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Lerato Scribess Sibanda

Lerato Scribess Sibanda - Power.Passion. Purpose - I am a writer, academic and spoken word artist -- http://beautybeginswithbe.blogspot.com/

The Many Faces of African identity

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The Many Faces of African identity

I thought that I was fully Tswana for a great portion of my childhood, only to discover to my detriment that I had traces of Zambian blood flowing in my veins. Foreign blood. Dreaded blood. Immediately insecurity came to roost in me and ever since I’ve never quite felt comfortable in my own skin. I discovered that while my great grandmother had been a bona fide Motswana, my great grandfather was a bona fide Zambian bull; of the star quality and first rank. If only he had been American. I grew up in Ga-rankuwa, one of the less recognized townships of the old Bophutatswana regime. I was and still am bushy-browed, fluffy-haired girl with beautiful thick mahogany skin. From the time I was born, I was a star attraction because I looked different. I was given a name by the greater population of our community; leNegro which is a colloquial Setswana term for Negro or otherwise what we know as African Americans. Some who did not dream as far or as big, called me the more derogatory leKula (a derogatory term amongst black South Africans for Indians). I was admired for my hair and often interrogated by the neighbours in high-pitched tones: Why moriri wa gago o le jaana? (Why is your hair like this?) Papa wa gago ke mang? (Who is your father?) Gape ga o tshwane le rona waitse (You really don’t look like the rest of us you know). I was both admired and envied, perhaps even resented. How was I to know the difference at the time? I was a child. A child is naïve. But a child is also intuitive. I could suck in the energies of my environment like a sponge. I stuck out like a sore thumb and I knew it. It’s amazing how a little deviation in the shade of skin can raise eyebrows. I was and still am dark but I am not the darkest. However my shade is different, leaning more to those of the Indians or of Americans as we know them in our minds. Where I grew up we did not have a consciousness of black African nationals residing in South Africa. The only “kwerekweres” we cared to acknowledge and knew were the Zimbabwean women who sold African thatch brooms from house to house in the township.

And even then we did not have a care for them. We called them smelly and foul behind their backs. And perhaps if a neighbour wished to insult you or call you ugly, they simply termed you Zimbabwean rubbish and instantly your ego would be crushed. Anything different was not appreciated. Different was unaccepted. Different was ugly. I am not trying to advocate for the ignorance of black South Africans, but you have to understand that we did not have knowledge on the rest of Africa. As far as black South Africans would have it, we were Africa, the very canon of Africaness and any other black African was; from a South African perspective; a diluted, uncultivated breed of Africaness. In hindsight, I can see that we were propagating what we black South Africans were suffering from at the time- apartheid- but this time amongst our black African counterparts. This in itself is a tragedy. It is the classic example of an abused soul going out to abuse another. A man who grew up being beaten potentially becomes a wife-beater. And so the cycle grows and is exacerbated. We had what I have termed a nationalist South African black pride. This pride was our Achilles heel. We felt that we had reason to have this pride (or should I say to be proud?) because of our oppressed condition, and we admired ourselves for our ability to survive despite the odds and for the fact that we had enough spirit- black spirit- to fight. We were African. And black South Africa was the regenerated form of Africa. Or so we thought. Whites were certainly not legitimate Africans and the rest of Africa was a derogatory, fouled form of Africa- uncultured, uncivilized. I do not know who taught me this. But I grew up with this mind. Such that when I discovered that I had Zambian blood, I felt that I was not truly African and when I became more westernized because of my education background I felt un-African.

