In 2013, Africa marked the 50th anniversary of the formation the African Union. The celebrations were marked with grand events at the Addis Abba headquarters in Ethiopia where African leaders converged to mark this august event in the history of our continent.
Around the world and in New York in particular, several celebratory and thought-leadership events were also held to honor and reflect on our past achievements and collective future trajectory.
I was privileged to attend several of these events where I listened to some of the insightful deliberations by scholars, community and political leaders. However, in the midst of all that was said and envisioned, it is one lesson that still lingers in my mind.
It was a very brief talk delivered by an African- American woman called Dr Blakely, fondly known as the “Queen Mother”. She was part of a panel event hosted by the Wagner School of Public Service at NYU under a theme: How to Unite Africans”.
Under this theme, panel members presented on the need to create a single currency system, the development of our transport infrastructure, as well as creating integrated regional blocks with a single VISA. Others reflected on the issue of languages; suggesting the adoption of at least two official African languages alongside English, Portuguese and French. It was interesting deliberations that could keep us debating ad infinitum.
However, when Dr. Blakley spoke, she shifted the discourse from external means of connecting people and spaces. She focused on what we rarely reflect on: Ourselves. She based her argument on the fact that people who are fragmented within themselves cannot be united. By this, I inferred that she was talking about having to find unity within ourselves on spiritual, psychological and cultural levels.
She challenged each one of us to think about our identity as Africans living in or outside the continent. We might live in Africa or be of African descent, we might have African names but who or what do we identify with on the inside? Are we as proudly Africans as we claim or do we secretly wish we were something else?
When I heard this I remembered a story I had heard from a white aid worker about how shocked she was that in one country she was based in, she asked school children what they wanted to be when they grow up and a few of them raised their hands with excitement and proclaimed they want to be a “mzungu”: a white person.
I remembered that growing up, many of us at one time or another shared the same fantasy, to be white. I wonder how many of us still secretly harbor this wish. This is something I pondered on when I realized just how far we have gone in terms of drifting away from things that set us apart as people of African origin. We have changed our names, hair, diets, languages, clothing, values and knowledge systems et al but we still dream of a united continent.
I acknowledge the need to be practical and embrace change. However, I think the essence of Dr. Blakely message was that these ‘external’ changes do not occur in a vacuum. They have an impact on who we are or need to be in order to create the kind of inner Pan-African unity we need that is girded by a strong sense of Ubuntu. We need to re evaluate what it is that really sets us apart as a people born under African skies. What unique contributions do we bring to the world’s table?
Answers to these questions starts inside each one of us as we continue to chart a path of our collective destiny
God Bless Africa…Nkosi Sikeleli Africa