Redefining and Understanding my ‘Africanness’ in 2018 Part Two: The Understanding and The Hope

This is a continuation of the first piece.

2. Tanzania: The Understanding — What is African.

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With all that was going through my mind about past African kingdoms, colonization and modern African society, I was clearly seeking a better understanding of everything.

We are constantly taught that being African and being modern cannot co-exist. This was a major conflicting factor for me because then what does being African mean?

Oddly enough, all this was addressed by a visit to the Cultural Heritage Center in Arusha, Tanzania. The center is probably the biggest arts and crafts gallery in Sub Saharan African hosting pieces from a multitude of African artists.

First things first, I am not your average artist, I can barely draw stick figures right. However, being in a space where I was surrounded by works of art that stand as an expression of African history and culture today, helped me understand my Africanness at a time when I really needed more, a sense of direction…a sense of belonging.

The center is a magical collection of artifacts from pre-colonial Africa to modern Africa. The art and setting, tell a story of African culture, beliefs, and power. There is a very clear picture of the transition of Africans through the different periods all culminating in modern pieces about cities, self-love and feminism. I was mind blown!

I believe this was the closest I had ever come to being in touch with my heritage and ancestry. I could clearly see what they believed and stood for through the brief histories listed under each piece. Some of the things that really stood out for me were:

The West African Culture. West Africa has one of the most enlightened civilizations imaginable. Particularly the Adinkra set of symbols in Ghanaian culture. These symbols are a clear pictorial representation of the values they held close to them. My obsession continues with the symbols for transformation, ingenuity, and versatility permanently set on my left arm.

The tree of life. This is a 2-floor high curved ebony tree showing various aspects of society. That tree took a father and son duo over 30 years to carve.

Religious masks which honestly freaked me out a bit. These are accompanied by deep descriptions of the ceremonies they were used for.

Artifacts from old kingdoms and kings be it the Ashanti, the Baluba and others. These included their clothes, beds, chairs and royal regalia.

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So why was all this important? Well for my generation, the story of African existence begins with colonization, as a defeated and enslaved people. Despite being free, the inferiority complex resulting from neo-colonialism does not help. It is therefore quite clear why a huge percentage of the population is dis-empowered. Picture a world where instead of colonization, our childhood was characterized by stories of triumphant African societies. Stories of cultural pride and continuity. Stories of figures such as Mansa Musa of Mali Empire in the 1300s who was one of the richest men in the world. Such depictions of African strength and power are constant reminders of the power within us, our schools, our institutions, and our cultures.

Beyond visiting the Cultural Heritage Center, I got to live among the Chaga of Tanzania in Mweka. Mweka is at the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. The locals have a deep set understanding of their culture which I hope transitions to the younger folks (The challenge with African culture preservation). The most exciting bit for me was a tour of the underground tunnels used for hiding by the Chaga as they clashed with the Maasai community. The tunnels are still preserved and can be viewed at the Mweka College of Wildlife. Any civilization that can build underground tunnels that last for over a century must be pretty damn smart and awesome!

If you are ever in Arusha, please make this visit to the Cultural Heritage Center, it is actually free! (I know, I went severally.) You can also purchase some of the pieces at the gallery.

3. Rwanda: The Hope — Embracing the African

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I always love visiting Rwanda with someone new who has visited other African nations and developed a notion. Rwanda is one of those places that makes you question all your assumptions and stereotypes of African nations.

The country’s (and especially Kigali’s) beauty and development is an oxymoron. The nation, its leadership, and its people defy stereotypical Africa. From systems that work, a functional police force, general respect for others among locals, and CLEANLINESS, the country is simply a show of hope for me. As you can probably tell, it’s my home away from home.

Many attribute all this progressiveness to the country’s dark past in the 90s. So, must societies reach the brink to evolve? This is a topic for another day. All in all, Rwanda still has its issues but so does every society.

Nevertheless, living among the Rwandese is always a serene experience. I see the nation as the ultimate representation of African hope and symbol for thriving modern Africa civilizations. Happy, proud, developed, trusting, safe, clean, beautiful and simply progressive. I remember getting teary every time I rode a moto across Kigali, taking in the evening sunset and thinking of ‘what could be’ with the right strategies, visionary and integrious leadership and a mindset shift among the people.

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One thing has remained constant through all the African nations and with each African I have engaged with in my different capacities; The vision of a new African dawn and a keenness to seek and build solutions for our communities. This gives me hope of a new Africa in the hands of the next generation of leaders.

Today I walk around with a tattoo of Africa on my wrist, constantly reminding myself of the potential the continent holds, the rich history behind my ancestry and my contribution to the African dream. I have a goal of visiting each of the 52 countries by the time I turn 30. A goal I intend to achieve.

Final thoughts:

Africans problems can clearly be tracked down to very specific things. One major one for me is what I had alluded to in part one of this piece: looking at yourself through other people’s mirrors AKA letting others define your problems for you.

You cannot help a population that you do not understand, hence why I am a keen proponent of solutions for Africa by Africans.

Taking time to follow the trends of where donor aid has gone and the same case to startup funding, it is clear why so much money goes into Africa with little result. However, at the same time, I feel a strong glimmer of hope, thinking of all the amazing African leaders in my networks, a generation that thinks differently, seeks to work to better their communities and has crazy awesome dreams for the continent! Africa will surely rise!

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