Nostalgic Patriotism is a luxury: The Danger of A Single Story on Africa Rising

“Last time I saw you, you looked like apocalypse
Hell and then Genesis combined
Last time I saw you, you were stripping me of
Anything and anyone that was mine

See that’s how I remember you
That’s how I remember you

So please forgive me if
I never call you home again
So please forgive me
If I never call you home again” ~~Corneille: I’ll Never Call you Home Again

Yesterday I attended a conference where we met this year’s fellows from the Mandela Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI). The hot topic of course was discussing how to build and maintain a bridge between the diaspora and residents of the homeland, to leverage a superpower allowing us to build greatness in our countries. One of fellows raised the concern that those living on the continent had been let down by the diaspora. According to him, he along with many others had also studied abroad and could have remained outside; but they returned home willingly to be changemakers in the “Africa is Rising” storyline. Yet many still remain in the diaspora, with no plans of returning home.

While I understood his opinion, this concerned me because “Africa is Rising, so return home” is the new single story we are pushing out; Understandably, it is due to a shared weariness of the tired trope of the dark hopeless continent. Still we must make sure that in our attempt to present a more positive light of Africa, we don’t erase the very true experiences of people who have no intention of returning home. Their experiences are just as valid and must have a place at the table where we all discuss our relationship with the motherland.

Corneille is a Rwandan singer who was the sole survivor after he witnessed his entire family being massacred in front of him while he was hidden under a couch. This experience was and remains an ever present theme in his music through all his albums. In 2007 he penned a song called “I’ll never call you home again”, in which he writes about his painful relationship with his country. The last memory he had of his country was only of rivers reddened by blood, and bodies everywhere including his own family’s. So for him, Rwanda does not summon feelings to warm nostalgia and call to return home. Not if it means going back to places that trigger the pain of losing your entire family all at once.

Corneille received a lot of backlash for this song, but I know that it speaks to many Africans who have left home and never intend to return even if abroad, they earned big success whether through conventional education path or entrepreneurship. Of course not all of them are refugees of civil war, but many still do not hold a warm memory of their country if all they knew while there, was extreme poverty and feeling like upward social mobility was an impossible feat. For them, moving abroad was the lifeline they desperately needed and they have no intention of returning. We must honor those vantage points and not suffocate them with stories of a budding Africa whose rise might only be felt by folks of a wealthier socio-economic status.

For many Africans, this nostalgic patriotism is a luxury they do not have, do not wish to have, cannot afford to have. They do not hold this same warmth that many of us might have when we recall our time back home. Their memories might be weaved of nothing but heartbreak, great loss, scarcity and hardships. Their countries might have failed them in their pursuit of happiness, as they had aspirations of living beyond mere survival that the socio-economic ecosystem was not nurturing. Most certainly, this is the story line that we are trying to bury deep and erase through hashtags like #SomeoneTellCnn, #TheAfricaTheyNeverShowYou, or #AfricaIsRising, for we believe we are well intentioned in wanting to reshape our beloved home’s public image. Sometimes even when we do speak of the challenges of the continent, we of the diaspora often place ourselves as the messiahs of our homeland therefore perpetrating the savior complex often attributed to western foreigners. As Emma Dabiri notes in her article “Why I am Not an Afropolitan”,

“The problem is not that Afropolitans are privileged per se — rather it is that at a time when poverty remains endemic for millions, the narratives of a privileged few telling us how great everything is, how much opportunity and potential is available may drown out the voices of a majority who remain denied basic life chances.”

In our effort to change the single story are we going to just replace one with the other, and therefore erasing the very true experiences of those who carry a complicated relationship with the motherland? How to do we rebuild an image that presents Africans as resilient, empowered and innovative while still presenting a nuanced, complex storyline in which the rise may not be the case for everyone? A storyline in which the nostalgic patriotism may not be a sentiment shared by every African?

