What It Means To Be African

By Daniella Sachs

So often, Africanness is defined by the arbitrary nature of skin tone, which diminishes the concept into a colonial tool of divisiveness.

What has always struck me as a traveller in foreign lands is how people respond to me when I say that I am African. First, there is a wash of confusion, then a quizzical look, often followed by that raised eyebrow of disbelief. “No,” they say without fail, “you cannot be. You are the wrong colour.” “Yes, I am. I was born in South Africa,” I respond. I can see them grasping for a solution that makes sense, and then they land on it. “Ah, but then your parents or your grandparents, they must be from elsewhere,” they say. And arms are summarily folded across their chest as the matter is considered to be resolved.

Time and time again, I have found myself desperately fishing for words in whatever language happens to be surrounding me in an attempt to explain how it comes to be that I, with my melanoma-challenged skin tone, could possibly be African. In fact, as someone who is rather an awkward duckling playing dress-up when it comes to picking up languages, this is a subject I have been forced to become strangely multilingual in.

That being said, I have often been faced with a large amount of resistance to the concept. So in exasperation, more than once, I have resorted to reaching for the closest knife, saying, “Well if you cut me, you will see that I am black inside.” I will be the first to admit that this response sounds a tad dramatic, but it has interesting roots. It comes from a day when I was living in rural Madagascar and I stupidly burnt myself. This dark brown burn was paraded around the village, as proof that I was in fact an African as I claimed to be.

A Dominican Rastafarian friend found a far more eloquent way to describe it one day, as we were sitting beneath the palm trees splitting a coconut. Looking down at the coconut in his palm, he turned to me and said, “I know what you are, you are the opposite of this coconut which is brown on the outside and white inside. You are like a cocoa pod; underneath all the bright colours of your personality, you are white on the outside, but wash that off, and you are black inside.”

What does that mean — to be white on the outside but black inside? Why do such explanations make it easier for people to define and understand my Africanness? Why is it that conversations around identity politics are so tied to colour when it comes to Africa — that such descriptions are often the most powerful way I myself have been able to define my own identity?

I remember sitting on a beach curling my toes into the warm sand, watching the sunset with one of my closest friends in Trinidad, when she turned to me with troubled eyes, asking, “How is it that you, a second generation Jew born in South Africa, with roots in Eastern Europe, are more African than me, a black person with great grandparents who were brought here from West Africa? I don’t identify as African. I am Trinidadian, I am Caribbean and proudly so. Why is it that I don’t have to explain my Caribbeanness, yet you always have to explain your Africanness?”

This question got me thinking: how do we define ‘Africanness’? After all, the continent comprises thousands of cultures (we do not even know the exact number because there are so many), over 2000 dialects, give or take, and people of so many shades of colour that it would make Michelangelo jealous.

Yet so often, Africanness is defined by the arbitrary nature of skin tone, which diminishes the concept into a colonial tool of divisiveness. We talk so much about rewriting the African narrative. Isn’t it about time we rewrote what it means to be African? This way, we can embrace the power of Africanness in all its diverse complexity.

Let us attempt to dive through the murky riptides of identity politics to consider what being African really means. Let us unravel skin colour, remove religion, unwrap nationality, wipe away geography and genealogy. Underneath it all, I want you to ask yourself a series of questions:

  • Do I feel, deep within me, a strong bond to Africa?
  • Do I feel like the heartbeat of the land beats within my soul?
  • Do I feel passion boil up within me to move this continent forward step by step in my own unique way?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, then you are African.

Being African is not about the colour of your skin, nor your religion. It has nothing to do with where your grandparents were born, where you were born, or even where you live now. To be African is to feel a deep connection to this continent — its history, its beauty and its people. It is an identity choice filled with your own personal nuances of colour, emotion and experience.

We are not and will never be one uniform thing. That is not where the power of Africa lies. The power of Africa lies in her ability to ignite passion in those who feel her heartbeat. Being African is answering this call.

Currently based in The Netherlands, Daniella Sachs is a passionate entrepreneur driven by a mission to inspire more Africans to experience and fall in love with the continent. She has founded Know Your Tourist, a market intelligence startup, to help companies and entrepreneurs understand who the African tourist is, what they want, and how to best serve them. She is also cultivating the African Bucketlist, a community for avid African travellers to come together to share their insider scoops, experiences and stories.

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