Identity and Beyond: Rethinking Africanity

Identity and Beyond: Rethinking Africanity

Identity and Beyond: Rethinking Africanity

Identity and Beyond: Rethinking Africanity


"Beyond Identities -- Rethinking Power in Africa" was the general theme of the biennial "Nordic Africa Days" organized in October 2001 by the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala. The plenary presentations by three invited African scholars are included in this Discussion Paper. They centre on aspects of the event's general theme and provide a variety of stimulating reflections and insights from different disciplines.


Challenging Subjects: Gender and Power
in African Contexts
Amina Mama

What is certain is that “normality” cannot be separated from the hierarchization of identities. the great hegemonic, rational, political-philosophical mechanisms are precisely what fabricate normality, with the consent of the group concerned. (Etienne Balibar 1998: 777)

There is no word for “identity” in the African languages with which I can claim any degree of familiarity. Perhaps there is good reason for this. in English, the word “identity” implies a singular, individual subject with clear ego boundaries. in Africa, if I were to generalise, ask a person who he or she is and a name will quickly be followed by a qualifier, a communal term that will indicate ethnic or clan origins (Omoregbe 1999:6). To this day, African bureaucracies use forms that require the applicant (for a passport, a driving licence, to gain to access to public education, housing or health services) to specify “tribe”.

The idea of identity is an interesting one to most Africans, largely because it has remained so vexed. We seem to be constantly seeking the integrity and unity that the notion implies, without succeeding in securing it or coming to terms with it. We are being asked to think “beyond identity”, when for many of us identity remains a quest, something in-the-making. I think that the reason that African thinkers - or indeed other post-colonial subjects - may balk at the prospect of working “beyond identity” is clear. It relates to the contentious nature of the term in our upbringing, as a site of oppression and resistance. We recall distasteful colonial impositions that told us who we were: a race of kaffirs, natives, negroes and negresses.

I must say that I was not much aware of these things when I was growing up in a post-colonial city inhabited by people from all over the world: Lebanese, Syrians and Egyptian business people and professionals, Indian doctors, Pakistani teachers, Englishmen, Scotsmen, and Irish nuns, Italian construction engineers, Japanese industrialists, Chinese oil workers, and a fair representation of Nigeria's many ethnic groups, Muslim and Christian. There were differences, true, but I recall learning to eat with chopsticks, to make fresh pasta, and to appreciate good coffee at an early age, alongside all the usual West African cultural details.

I seem to recall that I “grew” a more specifiable “identity” only when I was sent away to school in Europe by parents hoping to protect me from the horrors of the Biafran civil war, which, after all, started in Kaduna in 1966. I developed an awareness of my difference, my Other-ness, when I was far away from home . . .

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