A question of identity: Who counts as African?

20 December, 2021

A female fan of Algeria is seen ahead of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations semi-final football match between Algeria and Nigeria in Cairo, Egypt on 14 July 2019
North African football fans love attending the Africa Cup of Nations tournament

In our series of letters from African writers, Algerian-Canadian journalist Maher Mezahi considers what it means to be African as the continent gears up for its biggest football extravaganza.

Short presentational grey line

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a quote from one of the purveyors of pan-Africanism, the late great Kwame Nkrumah, who led his country Ghana to independence in 1957.

“Africa is one continent, one people, and one nation.

“The notion that in order to have a nation it is necessary for there to be a common language, a common territory and common culture has failed to stand the test of time or the scrutiny of scientific definition of objective reality.”

This passage aroused my interest as I have often tussled with the concept of us Africans identifying with cultures, nationalities and identities beyond those native to the continent.

That is especially the case on the coastlines where Africans have most interacted with other cultures and nations.

The Maghreb, for example, has an indelible Mediterranean flavour while many East Africans link their customs back to merchants of the Arab Gulf and Indian sub-continent.ADVERTISEMENT

The recorded history of Cape Verde begins with Portuguese colonial expansion and forced slavery in the 15th Century.

African v Arab limbo

I do think the principal reason why Nkrumah outlined the impossibility of a common language, territory and culture for the continent is the size of Africa.

I only understood that completely after my visits to the Sahara desert.

Anyone that has visited the vast sandy expanse will tell you that it will forever change your life.

Sand dunes in the Sahara desert
Image caption,The vast expanse of the Sahara is awe-inspiring

Its immensity will leave you juggling with feelings of solitude, humility and a strange peacefulness.

Its immensity also constructs a very real barrier between North Africa and the rest of the continent.

I once read that Algiers – Algeria’s capital – is closer to Helsinki than it is to Lagos, closer to Dubai than it is to Nairobi, and closer to New York than it is to Harare.

In addition to the distance, colonial ties and mass emigration have drawn a subset of Africans into an increasingly common modern-era identity limbo.

As troubling as it is, I am never really surprised when fellow Africans ask me: “Why don’t North Africans consider themselves African?”

It is a question I am anticipating as I prepare to head to Cameroon for the Africa Cup of Nations – a football tournament which North Africans love to compete in (Algeria are the current champions).

Admittedly, a minority of North Africans sometimes problematically trumpet their heritage as somehow superior to being “African”, whatever that means.

I can hold no sympathy for such views that are best treated with the contempt they merit.Maher MezahiIn the ongoing 2021 Fifa Arab Cup, some of my African football journalist colleagues have questioned why Algeria are playing in an Arab competition”Maher Mezahi

Inversely sometimes North Africans are stripped of their identity by some on the continent who feel they are not African enough, or by some in Arab countries who think they are too African.

For example, during the recent 2021 Fifa Arab Cup, some of my African football journalist colleagues have questioned why Algeria are playing in an Arab competition.

In accepting all of the elements of what it means to be North African, some on the continent feel like that it is excluding parts of an African identity.

Meanwhile, the Arab world observes a disconnect with the Maghreb because of its gruff Arabic dialect, uncouth manners and European architecture.

When it comes down to it, instead of excluding all of these identities, I prefer an inclusive approach.

From the Mediterranean, I enjoy delicious seafood, rich juicy olives and soaking up the radiant sunlight.

From the Arab world my ancestors learned my religion and a version of the language my parents speak.

From Africa, I inherited my attachment to the physical continent, but that is not all.

Above all else, and although it may seem vague and cliched, I think being African is more of a conscious decision than anything else.

‘Africa was born in me’

Another famous Nkrumah quote, which has been cited ad infinitum, probably best explains what I mean.

“I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me.”

Ivory Coast and Togo supporters cheer for their teams ahead of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations group C football match between Ivory Coast and Togo in Oyem, Gabon - 16 January 2017
Image caption,There is a wonderful sense of camaraderie at the Africa Cup of Nations

So being African is both simple and complex.

It is consciously wanting what is best for one another and what is best for the continent.

When surrounded by my proud peers across the continent, the strongest common denominator that permeates is that we do share in being African.

For me, this is most tangible at an Africa Cup of Nations, where fans, teams and reporters enjoy the sheer exhilaration of being African – as well as backing their home side.

Take the case of Alvin Zhakata, a Zimbabwean super fan who decided to travel by road from South Africa to Egypt for the 2019 Cup of Nations.

His message of wanting a “borderless Africa” was celebrated by everyone at the tournament.

In the press boxes, journalists from all 54 African nations share contacts, break bread and reminisce about previous editions of the tournament.

Following the 2019 final, Algeria midfielder Adlene Guedioura posted a photo of his rooftop terrace which featured football shirts of his opponents from Senegal, Morocco, Ivory Coast and Nigeria:

“Celebrating at home with my African brothers. Thanks to all #Africans for this amazing party from south to north, east to west.

Source: BBC News