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Becoming a Generic African in the 21st Century

This morning, after performing the perfunctory duties of cleaning the kitchen and picking up my kids’ carelessly strewn clothes and toys from all over the house, I paused to reward myself a cup of hot coffee. I poured Kauai granules into my French press, prinked in some natural cane sugar and swirled a ¼ cup of half n’ half into the hot, black liquid. The entire sequence of events was quintessentially American. In fact, entire ad campaigns have been built around the harried mom taking a break amidst the chaos to soothe her racing mind with a cup of Joe.

And then that’s when it struck me: I’ve been gone from Africa for 20 years. Specially, I’ve lived away from Ghana for 20 years; and now I was that American mom in the commercial…except I was wearing a purple boubou.

I emigrated from Ghana in 1996 at the age of 18 in order to complete my university education. My plan was very simple and straightforward: I’d go to college for 4 years and get my degree, which would inevitably prepare me to work in mass media making no less than $50K a year (a more than respectable sum in those days), and then I’d take that knowledge and all the money I’d saved back to Ghana in 2006 and begin building my media empire.

Well, today it March 16th, 2016 and I’m no closer to moving back to Ghana than I was when I got on that Lufthansa flight to Maryland. And to my horror/shock/befuddlement, I discovered that I am no closer to being considered a “Ghanaian woman” than I was to being considered an “American girl” when I first arrived. What then, am I?

This question of “what are you?” is one that Americans and Ghanaians alike share a preoccupation with. I believe that both cultures like to put people in tidy boxes. It makes it easier to determine what kind of treatment – preferential or not – the person deserves. Like that scene in Django when Monsieur Candy was trying to help a female slave figure out how she ought to treat Jamie Foxx, a freed slave. Happily, as we move towards a more integrated and global society, it is becoming more difficult to categorize people and we can begin making strides towards true equality…that is, of course, until we determine other more insidious markers for which to discriminate against our fellow man. It’s just a matter or time.

Personally, I have always been comfortable with who I am. It’s what I am that has caused me to perform the most complex mental gymnastics, and also a topic we’ve explored several times over the past few years. Your insights into your own personal battles and experiences being multi-racial and/or multi-ethnic have helped me find my own peace. And though I have long boasted and considered myself Ghanaian – despite my hybrid parentage – I think today that I can no longer lay claim to that identity. At least not fully. I fear (and recognize) that I may now be a Generic African. What do I mean by that?

Sometimes I think about my mother’s side of the family, and I wonder how many generations it took for them to morph from Wolof or Igbo*, to Generic plantation African, to African/Black American from Kentucky. How soon did my ancestors lose a hold of their identity after being taken off the boat and how hard did they fight, if at all, to hold onto it? I’ve only been gone from Ghana for 20 years, and I arrived to the US armed with enough of my country’s culture to be identified as Akan. (Which is strange, because my father is actually Guan.) My mannerisms were Akan-ish, my socialization was Akan-ish and my worldview was certainly Akan in nature.

And yet in that short time, I’ve managed to let all elements slowly erode until they are nothing but a faint memory. Virtually all of those personal factors have changed. Naturally as one ages and gains more exposure, your thoughts and perceptions should evolve, but what I’m experiencing in this juncture in my life with regard to my Ghanaian-ness is not evolution; it’s adaption based on my environment.

I have completely adapted to an American way of life. My mannerisms, speech and conduct are synonymous with the generic American. There is nothing to distinguish me from another Black American mom at my local grocery store. Nothing in my affect or conversation inspires the words “I detect a little something in the way you talk. Where are you from?” Not any more. And if I do make an attempt at speaking in the way my 18 year-old-self might, I don’t come across as Ghanaian…. merely a generic African. Worse is when I attempt to tap into the Ghanaian psyche to determine why my people do some of the strange (or strangely wonderful) things that they do. I am no longer capable of giving an account or explanation for it. When did this happen?!

I don’t know. All I know is that it was not consciously done. Over time, the adaptation has been steady and complete and I am just now recognizing it for what it is. Last week I did an interview on JOY FM last week. It was then that I realized how severe this change was when a friend sent me a text after I’d gone off air to inform me how much “people were checking my slangs”. What? No! I had made a very deliberate effort not to sound American during that interview. I wanted to sound relatable, not some too-known borga chick inserting herself into matters that ought to be no concern of hers. I failed at that without trying.

This new epiphany causes me to wonder about the other second and third generation Kenyan, Nigerian and Ghanaian kids trawling through life in this part of the South. For many the faster they adapt to their environment and shed all trappings of their African otherness, the better. Conversely, I think African nationals who live in the North – Chicago and New York for instance – are far more fortunate where the practice and preservation of their cultural heritage are concerned. Their identity in what part of Africa they are from is more concrete. Perhaps it’s because those individual African communities are older and better developed than those that are in the South. One’s experience, development and identity as an African in the Diaspora has a lot to do with geography, I find.

Why am I so fretful over my identity?

Because this summer my family prepares to relocate to South Africa. Upon making that announcement, the general response has been one of shock. Seldom are people “excited” or “understanding” of the venture.


Q: Why would you want to leave America at all?!

A: Because it’s America, not Asgard. It ain’t all magic and laser shows.


Q: So….What are you going to do in South Africa?

A: Same thing we do here – work and raise our kids.


Q: Why South Africa? Why not Ghana?


Now, this question is harder for me to answer. The trust is, I no longer feel connected to Ghana the way I so desperately did in 2000 or even 2006. If I never lived a day in Ghana it wouldn’t bother me at all. Nothing about the prospect of living in Ghana excites me, as much as I love the country of my birth. I feel guilty about that – but not guilty enough to try to change those feelings. I would be perfectly happy living anywhere else on the Continent, as long as the environment supported my personal goals. Ghana does not. In this way, I have become Generically African. I suppose a more tactful moniker would be to describe this state of being is as a ‘Pan-African’.