While even as a child I was afraid and maybe even paranoid of being different, my mother did not seem to view the world quite as I did. I was her doll, her little beauty and her little star. She loved to tie my hair in little colour ribbons and plait them in ponytails such that I did indeed look like the little girl in the Cosby Show; and as if to prove something to the world, or to herself she took me to a  multi-racial school during the early years of the Democratic regime. There were only two black girls in a class of 21 or so, of which I was one. So here I was as a young girl- a Motswana girl with exotic features, who already lacked the visage of a “South African” and at this time, was growing increasingly poor in the tongue of the Bakgatlha. I slowly grew into a little white girl, in a black skin, which was not South African enough! Already as children playing at crèche, if one of the other kids said you looked like a Shangaan you would cry and go home running. There is a hierarchy in the context of our country amongst the black tribes. The force is silent but powerful. It’s a battle of the tribes. It of paramount importance which tribe you’re from. This plays a huge role in your identity. According to the voice of this silent force, the Xhosas rank highest on the ladder and the Shangaans lowest. But even then I would have done anything in my upbringing to have been 100% Shangaan rather than have this ugly blood. My surname is what gave me away as a mixed African breed, but otherwise I denied my Zambianess for a very long time. I conveniently chose to forget it.

Being at a multiracial school, I grew in love with the English language, was good at it and thrived in it. I soon lost mama for mommy. And as if to revolt at the community that chose to define me, classify me, make me aware that I looked different I spoke English to mommy all the time. I discovered that in our land you are more accepted as a 100% black South African ‘coconut’ rather than a South African with the defilement of other blood. When we left the township I became afraid, I felt that I was losing my connection with black South Africa. We moved then to a suburb in Pretoria and became integrated with Sothos, Xhosas, Zulus, Vendas, Shangaans and even the so-called Makwerekwere, but the area was mostly Afrikaans speaking. Living in the city actually freed me. I got to be myself outside of colour, race or creed. In the city different is not necessarily ugly… different can be interesting. There I got to learn that I had a great personality, that I was vibrant and that my case was not so unique. To my surprise I met African nationals from Mozambique, from Zimbabwe, from Uganda, from Kenya, from Ghana and various African countries who where in actual fact poised, well-spoken, educated, cultured, clean and even wealthy! It just didn’t make sense. Weren’t they all supposed to be suffering from hunger in the deserts of Africa, slaying each other and speaking in babble somewhere? I felt betrayed by my ignorance. And I slowly fell in like ( not necessarily in love) with Africa. And I must say that some of the African brothers were eye-candy for me, from the Angolan mulatto’s to the tall, handsome chocolaty brothers from Gabon. So began my quest to reach out to my African brothers and sisters in order to discover (and even recover) Africa. I have had friends from Angola. Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Central African Republic, Cape Verde, Ghana, Nigeria, Ghana, Botswana, Swaziland and many other counties in the beautiful continent of Africa. I feel robbed. How come we as South Africans are so ignorant to the rest of Africa? Have we been deceived or have we chosen to deceive ourselves? I have noticed how African nationals are highly informed about South Africa; they know our history sometimes more than we do. And not only that they are fairly well-informed about the rest of Africa too while we South Africans continue in arrogance living a secluded existence. This is for me a sad situation. However, there is hope for us yet. I have also observed how more black South Africans are intermarrying with other African nationals. Could it be that South Africans are awakening from a dark sleep? Could it be that South Africans are finally willing to imagine Africa?

Lerato Scribess Sibanda

I wrote this article in 2009. Since then I have come to the knowledge of the biological father who is Sepedi to top it all I discovered in 2010 that apparently my Zimbabwean grandfather is not my legitime grandfather in terms of bloodline. Identity is a journey that never ends, and I am a happily confused gal.

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  • jane

    Is it me thinking loud or reading this piece is an echo within my head?….I love it!!!!! That is exactly how it is in black & white. Coming from a South African I feel so relieved that what I have been thinking all along is not me being just Kenyan in a country where very few people actually care to know of other country’s history. Lerato this very nice! Keep writing dear coz clearly this is your thing. KUDOS!!!!!!

