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How To (Not) Write About Africa When You’re an African

“Who gave you the right to judge who is fit to be a Negro, and who is not?” – Captain Davenport, A Soldier’s Story.

Have you ever seen A Soldier’s Story? I LOVE that movie. It came out in 1984. I saw it when I was on summer holiday in Detroit at my cousin Cookie’s house. Cookie is 15 years or so my senior, and is responsible for introducing me to situations and events that no 7-8 year old should be exposed to. It was Cookie who introduced me to the workings of how roll and share joint. (I never developed a taste or a need for weed, however.) It was at Cookie’s house that my hair learned submission, as she made sure it was always pressed and my edges laid. Cookie is the one who allowed my sister and I to watch Color Purple and Purple Rain – two films that were (and are) a far cry from the permissible G-rated films in my parent’s house. It was at my Cousin Cookie’s house that I learned and earned a measure of “blackness” that has afforded me relatability with other Black Americans…because in 1984, I wasn’t Black/African American: I was just African; at least according to the neighborhood kids who mocked my name and accent.

Most of my life has been spent existing as a “social chameleon”, something commonly referred to as “code switching” today. If I found myself in Black American company, my accent and mannerisms were altered so as not to draw too much attention to how different I might be. The same goes for when I am in presence of Ghanaians or other Africans. It’s not intentional, but my speech becomes slightly more accented so much so that the listener is inclined to ask “Where are you from?”

“Ghana,” I reply. I don’t typically feel like going into the nuances of my mixed heritage, hybrid birth, or a childhood spent existing on two continents simultaneously. For better or not, I have opted to identify as “Ghanaian”.

Self-identification is a powerful choice. The decision to select who or what you call yourself is the epitome of self-actualization. It is for that reason that institutions and thought Nazis spend a great deal of effort stripping individuals and groups of that choice and right. Africans are not exempt from the propensity to police the choices of others.

Last night I had a conversation with a good friend of mine that kept me up for a greater portion of the evening. She lives in Ghana is on assignment in another part of Africa for a conference on writing. There is a possibility that this conference may be moved to Ghana next year, and she told me that I need to make plans to participate. I was humbled and thrilled that she would think to include me on a panel discussion on African writers. We were leaving voice notes on What’sApp, and later in the evening, I get this message from her:

“Malaka. I just thought I should give you this feedback. I mentioned your name to one of the organizers at the conference, and he balked at the mention of it. He said ‘Malaka? The one who wrote the Kony article? You want her to participate?’ He said he used to read your blog, but you put him off with that article.”

I was stunned.

“Joseph Kony? Wasn’t that like 5 or 6 years ago?”

I wracked my brains to determine what I would have written that was so awful that it would put off another African! We all agreed that Joseph Kony was/is a horrible human being who committed the worst kind of atrocities. What did I say? And why is this dude still mad x years later?

“Well, he said that you wrote about the story in the way that a typical white person would have,” she replied. “He said you don’t even live on the continent and have no first-hand knowledge of the situation.”

It was insinuated that I confine myself to writing about topics that I am an expert in. There has been much ado in both social and traditional media in the past few years about how Africa is covered, with much criticism levied at the West for the lens it employs. Komla Dumor gave an excellent TEDx Talk on the topic as well. So to be told I was talking about Africa in the way a typical white person would…ouch.

In light of that, I asked her to give the unnamed man my apologies and thought about what he said all night. Finally, I came to the following conclusion:


I am SO SICK of this silencing tactic Africans employ to cut other Africans out of the conversation. We are always finding ways to separate ourselves, not just on the continent, but as a race. Some of the most profound and enduring musings on Africa have come from “non-Africans”, like Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. Are we to discount and rubbish those because neither of these gentlemen ‘lived on the continent’? I’m not putting myself in the same intellectual league as Malcolm X, but what I AM saying is that geography is irrelevant.

I was born at Korle Bu.

My school fees helped to build and expand several campuses in Accra.

I too have known the pain of malaria and felt the sting of a cane.

