When there was an aeroplane flying over the dusty brown rooftops of Ibadan, I used to wonder where they were headed. I was convinced there must be something more than the basic experience I was having; waking to morning prayers, going to school, following my parents to church and playing paper football. My memory of running through the streets, head up-turned, hoping to catch up with the aeroplane, is one that a lot of us share no matter where we are from. Something in those moments told me to never be content with just the little joys I could find around me. There had to be a bigger world out there waiting for me to find it. I also wanted to be found by whoever or whatever was out there.
We all want to be found and accepted. Yet, when we find new places, we think of those places as “the other side”. We are told that these places belong to other people and there are borders, passports, tickets and rules about who can cross from which side to another. I bet Nigeria seems so far away for you as the world seemed far away for me as a child running after the passing airplane. There’s a call to embrace the world as ours and to not question our place in it.
Another liberating experience for me as a child was the rain. Where was it coming from and where was it going? I was mesmerized by the sound of rain on the roof and water rolling off on to the ground and the earth having no choice than to accept these streams of joy. We all want to be irresistible like rain. One thing we must realize is that Africa is irresistibly gorgeous.
For each person that steps into Africa, or into a new country within Africa, there’s something we all want. It’s freedom. Africa promises us adventure, culture, people, family and an open embrace. Therefore, we look for home in these new cities, faces, in the hugs and the handshakes. We want to embrace Africa beyond the familiarity of our own side of her.
Yet, Africans are told that we could be powerful innovators, intellectuals acknowledged and accepted by our own, maybe, but not by the world. We must sit for tests upon tests and get all these certifications to prove that we are capable of the things we already can do. Imagine living all your life second-guessing who you are. This is what it means to be African. I want to be accepted, but I am constantly trying to prove that Africans are worthy, that being black is just as natural as anything else.
We shouldn’t have to debate or explain or contest for identity. That’s what you do for political positions. Humanity is not a political decision that people vote about. Yet Africans don’t even accept the African identity. We are in a constant tussle about who should be allowed to live in Africa or use this space or that space. We continue this perpetual denial of the similarity of our struggles, passion and hopes. We are eager to set up divide walls even within our communities. Walls that would be impossible to surmount.
When I moved to Pretoria in 2017 for studies, I was shocked by the racial and political divides I met. Despite the similarity in our struggles, I became a stranger as easily as though nothing about South Africa was like home. It’s as if everyone has a different version of Africa that they are living in. Yet, it’s all in our heads. Pretoria feels like Ibadan on some days. I hear familiar voices and see familiar faces. They are not always smiling. We share so much in common but are not accepting of the few differing realities. We see new faces as representing the other side of Africa that is too different from what we are used to. This unsettles us in many ways and we rather seek out comfort amidst familiar faces.
Everyone knows everyone within their own small cocoon of what Africa looks like to them. This is safe. We like to be safe. So, when you are in a city far away from home, you quickly look for Nigerian friends and give up on the Xhosas and the Zulus, they are too different! New members of our communities are the other side of Africa which we can only attempt to know from afar. We only want to see them in the news, the movies and on our mobile phones. We’d rather read about the next guy on social media than move closer to them to speak.
Picking sides has become our African reality. We all come to communities like this and quickly look for the most suitable side to be on.
This is the Africa where you mother would call you and say she heard that your wife is a witch. This is a space where your wife would tell you that a prophet saw your mother burying your destiny. Then they’ll ask you to pick a side. Because everything about Africa is a war. You either agree or you have chosen to war. There’s no middle point where you say, but I love my mother and my wife. There’s no place where you could keep a friend that doesn’t sit well with your father.
This is the death of identity. In Africa, we pride ourselves in the many variations of Ubuntu. Yet, we have successfully subsumed, buried individuality in the collective reality. We have made the community to have so much power that we judge strangers as enemies and deny them opportunities. We see Nigerians, Congolese, Ghanaians and so on but cannot see the African. Community has become a tool to divide and segregate. Yet, the big universe around us still wants to embrace and be embraced.
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