Africa is not just who we are; it is also our politics

29 May 2020 | Story Divine Fuh. Photo Adobe Stock. Read time 6 min.
Birthplace has become one of the greatest barriers to personhood in modern society, says Divine Fuh.
Birthplace has become one of the greatest barriers to personhood in modern society, says Divine Fuh.

The idea that Africans are people who must be contained within what is circumscribed as a proper place or their natural habitat is revolting and deeply problematic, writes the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Divine Fuh.

We do not choose where we are born.

We carry our birth like indelible ink.

Yet birthplace has become one of the greatest barriers to personhood in modern society, depriving large numbers of persons globally of dignity and the terms of recognition as valuable humans.  

It is not surprising that this personhood across borders formed part of Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of an emancipated Africa. May 25 marks 57 years since the African Union (then the Organisation of African Unity) was launched in Addis Ababa in 1963 as a conceptual framework for decolonisation and liberation from neocolonialism.

This controversial project, now rendered utopian, imagined at its core the ultimate chain of a powerful single identity. African. An idea that some have described as something that we "naturally see as irrational".

As an "imposed position in the contemporary world" their definitive goal was to denaturalise the cultural artefacts and practices that had become associated with that thing, Africa, stripping it of its apparent "primordial authenticity and essentialism".

Nkrumah insisted then, "The objective is African union now. We must unite now or perish."

Over fifty years since the idea of unity and solidarity founded upon a common experience of oppression was established, being African, mobile and cosmopolitan in Africa remains an aberration, and continues to be treated in countries across the continent as a crime.

While South Africa has been at the receiving end of the backlash for recent xenophobic acts against African immigrants, it is unfortunately a common occurrence across the continent where the majority of Africans emigrate globally.

Over the past four years, migration within Africa grew from 16 to 19 million, contributing to remittances of at least USD14 billion per year, compared to a 16 to 17 million increase in migrations outside the continent.  

But as Frantz Fanon wrote in 1961: "African unity, that vague formula, yet one to which the men and women of Africa were passionately attached, and whose operative value served to bring immense pressure to bear on colonialism, African unity takes off the mask, and crumbles into regionalism inside the hollow shell of nationality itself."

At every encounter here in South Africa people ask me where I come from.

Most often and instinctively I say Rondebosch (Cape Town).

For many years, that was home. College Road. The trees, their aromatic smell, the squirrels jumping from tree to tree, the sounds of the passing train, pupils screaming as they play in the nearby fields, and the melody of drunks jiving on the street.

The sounds and smells reminded me of my childhood and growing up.

But again, if I live in Rondebosch, how else should I respond? I come from there. Then they say "No, I mean before that."

Then I say Mowbray because for nine months in 2012 I lived in Forest Hill.

Then they say again, "No, before that" to which I say Claremont, because I lived in Claremont when I was a visiting and contract staff at University of Cape Town the year before.  

Not satisfied, they push further with a "No, before that" to which I say Durbanville.

This is where I lived when I was a visiting academic at the University of the Western Cape.

But frustrated with that answer, again they insist, "I mean before Durbanville", after which I say towards Paarl.

Yes, because several years back, I was accommodated for some time at a guesthouse, a horse-farm in that area.

Then they say, after asking me not to play games with their minds: "But you don’t look like you are from here, where were you before coming to South Africa?"

Then I say Switzerland, an answer which has never seemed satisfactory apart from a "Wow, Switzerland!", indicating that amongst my highest accomplishments, making it to the land of the yodel, fermented cheese, chocolate and banks, ranks highest.  

It is always received with commentary.

Perhaps reason why people always probe further after that, because it can possibly not be an end in itself: "but before that?" to which I always quickly respond: "Botswana".

The long interrogation always ends up with where I am "originally" from or where I was born, which to my bemusement always seems to resolve this inescapable but complex question - "where are you from?"

In fact, a traffic cop was flabbergasted when I showed him my Cameroonian passport and then a Swiss driver’s license.

Perhaps that's why when I am asked, "Where are you from" I sometimes naughtily say in bemusement at the question: "where would you like me to come from?" or "where do you think I come from?" I receive all sorts of responses and reactions to that question.  

People almost always think or want me to come from Nigeria or the Democratic Republic of Congo, because apparently, I have an accent, which sounds Nigerian or Congolese or French.

But I am not sure you want to tell the French that I sound like them. They would not like it. I have not acquired and nor do I embody the social and cultural capital to make me authentically Frenchie French.

But I always find that question - where are you from or where are you coming from - puzzling because I’m not sure whether it seeks to determine where I was born, where I live, where I work, where I have citizenship, or where I consider home to be; because these are not the same.  

But more intriguing is why this remains central to constituting relationships; even in the most casual conversation. It is not like the question is always followed up by any questions about that place or my life and story there.

Very few people are particularly interested in Cameroon apart from the casual mention of football players such as Mboma, Eto'o, Roger Milla, and now the first lady Chantal Biya, popular for her fashion.

The slums or "townships" in Douala will escape you, and the fact that residents of the neighbourhood where my parents live have gone for years now without potable water, even though they pay monthly meter charges to the water corporation, will not be mentioned.

I am simply Cameroonian - finish and klaar. 

But, coming from Cameroon is not the simple answer people take it to be.

For some, it is the end of the conversation to confirm that I come from that other place, Africa; while for me it is the beginning of a very complicated discussion about belonging, conviviality, border crossings, co-mingling and the denaturalisation of essences.

Being Cameroonian does not mean I come from Yaoundé the capital city or Douala the economic capital as people always assume.

Or that French is my first language. Cameroon does not have a single national language as people always seek to establish.

I do not speak "Cameroonese" like people would want me to.

In fact, Cameroon is home to over 250 languages, and even though I am familiar with some of these, English is my first language, which is often met with disapproval because as it happens and since I am African, I must have a mother tongue.

Hence, this cannot be my mother tongue.

I was born in French Cameroon but that does not make me Bamileke. My ethnic group or tribe as classified in my birth certificate and ID booklets is Bafut, which is located in English Cameroon even though I was born in the French part.

And, even though I come from Bafut, I grew up in Kom, Wum, Bambili and Buea and hardly spent a lifetime in my "native" village or tribe, as some prefer to frame it.

And for the past several years, I have lived in several countries, which I have come to understand and master as home.  

As we commemorated Africa Day on 25 May, it is important to critically reflect on our ambiguous relationship with the idea, Africa, especially given the fraught ways we have come to treat that conception, Africa, and the people associated with it, Africans.

Amongst the over 19 million people who cross borders across this continent, many do so out of coercion and because of multiple circumstances that deny them access to the basic recognition of human.

Permanently locked down in concrete and metaphorical holding camps, many times located outside centres of living, those coded as refugees have come to represent one of the greatest travesties of our modern life.

These are often treated, by us, as a debased form of incomplete human; constantly alienated from what Francis Nyamnjoh terms our ever-diminishing circles of inclusion. 

The idea that Africans are people who must be contained within what is circumscribed as a proper place or their natural habitat is revolting and deeply problematic.

The question, where are you from, or better still, where are you originally from, is a hypothesis that is often difficult to engage with, because underlying that is the reduction of personhood to an entrapment in a geographical location, facilitated by an act of fate, birth. As Nkrumah emphasised, "I am not African because I was born in Africa, but because Africa was born in me".

Africa is not just who we are. It is also our politics. Being African is a political decision. 

Divine Fuh is a social anthropologist and Director of HUMA-Institute for Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town.

This article was originally published by News24.

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