I can point to a town where the Larteh hene will welcome me ‘home’ and tell me how my great-grandfather was instrumental in developing the area.

I’m a Ghanaian, and in 2015, I live in Atlanta. I have just as much right to comment on the goings on on the Continent as the slum kid who lives at Agbogbloshie. But let’s drill that all the way back, so we can all see how incredibly condescending at short sighted this line of thinking is. Keep in mind that this train of thought is something numerous Blacks and Africans are guilty of, not just the gentleman in question who I offended.

Argument: You don’t even live on the continent! You can’t talk.

Solution: I move to Togo. Now I can talk.

Scenario: A skirmish breaks out in Ivory Coast. I talk.

Argument: You don’t live IN Ivory Coast. You can’t talk.

Solution: I pack up and move to Ivory Coast. I talk.

Argument: But you are not FROM Ivory Coast. You can’t talk.

Solution: I forge relationships with native Ivoirians, read a few articles where I can (I still have 4 kids and a family to look after, don’t I?), formulate my views, and I talk.

Argument: But you have never lived IN the exact area where the skirmish has taken place. You are just talking as an outsider. You have no right to talk!



At this point, it’s obvious that the problem isn’t where I pay my rent or my taxes, it’s my view that it so bothersome. If the objector would admit that, I can respect that. But to propose that my view as an African about African events is somehow invalidated by virtue of where I lay my head at night is…preposterous. It always will be. So now the Lost Boys of Sudan can’t have an opinion about Xenophobia in South Africa because they are living on Minnesota? Ahhnba!

I looked up the offending article last night to see what could cause this gentleman so much angst that my name would turn to ash in his mouth. It was written in 2012 (not 5-6 years ago). There were 102 comments. There were many people who agreed with my sentiments, and just as many who didn’t. Most of us are “Africans”…and that means we are not a monolith with one singular view. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a word. Not a syllable. It is the same sentiment I shared on the Chibok Kidnappings or #BringBackOurGirls. All I wanted to know – what I STILL want to know – is why we as Africans aren’t doing more to demand accountability from our leadership and from ourselves. Why aren’t we championing our own causes with extreme vigor? Why aren’t we looking inward for our own solutions?

This difference between 2012 and 2015 is the Africans’ use of social media to connect and contribute to the development of the Continent; and despite the push back from those who are so comfortable with the status quo we in the Diaspora and at home have seen the needle move by our collective efforts. I’m not going to let anyone take that from me.

Who gave you the right to judge who is an African and who is not?

This article has 2 comments

  1. Ronke

    I sometimes wonder why I bother.
    I am stuck in the worst kind of quandary there is, proudly Nigerian, proudly African, proudly British. I was born in the UK, it has been my home, not always a kind one but I still love it and yet I love my heritage, despite having never lived in Nigeria we went there frequently. If anyone walked into our flat growing up you would think you were in Lagos, all the music, the food, the bucket in the bath. Yet my friends laugh at me when I try to speak with them in Yoruba, even pigeon english…their laughter silences me. I stick to just speaking English now, I’m too grown to be laughed at…
    They stare at me with admiration whenever I wear my gele and traditional attire more often than they do, the people who I love the most have been the most unkind. Dismissing my “African-ness” because my accent gives it away or the fact that I because I have not lived on the continent for longer than 2 months I do not have a right to speak on it and yet people I know who have never been back (and do not want to go back) since leaving can still claim to be connected. Whereas there are entire communities, Indian, Bengali, Turkish, Italian, who thrive on their diasporas, who support and encourage them, even those who have never lived in their countries of origin. Let me not turn this into my own mini blog…I thank you for this post. It pains and saddens me though…to think I will have nowhere to really call my “own” if left up to the will of others…

    • Malaka

      Oh no! I wish you had continued.

      I read an article about an Indian woman on HuffPo who is enduring a similar dilemma. She said she felt “orphaned”. Took my breath away. I, too, feel like I have no place to call home. I feel like I belong nowhere. It’s heartbreaking that your own people -even those who claim to love you – would deliberately disconnect you in this way.

      It hurts.

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