Identity and Heritage Among African Youth
Author's Note: This post is part of Moya Chronicles; a publication of Missio Africanus.
In this issue of the Moya Chronicles, I will reflect on the issue of identity and heritage among young Africans both in Africa and in the African diaspora. In August 2020, I engaged some young African Christians in a music challenge (tagged ‘#ASongADay’). Each day, one or two volunteers from the group shared a Christian song that had inspired them during a difficult season of their life. They also shared a reflection on why they chose the song. Besides wanting to discover the different songs that these young African Christians found significant, I also sought to identify the kind of voices and styles of music artistry that these young Africans are engaging with and what that may be saying about their sense of identity and understanding of God. Below is my reflection on my findings.
First, I must reiterate that all the 37 volunteers for the challenge are African. (30 of them were resident on the continent at the time and 7 were in diaspora.) However, of all the 37 songs they featured, only 13 were from African singers; 24 were from Western singers. Of course, that is not necessarily a bad thing. The world is now a global village whereby somebody in a corner of an African village can, at the click of a button, know what is happening in another corner of the world many seas and mountains away. Indeed, that can be a good thing. We now have the rare privilege of sharing and learning from ideas and experiences available elsewhere in the world. For Christians particularly, it also means that we can now understand God and ourselves better through the lenses of other cultures and worldviews different from ours, and thus become even more Christlike. That is a beautiful thing! My suspicion, however, is that some of these young African Christians — myself inclusive — are engaging in this social learning from other cultures and worldviews at the detriment of preserving our cultural identities and heritage. To put it more clearly, I fear that there are many African young adults today who have, perhaps unintentionally, learnt that anything coming from the Western world (Europe and North America especially) is superior to what exists in Africa.
This experimental music challenge came up just a couple of months after the murder of George Floyd. We can still remember the protests that ensued afterwards in many Western nations and how the issues of ‘white supremacy’, racism and colonialism became hot topics at the time. Many diaspora Africans (alongside other ethnic minority peoples) spoke out about their experiences of racism (and I have my stories, too) and some even condemned their colonial heritage as being the reason for the underdevelopment of many African countries. However, I wonder if the problem is about white people selling ‘white supremacy’ to us or how black people are (sometimes unconsciously and unintentionally) selling ‘black inferiority’ to one another. (Yes, I speak of whites and blacks—and browns; I am not colour blind.) I suspect that until Africans know, accept and celebrate our cultural identities and heritage, we will continue to live at the mercy of those we consider as being better or ‘more advanced’ than us. Let me put my argument in the context to which most young Africans can relate.
1. Movies, Books and Sports
I wonder what kind of movies most young Africans prefer — Hollywood, Bollywood, Nollywood, or Ghallywood? Personally, in spite of having an IrokoTV subscription, I still defer to Amazon Prime Video and Netflix (with their predominant Hollywood content) for my entertainment. In 2017, I conducted a survey with a population of 100 young African Christians (between the ages of 18 and 25). Amongst other things, I wanted to know where they were getting their spiritual nourishment from. I was stunned to find out that about 70% of the participants were getting their spiritual nourishments from books, podcasts, sermons and other resources produced by ‘whites.’ (I had intentionally made the colour distinction in the multiple options given for that question in the survey.) Besides, I am yet to have an African friend who is primarily a fan of an African football club. (Just in case you are wondering, I am a Liverpool FC fan).
2. Fashion, Language and Accent
Sometimes, I am forced to squint as I scroll through my Instagram feed. It bugs me to see many naturally beautiful African ladies on my feed doing all they can to tone up their complexion with 50 shades of what-not and expensive hair attachments. I ask myself, “To what end?” But I get it. I minister in a denomination where our pastors in Nigeria still have to wear a suit and collar to minister every Sunday — no matter how hot the temperature gets. We got that from the British missionaries who came in the 1930s to consolidate the existing church network that has now become known as ‘The Apostolic Church’ and ‘Christ Apostolic Church’ in Nigeria. It is only in Nigeria that I have heard newscasters and radio hosts trying their very best to sound like some British or American media personality — and many young Africans celebrate this. You will find Africans who had never stepped their foot out of their respective countries aiming to sound like they had lived in the UK or US all their life. In many parts of Africa, it is now fashionable to raise kids with English or French as their primary languages without them being able to fluently speak — let alone read — in their mother tongue. I think we can do better.
There is no inferior culture and no superior one; every culture is valid.
I could go on to talk about religion, parenting, food and very many other aspects of culture in which Africans — especially young Africans — are unintentionally contributing to the erosion of our African identity. My argument, therefore, is simply this: We can be African and Christian at the same time. We can be African and academic. We can be African and fashionable. We can — and should be — African in our engagements with other cultures and worldviews. Indeed, as African youths, we should engage other cultures from the place of a rooted self-understanding of our African identity.
To conclude, I am not saying that liking and listening to Western songs, or preferring Hollywood to Nollywood is essentially a bad thing for an African. No. My opinion is that we should acknowledge that there are valid African expressions of whatever Western thing we prefer. May our African pastors mentor a generation of African Ambassadors who do not engage with the gift of multiculturality in our world today from the basis that their culture is inferior. There is no inferior culture and no superior one; every culture is valid. If we interact with other people’s culture based on this understanding, we will all be better for it.