By Malaka Grant
The issue of identity – particularly that of the modern African – is one that has found itself on many minds and electronic media spaces with regularity in recent months. On and off the Continent, Africans are redefining what it means to be called “African”. For centuries, Western views have colored – and determined – how persons of African descent were perceived, how they lived their lives and altered their perception of their history. Much of that has been negative, and for good reason. If the African remains ignorant of his/her glorious past, including all of the achievements therein, (s)he is more easily controlled.
And there is no mistake: the fate of the Continent does not lie in the hands of its people.
It is important to note, however, that we are turning a much needed corner by reclaiming our identities and re-architecting the manner in which we conduct ourselves. The myth that the African was an ignorant, ignoble dolt wandering aimlessly around the savannah before encountering the European is one that has been swallowed wholly by enough folks that it is considered a part of history. The good thing is that these untruths are easily refutable, allowing a new cadre of African thinkers, scientists and innovators to pick up from the lurch that the European interruption left us in. From how we dress to how we feed ourselves, more Africans are attempting to reject colonial imposed standards and re-embracing our roots. I emphasize on the “attempt”, because the pressure to live what is considered a proper (i.e. white) life comes from all angles. To that end, I have found myself asking how authentic the African’s experience in Africa actually is.
If there is one thing that the African – particularly men – is most proud of, it’s their ‘Africaness’. One wonders why they pride is generally associated with a vice of some nature. Tardiness is an “African” trait. We don’t have to keep white man’s time. Corruption? It’s an “African” trait. Our blackness is under a curse by a white God that prevents us from striving for honest labor. All we can do is tithe/bribe our way into redemption. There’s nothing that can be done about corruption. Misogynist attitudes? But of course. The African woman must know her place: and that’s beneath a man. A quick glance at the conduct of modern African reveals that Corruption, Tardiness and Misogyny are the trinity hallmarks of our society, with few exceptions. But how African are these proclivities? I say they are not at all.
In the provincial localities in Ghana for instance, there are clear prescriptions for how to deal with traditional rulers who do not work in the interest of the people whom they have been entrusted to govern. The Ga manstɛ, Asantehene and other traditional rulers all over the country serve as important unifying figures in their jurisdictions. They are entrusted with giving wise council to resolve disputes, are holders of the nuanced history of their people, and embody the pride of their clans. When a traditional ruler has been found to contravene his/her sacred trust, there are swift moves to ensure they are either de-stooled or face appropriate disciplinary action. However, that mentality stops short of our western styled democracy where government officials are free to defraud the nation with impunity. Traditional African culture dictates that there should be consequences for dishonesty and a failure to discharge one’s sworn duty. The notion that corruption is synonymous with ‘Africaness’ is false.
Unlike the urban dweller, punctuality is actually important to the villager. The farmer and the fisherman understand and respect sunrise and sunset, as well as the nature of the tide. Their livelihoods depend on adhering to a sense of time and timing. To the urban Ghanaian however, time is something to be toyed with. It is a pawn to be used to demonstrate one’s importance. It is often believed that the later you show up for a meeting, the busier one must be…and therefore more influential. There are no cemented repercussions for tardiness in the life of a modern African. You are almost expected to waste the other person’s time. However, as I personally found out when my daughter was being outdoored at the Lartehene’s house nine years ago, there are/can be financial ramifications for tardiness. Without fuss, the Okyeame collected the requisite fine for our lateness.
Misogynist African Attitudes
I firmly believe that if modern African men – particularly those who hold fast to the rules and norms of patriarchy – had to spend a year adhering to certain African norms, there would be mass suicide. They would be unable to conceive, let alone accept, that what we term ‘feminism’ today is actually the binding thread in the fabric of traditional African society. Twitter users have expended much thumb energy decrying what they see as the horrific spread of feminist ideals to villages and towns, which they view as “un-African”.
Photographer Nana Kofi Acquah considers himself a feminist, and not because he was taught the ideals of feminism in a class. Raised by his grandmother in a coastal village, his concepts about feminism were solidified by observing the strength and abilities women inherently possess.
“I come from a matriarchal society. Women in my part of the world are very strong. They make the key decisions. We say that a child gets the soul of their father, but they belong to the mother.” – Nana Kofi Acquah (source: BBC World/Africa)
The idea that women are the weaker sex, less intelligent and desperately in need of male leadership to ensure success is incredibly un-African. In their book ‘Women’s Roles in Sub-Saharan Africa”, authors Toyin Falola and Nana Akua Amponsah detail a long history of African women all over the continent who have conquered vast territories, led migrations, and held important political positions. There was a spirit of collaboration, rather than competition, between the sexes in pre-colonial Africa. It is well documented that Europeans found women’s rights to rule and make independent decisions one of the many “savage” attributes the ignoble African possessed. Part of the divide and rule tactic was to strip women of their power, instill in all subjects that women were inferior, and wait for the effects that we are experiencing today.
A number of Africa’s most notable revolutionaries, Nkrumah and Sankara in particular, were intentional about restoring the African woman’s rights and set about creating policy to ensure their inclusion in the running of a new African society.
Some men (and women) have gone so far as to twist our traditions to force them to fit into a Victorian ideal of what it means to be a woman. Marriage has been marketed as a woman’s highest calling…and the younger a woman marries, the better. They point to rites of passage like dipo, which happens right around puberty, to support these claims. I asked an elderly woman her view on dipo and marrying young.
She said, “Dipo is not meant to show you are ready to get married today…just so that when you choose to be married, everyone knows you have been prepared for it. There is nothing in my culture that says a woman has to marry at one time or another; just when she’s ready.”
She’s Nzema, and despite her liberal views, even she has found herself susceptible to the pressure of getting a daughter married off with grandchildren to complete the package.
So how African is misogyny and the suppression of women’s rights? Again, I say not so much.
I’d be interested to know how you define what it means to be African. What allows one or excludes one from embracing this identity? What behaviors and philosophies do you believe exemplify the true African…and do we modern Africans measure up?
This Article first appeared in the Infoboxdaily,com in 2015