A few months ago, I had the exhausting pleasure of hosting family and friends visiting South Africa for the first time. As any gracious host, I took them around popular tourist attractions, and enjoyed watching their pleasure when exposed to different cultures. As part of the experience we decided to sample a common restaurant that served exotic South African dishes. We met a tourist who seemed to have excessively imbibed that drink that some claim loosens (or is it lessens) one's thoughts. He stopped at our table and said, "I just love it when I travel to Africa and I get to experience the "Africanness" of Africa."
We could understand what he meant. Besides the food, he was also referring to a group of young men dressed in traditional regalia entertaining guests with traditional songs and dances. So powerful were their voices and movements that the ground shook when they stamped their feet. This was the true African experience the gentleman was talking about.
Seeing this group of dancers and tasting African cuisine may be an amusing experience for others, but for an African it allows one to remember, learn (and re-learn) the annals of African culture. For the much younger African generation it is a lesson in history. This is straightforward.
But there was also another performer at the restaurant: a young man dressed in long clean trousers, a well-ironed collared shirt and polished black shoes. He moved around with a newspaper, a bottle of mineral water in his hand and balanced a cigarette between his lips. His task was to entertain the clients with "magic" tricks.
He too is an important and true representation of Africa and "Africanness"; the modern, cosmopolitan Africa. Africa's authenticity rests on the equilibrium of these two representations. This simple paradigm embodies a complex dynamic relationship between the past, present and future of African culture and identity, which most Africans often take for granted.
Prof Ngugi wa Thiongo cautioned Africans about this when talking of Dismembering, Re-membering and Remembering Africa. His analysis refers to the oppressive history of most African countries as a process of dis-membering, and urges Africa to consciously work on re-membering (economically, socially and politically). His argument still holds when talking about the different aspects of African culture. It is when there is no connection between the two; the modern and the traditional, that Africa will be at a risk of being culturally dismembered. The re-membering of African cultures requires Africans to actively engage in the processes of remembering. Remembering our language, our food, our music, our fashion, our culture, and our history. It is also one way of making Africans confident of their identity and be self-reliant.
Simple habits that most Africans (un) consciously perform indicate that they are aware of the importance of actively engaging in remembering and re-membering. For instance, movement, mainly from urban areas to rural areas, typifies the festive season of many African countries. The tradition for most is to go "home" during the December holidays. For expatriates, this may mean not only going back to your home country, but to the rural villages. For those living in their own countries and working in urban towns, going "home" mostly means visiting the rural areas, where our great grandparents, grandparents and even parents were born and raised up. In many African countries, rural spaces are still considered to be reservoirs of traditional culture. Urban spaces temporarily become ghost towns, as people attempt to reconnect with their roots in this season. Parents may take their children to visit their grandparents in the villages. For others, it is an opportunity to physically see the beginnings of their family trees. This is one imperative means of engaging with our memory and re-membering.
To achieve the sort of holistic social identity and the consciousness Steve Biko wrote about, continuous connection between the two representations of Africanness is essential. In the 21st century, what is authentically African can no longer be summarized by a single representation, it is a combination, negotiation and balancing act of different identities.