“When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise” ~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie



My Diaspora Story

I guess my diaspora story isn’t all that different from many of the other ones you’ve heard before, nor is it all that different from what you have lived, if you are of the diaspora. It is that same old trite story of arriving to the U.S. and going through the cultural shock of your fellow black brothers and sisters treating you like a lesser human being. It is the same story of African Americans asking you if you lived in trees, if you wore clothes, if you speak with a click sound, if you speak “African”. It is the same story of being stunned by the fact that nobody know where in Africa [insert your country here] is. I mean like seriously, do these people even take geography classes? It is the same story of developing that hostility and animosity for African Americans whom you expected would be like your long lost brothers, the same story of developing a certain disdain for them, lumping them all in the same old boat (no pun intended) of people who don’t know how to take advantage of all the resources they have this country. I mean, America is the land of the free, where all dreams come true right? What are you people doing to remain so ignorant? Why don’t you like us Africans? Why don’t you know where my country is? Why don’t you know that I speak French? That we have planes, and cars TV and water? Yeah my story is the same as your diaspora story, so I don’t want to bore you with details you already know but I want to give you a different perspective, one where we haven’t really examined our own self-centeredness, one where we are extremely ungrateful for the benefits we are getting from the struggle of black Americans, and one where we need a paradigm shift in our cultural perspective and relationship with African Americans. Are you still with me here? Good. Don’t go yet.

On the subject of the diaspora self-centeredness, I am referring to the outrage we express whenever folks would ask us if we speak African, if we wear any clothes, or if all of us are killing each other in civil wars when we aren’t busy starving or dying of HIV/AIDS. Firstly, while the outrage is certainly justified, the disdain and subsequent stereotyping of African Americans as ignorant is not justified. It’s important to understand that the image of Africa presented to folks of Lady Liberty land, is through those CNN reports on the hunger in the horn of Africa, the Blood Diamonds of Dicaprio, the Lion King of Disney, and the prince of Coming to America. If you truly realize that they understanding of our homeland has been shaped by the American media, much of our outrage would dissipate. Secondly, you need to stop and think of your own understanding of people from other countries. Prior to our arrival to the U.S, what else did we know of the Chinese except for their Kung Fu skills popularized by Jackie Chan? Would you have ever known where Sri Lanka was before the tsunami? Do you know what language they speak there? What else do you know of Syria besides the war and its name being frequently mentioned in foreign policy debates? This isn’t an attempt to make you feel ignorant, I am merely bringing you to understand how you too, African of the diaspora, have had your view of other countries shaped by what you see in the media and therefore need to be more tolerant of people who see us only through stereotype. I don’t ask that you passively accept it, I ask that you take the time to educate without being condescending.

Another aspect of the relationship between the diaspora and African Americans is our ethnocentrism which engenders this disdain for the stereotypes in which they placed us, resulting in an “otherness” of one another. By that, I mean we developed this sense of a “them and an “us” where we feel like we are not ignorant like them who constantly take the opportunities that the U.S. offers for granted, who do nothing but star in rap videos and form twerk teams, who do nothing but be the biggest consumers of the prison business. We view them with as many stereotypes as we were given, never stopping to realize we are practicing that which we complain so much of. This air of superiority with which we carry ourselves stems from a certain ignorance and a lack of gratitude of the perks we enjoy today thanks to the struggle of civil rights activists who fought for the country to recognize our humanity, many of whom lost their lives while doing so. We waltz into the country and believe that we made it on our own rights, forgetting that many African Americans had to fight and die for us to get the education we want, get the jobs we want, and date other races without being lynched or jailed for it.

My last point is that when other people look at us, they don’t seen African Americans and Africans, they just see black people. As such, we need to understand that the struggles of African Americans are our struggles too. That the death of Travon Martin is our outrage too. The overwhelming incarceration rate of black men is our problem too. That the election of a black president is our victory too, that the racist problem faced at MSU is our problem too, that the gruesome shooting of that African man in New York was the gruesome shooting of a 22 year old black man trying to reach for his wallet, not a specific target for an African man. To understand that even if we wish to differentiate ourselves through our cultural or national identifications, we ought to unite if only for the struggle we fight due to the color of our skin.

My diaspora story is the same as yours. The questions about living in trees and speaking with clicks, the questions about civil wars and starvation, the looks of pity when you tell them you are African. My diaspora experience however, is a call for a paradigm shift in our relationship with African Americans, to acknowledge our own ethnocentrism, our own prejudice shaped by stereotypes of rap videos and gang members, to move toward a quest for mutual understanding and unity to fight for our collective rise out of structural racism.

As is the tradition for many of my blog posts, I leave you with this TED talk called the danger of a single story. A call for both Africans of the diaspora and African Americans to make the effort to view ourselves beyond the paint brushes of the media.