Before I was Kenyan, I was African
by Edwin Okong'o, The African Record, posted September 11, 2010
FEW things anger Africans abroad more than when an non-African person makes a wrong guess of their country of origin. You know, that “Are you from Nigeria?” question, when you really are from Kenya? It used to bother me — so much that a few months ago I wrote an angry rant on my humor blog, Our Man in America, about people asking me if I’m Nigerian.
Lately, though, I have been thinking about the need to step out of my Kenyan comfort zone and learn more about my fellow Africans, especially those from countries where English is not an official language. Let’s face it: Although we Africans complain about others stereotyping us, we too do know very little about each other and often stereotype each other in ways that I dare say are worse than those of outsiders.
I’m reminded of the year I spent in Minneapolis as the editor in chief of Mshale, a newspaper for African immigrants. Minnesota is has the fastest growing black population in the United States, much of which is attributed to the increasing numbers of African-born residents. The state has the largest number of Somalis and Liberians in the United States. There are also sizable Nigerian, Kenyan and Ethiopian communities, bringing the official population of Africans in the state to around 65,000, though some African leaders contend the number is double the official figure.
When I began my work, some people in the Kenyan community told me all I needed to write about were immigrants from the English-speaking countries — Kenya, Liberia and Nigerians — and “occasionally Ethiopians.” One man told me “Somalis don’t talk, and they don’t consider themselves African.”
In post-9/11 America, I must admit that I was tempted to listen to those who told me to stay away from Somalis. But I realized that everything I thought I knew about Somalis was what a read in the media, which seldom cast minority communities in positive light. As a journalist, I couldn’t go to bed knowing I had alienated a section of the African community I was supposed to cover. I decided to venture beyond my comfort zone into the Somali community.
I began where most journalists begin when they are looking for insights into a new community: talking to leaders from the community. But you don’t have to be a genius to know that leaders aren’t always plugged into what’s going in their communities. A prominent member of the community I was interviewing after a the shooting of an 18-year-old Somali man told me that Somali youth had turned to gangs because the government had abandoned them.
On Sept. 5, Ethiopians in the Bay Area will celebrate their New Year.
“There are rats running around those overcrowded apartment buildings where most of them live,” he said. “When something breaks it’s hard for them to get management to come fix it.”
Most Somalis in Minneapolis lived in high-rise apartments that used to be housing for the University of Minnesota students. Somalis have established several businesses there, earning the section of Minneapolis the unofficial name, “Little Mogadishu.” I went to apartment buildings and check out the claims the man had made. I spoke to several people, from whom I learned that it was unlikely they had they seen a rat since they left Africa. Management responded promptly to their maintenance requests, they said. Any problems? One of the elevators was broken, but it would be fixed then next day.
From that day on, I decided that I would learn firsthand about Somalis and other people. I attended Somali community events, even when I had no assignment. Today I’m proud to say that some of the most fulfilling work I have done in my career came from my coverage of the Somali community in Minneapolis. It earned me a number of Somali friends that I keep until today. And, oh, a “Best of Minnesota” award from the Minnesota Monthly.
The Sudanese Association for Northern California presents "Celebrate Sudan."
What I learned from my experience is that when you begin to hang out with the kids your mama told you to stay away from, you find freedom. That’s why I’m no longer going to get offended when anyone asks me if I’m from Nigeria. Instead, I will say, “Yes.” And when they ask, “What part?” I will tell them, “The East Coast, in a place called Kenya.”
Think about it. We Africans are the only ones who think we are different from each other. We accuse them of being geographically impaired, when in fact the geography we know isn’t ours. I’m Kenyan today because European imperial powers sat at the 1884 Berlin Conference and decided that I was going to be born Kenyan. The truth is that Africans are more similar than different. That’s why I can sit down with Nigerians, Somalis, Ethiopians, Ghanaians, Ugandans and other Africans and crack jokes because I know they can relate to the way I was brought up.
Today I know that you can only shake what your mama gave you for so long before it becomes boring. I know a lot about Kenya to a point where I don’t feel it’s necessary to learn more. I’m not abandonding Kenya, but I’m going to learn more about other Africans, so when I tell people that I’m from Africa, I can tell them about Sudan and Ethiopia and South Africa and Cameroon.
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