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When Will Simply “Being African” Be Enough?

Living in the digital age is exciting, isn’t it? I imagine our predecessors in the Stone Age felt the same sense of euphoria after they discovered the many uses of fire that we now feel whenever some new technology emerges that makes our lives easier, better and more fun.

“Oooh! Hey guys! Look what I made!! Let’s call it fire…”

“Ooooh! Hey guys! Look what I made! Let’s call it Skype…”


Living in the Digital Age means we can gather and disseminate news and information at speeds never seen before, and for once, Africans have not been left out on the wrong side of the divide. We have embraced social media like a pair of too-small khaki school shorts on a secondary school boy’s buttocks, and as such, our diverse cultures and talents are being seen and recognized in unprecedented ways. Just a few weeks ago, “tweaa” was trending worldwide on Twitter, and British news anchors were fixing and twisting their lips to get the “tsch” sound at the beginning of the word just right. It was a moment of personal pride for me.

But what does “tweaa” mean? They would ask. What can we compare it to?

Well of course, there is not definitive answer. Tweaa, like ugali, exists all on its own. It’s unique. Ghanaians grappled to find something in Western linguistics that would help our European friends understand it better.

“It’s like ‘rubbish’ or ‘nonsense’.”

“Kind of like ‘pshaw’.”

Ah. What were these lies these men were telling the international media? It’s none of these things! It’s TWEAA!!! It was annoying, so I did what I do when other things irritate me: I turned on Star Trek and refocused my attention on Patrick Stewart’s tight pants.

It is only recently that I have become more aware of the trend to compare the African human experience to that of the supposed superior Western one. I wouldn’t mind if these were one off instances, but it is pervasive inclination, now turned a rule. It has become the norm to hold up something African and juxtapose it to something American…as if this African cloth, song, shoe, literature or what-have-you cannot exist on its own merits.

MajidIn Ghana for example, Majid Michel has been dubbed “Ghana’s Brad Pitt”. Joselyn Dumas has been nicknamed “Ghana’s Oprah”. At her recent reading in Atlanta, Chimamanda recounted how her American agents fretted over how to market her to the US audience because she is so unique.

“We don’t know what to DO with you,” they said. She remarked her surprise, mulling over her belief that American publishers did not have much faith in the reading American public.

When you’re an African, you become accustomed to being compared to some higher Western standard. In time, I think you become numb to it. But once in a while, a comparison so absurd and so hurtful prods you in the backside that it jerks you out of your sleep, and this week, the BBC did the unthinkable:

They compared WizKid to Justin Bieber.

Now, let me be clear. I don’t care too much for WizKid (although that Caro song is my JAM). His fervent #TeamLightSkin stand has high school girls all over Nigerian bleaching their skin and dying in order to achieve some ungodly, unnatural standard and I despise him for it. However, I will not sit by and allow ANY African artist to be compared to Just Bieber. How possible?!? This is a gross injustice, a diss and an insult that parallels no other. To quote Edith Faalong “WizKid is NOT Nigeria’s Justin Bieber. He is Nigeria’s WIZKID.”

Full stop; the end.

Will there ever come a day when Africans are recognized for the merits of the art and innovations we produce? What will it take? I am of the view that if we are always trying to make ourselves and everything we do marketable to “them” we will never truly achieve the prominence we so deserve and are capable of. Chimamanda said something to address this at the reading I attended which I thought was so profound. An audience member asked her if she thinks of US audiences when she writes her books. Her answer was a resounding “no”.

“When Faulkner was writing about Mississippi, I don’t think he ever imagined a Nigerian girl would be sitting down to read it and possibly loving it, but I did. In the same turn, I don’t think my ancestral Nigerian village is any less important or relatable than his small town in Mississippi.”

Comparison analysis in culture is nothing new, and is still as sinister as it has ever been. African Americans have endured similar experiences throughout their history in the country, culminating in the phrase ‘credit to one’s race’ whenever one did something considered exceptional. Nat King Cole, Jackie Robinson and Diahann Carroll were all considered ‘credits to their race.

Have you ever had your work compared to something else as an inferior standard? Are there examples you have seen in the media that give you pause? Do you think it’s not such a big deal to have African culture compared to Western culture? Discuss! ↓



This article has 8 comments

  1. Эдвард Опиц (@usa_opie)

    Excellent post!

    Some of it is innocent – like translation; in order for someone who doesn’t speak Twi to understand twea, you need to give an English word (or words) that help understand it’s meaning.

    The problem is that you can’t simply translate cultural frameworks as you can language. Ideally, people in the West would have an understanding of African cultural frameworks, so that they could understand African phenomena within African cultural frameworks.

    But we don’t – we only have our own cultural framework (and some of us don’t understand our own cultural framework that well!).

    And this leads to lazy shortcuts – instead of saying “In terms of popularity among teens, some would compare him to Bieber” it’s easier to use “Nigeria’s Bieber”. (Headline writers are the worst offenders!) And it is disrespectful.

    But it isn’t something that happens only with African culture. It happens whenever Westerners try to understand something from a different culture.

    You are right to throw lazy cultural comparisons back in the face of those making them – that’s the only way, over time, to build cross-cultural understanding.


    • Malaka

      Thanks sir! I agree some of it is innocent, but you put it very succinctly when you say it is so lazy!

      Zeinab makes an excellent point with the Bollywood example. The Indians haven’t allowed the west to co-opt their art, at least not in the way we are in the danger of doing, and the results speak for themselves.
      Nigeria’s Justin Bieber indeed. How!?!

  2. Zeinab

    Haha – off topic but this reminds me of when ‘large eggs incubeted eggs/ white chicken’ appeared in Dar es salaam , they were called ‘kuku ya kizungu or mayai ya kizungu – meaning ‘Caucasian chicken/eggs – especially as they were larger than the organic chicken/eggs..heh.

  3. Zeinab

    It is a big deal!!
    I believe we have so much to offer in terms of culture but because we try to imitate ‘art and culture ‘ of the western world we find ourselves tagging behind thus being compared..Look at the Indians, no matter where their language, clothes and cultures follows them…although bollywood movies have too now lost its originality.
    I would like to see a true ‘african movie’ not an imitate hollywood nacnac..I would like to see sisters rocking their natural hair rather than those plastic looking wigs..honestly.

    alright rant over – back to you Malaka!

  4. siegfred asamoah (@KobinaSieg)

    Well said Malaka,
    The western world has created a standard they alone understand. African ideas, talents and art is not good enough unless its assessed on western standards.

    Wizkid is Wizkid, why compare him to Justin as if to say he is good enough unless compared to a western artist.

    Well until we Africans ‘Africanize’ our ideals and art, we will always be compared to western standards.

    • Malaka

      I wish there was a “like” button for comments on the blog. I believe there is a Renaissance brewing, even if it’s slowly, in Africa right now. We are understanding a building upon the ideal that we are equals in worth and the world will soon know it! ‘Africanizing’ our existence as you say is the milestone which will take us over. Spread the gospel, my brother!

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