African (dis)unity goes beyond language to art, food, politics

Monday September 18 2023

Anti-Rwanda protesters march towards the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda in Goma, on October 31, 2022. PHOTO | AFP


In this week of September, 22 years ago, life changed radically for many people. The World Trade Center was attacked. The world hasn’t been the same since. Was it anything like this for my Africans after Europe decided to divide it up into colonies in the mid-1890s? Was it a cataclysm, full of fire and brimstone, awful and overwhelming? Or was it an endless parade of small definitive moments, encounters first or last where someone brandished a decree in someone else’s face and declared them colonial subjects and people laughed, not knowing their world was ending?

We don’t have movies to imagine this past for us, we must do it ourselves.

As this was happening, how did our foremothers handle the various peoples who would come to rape the continent? Was translation a solid profession at the time, was there a market for skilled workers who could negotiate the least abusive terms for people in French, German, English and Portuguese?

How did this quilt of territories we now call countries emerge, what were those processes like for those who lived the emergence? Did they know that one day their progeny would be talking of a united Africa across thousands of African languages that is only a concept which emerged because of a handful of European ones? And where, oh where, does Arabic fit into all of this?

Read: How standard Kiswahili was created, spread

Last week I wrote about the “parentage” of African states as a challenge for Africanists. It is only a challenge because we have to acknowledge it, something we seem loathe to do. And we are loathe to do it because the post-colonial discourse seems pretty invested in ignoring the colonial experience. I think it makes sense, nobody likes to dwell on “negativity” and this modern age is obsessed with moving on, with building the future.


Thing is that the present we stand in —and the future we imagine — is quite firmly and unavoidably rooted in the past. If Anglophone Africans are limited in their views of Francophonie’s current political winds of change, it is because we live in silos built and contained by linguistic walls.

This is why, in truth, we have four and maybe more Africas. Tanzania is bordered by three Francophone countries to the West even if Rwanda has recently switched to Anglophonie and adopted Kiswahili. Burundi, Rwanda, the DRC are at their root countries imagined and then manifested by francophone colonials. It is a different kind of Africa from Tanzania, or Uganda, even though we share so many commonalities.

The language of politics, of ideology has different reference points and nuances. Gender is different. In French speaking central Africa, for example, housekeepers are often men. And over there, men take a bit more pride in their appearance, something that I wish East Africans would adopt. Vanity is a glorious practice.

Read: NDERITU: Cameroonians need to speak to each other above language divide

And so on and so forth. South Africans have a terrible sense of vegetables, Kenyans are Olympic eaters of greens. Tanzania grows coffee on the mainland, but I think we drink it a lot more on the Swahili coast where the culture of walking vendors with kahawa and kashata is tied to the baraza culture of life lived on the street in a way that still bothers my Nyikan sensibilities.

We do art, sure, but honestly the arts in places like Bamako or Addis will simply shred your notions of modernity and time. All of these are deeply Africa, none of them are the same same. This intense, overwhelming richness is…