Are you proudly African?

During a diversity lecture in my college this question was given to everyone  as a homework assignment: do you consider yourself an African?

Well, that's an easy one I thought: I am a foreigner, aren't I? So: No.

Happy to get that assignment out of the way, I closed my notebook and went on to cook supper for the family. As I am not the Buddhist kind of cooker, Zen and the art of chopping up carrots and potatoes does not quite absorb my hyperactive mind so it got me thinking instead: If I am not an African, despite having spent more time in this country than anywhere else in the world, what am I? European? German? What is it that makes me whatever I consider myself to be? My place of birth, my genetic background, certain physical features, likes or dislikes, language, beliefs, traditions like having Christmas on the 24th of December rather than on the 25th and cooking  raclette instead of turkey? But-  hang on - surely Christmas turkey or even Christmas is not an African tradition and yet grocery stores nationwide sell turkey and fruitcakes on Christmas - to whom? 3rd or 4th generation descendants of English colonisers and other more cross culturally bred or inclined Africans? Can somebody who celebrates Christmas with or without turkey, be considered an African? What about Jewish and Muslim traditions?  Are those certifiably African and at what point in history is the cut off line? Up to which year in the history books are then new influences elevated to tradition-status and become part of the elusive "African Culture"?  Lucky for you I couldn't google any of those questions there and then and risk to bore you any further, as frankly  I had vegetarian burgers to fry, so I decided not to pursue this particular train of thought - as I am sure it has been extensively covered by some book or another fathered by an academic mind of note. Instead I rather stick to what I do best, focus on the personal rather than on the historical or political  (or geographical as for a moment or two I wasn't sure whether as a European I should also identify with my Russian brothers and sisters or whether this is the Asian department... agh shame on me).

So here I ask myself : Is cultural identity something I am born and stuck with for life or can I  develop my culture as much as I develop my personality in the course of a life time? If living in this country and being part of a multi-cultural family doesn't make me feel African, what does this say about me, about the question of my cultural identity? Do I need a cultural identity, do I want one? As I attacked a large onion, my confusion approached to what should be near-anxiety-levels but surprisingly,  I was simply bored to tears instead of angst-ridden at the thought of my missing cultural identity. And I don't blame the onion entirely.

What's more - I couldn't give two carrots about whether I was or not: African or European or Afrogerman or Germanican. I also realised what a time consuming business it must be to have to identify oneself consistently with one thing or another - I cooked a whole family meal trying to wrap my head around some of the most basic questions about my cultural identity only to realise I don't have any of the answers.  So no, I don't view  myself  as African or German or European in order to define my identity.  In the same way that I am happy and grateful to be a woman, but do not feel the need to cling to feminine stereotypes in order to define myself in a male world. The only thing I can say with some certainty - and yes, it is a handwoven hippie cliche - I am mostly h u m a n (with some lion, chicken and wallflower genes evenly spread around).

I also realise that to have this uniquely individual approach to who I am is mostly a by-product of my privileges. As I have never been oppressed as part of a cultural minority and grew up mainly post feminism, it is easy for me to rebel against any form of cultural or gender stereotyping.

But there are those Africans who have been robbed of their identity for generations, who have been defined through other (white) people's eyes and could never develop freely and within their own frame of references. In order to find and redefine themselves some of us might have the need to belong to a culture, to resuscitate forgotten traditions and to stand out against the dominant world culture (yes the cliche still applies: I refer to Euro-Americanism as spread by the media).  And then of course there are those who are born today, who might be unburdened by the past and find a  new cultural idendity by picking and choosing from all the different influences to get to what works for them. Will they forever sit between chairs, not finding acceptance with any given culture or will they be grounded and confident enough to create their own unique identity and thus feel free to be an African according to their own definition?

And where will they get that grounding and self confidence if not from us?

Again, it all comes down to communicating across the divide and finding safe spaces to do so. I am in no position to question or try and talk somebody out of their need to identify with any given culture - but being an African by geographical choice does mean that I need to question and talk about cultural stereotyping and cliches that imprison people rather than allow them to develop freely.

The stereotypes I am talking about are the daily challenges I am facing when my children are for example expected to speak Xhosa, because of their physical features, meanwhile from their genetic background their should really be speaking Afrikaans and yet they speak German and English. I do encourage them to learn Xhosa and they sort of do - but should I not rather teach them their birth mothers language? Or leave it entirely up to them when they are old enough to make that choice? Are their more endangered by their genetic background and by how the world views them as people of color than empowered by what I hope to teach them? Those are questions I keep on asking myself and until they are old enough to tell me (and it is too late of course :-)) I have to listen to as many view points as possible in order to learn as much as possible and then still change my mind at the end of the day and wake up the next morning asking all over again. 

And here is where I can be an African - on my quest to learn and find out not where I belong but how I fit into this exciting mix of people and their cultures. First and foremost I have to learn how to broaden my field of vision, to shift my perspective  from my  safe "Euro-American" spectacles to a more encompassing view where the privileges I grew up with are nothing but an unrealistic dream for most African people and the assumptions I have about my rightful place in this world are challenged by the question: by whose right? 

Of course that is depressing as much as it is enlightening. And in one swift move my balloon of rightful superiority - acknowledged or not - deflates and leaves me somewhat flat and shamefaced. As I look back at my righteous opinions about so many things that now feel slightly embarrassing to outright wrong - I realise that today I might be more insecure as to where I fit in  - but  at the same time I am more alive and inspired than ever before by those insecurities, the questions I now know to ask and the people who are mindful and open and willing to answer with their own experiences and insecurities so that  together we can come up with more questions. I also realise it is not the answers that are important but the questions we ask and the fact that our children hear us asking those questions without being afraid of not having the answers.

So at the end of this: I might not be an African by birth and I might not die an African, but today I am an African by choice, happily, proudly, gladly and gratefully so and of course like most people in this country: mainly confused.


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