Let Us Do What We Have Come Into The World To Do. [*]
by Nikissi Serumaga
May 15, 2013
May the Good Lord bless economists: their facts and figures rarely betray us. But as a human who is simply more equipped to rationalize emotions than numbers (which my bank account will happily tell you) I want to turn sentiment into vitality. I am curious as to how we can manipulate human emotion to find ourselves in spaces where the gold, diamonds, and fortunes buried in our country’s soil and politicians’ pockets are no longer an apathetic fact of life. Young as I am, with my film, not economics, degree, I would like to test out a theory, pose a question: Can self-respect activate communal wealth, no matter the physical resources endowed to us?
First things first. One must always define the terms that one uses, and here I must admit that self-respect is not the correct term at all. This intangible “thing” is a true and deep-rooted love for your origins and present self, as well as an awareness of a communal self. Together, they create respect, pride, and an inherent desire to protect at all costs and devote yourself – ourselves – to growing what we have. This would be most closely associated with patriotism; however, that word generally holds connotations of a singular country, whereas this emotion can apply to anything communal from a physical space, to a family, tribe, clan, country, and continent. I suppose I’ll have to find this word by the end of this essay.
The incident which made me think about it so much was a momentous and profound and ground-shaking moment that happened with potato chips in my left hand, a remote in the other, and a TV screen in front of me.
The London Olympics of last year were simply momentous for me. As per the usual, I was fascinated by the pure strength, agility, and stamina of the athletes. After many jokes between myself and family about learning the Chinese national anthem (because we had heard it just so many times) – Surprise! At the very last event, and the eleventh hour thereof, a Ugandan appears. My goodness, this is happening! Bambi, shame, at least let him finish the marathon. Oh wait, he’s actually fourth, this is the front of the race! Come on, let us push for bronze, at least let’s walk away with one medal. And quite soon after, my lack of faith was put to shame. Happily embarrassed were myself and millions of other Ugandans as my main man Stephen Kiprotich crossed the finish line, winning a glorious gold and receiving the medal at the closing ceremony, his relentless smile a symbol for the rest of ours.
Now really good runners do not dramatically boost the country’s GDP, create tourism, and rectify the mismanagement of resources. Yet on a very public and global scale, a countryman proved himself to be good. For the first time in my life, a Ugandan proved that we could be the best in the world at something. And being moved to tears along with other Ugandans because of a race is testament to the power of this symbol.
Suddenly, I am encouraged to seek more actively communities, people, and organizations who are “doing things,” moving and shaping the country in a very particular direction: destroying existing institutions, straining against them, and creating on a very prolific level. I am becoming acutely aware that Stephen Kiprotich is not an outlier, but a by product of a particular system of beliefs: trial and error and constant dedication, with faith rooted in his heritage. Now I read more of the literary greats of Uganda, I listen more carefully when my family speaks of their past, and I look for traces of my family in the landscape of the country. I relate the history of Uganda to the times it was in, and I realize that it is intrinsically tied to so many other countries and pan-African movements of the time. Fanon speaks to me of being black, and the language, time and citizenship barrier are barely barriers at all – rather, they unify. And now, I speak to my friends with better-formed words, I create with more coherent ideas, and I realize that it is not just myself and a few close friends talking but large, vast numbers of people spit all over the world by history who are slowly turning things into what we’d hoped they could be. Suddenly, the uprisings of the Sixties don’t seem so far away, and though our tools may be different and our enemies share the same skin color, our sentiment is still very much the same.
Now, without shame, I protect.[†] A man can be stolen from at any time. That is the prerogative of the thief. However, the question of whether it happens again, happens tomorrow, happens systematically depends on whether the man knows that he has been stolen from, and the anger or apathy he feels towards that act.
Now, with the benefit of the knowledge of history, we know that coup after coup has proven itself not to work. They key is not to destroy old systems but to make them obsolete, rendered useless by the abounding benefits of the new[‡]. So what does this mean? It means that as you read articles like this, in magazines like this, you don’t keep quiet. When you hear of an African film that looks good, don’t wistfully look at the trailer and never remember to watch it later. When someone tells you to go and read “A Man of the People”, you go and read it! There are people past and present who have are and working towards creating a new syntax with which we understand our continent. Re-wording our history and how the world sees us today. With this in mind, what I ask you to remember is that these people can only have impact, these people can only continue their work, if masses of people engage. Canonization IS the key, canonization is the way that we can let not just our children or children’s children, but our brothers and sisters know that there are spaces where you no longer have to completely sacrifice your identity in the name of money and security. There are people who are thinking, living and breathing like you and ultimately looking towards creating spaces where the scale and kind of injustice people experience is simply no longer a viable opportunity.
