I read columnist Wallace Kantai’s “Ties with North Africa Shallow” in the February 26th, 2006 edition of the Sunday Standard with great interest. In it, Mr. Kantai expounds on the idea belief that any ties connecting sub-Saharan African nations to North African nations are shallow. However, I ultimately disagree with his conclusions.
In my opinion, Africa is first and foremost a geographical
entity. Therefore Algeria,Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are incontestably
African. Another articulation of what it means to be African is racial. However,
in reality, we can’t seem to agree on precisely what it means to be black. The
moment that we try to determine whether it’s skin color, hair texture, the shape of
one's lips, nose or physical frame that makes one ‘African’,we hit a roadblock.
There’s also the idea that being African is political. A few decades ago, when
we were united by anti-colonization movements, we readily accepted Ben Bella,
Abdel Nasser and others as African. Today we are less flexible. Our political
priorities have changed.
Kantai cites the Algerian experience, referring to its
ruling class’s choice to identify it as an Arab nation and seemingly deny its
Berber or Kabyle-African identity. It is true that the ideology of Arabism has
been given precedence in official state rhetoric, but Algeria has never simply
been an Arab nation. The question of ethnic and cultural identity is constantly
being contested in Algeria, and is a major contributor to the political tensions
there. Several Algerian public figures are explicit about their ethnic
identities. They refer to themselves as Berbers, Arabised-Berbers, or Arabs.
Several have specifically referred to themselves as Africans.
But let’s make allowance for the fact that several North
Africans do identify themselves as Arabs. Is there a contradiction between
readily partaking of both Arab and African identities? I think not. Arab
identity is cultural, first and foremost, not racial and not continental. Being
Arab usually implies a certain relation to the Arabic language. The people we
call Arabs today are not all descended from one region of the world; they
include Africans and Asians and, arguably, some with European roots. The
designation‘Arab’ includes members of several different races (if one still
thinks it necessary to speak of race).
It makes practical sense for North African nations to make
alliances with Middle Eastern nations: they share cultural, religious and
linguistic ties. To a certain degree, they share a common history. This does not
make them less African. It makes them complex. We are similarly complex: The
East African coast has long been part of an Indian Ocean trading community, and
present-day Kenya continues to have ties to the Persian Gulf, the Arab
peninsula, the Indian sub-continent and the islands of the Indian Ocean. Does
this stop us from being African?
Do the economic ties between North Africa and Europe make
North Africa more European? North Africa has a Mediterranean coastline. So do
France, Greece,Spain, Italy, Portugal,and Turkey. The regions are in close
geographical proximity and have traded for centuries.They have cultural ties as
well. Economic pragmatism demands that they take advantage of these ties. How
different are we Kenyans? We are largely oriented towards the British
Commonwealth, and are highly dependent on the Anglo-American entity for our
economic survival. The global economic balance is tipped in Europe’s
favor, so just like Sub-Saharan Africans, North Africans will obviously try to manoeuvre
themselves into more profitable economic relationships. One could argue that the
heart and soul of Sub-Saharan Africa belongs more to the West than does that of
North Africa. After all, we sub-Saharans have adopted European
religions and languages more whole-heartedly. Does that make us less
There is no simple African identity. What it means to be
African varies from region to region. When Mr. Kantai says that our
compatriotism with North Africa is built on shallow sands, he is speaking from a
Kenyan standpoint. A Senegalese Muslim would not have similar conclusions,
because trade and Islam have long linked Western Africa to the Maghreb. In fact,
there are compelling reasons to argue that there are stronger ties between
Senegal and Morocco than there are between Senegal and Kenya.It is sometimes
valuable to examine the meaning of being African. However, when we restrict the
meaning of this term to race, we risk ignoring the continent’s rich diversity
and our own cultural, linguistic and historical ties to other continents.
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