Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Inter-African Ties

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 African?

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.

Creative Commons License This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.

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