation myself due to my origins. Hopefully someday I’ll explore them in writing too.

  6. This is such a well written and thought provoking article. I am an Indian who spent 17 years in Tanzania, Africa. When people get to know that I grew up in Africa, I get a variety of interesting questions. There are so many preconceived notions and generalisations about Africa that I struggle to break every time I have this conversation. It is a beautiful continent and each country is unique in its own way.

  7. Travel is so much more than exploring places. It’s also about exploring oneself. Traveling to different places and learning of their cultures and respecting them is something which definitely going to break much of the barriers we observe now.

  8. It is interesting hearing your perspective on African identity. It’s great that that man bonded with you on both being African but I guess he wouldn’t be doing that if he didn’t feel like an outsider. I think everyone bonds with people that share their experience and perspective since humans are social.

  9. An interesting read. I have myself been battling the thought of planning a trip to Africa. I see and read beautiful posts about it. But then I have heard about places with really bad law and order and trouble for tourists. So, I am not sure what to do..

  10. Wow! What a powerful piece Selma…loved every bit of it. I think even outsiders somehow I see North Africans as not really Africans, and even I have been a victim to that thought in the past.

    And yes, travel will change that and lot more. Travel is the answer to so many woes of the world right now.

  11. Not a simple post, not a simple reading but something really deep! Travelling around the world means going to the world of the others, understand their culture with love and respect! Anyway I would like to say something about our REAL identity: Most of us can trace our family history for a few generations, possibly down to our great-great-grandparents, but certainly not thousands of years into the distant past, when Europe and other continents were settled by prehistoric tribes and peoples. We are all humans and our roots are the same! 😀

  12. Really interesting thoughts and something that I can admit that I have problems to understand. As a Swede I have always considered myself as Scandinavian instead of European. Europe has always been a lot more split between the different corners, with some corners having a greater desire to be considered European. Africa in comparison are huge with so many different identities, so it is really interesting that there is a common identity as African. 🙂

  13. I don’t know how I would feel if Indians were undesirable one day. Maybe in some part of the world we are. I don’t know why you feel Africans are undesirable . I have been to some of the cities and they are beautiful. It’s a mystical land and I want to explore more. Btw very desirable :)!

  14. Very good read. Really makes you think about everything. How often do we lump people together? How often do we exclude someone? I think a lot of migrants around the world may claim themselves as different from where they actually came from.

  15. Africa has been portrayed in a very undesirable manner. The everlasting image of the continent is one that is of poverty, undernourishment and war.
    But I know Africa is deep and beautiful.
    Who knows about the Kingdom of Kush?
    The mysterious city of Timbuktoo holds a spell on people who know what the real Africa is.
    Africa is beautiful.

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