Essays, Post-Colonial Discourse
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What to Make of Differences in the African Experience (1)

Discussing Achebe, from the series: Indecisive Moments, Emeka Okereke, 2013

In Berlin, I had the pleasure of catching up with some longtime friends and colleagues. Luckily it was in a low key Nigerian restaurant that allowed for conversations in off-pitch tones and wild laughter. On the table was a Nigerian and a Cameroonian who had been living and working in Berlin for 20 years or thereabout; two Ghanaians who just flew in for a performance—one of them of Romanian origin; a Nigerian who arrived Berlin from Libreville; and myself, a Nigerian who just got in from Amsterdam. There you have it: a heterogeneous mix of Africans that immediately trumps a simplistic notion of Pan-Africanism. It was the perfect setting for an impromptu debate about what Africa, or blackness should and should not be. It was a rich conversation, cutting across many historical pointers but geared towards one question: How do we change the status quo and inspire progress that breaks away from the pitfalls of neocolonialism?

A departure point for me was to scale back to the time of Kwame Nkrumah, the symbolical figure of Ghana’s independence and a key pioneer of the concept known as Pan-Africanism. There were many events and endeavours that led to the first crack on the colonial wall. Nkrumah spent a lot of time in the United States and eventually London – all the time in the company of the Diasporan community. He got to know and develop a relationship with George Padmore through whom he would consolidate his reflections on Pan-Africanism. He eventually returned to Ghana equipped with an ideology but faced with the challenge of modelling it to the realities on ground. Here, I want to strongly emphasise the fact that he could not have made such remarkable progress without a constructive relationship with the Diasporan community, where he had to reconcile the differences in Africa/Black narrative and realities. Be it as it may, independence came. He immediately moved forward to implement the larger goal of uniting all of Africa into a force. This is where it gets interesting.

His proposal for a United Africa was met with great suspicion. The most logical argument at the time was centred on the concerns that each individual country had its own big fish to fry. In his 1963 speech at the inauguration of Organisation of African Unity (OAU), he emphasised the urgency of prioritising an African unity against the gradualism and step-by-step approach proposed by many. With good intentions, most African leaders felt that the best way forward was to focus on individual domestic problems. Nkrumah argued that much damage have been done by colonialism for this to yield any tangible result. He argued that no one independent African state had the capacity to tackle its own internal problems and chart a growth course single-handedly without joining forces with others of similar realities. Moreover the complexness of the situation does not allow for that very static notion of progress which proposes that we first eliminate our specific problems one by one and when all is cleared then we come together to say: “Now all is well, let us now unite.” In Nkrumah’s words, “this view takes no account of the impact of external pressures. Nor does it take cognisance of the danger that delay can deepen our isolations and exclusiveness; that it can enlarge our differences and set us drifting further apart into the net of neocolonialism”. 

After this meeting of African leaders during which such prophetic insights on the African predicament was expounded, Nigeria from 1967 would engage—for almost three years—in one of the bloodiest civil war in history. Two decades later, history would repeat itself in the Rwandan civil war. Two examples of conflicts that symbolized that Africa had fallen for the divisive agenda of colonialism, but also that the isolationist approach towards African progress was highly detrimental.

While we can invariably say that Nkrumah’s worst fears came to pass only too soon, we will be left with an obvious conclusion if we do not try to understand what was at stake. One downside of Nkrumah’s position was an underestimation but also a generalisation of the mechanisms of divisions prevalent in the African narrative. In between the lines of the 1963 speech there is a certain assumption that takes for granted the intricate nature of the socio-cultural conflation we have come to know as Africa.

When he talked about “external pressures” in that 1963 speech, did he consider that the pressures were not merely from the colonial powers as they were from the various forms of division invented to create marginalised factions within the multifarious forms of African narrative? And that the pressure will ensue from the struggle of these marginalised factions vying for a place at the centre while all the time, playing to the imperialist tune? I would think he did, because he went on to explain how an isolationist approach to solving the problems of marginalisation would widen the gulf between peoples of African descent and lead to a cultivation of a neocolonialist mindset.

But did he consider a fraction of the African Diaspora as a category nurtured by a neocolonial, isolationist approach? Or the new Diaspora African some of whom prefer – often for the sake of convenience – to go by such labels as Afropolitans and Afrofuturists? Those who claim their experience are central to a new version of the West, a multi-racial version, while insisting (almost demandingly) on being recognised as part of the continental African reality? Perhaps these claims are firmly cultivated by a sense of entitlement bestowed by a reverie of Pan-Africanism which takes for granted the conflicting positions between Western ideologies and the African reality and that the connection between the two positions is not a straight-out-of-the-box package, but one that must be meticulously  harmonised if it would ever be constructive – just like Nkrumah himself did with regards to the Diaspora.

We know neocolonialism was a side effect of African independence. Yet, how often do we reflect on the pressures from the Diaspora whose solution to the abstract nature of Identity often tends towards the need to have one foot in Africa and the other in the West? While my questions seek to exhume latent perspectives, they are not intended as a generalised criticism of the Diaspora. If any thing, they call for the need to be much more conscious of our relationship with this volatile and finicky concept known as Africa. 

