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.
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.