« DON’T CALL ME A GLOBAL CITIZEN, I’AM A GLOBAL AFRICAN! »
BY REBECCA MQAMELO
10 MARCH 2020
Living abroad as an African raises questions on how we choose to portray ourselves and our continent. Rebecca Mqamelo shares her personal experience of grappling with the identity of the “Global African”.
I recently listened to the full album of Burna Boy’s African Giant. In the dying seconds of the final song, “Spiritual”, his mother’s words ring out: “Every black person should please remember that you were Africans before you became anything else.”
This album marks a stage in my life where my African identity is becoming an integral part of who I am. When I was sixteen, I travelled outside South Africa for the first time – and somehow, I just never stopped. In high school I represented my country at numerous international competitions for debating and public speaking. Now I attend Minerva, an unconventional university where students live in a different country every semester.
Rebecca Mqamelo is a student of Economics and Computer Science at Minerva, an unconventional San Francisco-based university that turns college on its head by allowing its students to travel the world as they study. She grew up in South Africa and has been blogging on her personal website since she started travelling at the age of 16 as a member of her country’s national debating team. When she isn’t writing about her experiences working at a Japanese cryptocurrency exchange, designing monetary systems with blockchain in rural Kenya or detailing life in modern India, she’s pondering what it means to be a global African.
Cover de l’album African Giant de Burna Boy
My identity as a young adult has been forged under the pressure of being a stranger in a strange land; I’ve lived in the USA, Japan, South Korea, India, Kenya, and now Germany. My grasp of my own culture is increasingly shaped in response to the contours of cultures that are not my own. A few years ago, I would have told you that I am a “global citizen”. But today, I tell you that I am an African.
The irony is inescapable: The further I am from home, the more I discover home within me. When you grow up hearing others label you as a “global citizen”, you start to question what that word really means. Does the fact that I get on a plane and move countries every couple of months make me “global”? What does “global” really look like, when the precursor to leaving one’s home almost always involves assimilating to a more dominant culture? In my five years of non-stop travelling, I’ve noticed a few things that global citizens tend to have in common: we all speak English very well, we have enough money to travel and – whether we’ll admit it or not – we’re pretty good at conflating the fluidity of our surroundings with the essence of our identity.
It took me a long time to realize this danger: It’s tempting to define myself by the number of stamps on my passport, to claim I have transcended borders and to embrace the cosmopolitan lifestyle that now seems so universally attractive – but the truth is, I come from somewhere; there is a place and time embedded within me that cannot be erased no matter how far I drift from my origins. That place is my anchor, my history, my state of being. It’s what constantly reminds me of my past and offers a portal to my future. For me, that place is Africa.
The cultural emergence of a new African identity
To call oneself African is no longer a statement of origin – the term has morphed to describe a credo of existence. Today, the Afro-German has as much claim to African identity as the man or woman who grew up on the streets of Kigali, as does the African American who has never set foot on the continent. Why is this important? “African” has historically been branded as backward, broken and beyond repair. It wasn’t always the case that Africans around the globe wanted to be associated with their heritage. It was frequently an identity some Africans were keen to shake off, at least in public. Being “global” was enough. The media hasn’t helped, either. We have oscillated between embodying what is dark and unknown, to crying out as the world’s hunger child and, more recently, we are held up as tokens of “new horizons”. I know from personal experience that when you’re constantly defined by others, your identity is never entirely your own.
But things are starting to change. If you look closely enough, you will see a collective awareness of a new African identity slowly percolating through mainstream culture. In an On Being interview that discusses the movie Black Panther, writer Zahida Sherman calls this “the elation of Black possibility and freedom”. It’s “what happens when Black thought, innovation, and beauty are the standards.” This new awareness and spirit is what underlies movies like Black Panther and Hidden Figures. It’s in the lyrics of every song in Burna Boy’s African Giant. We see it when global icons like Beyonce choose to be clothed by African designers. We see it in politics, too. Ghana branded 2019 the “Year of Return” to mark 400 years since the first African slaves arrived on the shores of America. Rwanda has just produced the first batch of smartphones made entirely in Africa. The list goes on. I don’t know about you, but right now, it feels pretty darn good to be African.
We’re at a point in time where Africans everywhere – descendants of the diaspora, African-Americans, first-generation immigrants – are reintroducing themselves to African heritage. My generation is in the midst of a beautiful love story – we’re finally realizing that the essence of our Africanness is what makes us beautiful, intelligent, bold, optimistic and spiritually gifted.
Putting things in context
Why is it then, that this amazing sensibility is being felt primarily by Africans who travel? As a friend of mine in Nigeria put it, “You know what the crazy thing is? These conversations are happening everywhere BUT in Africa!” We simply don’t value one another highly enough – or get to meet one another enough – in our home countries. The first time I ever found myself amidst fellow Africans was at a global leadership programme in Atlanta, Georgia. My colleagues hailed from countries like Botswana, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria. At 19, how bizarre it was to realize that I had spent my high school years travelling the globe, yet had never connected with fellow Africans in this way or set foot in another African country!
