At the imminence of our birth as humans (and other mammals) there seems to be a, both natural and artificial, predetermination in relation to where, when and with whom we shall ‘belong’. Belong is has been inverted because the idea of ‘belonging’ is a largely subjective and, indeed, relative one. No person has an authoritative approach regarding the ‘belonging’ of other people. However, there has been a general ‘acceptance’ that designates people’s ‘belonging’ according to their gender; race; ethnicity; sexual orientation; religion/ spiritual affiliation; geographical spacing and class amongst various others.
As people we, generally speaking, want the comfort and security that informs and accompanies the idea of ‘belonging’. It’s through this inexorable pursuit of ‘belonging’ that we are able to rid ourselves of the status of a pariah or that of The Other. We understand that ‘belonging’ to a particular association, whether by choice or heritage, is in itself a statement that says “I exist and am part of a greater sum”! And many a time such associations can assume roles as mitigates in circumstances of prejudice and strife and as a result cushioning the assaults of marginalization. It could also serve as a rallying point for a collective resistance, where applicable.
Besides inherited ‘belonging’, one is able to declare with assertiveness his/her ‘belonging’ to a particular persuasion through experience. If one lives in an environment for a certain amount of time and forges attachments to those surroundings through experiences of contributions, friendships and other alliances, surely that person can promulgate, with authority, that s/he ‘belongs’ to those surroundings should the need to do arise. Because humans are wanderers by nature, it means that migrations are inevitable and aftermaths of ancestral expeditions, the debate of geographical ‘belonging’ becomes contentious and at times very discriminatory. The Afrikaner people, who trace their roots to the Dutch, and whether they ‘belong’ to the broader African definition is such a contentious case. According to the Pan Africanist definition, African has largely been defined on a racial basis, but the founder President of Pan Africanist Congress, Robert M Sobukwe, challenged this narrow definition.
He declared that to him anyone who aligns themselves with the African agenda is African. Afrikaners, after having spent over 4 centuries on this continent, would not be blamed when they say they, too, ‘belong’ in Africa. Even though historical attitudes still find resonance amongst some of them and suggests otherwise. And when one examines their case of ‘belonging’, one finds that they do not have a lot leverage as far as contesting European authenticity. This is a stark contrast to the descendants of English and French settlers. The latter two kept intact the traditions and languages, which are critical components of identity and legitimacy, of their ancestral homelands. Can the same be said of the Afrikaner in relation to Dutch traditions? The Dutch, as a result of their linguistic ‘cohabitation’ and interfacing with the Khios San people, gave birth a new language: Afrikaans. A language considered to be amongst the youngest, if not the youngest in the world. So begs the question, is Afrikaans necessarily European and where do they ‘belong’? If not Africa. They would not be automatically be welcomed by the Netherlands because their cultural ties have been strained and scorched by the heat of the very harsh African Experience. In fact as far as the Afrikaner contesting European ‘belonging’, I’m of the view that they would probably be seen as sediments and vestige of 17th century Dutch culture.
Another contentious issue is of ‘belonging’ also features prominently with the black people of the Diaspora.
The most imposing being that of Americans of African descent, African Americans as they are called. We have seen how, more often than not, when an African American visits our shores they declare Africa as their ‘home’. The question then is, are they justified in doing so? I find a lot of them quiet patronising to say the least! They are the descendants of enslaved Africans and not slaves as usually claimed because when we say enslaved Africans and slave descendants are two different things. They, people of Diaspora Africa, and the Afrikaner are not too different in as far as the practice and representation of African traditions and languages is concerned, in fact they non existent. With the exception of Haiti, which still practices the voodoo (not the Hollywood type though). On the basis of their identity, it can be said that Diaspora black people are more in tune with their countries’ nationhood than Africa and so they do not necessarily ‘belong’. World renowned scholar; academic and specialist in African Studies, Professor Ali Mazrui of Kenya, has an interesting perspective on racial and geographical ‘belonging’ and one’s Africanity.
Prof Mazrui, at a lecture entitled: “Barack Obama and the Black Atlantic: Towards a post- racial global Africa”, says that there are two ‘kinds’ of Africans and what informs such Africanity is: Blood; soil or both. His view is as follows regarding African Americans and uses President Obama as a reference “Young Barack Obama illustrated a speedy transition from American- African to African- American ( note the adjective difference) as links with his African family at home shrank, his command of African languages never took off, his taste for African cuisine weakened, memories of Africa became less personal, and his self-definition becomes more American than African”. So, according to Mazrui, that means that Diaspora black people are African by the blood through heritage. The sage that is Mazrui then turns his attention to argument and perspective of what informs an African by soil. “Africans of the soil, on the other hand, belong to the African continent, but not necessarily to the black race. Most Algerians; Tunisians and Egyptians are Africans of the soil…FW de Klerk, former president of South Africa, was (is) African of the soil by adoption”.
Another vital reason of wanting to ‘belong’ is that it carries the validation of acceptance and recognition and perhaps more importantly the enjoyment that sprout from such certification. The ‘controversial’ legislative recognition of same sex marriages in South Africa, made it possible for people from the homosexual community to ‘belong’ to the definition of matrimony however half baked the semantics of the act may be. And now gays and lesbians can enjoy the fruits of benefits that were previously reserved for heterosexual matrimony. ‘Belonging’ is quintessential in matter of identity and is a problematic to ultra conservative societies. Not ‘belonging’ anywhere is tantamount non existence or being a victim of amnesia. People who do not have a well anchored sense of ‘belonging’ usually wander off seeking affirmations which sadly leads to them being victims of conscience lacking conduct of those whom they hoped to find redemption from. The outcomes are usually tragic and fatal. One knows where one ‘belongs’, when they are within that space and energies around that space do not disappoint in giving approval. Such environments do not give raise to any doubt. If you find yourself in a space and uncertainty pricks your conscience, then you should know well that you ought to vacate that space immediately.
We know people ‘belong’ in a better place when we look, even if it’s briefly, into the eyes of prostituting women clad in mini skirts and stationed at corners in sub zero temperatures. When we see remorse expressing itself on the face of a life sentence serving prisoner, and them wishing and praying for any slight chance of atonement. We know we ‘belong’ in a place or with a person when spend effort and time without any trace of regret in sight. When we do not have to compromise ourselves in order to be accepted we know we ‘belong’. It’s like a fanatic sacrificing all for a sporting final ticket; a stockbroker relishing the vicissitudes of the unpredictable drama and rush of the securities exchange; a corporate big shot giving it up for a career in the arts. When you think you ‘belong’ within a certain chosen or inherited association: gender; race; ethnic group; class; continent; nation; sexual orientation; religious/ spiritual belief; and sporting club who are we to say you don’t?
Article inspired by Nkosimlondile Nkambule’s facebook note “Belonging”