Policy Centre for African Peoples

Engage, educate, lead

Who or What Is African?


You know these horrible stories you usually hear about people being mistakenly buried alive?
If you do not want that to happen to me, when my time comes, do not bother looking for a doctor to check whether I am really dead or not.

Just grab a few people and improvise a debate titled ‘The True Nature of African-ness’ or something along these lines. If, after some seconds, I do not leap up and start shouting and shaking my fist at some of the speakers, then you will know that I am truly finished, acabada, finie, bolè, kaput.

For nothing makes me lose my cool more than the ideas some people have about what “African” is. I had the opportunity to realise this once more a few days ago when I bumped into a Ghanaian acquaintance at Victoria Station. I was on my way to Ealing, where I was due to speak at an event organised by members of the Somaliland Diaspora –the launch of the Richard Darlington Foundation for Somaliland, to be more precise. When I told him where I was going, he took one quick look at my little red dress, red high heels, bulky black belt and matching tights, and then asked: “You are speaking at a Somaliland event and you are dressed like this? Shouldn’t you be dressed in a more modest, African way?”

I was fuming when I heard that. But because I was running late following the delay of my train from Kent to Victoria, I knew that I could not afford to waste time either by expressing my annoyance at these questions, or arguing. Thus, I bit my lip, pretended to laugh, and said goodbye. But during the 40 minutes or so it took me to travel from Victoria to Ealing, I thought a lot about what that man had asked me. I have over 20 years’ experience locking horns with both male and female Pan-Africanists on the topic of appearance as an expression of one’s African identity. So if I had been inclined to change the way I look based on the suggestions –and sometimes injunctions- of fellow Africans, I would have done that a very long time ago. But the trouble with me is that I seldom do something just because others do it, or think I should do it. I like to investigate first, then make up my mind, and stick to whatever I decide to do regardless of the opinions of others.

It started with the hair. Unlike most sub-Saharan African women, I cannot stand having my hair plaited. Girls learn how to plait and endure the painful plaiting process while playing and experimenting with each other’s hair in their childhood. But I never wanted to play with other girls. All I did all day long was to either chase birds with the boys, or read books, newspapers and any written documents I could find. As I could not plait anybody, nobody wanted to plait me, and I grew up having a boyish, short hairstyle. When I arrived and settled in Europe in my late teens, I suffered a dramatic hair loss due to the sudden change of climate.

I was advised to protect my hair either by plaiting it, or by wearing a wig. I tried the plaits, but they proved too painful and time-wasting, and I decided to adopt wigs. This choice was, of course, berated by fellow Pan-Africanists as a betrayal of my “African roots”. I investigated, and was able to retort afterwards that wigs were as African as the Sahara Desert, since they were invented by ancient Egyptians. Yes, some uninformed people could argue that I was aping white women. But why should I refrain from wearing whatever I want on my hair on the basis that it is a “white woman’s thing” when many white women are spending lots of money to undergo cosmetic surgery in order to acquire huge lips like black women? Or when white folks of both sexes are risking cancer every year to sunbathe and get a darker skin?

Why should my sense of African identity be deemed so fragile that it must be debased and reduced to my hairstyle? Does anybody really believe that if I were to wear a wig with hair as long as Rapunzel’s, instead of being seen as a black African woman with fake hair, I would be mistaken for a white woman even for a second?

By the way, I have now learned to endure a bit of pain through weaving. Not as a compromise to my “African roots” but due to an incident some three years ago. As I was about to get out of the underground, the wig I was wearing got caught in the button of a male passenger’s jacket. I was so embarrassed that I ran away and left both my wig and my addiction to wigs dangling in the man’s jacket.

In relation to clothes, I refused to adopt the showy, colourful cotton outfits that constitute the trademark of most Pan-Africanists. Not because I do not find them beautiful enough –for I think they are-, but just because I do not want to reduce my complex, rich African heritage to a simplistic, stereotypical expression of African-ness. Yes, many people wear such clothes all over Africa, and yes, this is how most individuals who have never been to Africa think all Africans are dressed, or ought to be. But the truth of the matter is that many more Africans do not wear them, and they are no less African. Does anybody really believe that a Somali woman dressed in Saudi-like, all-enveloping black attire, and a bare-breasted South African woman, wearing only a revealing traditional skirt, are less African than say, a Nigerian woman clad in a cotton robe?

As a Bantu woman, I simply cannot accept the fallacy that the modesty of all African women can and should be determined by how much they cover their bodies because the traditional attire of my ancestors for centuries and centuries was nothing more than a tiny loincloth. In the Bantu culture, a woman’s body, be it fat or slim, tall, short, jet-black, chocolate-brown or banana-bright is a God-given present to be appreciated and celebrated, not something to be hidden, ashamed or afraid of. Men’s modesty, decency and manliness are determined by their capacity to restrain themselves once a woman tells them, “No, I don’t love you”, however uncovered she may be. Women’s modesty is determined by their capacity to say, “No” when they must do so, and their ability to understand that hard work, not their body or appearance is what will earn them the respect of their community.

Both Western style and colourful “African” cotton clothes are alien impositions and symbols of oppression for millions of Bantus. The former were bequeathed by Western colonisers, the latter were worn by North Africans who used to carry out raids in Bantu villages to capture slaves. Faced with such a harsh reality and complex heritage, how can anybody expect me to rely on any of these clothes to express either my modesty or my African-ness?

Granted, we Bantus have long accepted that nowadays, we can no longer parade ourselves in loincloths. What many of us do is wear whatever we feel comfortable with –which is usually what is worn by the majority of people where we happen to be living-, and simply scorn anybody who tries to judge or define us by our appearance.

I went to speak at the event organised by the Somaliland Diaspora as a supporter of their cause –the promotion of education in Somaliland-, not as an individual eager to ape the Somaliland lifestyle, or be accepted as a “modest” woman by Somaliland standards. For I live in the UK where my attire that evening was perfectly acceptable, not in Somaliland. You may view my stance as a time-saving device, my message is clear: in a country where women are free to dress as they want, I expect to be judged by my deeds, not my appearance; if you cannot accept that basic principle, then you and I cannot do business.

The situation would have been totally different if I had been a guest in Somaliland. Then a basic, polite, ice-breaking gesture would be to dress like most local women. And many years working successfully in Muslim regions –including in the Muslim, northern part of my native Cameroon- bear witness to the fact that I can do that very well when I want to.

In fairness to my Somaliland Diaspora hosts, nobody made any reference to my appearance within my earshot. Maybe they are wiser than my Ghanaian acquaintance. Maybe they are simply more polite. But what I really hope is that if they do not already do so, they will see and accept me like many long-term work partners (amongst whom are many conservative Muslims) do: a committed, hard-working individual on whom they know they can rely to get any agreed job done; and a freedom-loving woman who never attempts to influence other people’s appearance or lifestyle, and expects them to treat her in the same manner.

And to those members of the African Diaspora who, unlike me, do not a have a known, solid African background from which they can derive a strong sense of identity, I have this to say: in my grandfather’s village, there is, from time to time, a ceremony to acknowledge and honour the “true chidren of the village”. The question the elders ask one to determine whether or not they are a true child of the village is not, “Are you wearing modest or African clothes?” or “Is your hair fake or real?” But, “What have you done for our community?” That is the only question that matters when it comes to determining whether or not one truly belongs to a village, a group, a country or a continent.