“Where are you from”? Do you know how often you have been asked that? Probably not. Some of us will radically stand out from others at some point in our lives, either because of our accent, attire, religion or race. Our distinctive identity prompts people to find out more about us, triggering interesting conversations. We are all too familiar with this question, so surely answering it must be easy, right?…Wrong! You will be surprised by how many people struggle to confidently talk about their origins. I have seen people’s body language drastically change when asked that question!
For many Africans, particularly those in Europe, our race is an unmistakable sign that we have traceable origins beyond England, France or Germany for instance. But, not all of us are happy to mention this part of us in conversations. I have seen and heard of Africans who chose to discredit their ethnic background, while they focused on other aspects of their identity such as their place of birth and residence (often out of Africa).
There is certainly not a right or wrong answer to “where are you from”. But, very often, when someone asks this question to those with distinctive features like us, they secretly want to know about the aspect that makes us different. So for instance, if a Senegal local asks a (white/French) person born and bred in Senegal where they are from, I’m 80% sure that they are interested to know about their country of origin at that point of the conversation. I also doubt that their interlocutor will overlook their French origins just because they have lived in Senegal all their life. So, why do some Africans in the Diaspora feel the need to disregard their origins?
Some years ago, I came across an incident on a bus that I will never forget. There was a group school children who were openly disrespecting a Nigerian man and mocking his accent because he asked them to keep the noise down. To make matters worse, there were (black) adults on the bus laughing at those insults, indirectly encouraging these children’s bad behaviour. I was appalled by the whole incident, but it partly clarified why many young Africans had identity crisis. Those were the times when many young Africans would rather say that they were from the Caribbean than Africa because that seemed more cool and accepted in the UK. So beneath some people’s denial lies a fear of judgement, which often comes from how others perceive their origins.
We should not be too hard on those who choose to disregard the African part of their identity. How many would proudly identify themselves with a country torn by war, where women are raped everyday on a large scale, where corruption is widespread, and where famine and diseases are rampant? Very few is my guess. I had a friend from Angola (which was a war torn country for decades) who strictly identified herself as Portuguese, even though she had family in Angola and visited them. It always puzzled me, but that was her choice.
I’m no longer in touch with that friend. But I wish I could tell her (and others who reject their African origins) that people would always judge you whether you are from Africa or not. Besides, which continent or country is completely free from problems we have in Africa? Some people think that corruption does not exist in Europe or America, for instance. Well, it does, they just use euphemisms, such as donation to political parties and some forms of lobbying, and cover well kickbacks. Africa has health problems like TB and Malaria, the West has obesity and depression. This list can go on. I hope you get the gist. Furthermore, Africa has positive things to be proud of, such as our natural joie de vivre, vibrant cultures, strong community ties, but you will never hear or see them in western media. So, do your own research.
When I talk about where I’m from, I always inform people of new facts about it. You will be surprised by how little people know about African countries. I also end up putting my activist hat on because it often leads to conversations about western powers’ interference in Africa and multi nationals’ greediness. You see how interesting it can be to talk about our origins. So depending on the audience, “where are you from?” can be the best ice breaker for Africans.
As humans, we all have more than one identity. Race or religion alone, for instance, cannot define an individual. So we can be Muslim, African and Londoner, or Caribbean, Christian and American. What really matters is that we define our identity/ies based on real and informed knowledge rather than speculation and fear of being judged. So, let’s talk more about our origins.
Where are you from?