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Why Ugali n’ Swahili don’t rhyme with African Unity



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Last week’s piece, jaunting through ancient Ethiopian biblical-sized mythology, from the Dogon of West Africa’s cosmology to Shaka Zulu, was an attempt to illustrate the strangeness of the idea of African Unity. I am becoming a big fan of the idea, but there are some major contradictions at play.

First is defining what is African. It is fun on many levels to tease each other about the commonalities of our societies, but what comes with that is a tacit denial of how vastly different those societies are.

One simple way to illustrate this is through food: Who will eat what, especially when it comes to proteins, why and how frequently, etc.

I find food interdictions most fascinating and am always amazed at how many things women are not supposed to eat.

In this life, I hope to have horrified the ancestors with my willingness to explore fish, chicken and – the sheer shame of it – even fish eggs when I can get them. Trouble is, I like food and there is a lot of variety out there.

Which brings up again the contradictions of a unified African identity: Ugali doesn’t cut it. Not everywhere.

And just because it annoys me that it keeps coming up as a cultural signifier, let us all take a moment to remember that corn, or maize, is in fact a New World crop that came from the Americas and not some deeply ancient delicacy with mystical powers.

It is the almost forced compliance to this undefinable African identity that makes some of our common projects puzzling.

Tanzania has been trying to come up with a national costume for years now, which means accommodating everyone from the Hadzabe to the Swahili.

It is an outdated concept but we keep coming up with such projects.

Like the East African anthem: Nobody knows it and it will be interesting to see if it ever catches on.

By the way, why do all our anthems sound like 19th century Protestant hymns? Is good percussion disallowed by some obscure rule?

And then there are the fights about which language should rule the roost. As nice as it is to know that Kiswahili, by virtue of geography and number of speakers, is a strong contender, again there is that underlying contradiction.

Africans have been to date some of the most multilingual peoples on earth, so why the obsession with a single tongue?

It is in seeking to escape these very chains of homogeneity that I propose maybe the radical thing to do is move backwards a little bit.

Teach our real histories, not the sanitised versions, in schools and universities. Teach our languages like we mean it, and embrace international languages simply because we can and it is generally good business and good science.

And finally, which is where things get really tricky, we could let the younger generations do two things that we cannot: Ignore borders as is their wont, especially in a shrinking world. And imagine alternative forms of government that challenge our current failing states. As in not keeping the colonial borders.

Even I can’t begin to imagine what that would entail in real life. But let’s become, well, African about how we do things.

Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report. E-mail: [email protected]

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