Cultural Identity: Who are you?

Recently, I saw a drawing that had the word birth on one side, death on the other and a puzzled looking man in between. Its message was we’re born, suffer confusion/anxiety, and then we die, which is a pretty accurate description of life if you’re a pessimist.

The issue of identity is not the most pressing in the world. You cannot die from an identity crisis, unless it makes you so miserable that you kill yourself. It’s not as critical as hunger or thirst and yet it’s just as inescapable, and can make you blind to all the blessings in your life. Even if we were still in the Garden of Eden, I’m sure self-definition would still be a thing to grapple with. In fact, let’s for a moment consider how things would be if Adam and Eve hadn’t gone munching on forbidden things.

Death wouldn’t exist which I assume means we wouldn’t age. Adam would be the oldest and probably most attractive man because of all the wisdom that comes with time. But we’d be sinless, right? So we young women wouldn’t covet him. We’d have our own young mates. What would the age of consent be, though? 1 million years?

We’d be asking questions like, ‘How do I, a woman in my twenties contribute to a society that is run by people who are several million years older than I am?’ But wait, we’d be unable to think, right? Meaning we’d be floating about in bubbles of euphoria? Oh boy. Let’s rein this in and go back to discussing identity as it exists in the real world.

During a recent Blogger’s Happy Hour at Mateos, there was an argument about whether or not Africans should recognize tribes and the territorial boundaries that the colonialists imposed on us. As the argument grew, English, the speaking and owning of it, came up.

Africa and its people have been through a lot of ugliness. The continent is still being plundered and exploited both openly and in secret. I’m sometimes jealous about how successful Kenya and Tanzania have been at integrating Kiswahili into their schools and everyday life (even though that language also has foreign influences) because Uganda just seems complacent in comparison with the way it’s taken English up and made it into a standard that people have to rise to or else get belittled.

Our children get beaten and shamed at school for speaking local languages, which have all been grouped under one word, “vernacular”. If you have a British or American accent, the people around you will be simultaneously envious and impressed and many Ugandans have a complex where they’re suspicious of anybody who speaks ‘like a white’ but will return twisting their tongues even after 5 minutes of being on foreign soil.

All this said; how do we make this less than desirable system work for us on a day to day basis? Most opportunities come riding on the back of an education given to us in English. It is not reasonable or beneficial to carry around bitterness against the colonialists and it would be suicidal to cast English aside and refuse to trade, communicate and make a living from and in it.

Chimamanda Ngozi once said that, “English is mine. It has become mine.” For peace of mind and prosperity, that’s the best attitude to take. When Life hands you a foreign language (and culture), turn it into money, books and a testament to how interesting living as part of a dual-culture can be.

5 thoughts on “Cultural Identity: Who are you?

  1. This article is interestingly-timed for me. I’m currently writing a chapter of my dissertation on what swahili did for Tanzanians and African Americans from the 1960s onwards. And of course what didn’t happen in Kenya and even less so in UG. It’s funny though because Swahili isn’t per se the most “authentic” language for all East Africans to be speaking. It, at one, time only belonged to the afro-arab swahili people, but serious policies and efforts by Nyerere made over 120 tribes in TZ take it on as their own. But this is relatively new in the history of the world.

    As for English and the African writer… this has been a never-ending debate since the 1962 makerere conference, and Wali’s “dead-end of literature” article in Transition the following year. I think in my utopia, accepting a relationship with the English language wouldn’t have to be pitted against a love of an African language. From personal experience, I’d say Ugandans do an excellent job of shaming you and making you feel terrible if you’re not some proverb-wielding luganda-philosophizing super-poet. And quite frankly, sounding like a product of colonialism doesn’t make me particularly popular in Africa… precisely because people think my accent is a.) something i have control over b.) has something to do with them c.) is some sort of status statement. No East African has ever been impressed by the way I sound. lol. The western world on the other hand! It’s problematic, but i think indifference is a nice healthy attitude for me to maintain towards the way others in this world will be inclined to (mis)read me.

    • How neat would it be if indifference was something you could squirt at will into the eyes of people judging you for something you have no control over? I’ve met some people who insist that every African writer has a responsibility to tell stories that will reverse all the damage done to their continent. Which is unfair. If somebody likes to write about nsenene season and these stories make them (and their readers) happy, they shouldn’t be shamed into writing about subjects they aren’t interested in.

  2. You’ve touched on several topics here that I’m particularly concerned about. I’m sad that it ended so soon. I wanted to see you really exploring the issues that you hinted at, before working up to a possible solution(s)….My grad school is showing, lol. I’ll stop now. 🙂

    • Ah man. It’s this word count thing. Everything must fit into 590 words or else Baz pulls out the scissors. We can explore them here. What is the topic that you’re most concerned about? And how can we, in your opinion, deal with it?

  3. Do I remember that Happy Hour? I sure do remember it – nice piece up there, but no people have ever developed on the wings of a foreign tool. Of course that is if we as a society want to develop. But then, we can’t blame the colonialist 50 years on, we have had many chances to push English away, or to own it, but look, we want it the colonialists’ way. We are to blame. Like Eliza, that girl in Abraham’s Mine Boy, this madness of wanting to be what we can never be is a problem we have to blame ourselves for, not the colonialist anymore.

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