Otherness in Africa today is layered in a new spirit of nationalism, religion, borderscape politics, and racial alignment.The Arts Cities
The de facto country of Somaliland is located within the East African region, yet it seems far removed from the socio-political glare of the rest of Africa. Today, a critical account of events in Africa as a geography cannot be undertaken without adequate attention to this country, regardless of political brokering, sovereignty and continental politics.
It was the dream of the Pan Africanists that Africa belongs to all Africans and is a motherland for the entire black race in all its struggle. It is upon such a construction of belonging that Achille Mbembe re-engaged with this vision in his famous speech "Blacks From Elsewhere and the Right of Abode" which addresses the question of xenophobia, border dissolution, and the experience of otherness in postcolonial Africa. Among other symptoms, Mbembe acknowledges, are the troubles of identity, home, and black-on-black racism that continue to rear their ugly heads in the postcolony.
I began to think about Mbembe’s ideas after an academic workshop (sponsored by the British Academy) I attended in Hargeisa, Somaliland last year. I had been invited courtesy of Professor Madhu Krishnan from the University of Bristol. The program was a week-long preliminary event leading up to the Hargeisa International Book Festival (HIBF) where Egypt would be the guest country for the year. It was a mentorship workshop meant to groom early career academics like myself.
During this event, I would also have the opportunity to meet seasoned scholars in the Literary and Cultural Studies network. For someone still learning the ropes of scholarship, it would be a platform that exposed me to some rudiments such as grant proposal writing, journal article writing, submission and networking.
Some weeks before the workshop, Professor Krishnan informed me that it would take place in Hargeisa, at the Horn of Africa. It was the first time I would hear the name of this ancient East African city, and although I had heard of Somaliland, I often mistook it for Somalia. There wasn’t even an indication from the immigration officer who checked me in at Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos that she knew where Somaliland is. Yet she, like others, asked me clearly if I had considered the risk before my embarkation.
On the day of my arrival, the plane glided into a balding landscape. At the immigration checkpoint, I met other workshop participants. After we squirrelled through immigration, having secured a visa pass, we had a brief stop to get SIM cards for our phones at a kiosk in the airport before we were ushered into a car by our host.
As our car crossed the city, cactuses sprawled on both sides of the road and a few thorny trees announced the arid terrain. Our host occasionally cut-in, giving us new knowledge about the historical city and how Somaliland became a de facto country. We were somewhere around the middle of the city when he pointed to the carcass of a warplane felled by Somaliland soldiers during the civil war, now a monument symbolising the country’s military strength.
We were lodging at a compound with scattered chalets called Lake Assal, named after a popular water crater bordering Danakil Desert located in Djibouti. Feeling jet-lagged, I settled into my single room while the Saharan Desert wind hummed past my window.
For the next four days at Hargeisa Cultural Centre, we were inundated with different academic activities and tasks such as writing grant proposals and academic articles, and finding suitable journal submissions. Part of the vision of the program was also to introduce us to Somaliland and to reconcile its post-war image with the popular presumption that it was a territorial extension of Somalia.
However, the fourth day gave us room for some adventure. I asked Shakiib, a friend and staff member at the cultural centre, if he would indulge us with some brief flânerie in the city. In the company of a Malawian, South African, Zimbabwean, and another Nigerian, we spent the afternoon traipsing through Hargeisa’s body.
Hargeisa is a beautiful city with a litany of skyscrapers outgrowing the wreck of war, the litter of rubble making way for gradual convalescence. As we sauntered into its heart, our guide ushered us to the side of the road to tell the history behind each historical edifice we spotted on our way. We passed by a tarred, empty street which led into the Presidential Palace. On the next street, we ambled along and took pictures of a group of camel milk sellers and khat hawkers, some in kiosks and others with tables. We were in the middle of banters when the word “African” reached my ear for the fourth time, this time from a camel milk seller. I had dismissed the first three as mere passers-by’s repartees, but this stirred a kind of uneasiness in me and I mumbled to the seller jokingly, "At least, I am African with kinky hair."
