Identity issues

Identity is complex – and fascinating, and for readers who follow my work it’s something I keep coming back to in different ways.

This most recent excursion was stimulated by an article on Vikings based on results of DNA tests which had been undertaken. This followed on closely to the response I made (25 mins in) on The Journey to the Mayflower by Steven Tomkins. What struck me this round, as well as working through Africa North of the Limpopo is the almost constant movement of people, some more than others. But more than the movement of people, the intermingling of people and cultures which lead to constant revisions and tweaking of what was before. That being Viking is an identity rather than an ethnicity is an interesting distinction and one I can associate with – I’m a mongrel in terms of my heritage. I know the broad strands but I don’t know the details. It’s rather the culture(s) I associate with who define me at any particular time.

Whilst on Vikings or rather Scandinavia, I came upon this thesis by Eero Kuparinen who has researched Nordic migration to South Africa. By the outbreak of the 1899-1902 war there was around 2,000 Scandinavians (including Finnish) in the territory, the majority of around 1,500 in Johannesburg. The Boer Army consisted of Boers, “Dutch, German, French, American, Irish, Italian, Russian and Scandinavian volunteers” while on the British side they came from “British Isles, […] South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand”. (p186)

Most of the British armed forces were brought onto the African continent for the conflict, whilst those on the Boer side were predominantly resident in the Boer Republics, most likely the Transvaal. This is not to say that most settlers or residents took up arms. Many either left to return to Europe or other parts of the continent or if they remained in Boer territory took an oath of neutrality. What is significant here is the diversity of white nationality in the area and related issues of identity. Did those who remained see themselves as more African or South African/Boer? We see a similar diverse makeup in the First World War in Africa, although here numerous Scandinavians are professional soldiers/mercenaries serving in the Belgian forces. Trying to unravel a person’s identity is challenging – is it determined by place of birth? by residence? unit or force served with? how does the individual see themselves? Does association with a headman, minor chief or senior chief define identity?

More recently than the inspiration for the post on the issue of identity has been the film In My Country an adaptation of Antje Krog’s Country of my Skull.  The encounter between white Afrikaans Anna Malan and black American Langston Whitfield is poignant in so many respects, not least Anna’s statement that she would “die for Africa”. The other significant aspect to come out of the film is the mistake of assuming – assuming the background or ideals of another invariably leads to misconceptions and errors. It seems to me that the successful encounters of the diverse peoples coming together in whatever space has been a desire to understand the other for who they are and to work towards a common beneficial goal. This then begs the question: Is identity important?

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