Sunday, September 16, 2012

Africa: Is it Really a Shared Identity, or Merely a Name?

Author: Mohamed Toure

The author explores a fundamental question: what is Africa and what does it mean to be African? Visiting the cultural and economic commonalities among Africans, the author seeks a definition for the term ‘Africa’ beyond a mere label for a geographical region. A continent with a complex history and demography may prove hard to fit into a singular cultural identity. In the least, overarching economic interests will define the continent’s common identity and shared vision of a future prosperity.


A continent’s name, a cultural identity, or a people’s shared economic interests?

Recently, a string of questions have preoccupied me, the answers to which have everything to do with how I, and maybe more than a billion other people view themselves. To date, I have unsuccessfully searched for the answers to the following questions, though the thought process they brought about has certainly deepened my internal dialogue. What is Africa? What does it mean to be African? Outside mere geographical provenance and skin tone, is there a common identity, or a common set of principles, features, or plights that bring Africans together under the same banner? To boot, is there any continental identity anywhere in the world that bears any singular meaning beyond geography? It may very well be that the only universal significance of the word ‘African,’ beyond geography, lies in the bundle of common economic interests and development goals that most Africans share.



Roughly over two years ago on a busy weekday, I sat in my car during the morning commute listening to NPR’s Talk of the Nation. The host interviewed Nell Irvin Painter, the American historian and former anthropology professor at Princeton University who wrote The History of White People. The title of the book immediately caught my attention. It had never crossed my mind that white people had a singular history. The definition of what it means to be a white person was even more ambiguous to me. After all, I was born in Italy, a place that many Africans and Asians view as a ‘white’ country; yet, when my family migrated to the United States, I found that people of Italian descent were usually grouped apart from the mainstream white American culture. At best, I came to understand universal whiteness to cover all peoples of European descent.

I immediately made a trip to Barnes & Noble to purchase a copy of Painter’s book. As I read, I came to understand – at least according to Painter’s dissertation – that there exists no singular history of white people. What many defined as being ‘white’ was largely based on held assumptions about fair skin tones and features commonly associated with them. What then should I have thought of my Arab-American friend Ahmad, who has a skin tone no darker than my German-American friend Joe, and even possesses hair of a similar color, and features of a similar kind? Had they both been introduced to me on the same day under the guise of fictitious, European pseudonyms, would I have identified one or the other as being a ‘non-white?’

PANAFEST, a festival that takes place in the United States yearly,
celebrates the African identity and heritage.


This led me a step further beyond questioning what it means to be European, to questioning what it means to be Asian, or African for that matter. Did the northern Anglo-Saxons have much in common with the Spanish Catalans? Did the Normans and the Khazars share a common history? Today, the aforementioned groups, and many others are all identified as European/Caucasian; in the United States, when asked about their ‘color,’ their most likely response is white.

Map of Africa's main ethnic categories.
In Africa, the same reality is present. Though most Africans proudly call themselves African, and use the word as a title to qualify and brand many of their businesses, organizations, schools, and cultural artifacts, stark differences exist between many of the sub-groups that make up the population of Africa. Any Yoruba or Hausa man or woman from Nigeria will readily explain the difference between their two tribes, respectively. The Bamileké of Cameroon and the Kikuyu of Kenya don’t speak the same language, wear the same clothes, or eat the same foods. The only things that all these groups have in common is their residence on the African continent – which is vast – and their similar black skin tones (within the ‘black’ family, skin tones can vary from extremely dark, to very fair). In short, there is very little evidence of any cultural similarities that are exclusively shared among people living on the African continent. It goes without saying that throughout the history of Africa, tribes living side-by-side often have experienced differences so great that they culminated in continuous tribal conflicts.

The spread of Christianity and Islam throughout the continent has increased the variety of socio-cultural differences that make up the continent, and in many places, the existence of the two has only served to further polarize neighboring tribes. Of course, there is one singular event that affected all of Africa, and continues to bear some effect on the course that the continent is taking: European colonialism.

