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Valuing African People

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Valuing African People

There is a tendency amongst Africans to endlessly repeat pointless tropes rather than respond to the myriad market failures on the continent (bad roads, bad education, etc) with innovative solutions.

One familiar trope in Africa is what we should call ourselves. A whole evening was spent discussing this under the provocative title: African or black? When I told a friend I didn’t see the point, it provoked a furious response. Pointless exercise! Too many people are ashamed of their African heritage!

We need countless forums to address the continuing hostility between Continental Africans and African Diasporans from the Caribbean and America! The issue is important, I said, but it was like barking up the wrong tree. Being African or black isn’t the issue. Being unequivocally wanted and being successful are. And in many ways both are linked.

First, being wanted. I was sitting on a veranda in a small remote village in Jamaica. It was nighttime and I was talking to a man in his thirties about Africa. We had been gingerly and politely skirting around the issue, especially his relationship to other Africans – but I nevertheless felt a certain amount of quiet tension in his responses, as he avoided certain questions.

I wanted to stop all the evasions and have a frank discussion, no matter how painful. So I finally asked him directly – was he at all interested in visiting Africa or not. He fixed me with a steely look, and I could feel the anger rising slightly but he controlled himself and asked from the depths of his soul: “What do you think we have been thinking about for the last 400 years while we sat and suffered on this rock?”

The response shook me profoundly. Of course, they did more than suffer and think about Africa. They fought for their rights, they became new people, alongside Europeans, Indians, Chinese, and built democratic nations, which still have many problems, but are beautiful and energetic. But he was right, many of them, from Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, to the recently deceased Dudley Thompson (incidentally the first citizen of the AU), continued to remember their African identity, creating ideas from Pan-Africanism to a united Africa that would free and rebuild Africa, and restore dignity to her children.

I understood that night from my Jamaican brother a little of the paradox of longing and the hostility that many of the diaspora have. And the importance of Africans on the continent (at AU and governmental level, and amongst ordinary people) recognising that experience of the people in the diaspora, making them feel wanted and creating genuine pathways for them to engage. Especially as Haiti has just applied to join the AU.

And the paradox and ambiguity is not just on one side. When the people in the diaspora return, too many are made to feel unwelcome or looked down upon. Jamaicans who have returned to Ghana and have spent up to 20 years there are still not entitled to citizenship. How can they call themselves African when we don’t value them enough to give them citizenship?

This question of dignity and self-esteem also touches on the second issue: success. While the diasporan giants above who publicly celebrated their African identity were driven people, builders and leaders with the self-esteem and ego to match, the vast majority are not. Like most of us, they follow and are blown hither and thither by the powerful prevailing orthodoxies. They ingest a lot of the racist nonsense packaged about Africa. Furthermore they are estranged by the lack of economic success in Africa over the last 30 years. Simply put, people want to be associated with success. As we have seen with China and India, diasporans associate with the motherland when they see positive self-reflection and economic opportunities.

African unity needs to be more than a slogan. African identity needs to mean something real to Africans at home and in the diaspora. It should be about the ability to travel and trade freely, to own property, to be respected, treated with dignity and protected, and to imagine ourselves as citizens of a continent that is the home of humanity. We should make these things real for our people and stop our endless sloganeering.

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Written by Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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