In the beginning
Political theories such as neopatrimonialism and the words of Africanist like Patrick Chabal and Nicolas van de Walle or African historians such as John Henrik Clarke and Cheikh Anta Diop all played out like an academic mixtape in my mind, competing for the space that serves as reference points for my analysis and perception of Africa. So as I write these words I struggled to find the right ones to describe who Africa is and my relationship with her.
The seeds of interest and passion tend to begin within the realm of informality or non linear structure. For example, before a basketball player turns professional the journey often begins after school at a neighborhood playground and for many they cannot even recall the very first time they were introduced to the sport, as it was always there. My journey toward becoming an Africanist which is in short is someone who specializes in the study of African affairs i.e., history, culture, language, politics began somewhere between being black in America and the emergence of hip hop.”
Courtesy of the golden era
There was a seminal point in hip hop where groups like Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers and Boogie Down Productions ushered in a paradigm shift in lyrical content from gold chains, misogyny, and overall indulgence of materialism to social and political consciousness. It was far from an understatement when Chuck D said “Rap music was the CNN of the Black community.” I would go a step further and say that rap music during this era also functioned as supplemental education. The lyrical content prompted and enticed the listener to want to learn more about Black history and actors within it past and present. To illustrate this point, on A Tribe Called Quest album Midnight Marauders there is a song entitled “Steve Biko (stir it up).” I had no idea who Steve Biko was as the song was not exactly a biography of the man. The title alone sparked my curiosity which led to my informal introduction to late South African anti-apartheid activist and founder of the Black Consciousness Movement. Then there was Public Enemy’s “Who Stole the Soul,” which cleverly intertwined our struggles here in the United States with the fight against the apartheid regime in South Africa:
Ain’t, no, different
Than in South Africa
Over here they’ll go after ya to steal your soul
Like over there they stole our gold
As I mentioned rap music functioned as a kind of supplemental education that politicized and illuminated my existence and power within the black body politic of America and beyond. It was the anchor of my journey as an Africanist and it led me to lectures of those whose shoulders I was standing upon. The words of the giants who were left behind were fundamental in reinforcing Africa to the core of my identity. Haunts like Harlem’s Oberia Dempsey Center, National Black theater and Brooklyn’s Slave Theater was basically the chitlin circuit for Afrocentric scholars. The style and feel of these lectures accompanied by the colorful oration filled your soul with controversial discourse, pride and sometimes…racial superiority. From Dr. Molefi Kete Asante to Dr. Phil Valentine the works of Afrocentrist have been criticized and often dismissed by mainstream academia on the grounds of making untenable historical claims and being accused of promoting reversed Eurocentrism.
Corporate restructuring not only meant that I would lose my job but also afforded me the time to find employment within African affairs. My point of entry into this field was through internships with NGO’s, whose missions were largely advocacy based. Offices from New York City to London were stocked with multilingual, multicultural, transnational people whose political leanings ranged from right of center to far left. Between the work I was doing for these organizations and the stories shared from workers in the field, it all challenged my ideas of Africa. For example, it became harder to entertain overshadowing and championing Robert Mugabe’s anti-colonial and neo-imperialist rhetoric over his policies that have been detrimental for the majority of Zimbabweans for decades or recanting the historical significance of the empire of Ghana and Mali if its own people are unable to read about their history because of the high rate of illiteracy.
As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details,” so the time arose for me to delve into the nit and grit of African politics. My enrolment in the postgraduate program at the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies was perfectly suited for pouring over case studies like Ujamaa: villagization and modernization in Tanzania, 1962-1985 to Nation, Clan & Authority in Somalia, 1920-2007 and doing presentations and writing papers on Ethiopian land tenure and modernization to Superpower involvement in Africa during the Cold War and more. Despite gaining greater insight into the dizzying complexities of African politics and practical sensibility regarding who Africa is today; I knew that I had to go beyond the theories, panel discussions, African ex pats, food and western media sound bites.
“Change and uncertainty are not to be feared but embraced because they are the fabric of our potential.” STICMAN DEADPREZ
After many submitted applications and networking with those who either worked in or had connections with those who currently work in Africa, the door finally opened for me. I secured a teaching gig with a small English services/bookstore based in Dakar. Granted it wasn’t my ideal but there was no way I was passing up this opportunity to work and live in Africa. Next thing I knew I was in at the travel clinic getting shots for yellow fever, prescription for 6 months worth of malerone, visa for Senegal; hand recharging flashlight and other miscellaneous bits and pieces.
My disposition of favoring sobriety over romanticism and false expectations with regards to Africa developed over time. I was not looking for Kunta Kente only to find Biggie and Tupac nor was I expecting to be received as the prodigal son only to be received as just another westerner. This outlook served me well while living and working in Africa as it allowed me to accept her as she is and not who I consciously and unconsciously built her up to be during my journey as an Africanist. That did not mean I was not in awe that I had made it to the continent. In many ways Africa remained an abstract expression despite all of my knowledge of its geography, culture, history and people. To experience it physically held a different kind of weight. Africa hosts everything from gross deprivation and crimes of all kinds to resilient family networks in the absence of adequate state sponsored social services along with industrious creative entrepreneurialism embodied by “Afropolitans” and more. With that being said, I am still learning to take comfort in the uncertainty regarding who Africa is and my relationship to her, and not constructing the reality of Africa around a need for a static identity or narrative. It is as the ancient Latin saying – Ex Africa semper aliquid novi, which translates as “Out of Africa, always something new.”