Colonialism is the only event that virtually every African can relate to, irrespective of ethnicity, culture, language, religion, and location on the continent. In the post-colonial era, the boundaries of African states rest upon the maps drawn by European colonialists, and African institutions are modeled after Western European ones, with universal – European – ideals serving as their guiding principles. The clothes, music, and cultures of Africa have incorporated European values and symbols, all the while retaining their ambiguously defined African label.

For early pan-Africanists, the African identity stood on ideals of independence, black unity, and resistance to European colonialism: the invasion of Africa and the enslavement of its people. This identity was treasured by black leaders on the continent, in the West Indies, and in the United States who fought for the cause of freedom and equal rights in the Americas, and the independence of African states on the continent.

In the 21st century, Africans have an overarching economic struggle. With the advance of globalization and the increasing demand for a western lifestyle, Africans are relatively less averse to elements and symbols of the European identity. The dealings of the continent with the rest of the world are predicated by multi-national companies, and access to the resources that Africa holds, resources that the global capitalist system dearly needs. Meanwhile, as media and communication technologies penetrate the continent, Africans are being initiated in the pleasures of modern consumption.

The two largest foreign players on the continent, the United States and China, are increasing their presence there, in no small part due to the promise of big economic rewards for their economies and the companies that help drive them. These two world powers, along with several others, group all countries on the continent under the African label as they draft plans and policies to further their economic ambitions on the continent.

Europeans, like most peoples across the world, have dealt with the same fundamental question over identity that Africans must face going forward. Culturally, it has proven impossible to clearly define large populations with a single and narrow identity. Instead, bodies like the European Union have relied on shared economic, political, and developmental interests to establish a common denominator among states that live on the European continent and wish to enter the union. I find it particularly interesting that these nations, along with their diverse populations, have managed to overcome their diverse and divergent histories to build a union that capitalizes on their geographical proximity to highlight a common vision moving forward.

African heads of state and dignitaries attend the inauguration ceremony of the new African Union headquarters, held on January 28th, 2012 in Adis Ababa.


In Africa, there is a body analogous to the European union that claims to promote the continent’s collective interests. Although the scope and degree of participation of member states is relatively smaller than that of European countries in the European Union, the African Union is the largest organ representing Africa; originally charged with the mission of ridding the continent of the last vestiges of colonization and apartheid, the African Union promotes unity and solidarity among African states, as well as cooperation for development, and the safeguarding of the territorial integrity of member states. Today, great skepticism populates the debate about the legitimacy and effectiveness of the African Union; beyond all, one point cannot be overlooked: the African Union appears to also highlight the common economic interests of its member states to establish a common denominator for its definition of what it means to be African and belong to the African family. Emerging bodies that seek to represent the continent will likely adhere to a similar definition. As the tone of the global debate on African affairs becomes increasingly influenced by the continent’s most pressing issues – economic growth and development – African states will find their commonalities in their shared policies that will help them reach their development goals.

As Africans continue to use the term Africa as a token of what they hold as a proud heritage, unity, and advancement of the continent, Africanists will do well to consider the fundamental question: is Africa merely the name of a continent, or an identify? And if sufficient evidence exists that it is an identity, is this identity cultural, economic, or both? In lieu of a direct answer, it is clear that the dealings of the continent within itself, and with other parts of the world rest increasingly on economic exchange and economic policies. Should ‘Africa’ prove to be a set of shared economic interests, the discourse on Africa will have to yield a greater focus on the economics of the continent and the politics and policies that govern Africa’s economic ecosystems, all in the spirit of a shared coming prosperity.

Mohamed L. Touré is the editor-in-chief of SEADiaspora. He is currently a business professional based in Maryland, in addition to serving on the steering committee of Alliance Guinea, an organization focused on human rights, democracy, and justice in Guinea. He is an associate at the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance. Mohamed graduated from the University of Baltimore with a B.S. in Business Administration and a concentration in International Business. He is a Guinean-Italian, who holds dual citizenship and resides in the United States. His belief in sustainable development as the way forward for Africa is rivaled only by his commitment as an A.C. Milan fan.

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