I’m not saying that you must now leave your home wherever it may be, change your life around. What I am saying is invest. There is a zeitgeist in the air that even seven years ago was not around. Seven years ago it was impossible to get my hands on African films, to be attached to a stream of constant celebration, constructive criticism, and pride (obviously I focus on art for personal preferences, but I have seen this in the technology and science sector as well). Now, once you click your mouse into the right community, you are there. Invest, invest, invest. These things happen when enough people, at the right time and with the right management of resources, create havoc, create something new that it is no longer possible to ignore. I cannot say 100% that this movement is now, but for the moment I am living and hopeful. I may as well try.
Now, the word I was thinking of earlier was Ubuntu. Let us also remember not to re-invent the wheel.
[†] As a side story, I shot a documentary in Uganda recently. In my editing class in Toronto, to tighten the story someone suggested I cut my two central (black) characters to become one because “We can’t even tell the difference really”. I must say, I was quite surprised by the words which came out of my mouth, only realizing what I had said after I said it.
[‡] Paraphrased from Richard Buckminster Fuller’s quote: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
A Personal Narrative on Identity
by Sophia Craddock Williams
May 15, 2013
I never fully understood the term ‘identity crisis’ and how it appeared that these crises existed predominantly in mixed race individuals. Unknowingly, however, I had been going through my very own. To think that my ‘self’ was undergoing some sort of a disaster or emergency was confusing and seemed almost unnecessary; it appeared egotistical and to a certain extent fabricated. Charles Johnson referred to race as a “ridiculously tangled subject” in his ‘Oxherding Tale,’ and upon inspecting my identity, feelings towards the ambiguity of my dual-race, mixed-race, hybrid self have become unavoidable. In parts of Africa even today, as seen through Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ‘Nervous Conditions,’ matters of the mind are not considered to require serious attention; they are rather attributed to an illness or supernatural possession. Despite my denial of experiencing an identity crisis, I had an underlying need to define who I was, what my countries and cultures meant to me, who I associated with and why. It was the formation of these questions that brought my attention to my own insecurities and need for acknowledgement of who I was. What was my own personal as well as collective identity?
Identity, despite its definitions, is such a personal concept that a person’s view of what contributes to create it is very vague and fluid. This ambiguity, however, is what allows a person to both construct and develop an identity that they can appreciate, praise, criticize, and share. It can be individual and private or collective and shared. I see my own identity as one of a culmination of East African influences, with an Abyssinian mother, having spent my childhood in Uganda, and being educated in Kenya. Visibly, however, I take on the characteristics of my father – an Englishman from London – and despite my dark features and curly hair, my identity remains unknown until disclosure, due to my fair skin. It is this obscurity of my origins and my outward disassociation from Africa that causes the need in me to express to people where exactly I am from. Is it a need of acceptance that I define myself to others, even strangers? How does this build confidence in my identity? I am explicit about my origins, as I predict people’s assumptions will always be incorrect - but so what if they are? Why the need to explore, share, and discuss my identity? It is an internal, indefinable urge that I have to make it known that my appearances to not reflect my experiences and that it is my experiences of contrasting cultures, customs and countries’ attitudes that define who I am.
Looking to the various definitions of identity, we can see that, of the several distinctions, ultimately it is how we personally define our own identity that establishes and determines our confidence in who we are. Firstly, “the collective aspect of the set of characteristics by which a thing is definitively recognizable or known.” This categorising definition enables humans to feel united with people of the same race, religion and views, anything that provides a shared communal interest or feature. Naturally, as human beings, we have a necessity to share with others that are like us. Uniting people with whatever aspects of our identity that we chose to relate to enables us to experience acceptance and admiration of who we are by others in similar circumstances to our own. Secondly, “the distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity.” A person’s character: their likes and dislikes, their interests and annoyances, their behaviour and actions, their individuality. From birth, our identity is set on an unchangeable path, destined by who our parents are and where they come from. It is throughout our lives that we make additions, edit and articulate exactly what we want our identity to be. So essentially, although our part of our identity is set in stone, we can choose to ignore it, embrace it, even to change it by adopting something completely new and different. Lastly, “the information used to establish or prove a person’s individuality.” This form of identity is a classifying mechanism that could be in the form of letters, words or numbers. Numbers. To identify oneself with numbers – ID numbers, Account numbers, NI numbers – seems almost alien; this, however, was not the case to my teenage self, who referred to myself as ‘point five’.