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  • Khaya

    LERATO!!!!!Wow,arguably one of the poignant piece I have ever read in the magazine.South African exeptionalism best describes much of our view of the continent,sadly so.Jean Grae,daughter of the iconic jazzman Abdula Ibrahim,in Talib Kweli’s Black Girl Pain says:”My blood is a million stories”.you had to go through all the stages you went through in order to be the wonderful person that you have become.the relationship between black south africans and the term “african” hasnt always been rosy.in a quest to claim their newly found land,the dutch descendents called themselves afrikaner and our foreparents natives and quickly changed to bantus so that our foreparents would be mentality divorced from the rest of our continental identity.i have been to have been raised by a father who,like many of his generation,was politiced enough to teach me,albiet slightly,about the rest of the continent.i made a conscious choice to learn more and literature,particularly the african writers series, has been a great companion of mine in this life long quest.great work my sister!

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  • Phillip

    The article showed me that it is not just white South Africans that struggle with their identities. As a nation, we whites are as mixed as the author of the article was while growing up. It is very interesting for me to see that black South Africans also struggle to place themselves in a nation that seems to be more diverse than I could have imagined. At the end of the day, discovering one’s identity is a life-long journey that some unfortunately don’t complete. I feel that one’s identity is something that you, as a person, should feel comfortable with and shouldn’t care what other people think. I am not, however, arguing against finding one’s roots or trying to relate to a certain culture. I am arguing for that one should not get consumed by the ambition of trying to belong somewhere. In the early 90s, an American film with Hilary Swank was released, titled Dying to Belong. The film depicted the struggle of first-year students trying to belong to a certain “cool” residence on campus, and ended up paying for that social status with their lives.

    A fact that is undeniable is the idea of hierarchy amongst a nation and/or race but my critique on this is, what makes the so-called top of the heap worthy of that status? Is it because of their skin colour? Financial status in society? As one may conclude, I don’t know a lot of South African black culture.

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  • George

    A good piece Lari… I think your best yet. Very insightful.

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  • jane

    Is it me thinking loud or reading this piece is an echo within my head?….I love it!!!!! That is exactly how it is in black & white. Coming from a South African I feel so relieved that what I have been thinking all along is not me being just Kenyan in a country where very few people actually care to know of other country’s history. Lerato this very nice! Keep writing dear coz clearly this is your thing. KUDOS!!!!!!

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
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  • Khaya

    LERATO!!!!!Wow,arguably one of the poignant piece I have ever read in the magazine.South African exeptionalism best describes much of our view of the continent,sadly so.Jean Grae,daughter of the iconic jazzman Abdula Ibrahim,in Talib Kweli’s Black Girl Pain says:”My blood is a million stories”.you had to go through all the stages you went through in order to be the wonderful person that you have become.the relationship between black south africans and the term “african” hasnt always been rosy.in a quest to claim their newly found land,the dutch descendents called themselves afrikaner and our foreparents natives and quickly changed to bantus so that our foreparents would be mentality divorced from the rest of our continental identity.i have been to have been raised by a father who,like many of his generation,was politiced enough to teach me,albiet slightly,about the rest of the continent.i made a conscious choice to learn more and literature,particularly the african writers series, has been a great companion of mine in this life long quest.great work my sister!

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
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    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  • Phillip

    The article showed me that it is not just white South Africans that struggle with their identities. As a nation, we whites are as mixed as the author of the article was while growing up. It is very interesting for me to see that black South Africans also struggle to place themselves in a nation that seems to be more diverse than I could have imagined. At the end of the day, discovering one’s identity is a life-long journey that some unfortunately don’t complete. I feel that one’s identity is something that you, as a person, should feel comfortable with and shouldn’t care what other people think. I am not, however, arguing against finding one’s roots or trying to relate to a certain culture. I am arguing for that one should not get consumed by the ambition of trying to belong somewhere. In the early 90s, an American film with Hilary Swank was released, titled Dying to Belong. The film depicted the struggle of first-year students trying to belong to a certain “cool” residence on campus, and ended up paying for that social status with their lives.

    A fact that is undeniable is the idea of hierarchy amongst a nation and/or race but my critique on this is, what makes the so-called top of the heap worthy of that status? Is it because of their skin colour? Financial status in society? As one may conclude, I don’t know a lot of South African black culture.

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  • George

    A good piece Lari… I think your best yet. Very insightful.

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