In this light, I suppose Nkrumah’s position would not have been short-lived if we seized it as an opportunity to begin the cultivation of a mindset, which does not immediately equate diversity to division, nor generalise our differences. However, for us to get there, it is important that we do away with the assumptions that all black persons or any persons for that matter are the same. We must recognise that unity is not sameness, but equality in difference. This means to see difference as a tool by which we attain equality. We must pass through the contradictions inherent in difference, function through it, live it, the outcome of which we can call unity. Moreover, the Diaspora is an indispensable outpost of African experience and experiencing, much the same way as Continental Africa is invaluable as a point of departure. Our efforts as it stands should be geared towards building bridges that serve as interstices of exchange, hybridity and interdependency. 

Many artistic projects in Africa are at the forefront of these conversations about collaborations and exchange. The Invisible Borders Trans-African Project is a key example of such projects, and I speak from a place of firsthand experience as a leading participant. For half a decade, this project has sought to bring African artists together to engage the question of Trans-African exchange. The premise is simple: how can we activate a mindset that engages the arduous task of putting our socio-cultural diversity to good use, knowing that colonialism harnessed the divisive quality of our differences and dealt us a devastating blow in the process? The Trans-African project stands at the cross-point between the propositions of Pan-Africanism and its most ominous prediction: the failure of nationalism.

The presumption preceding this thought process was that the ground work have been laid by the endeavours of the likes of Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko, Aimé Césaire, Nnamdi Azikiwe and, most notably, Kwame Nkrumah. The ambition therefore was to explore those disparities through a tangible performative, artistic intervention of traveling by road, across national borders, having experiences and encounters precipitate artworks. It is a project that seeks to invent a space in which to reflect on the multifarious and effervescent forms of African Identity. The road is synonymous to the grounding quality of the earth.

There is also the question of the collective: The artists are usually from different countries in the continent, but also of different lived-experiences enriched by their affiliation with different parts of the world. In the most recent Road Trip from Lagos, Nigeria, to Sarajevo in Bosnia & Herzegovina, it was an eclectic mix of Continental and Diasporan Africans. This presents an unforeseen way of being, but also of creating. As landscapes and people change in no predefined order, something happens to the core of a person. The borders that we seek to traverse become more personal, more intimate. The line between the external and the internal is muddled up. The collective nature of the project becomes a threat to individual subjectivities, and subjectivity is made into a lethal weapon against the collective. Contradiction ensues. The big picture of unity becomes blurry in the process of its making. Yet all of this is a necessary process. It is a mosaic of the big picture. It is the road, hard and granite-like as it can be. One must first traverse this road of fluctuating currents to arrive at cohesion. 

In order to arrive at cohesion (which does not flatten subjectivity to some form of uniformity) in a context of volatile interplay of differences, there has to be an “in-between space” which upholds and nurtures the various forms individuals express their humanness. Humanness is what we have in common. However, each person’s humanness is an integer, complete in itself, every individual has a different personality. But this quality of being different does not usurp the tendency to be familiar and even similar to other personalities in a communal framework. It is this quality which allows us to recognise ourselves in the other without being the other. Our differences must therefore work to attenuate the tensions in the opposing forces of our respective personalities in order to achieve this aim of recognising ourselves in each other. In this way we can become unique parts of an ecosystem. 

It is entirely useless in present day, to speak of Diaspora and Continental Africa as antithetical to each other. Rather we should see them in light of their contextual offerings for they are complimenting parts of a whole. It is high time we began the task of ascribing values to the various trails of the dispersal by which today, Africa gradually permeates the world. One cannot speak of Africa progressively without giving weight and accountability to its global positioning and how over many centuries, it has fed and sustained the world, and could do much more beyond any existing projections. This is what it means when one says “Africa is the future”. It must be freed from its enclave of constricting definitions much of which, in recent times, is encouraged by same peoples of African descent. More dangerous however, is to get caught (and therefore distracted) in reactionary conversations with proponents of Western ideologies. This will amount to severe drainage of time and momentum, which could be dedicated to much more proactive pursuits.

So there we were in Berlin, discussing various points of view about Africa. Our views were not so divergent when considered in line with the context of each person’s operative reality. What makes the views seem somewhat conflicting was the fact that we had presumed that Africa meant the same to all of us because we could lay claim to it as origin. Yes, we are Africans. But by the virtue of differences in our divergent African experience, Africa is much more permutational than we could have ever imagined. Perhaps, we ought to adjust ourselves to the consciousness that we must weave new forms, vocabularies and instruments of cohesion that breaks away from enclosing dichotomies —in order to create not only an ecosystem but also a circulatory system out of the various tenets of our African experiences.  

 Image: Discussing Achebe, from the series, In(-)decisive Moment,  © Emeka Okereke, 2013

1 Comment

  1. “We must recognize that unity is not sameness, but equality in difference.” This statement couldn’t be more true. Thanks for a good read. Motherlands Finest.

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