My discussions around identity and particularly race really began during my undergraduate at SOAS, where I vividly remember a conversation I had with a fellow student about being mixed race. Naively, I revealed my use of the term ‘point five’: a term I had used casually in the past with no confrontation or query about the incorrect use of such an ‘offensive’ term with my other ‘point five’ friends in Kenya. I was accused immediately of implying that he, like me, was only ‘half’ a person, not worthy of full ‘human’ acknowledgement. So I asked what we should call ourselves to which he questioned the need to label and define ourselves at all. My response was one seeking reassurance in being able to be identified: if, eliminating the academically prescribed terms to the various races and their sub-categories, black people are black, white people white, and brown people brown, why shouldn’t a blend of any two have a term to refer to themselves? With ‘half caste,’ a term I had naturally used since a very young age, being apparently incorrect, and ‘mixed race’ even more so, I wondered why there were constraints restricting my ownership of who I was and how I personally defined it. Who should define myself but me?
Upon reflection, maybe it was youth or living in Africa that removed the need to define who I was in terms of my African identity. Everyone can see I am white but it is my ‘Africanness’ that is invisible. The spotlight on the issue of racial mixing and identity only became clearly apparent to me once I had left Africa, and leaving intensified my African identity. I quote myself at age 20 in ‘Perspectives: Ethiopia & Britain,’ a study carried out on Ethiopian and English relations: “being further away, it makes you want to get back to your roots more.” So it was clear that upon being removed from what defined my identity, in this case my surroundings and all that included, I felt an inherent need to cling to anything that related to it. I found I was immersing myself in Ethiopian traditions of coffee ceremonies, burning of candles on Saints’ days, the cuisine, the music and clothing – expressions to unite myself with the identity that I wanted to embrace but felt ever-distanced from. So, despite acknowledging that my identity is fluid and ever-changing, and that I shall forever be adopting new elements and eliminating old aspects, it shall always be a personal choice of how I define who I am.
 I use the old term for the united countries of Ethiopia and Eritrea; sensitive, but my own personal choice of identity, as my Mother is from both and her parents’ births were before the division of the country.
 National Insurance
 School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
It’s Only a Joke
by Andreas Beccai
April 02, 2013
I have mainly been a bystander on the issue of race, but this week I was forcefully thrust from the green room to the main stage. It started out with a seemingly innocent question -
“do they have malls in England?”
I wasn’t paying much attention to his question, and I mentally swatted it away. Then my brain woke up and replayed the question in my mind,
“do they have malls in Africa?”
I was shocked at the crude ignorance of the question, and told the chortling teenage boy,
“you’re kidding me right?”
But he wasn’t. His purview of Africa had collapsed the entire continent into a single amorphous mass that was distinguished by one thing, poverty. To be fair I have dealt with my share of woefully ignorant people who have asked if I know their African friend in another country, or who have asked me if I speak “African.” It is annoying, it is ignorant, but there is no malice in their questions.
An hour or so later, another group gathered. And a question was thrown out about what I was going to name my child. I didn’t pay much heed to the suggestions, but slowly the flight of the conversation went from blue skies to heavy turbulence in a matter of minutes. The dialogue was whirling in my mind as I tried to make sense of what was happening. It was like being in the twilight zone.
“You should call her Simba, it’s better than other black names like Sheneekwa.”
“No you should call Kunta Kente.” (laughing)
Another person joins the banter,
“oh isn’t that from the movie Roots? I’ve only seen the first part. I remember black slave boobies, that’s all.”
(laughter, and smirking from the three talking)
There were other comments made, and I don’t claim my recollection to be totally accurate, but my head was swimming. The same guys that I had shared conversation with, and could call ‘friends’, saw nothing wrong in spouting crass, bigoted, borderline racist comments about black people generally and my future child specifically. I collected myself, and steeled my voice. Right there in that public area that they had rotted with their verbal fungus, I rebuked them for their insensitivity, their ignorance, and told them they had offended me to the core of my humanity.
As a Ghanaian who has stood in the oldest slave castle in the world (El Mina), and seen the line, 2 ft high against a slave dungeon, that marks the feces level of dysentery ridden, pox addled, dehumanized people, I did not find their jokes funny. As the future father of a black child, I did not find it funny that she could be born into a world where she would have to impotently stand by as her heritage and race are torn apart in the slobbering teeth of rabid racist words. As a Christian who believes to the core of his being that “love thy neighbour as thy self” reflects the heart of God, and restores in man the broken image of God – I did not find their jokes restorative to my humanity.
I am still unsettled by this episode, and as a Christian I wonder how I can broker a redemptive space in this tangled world that casually transmits such rancid concepts. Have you ever dealt with a situation like this? I would love to hear your thoughts on how to turn something as bitter as this into a learning experience for all involved.