Some might see this as a political or loaded question but it’s one that challenges me as an historian as much as a sociologist (dare I admit that it was one of my degree majors?) interested in identity, and personally as I see myself as African in a world which apparently struggles to do so.
Africa is not unique when it comes to complex identity issues around settlers and indiginous peoples. However, it does seem to be an area where identity and cultural orientation are assumed because of – let’s be frank here – colour.
A few examples have recently jarred in this respect, highlighting that we haven’t yet resolved the issue of identity and it is going to continue presenting a challenge for me as an historian, but also give me years of work on uncovering minority voices wherever they emerge.
Twice in a country in which I spend a fair amount of time, I was asked by two intelligent black men, one middle-aged with a solid ‘western’ education behind him and the other a young nursing student changing universities, that if they spent time in Europe, would they become white? The young man was astounded to hear that white people were born in South Africa regularly. His experience is of white people being transient visitors or immigrants to his country. Soon after this, it was implied very clearly by a much respected institution that I was too white to be able to build a raport with fellow Africans and answer questions concerning WW1 in Africa – a place I regard as home with all that term implies, and on a topic I am very familiar with.
Most recently, an Indian colleague in discussing the xenophobic attacks in South Africa passed a comment that after five generations of living in the country, her people were still seen as immigrants. What revelations and stimulants for reflection – all in 3 months in 2015!
My work on WW1 in Africa has brought to light that the issue of identity and who is African is complex and should not be taken at face value. In addition to all the black tribes involved in the Great War in East Africa (142 Tanzanian, 40+ Kenyan, 3 Zambian as a rough starting point), I identified 23 other ethnic groups which participated. Indians born in India, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Mozambique all have very different experiences and ways of looking at life, in the same way that whites, Arabs and people of mixed race do. Those born on the continent had different experiences and expectations compared to those who were born elsewhere and came onto the continent for a short while or who made it their home. And then, there are the different belief systems which various groups practised.
It is worth looking at the contributions of each to the campaigns in Africa but also to the whole. All worked (with varying degrees of willingness) towards a common goal, irrespective of which side they supported. What strikes me though is, that despite all these differences, on the whole they found a way to work together. Many were African (black, white, Indian, Arab and mixed race) and their contributions to the war effort and later development of Africa should not be forgotten.