I am a member of the African Diaspora. For the majority of my life I have lived in either Europe or the United States and I have enjoyed the privileges that many people don’t even think about: access to clean water, a free education, a safe place to raise my children without being concerned that they will be abducted to serve as slaves in a mine or cocoa field or be forced into military service at the age of 15.
I happen to have been born in a small country that most people I meet don’t even know exists. They certainly can’t be expected then to know its history or culture; much less what its people need today. How then could I expect people to care about my homeland, or Africa at large, if they can’t identify the average African nation on the map?
During a dinner party a few months ago, I was speaking to a good friend from Cameroon. He and I were exchanging stories about the questions we have been asked by complete strangers. Now, I don’t include questions I’m asked sometimes while travelling on business or when I’m invited to speak at an event. Frankly, I think that in those situations, people feel safer to ask questions that they might otherwise think would be ridiculed. After all, I’m fairly approachable (or at least I try to be!) But I digress. That evening, my friend and I were talking about those things that people have completely unexpectedly said to us or asked.
One of the reasons I love this friend of mine so much is that he is a natural teacher. He has no formal training; but he does have what counts: a passion for his people and for Africa in general. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that he is a pan-African at heart. He moved to America as an adult and felt an immediate kinship with Black Americans. We often discuss the similarities between the two cultures. He’s travelled a bit and he has met many people. But like me, he is still occasionally surprised by the regularly displayed lack of basic knowledge about Africa. Rather early on in the discussion, we both learned that we’d been asked those basic questions like “Do you speak ‘African’?” “Are you glad that you get to wear clothes now?” or “Was it weird the first time you put shoes on?” And before you let your imagination run away with you, these questions weren’t asked by people who were trying to be rude or racist. You could tell in the moment that they were asked that it was sincere.
I don’t mention these questions because I want to make fun of those people who asked them. On the contrary, I appreciate the fact that they dared to ask. Some of my friends are offended by such questions or become irritated; if not with the people asking, then with the image that they have Africa and Africans. The fact that the media’s images tend towards coups d’état, famine and diseases like malaria doesn’t help the issue. That is a given. But what of us: the Diaspora? What role do we play?
I know that it isn’t our role to act as educators per se. Sure, one could point to the plethora of Ethiopian restaurants in cities like Washington DC, London and Los Angeles (many of which are owned by Eritreans who opt to hang signs that say “Ethiopian” in order to identify themselves to potential customers). Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply explain the fact that the foods are incredibly similar in flavor and style so that people could learn more about Eritrean culture and heritage? What is the balance between trying to make a living successfully and our obligation to teach the world about our continent? I choose this example mostly because I love food and think of it often 😉 I could just as easily have mentioned another profession, another age-group or situation. It applies to each of us in our own way: we are individuals as well as Africans after all.
To answer the question before it is asked, “Yes, members of the Diaspora clearly have the right to live and exist as individuals. We are more than our nationality. We are more than African.” But, I would like to also argue that we should find a certain balance between whom we are as individuals and whom we are as Africans. After all, we are able to be many things and wear many hats. You may be a daughter, a mother, a businesswoman and at the same time; yet, you are also the president of the parent-teacher association at your child’s school, a member of your church choir, an English citizen and an Angolan by birth or culture. Isn’t it important that people know that the latter plays no less a role in who you are and why you want to serve your community while running a race to raise money for cancer research? We are like stews, every ingredient plays a vital role in our flavor, in why people love us (or not). I am only asking that once we leave Africa, we remember that core part of us which links us to our perspective “home”.
I have often told children and young adults to remember that they are ambassadors. Be it young North Africans acting loud and obnoxious on the train outside of Paris or my own children out for the day with me. “Remember,” I tell them, “that you might be the only African that some of these people will meet. So, for the sake of others that they won’t meet… be respectful, intelligent and hard-working. Show them not only who you are; but what Africa is.”
It might sound like a lot of responsibility for one person to take on. After all, most of us living in the Diaspora are reminded on a daily basis of our individual rights; since the vast majority of us live in Western cultures now. We are reminded of our freedom to choose who we are and for many of our youth, how tough it is to get ahead when one feels they are an outsider. There is certainly discrimination on some fronts. Yet, when I see our children burning cars in France, signing up for jihad training in the Middle East or disrespecting elders at the grocery store simply because they are not their own grandmothers; I ask myself who is to blame? Where has the disconnect come from? We must remain Africans, even when outside of Africa.
African culture is diverse; there is no doubt about that. But, I think that most of us would agree that there are also many commonalities. Respect for elders, a deep desire to maximize opportunities in education and striving to pull up your family and community when you attain success individually. We have a common thread that runs between us regardless of language or region. I know this is true because I can see it when I meet a woman from Ghana or Uganda and we instinctively call each other “sister”. I know it because of the hundreds of tales I’ve heard of Africans travelling in other regions who were met with such hospitality and kindness.
I had a conversation with a woman from Mali once who told me of a visit she had made to her uncle in Ghana. It was her first time visiting that country and when she asked the local bus driver what stop was closest to her uncle’s address; he replied with a smile: “This man exits daily at the same stop, he will show you how to get there”. That alone didn’t impress her (although she found it to be a kind gesture). Her face lit up though when she told me of how that stranger walked for quite a distance out of his normal route to not only take her to the doorstep… but that he wouldn’t leave until her until he saw her uncle personally greet her. He didn’t want to leave her there alone in case they weren’t at home. That, my friends, is African kindness. That is the Africa that I want my American neighbors to know. That is the Africa that I want them to think of when they meet someone from Burundi or Tanzania. And one day at a time, I’ll build that image of Africa… will you? I hope so; because each member of the African Diaspora, whether in Tokyo, Sao Paolo, Vienna or New York is an ambassador for Africa. Like it or not, you already have the job. I challenge you all to make our ancestors proud in the way you do that job, one day at a time.