Africa and Identity Crisis

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The worst injustice you can do to yourself is to allow others to define you. No doubt about it. The Ewe tribe of Benin, Ghana, Togo, Ivory Coast and Nigeria has a proverb, which says:

“Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story”

As a child, I was encouraged by my parents to not allow people to speak for me. Unfortunately, I neither understood nor appreciated the main reason behind such a strict instruction. Nor did I really know the meaning of such a powerful proverb. I had always thought my parents were too hard on me – and even a bit nonchalant to my feelings – when they insisted I must tell my own story.

“Why would you like to be led?”  My father once questioned me, strictly.

“To be led? No, I am being protected.” I argued childishly.

“Protected? I am not sure you always are. You are only being led and that makes you dependent, subordinate and powerless to the person who leads you.” My mother added philosophically. She went further to explain:

“When you are led, you must earn to accept wholly the actions and directions of the leader. The question is, do you trust this leader.” She asked sarcastically.

Wow! Don’t tell me my dead parents were not wiser than Solomon! Where is that Noble Prize for Wisdom? As a young man, I have learned from the archaic advice of my parents. If you allow people to tell your own story, chances are that they tell your story differently. Yes, they may not tell your story exactly the way you want it to be told! Perhaps, because they do not understand your story well. Or they are simply biased. Biased? Yes, like some Whites, Western media who have told the African story. Clearly, they defined Africa in the process of telling the African story. According to the West, Africa is backward. It has little or no history, they alleged. Where does this lead us to? You must tell your own story rather than allow others to do so for you.

Must you, as an African, tell your own story? Yet you still trust and whole-heartily, believe those self-proclaimed prophets who claim to tell you the messages from God? Take a closer look at Africa and their strong attachment to religion and signs. The African excessive religious dogmatism has given rise to zealot religious charlatans, who claim to be an intermediary between their followers and God. They proclaim themselves prophets and they insist they speak on behalf of God. The question is: Assuming there is any sort of communication between God and these religious turned shrewd businessmen and women, how can one be sure the religious leaders will tell the subjects the exact messages from God? Do the personal interests of the so-called prophets often come first before the words of or “messages” from God? We’ll come back to your answer! For now, let’s go back to the same issue of being the author of your own story and identity. Instead of relying on perhaps unreliable prophesies from the religious leaders, why wouldn’t one try to interact or communicate with God directly – is that possibility ever exists – rather than through an intermediary? If righteousness, purity or goodness are the sacred qualifications for a direct communication with God, isn’t worth it to fulfill those conditions and interact with God directly rather than through an agent? Unfortunately, that intermediary or agent might be biased or unwilling to relay your message. He/she might even be dishonest to tell your story. That can define your identity forever! A food for thought.

Telling your own story means being able to define yourself and your identity, for that matter.   This is one of the biggest problems facing Africa today. Loss or lack of identity. Definitely, the African’s future is blank, simply because the continent has not been able to create its own identity based on the historical realities. You can only create a perfect future if you have learned from the past. That explains a very important Ibo (tribe in the South East region of Nigeria) proverb, which the world-acclaimed, prolific author Chinua Achebe used in some of his famous writings.

“A man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.”

What does this proverb tell us about the major problems confronting Africa today?  Some five hundred years ago, Africa – with its enormous mineral resources – was “discovered” and shared by the powerful Western European countries in the Berlin Conference of 1885. That has come to be known as “the Scramble for Africa.” That was when the rain started to beat Africa. From the infamous slavery to the forceful demarcation and partitioning of African, regardless of the obvious differences in culture, religion, the language of the Africans, Africa’s identity problems started to be planted in Africa. Christians, Muslims, Animists, and alike were forcefully held together in the name of clearly delicate countries within the African continent. Nigeria, for example, with over 250 ethnic groups and distinct languages was forced into one nation by the West. The result is the forceful co-existence of people with different background and world-view into an entity called a country. Does that explain the problems facing Africa up till today?

However, the question is: Now that Africans have known where the rain started beating them, how far have they learned from the past? Have Africans stopped allowing the West, the hunter, to define Africa or tell the “best” part of the African story?” This is from where African should stop the blame-game and accept their shortcomings. Yes, accepted that the West stole much from Africa, castigated and portray the continent as backward and without history, what has Africa done to correct this enormous misconception? Interestingly, the West used the stolen minerals and goods from Africa to develop their countries, while African leaders steal fastidiously from their people and stupidly bank the stolen money in the Western countries. The Western countries effectively use the same stolen money from African leaders to develop their Western countries and provide much needed social services for their subjects. You still blame the West alone for all the African ills?

That is not all. The renowned Nigerian Noble Prize Winner, Professor Wole Soyinka has argued that a country without history is a dead country. Soyinka believes that for the future of a country or group to be bright, it must harmonize the past with the present. That tells us more about knowing where the rain started beating us and not allowing others to define us. While the West believes that history is the mirror of the future, many Africans have rather chosen the annihilation of the past (old), which ushers in the era of “modernism.” Go to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Malta, Germany, England, Netherlands, Belgium France etc, you feel and touch history. Buildings dated many centuries ago are still meticulously kept intact. So are manuscripts, arts, and artifices. Alas, in Africa, the trend is modernity; the pursuance of modernism in Africa is the mother of the destruction of history and loss of African identity. Can Africa boast of the presence of their history through the preservation of buildings, arts, culture etc? Apart from a few African countries like Egypt (think of the pyramids, some of them 5000 years old) and perhaps Mali, Ethiopia, how many other African countries can boast of and show their ancient history? Rather, African priceless historical past is enviously stocked in various museums in the West, where these Western museums make billions annually from enthusiastic tourists. How many Western tourists visit Africa for the sake of historical past rather than game reserves, safaris, and seductive beaches? Do you blame the West for defining Africans from the Western stereotypical point of views?

While tourists from all parts of the world, including, sadly Africans, pay billions annually to visit museums and historical sites in Europe and other parts of the western world, African leaders are busy destroying their historical blueprints and erecting new buildings in the name of “modernism.”

Unless Africans know where the rains started beating them, they will never know how to stop that rain from beating them. It is only when Africa can judiciously create and effectively define their own identity, that Africans can tell their own story. Until Africa takes this challenging step, it should not blame the West for telling the African story from the Western point of view – regardless how bias that story might be.