The African Identity
This one’s a submission I made to a competition I haven’t heard back from… yet
I haven’t made eye contact with my father for the 3 months since I got back. God! The things I’ve done to not be in the same room with him. An almost impossible feat considering we live in a 2-bedroomed apartment, with an open-door policy. You can imagine the kind of commitment that goes into that. To see figurines, move from corner to corner of the house and still pretend to be so engrossed in your personal affairs that you don’t lift your head up and see eye to eye. Weirdly enough, it’s not just me. I see him putting in as much effort. It’s like somehow, we know. We are this powder keg about to explode, the wicker of silence being what lightens this load.
They haven’t told me this, but I’m guessing when my parents enforced the open doors on us, it was to represent transparency. Open communication. Like we could approach them for whatever. But I’m yet to see an African household where that is actually a thing.
The first thing you do when you have a son is you pass onto them all of your unfulfilled dreams. Torchbearers. Of an inheritance shackled tightly around their necks. A rent due to only have them live in your shadow. “When you grow up, you’re going to be a pilot.”
The years pass by, compassion shines through you, nosedived into a book and you don’t seem to like leaving your room. So, it turns into “When you grow up, you’re going to be a doctor.”
Then you grow up and grow up smart. With humility, like a passport that helps you easily navigate the sharp cataracts of the status quo. Your classmates turn to you to teach them when they didn’t understand the teacher. You’re great at simplifying difficult concepts. You just have this unique way of seeing the world. Seeing connecting dots where people see parallels and Oh! the way you write. Madam Priscilla can’t stop singing praises of your compositions in the staff room. So, one day you come home, wanting to tell your father that you want to write but that’s too silly. Instead, you say, “Dad, I’m going to be a teacher.
My father says “WHAT! That’s a poor man’s profession. What will then become of you?” Pull my wings in and it’s back into my cocoon.
Time flies and I’m off to high school, to later settle for a degree in accounting.
It’s 3 months since I got back from my last semester of university and there’s absolutely no sign of job opportunities coursing my way. I’m currently an entrepreneur, which is code for unemployed. There are talks of us being taken care of in the BBI (Building Bridges initiative) which will soon be rolled out, so at least there’s that to look forward to.
When at first, they slammed doors on me, I had the “For every door they shut on us, we’re coming to buy the building” attitude. I think everyone ought to have that chip on their shoulder when it comes to believing in themselves. Like, they have no idea what they just lost by saying no to me.
But to count my losses, I seem to have lost that as well. There’s an emptiness in me. Now I just course through these rooms with my father giving me the side-eye, baited-breath, waiting, for my next move. There’s nothing like noting that your son has no sense of direction. As African as it gets though, you don’t talk about it. You don’t confront matters head-on. You have to let him who is lost find his way.
Holding hands? We don’t do that here. I believe that’s what turned me back to writing. The comfort of a first love.
One thing they don’t tell you though is that you need financial safety to pursue a career in a creative field. What that means is that the idea that all you need is “passion” to fire up your dreams and live off them is un-African.
How does one gather enough courage to tell his father, “Dad, I’ve always wanted to be a writer?” Wouldn’t that make him run out of the patience that is allowing me to overstay my welcome here?
Identifying as African is a constant battlefield. The media we consume amplifies the American dream; which goes something like it doesn’t matter where you came from or the circumstances of your birth, with enough hard work and determination, you can be anything. But in Africa, from the beginning, you’re constantly reminded that that is just what it is; a dream; so far away; in America. Here, your options are limited. You have to study and still deal with the prospects that however brilliant you are, you still could face unemployment.
Titles like Imbolo Mbue’s ‘Behold! The Dreamers’ have no place here.
The African identity means preparing your kids for disappointments. They’re your kids after all; they don’t have that virtue of birth. You pass onto them your realistic dreams as they will do the same for their kids after that. A vicious circle of people living their parent’s dreams, dressed politely as expectations because that’s how it always is. Your dreams are a danger unto yourself and you must be protected from them by whatever means necessary.
Being African means going through the most difficult stages of your life silently, by yourself. Cause talking about things? We don’t do that here. Kids these days talking about mental health like it’s an actual health problem. Men even. Whatever happened to manning up and suffering in silence.
There’s an Africa we want though and hope to realize in our lifetime. One with abundance; in opportunities and compassion in people. One where our dreams actually mattered and our pursuits aren’t dictated by virtue of our births. Where beauty doesn’t just smile on nature and end in our gloomy faces. When I think of the African identity, I can’t help but see connecting dots to a not yet realized potential.