I began to contemplate what the label "African" meant considering that everyone I had met on the way was thickly melaninated and spoke Somali. Encountering it as such a racial slur becomes more provoking. Later, Shakiib retorted that some Somalilanders consider themselves Arabs. This was a jolt to my consciousness and caused my first visit to East Africa to be permeated by a streak of otherness.
If "African" carries any positive connotations, the milk seller’s gesture betrays them. I wanted to know all at once how to measure my milk-seller friend’s Arabness and how much subcutaneous, political, socio-historical, and economic implications this perceived identity and its subtle arrogation of power possessed. Could this precedence be accounted for from a religious angle given the historical trajectory of Somaliland as a former Caliphate?
Nonetheless, the exacting presence of the word “African” was a gash in my mind that I began to nurse. As a black from elsewhere, the right of abode was shaky for me and my Africanity was a burden the camel milk seller did not want to share.
Being called African within Africa evokes a certain geographical distancing. Ironically defeating the purpose of the workshop in some ways since its broad vision was a literary and cultural effort at reconciling and re-bonding Somaliland with other parts of Africa. So much for borderless Africa in the wake of this insularity. Otherness in Africa today is layered in religious politics and a new spirit of nationalism, borderscape politics, and racial alignment.
These fault lines of alignment are most visible when you put Africa on a map and partition it geographically between North and South. There had been, of course, the project of pan-Africanism that brought about the Organization of African Unity (now African Union) in the ‘60s and ‘70s which advanced inclusivity, international political amalgamation, and the dissolution of the geographical chasm. Today however, most North African countries are allied with the Middle East culturally and politically, and many in the South are still under neo-colonial a clutch and fraught with its vestiges. In this socio-political oscillation are interstices of racism, colorism, xenophobia, and other incidences of otherness which are visible in all parts of Africa today.
These are patterns that continue to have an imposing, amorphous presence. It came as no marvel when M’barek, the Akka-born Moroccan artist, told Amina Alaoui Soulimani in an interview that when he visited Senegal for the first time, he felt like he belonged to a large mass of people. He had lived most of his life as a Black Moroccan with an outsider complex whereby he had remained invisible. His visit to Senegal was like an entry into Africa; he was filled with sentiments and emotion of a place he could call home. This vagrancy was a jarring experience for someone whose melanin perpetually put him in contrast with his own society.
On the day of our departure, I had grown academically but was still pondering Hargeisa— its old bruise of civil war, its budding economy tone-marked by fledgling skyscrapers, its succulent camel meat, and its territory hemmed on one side by the Red Sea, which I wished I had seen. I wanted to confirm the old fable that its water is actually crimson, and imagine old Moses damming it in the middle for another exodus.
As I laid my bag inside the immigration tray for a contraband check, the immigration officer, soaked in heavy melanin as well, sounded his Arabness and my African-ness to my ears. After he finished checking me in, I had intentionally teased him, "Thank you my African brother." To which he replied, "No, I am not African; I am Arab." Insistently I asked further, "Isn’t Somaliland located in Africa?" He retorted, "It is, but we are Arabs; you know we are not like Africans."
Hargeisa International Book Festival is an important annual cultural and literary event, hosting a variety of African countries, notable writers and academics. It has earned a range of glowing tributes from some of the important literary dignitaries such Okey Ndibe and Chuma Nwokolo who were there when Nigeria was the guest country in 2015. The book fair has also become a watershed platform where young critics and emerging writers are trained and introduced to the rigours of creativity and scholarship.
More than that, it has transformed into an axial lens through which Somali culture, history, politics, and literature are viewed by the outside world. But although it should be commended for providing such a thriving space, it is important not to ignore the awkward posture of othering in Hargeisa. It seems there is a big task ahead for the city to clear this culture of isolation so it may embrace inclusivity without playing the card of racial politics.
There is a need for steady awareness in the public sphere, and sensitization to encourage people to abstain from imperious language that suggests distancing, condescension, otherness, and alignment. There is a need to eliminate the false assumptions of a racial construct in the inner psyche of the public that being an Arab gives one more voice than being black.
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