I do have my concerns with this new (non)identity, however. President Lincoln sent a bunch of Generic Africans back to Liberia and look at the mess that still needs to be cleaned up over150 years later. I pray that my flummoxed identity never causes so much chaos, wherever I land. Maybe this is one more reason Diasporan/Continental African relations fail so miserable.

Wallaba you? Are your parents from a different part of the world? At what point do you or your progeny stop being Irish or Cambodian and become where you live? Is this purely an African struggle? Discuss!



*I haven’t done a DNA test on my mother’s side of the family to determine ancestry. These are just random ethnic groups I picked for the sake of illustration.

This article has 12 comments

  1. Nina

    I am not from Africa, but this was a great insight to think about not only for my African friends, but for others who have been away from their homeland too.

  2. Biche | ChickAboutTown.com

    Amazing post as always. Where to start in commenting? First, congratulations on the move to South Africa. I’ve got an eye on Johannesburg myself, so I can understand why you would choose S.A. over anywhere else in Africa…it’s a way to get the best of both worlds: the creature comforts and forward motion of the “developed world” while still getting the warmth and down-to-earth-ness of Africa.

    From watching some of your videos, you are not yet completely generic African—fear not! 🙂 I grew up in the Ivory Coast so had a lot of Ghanaian influences growing up, and my housemate for 5 years at uni was Ghanaian. The expressions you use while telling stories soooooo remind me of so many Ghanaian people I have had the pleasure to interact with all my life. You still got it, girl! (Said with the most utmost respect, of course. ;-))

    “The truth is, I no longer feel connected to Ghana the way I so desperately did in 2000 or even 2006. If I never lived a day in Ghana it wouldn’t bother me at all.” This is a sentiment I can relate to about my own country Tanzania, and I have boiled it down to the awareness that if I could live such a long time and have a good life away from Tanzania (30 years), how can Tanzania physically be a defining entity for me. I recognize that who I am is something I carry with me wherever I go and not something that is geographically bound with Tanzania. It is what it is. I’ve made peace with carrying all the different influences, nations, and cultures that have made me me, and I will not get tied down by nationalism. After all, when my parents were born the entity Tanzania did not even exist.

    I will stop there. You did say ‘discuss’. 🙂

    • Malaka

      I did say discuss, and I’m glad you did! 😁

      Your last point is very, very poignant! My father wasn’t born a Ghanaian. He was born in the Gold Coast (and therefore called after that derivative). That’s a very interesting way of looking at our concept of nationality and belonging. Thank you!

      • Biche | ChickAboutTown.com

        You are welcome. It’s an unpopular view, especially in Tanzania, where I now live, which is ridiculously nationalistic. I think as Africans, our belonging is most defined by our ethnic heritage. The younger the African, the stronger I feel they are inclined to identify with their countries, to the point that anti-tribalism campaigns have almost become anti-acknowledgement-of-any-ethnicity campaigns. I say: let’s not kill off our ethnicities, rather let’s embrace them for the richness they bring us–our languages, cultures, clothing, etc. Instead let’s be less attached to our countries that are less than 100 years old. If we got so used to being Tanzanian in this short time, we’ll get used to being East African too. But that’s a topic for another day! 🙂

        P.S. Out of curiosity, what was someone from the Gold Coast called?

  3. Japhet matoba (@jmatoba1)

    As a point of discussion, are there are generic Africans back at home.

    I am trying to honestly weigh how much of affiliation one should have towards their country. Do not get me wrong I have never set a foot outside Zed (if the Zambia-Zimbwebwe no mans land doesn’t count), but there is I will not think twice about living Zed for another country. Its is as simple as being skilled in a something that is yet to be appreciated or is not supported by the infrastructure in ones country. One could try and argue on persisting until things change but I only have a 80 years left to do anything but right up proposals for show off(real scientist actually do it to for some application).

    So as ever Malaka, you raise emotions and thoughts which no one is allowed to voice out when there is no option for dual nationality in their countries constitution or if one. and why is the patriotism in all this, which country are you patriotic to?

    I persist in my utmost hate of you; after all you humiliated Ache and continue to deplete my innocence with your indelible provocations!LOL

  4. Sel

    “…it’s America, not Asgard. It ain’t all magic and laser shows.”

    I hear that! Left too.

    Forgive me for putting you on the spot but neither is South Africa so why are you moving? Why is ZA the lesser of two evils?

  5. Koko

    I am so glad that i discovered your blog – and you talk about something which i relate to when i read Chimimanda Ngozi’s Americanah. I have been away from “home” for such a long time that its hard to say where is home. I agree with your depiction of a “generic African” – i may have very Cameroonian mannerisms and expressions. I am probably the quintessential African mother – a fact which was made very obvious to me when I saw my 5 year old doing something and I was like “Look eh – respect yaself”! And her response “Mama, what does respect mean?”. I have stopped looking at identities as a geographic location – but more of something i carry with me – my thoughts, my expressions, my food, my family etc. I still go home to Cameroon every couple years – but when i board the plan i am usually glad i am coming back home to Canada. I have 2 homes, grown up in 2 separate cultures which have formed my identify and I am okay with that.

    • Malaka

      First of all, I’m glad you found me too!
      Your description of your interactions with your kids cracked me up.
      I think your experience with feeling just as at home in Canada as Cameroon is to be expected. This is the world we live in now. Home is truly where the heart is!

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