We Africans don’t travel nearly enough – unless forced by circumstance. Those who travel by choice tend to prefer destinations like Europe, Asia and the US. Those forced by circumstance generally move within the borders of the continent and, more often than not, are met with distrust and xenophobia. A dichotomy emerges: as a South African girl, I can get a visa to visit Germany in a matter of days. A Somalian woman wanting to visit South Africa must wait years.
We cannot talk about the “global African” without addressing the issue of mobility. The barriers to moving between countries in Africa is one of the greatest failures of our current leadership. How is it that a roundtrip from New York to Paris is cheaper than a one-way ticket from Johannesburg to Accra? How can we accept the abomination that students in Zimbabwe have had to forgo scholarships abroad because their country ran out of paper for printing passports?
This is why I have mixed feelings toward the term “global citizen”. The Zimbabwean man who works for my family’s household in rural Transkei has arguably seen more of the African continent than many of my compatriots. Yet, his people are ostracized and sometimes killed for being “foreign”. The sentiment is that they are African, but certainly not South African enough. In a country where we can barely define ourselves as a people and our relationship with the broader continent is pitiful at best, the situation is absurd. We are South African. But are we African enough? Indeed, we will never be global citizens or even global Africans until we can easily move amongst African countries. Our African leaders need to wake up and realize that confinement is the death of us! We want to and will travel, and in that way expand our horizons and those of our home countries.
Illustration : Siada Aminou
“We’re done with receiving handouts of cultural influence. It’s time for us to do the influencing.”
The “global citizen”: A glass bridge within a hall of mirrors
And yet, I am so aware that travel itself is a luxury, especially for people for whom the concept of travelling has been culturally ingrained as foreign, wasteful, and even suspect. The layers that envelop our experience of travel are inherently cultural and political. Travel writer Lola Akinmade illustrates this poignantly when she reflects on her own experiences as a Nigerian woman navigating her way through Eastern Europe before the saving grace of the Schengen visa: “I had to elaborate this unbelievable concept of a Nigerian travelling for the sole purpose of enjoyment. [That] explanation — the deep enrichment travel brings into our lives — was too easy an explanation for every immigration officer reviewing my … passport.” “How many talents lay hidden forever because people were never given the opportunity to explore, to see the world, to learn from other cultures, to be cultural ambassadors themselves, and to use those talents to make a difference in their own way?”
The “global African” remains elusive precisely because while we’ve been good at defining ourselves outside of the continent, we’re not very good at defining ourselves within it. For Africans living outside of Africa, a paradox unfolds within us: we are passionately in love with countries we had to leave in order to thrive. We are burning with dreams born of a privilege that allowed us to escape the many nightmares others must face. We have become a hall of mirrors reflecting blended identities, our heritage a palimpsest etched beneath layers of brutality, indignity and a lingering sense of spiritual defeat. We’re the third culture kids of Africa – fusing together the first culture of our parents, the second culture of where we grew up and now the third culture of where we choose to live.
And yet, despite it all, we have so much to give. Ours is a journey of unlearning and relearning. Everywhere I go, I see this process at work within Africans outside of Africa. We are strengthened by our unity and unashamedly bold in our quest to celebrate where we come from, our heritage a catalyst for getting us to where we want to go. For the global African, to simultaneously be and steer the story is everything.
Finding our generational wealth
What, in 2020, is our generational wealth as Africans? The great names of the 20th century reverberate with liberators, statesmen and pan-Africanists. Some say the greatest resource of the 21st century will be data. I say it’s culture. We’re at a point in history where, as Africans, we’re chiselling together something beautiful, something the world does not yet know it so desperately needs. We Africans need to give ourselves permission to be who we are. We must know and feel our strength, our gifts and the truths we embody that are embodied by no other culture. Our generational wealth, I believe, is our creativity and spirituality. It’s our vibranium.
We’re done with receiving handouts of cultural influence. It’s time for us to do the influencing. The global African is not international. She is outernational. History taught her that bringing the world to Africa was a dangerous game – so instead, she brings Africa to the world.
Only when we fall in love with who we are and what we have, can we offer this collective wisdom to the world. To be African is to be fabulously beautiful, intelligent, bold, ambitiously optimistic, and, let us fully accept, spiritually gifted.
This is true for the Somalian woman seeking to travel to South Africa, the African-American living in New York, and the South African studying in Berlin. It is a fact we need to realize within Africa as much as we are realizing it outside of Africa.
We’re one and the same. Let this be our mantra and our identity. Let this be the global African.
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