Taking matters into our own hands

I want to talk about civil engagement today, one of the most powerful tools available to us as tax paying citizens. With the upcoming Nigerian elections, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the role of the citizen in his or her country. So many of the problems affecting the african continent can find their root in governments, be they our own or foreign ones. While I’m setting the frame of this discussion around Nigeria, specifically its youth considering it is most relevant to the readership of this site, the comments and observations I am making are generally applicable across the board within the african context. The youth demographic (for the purpose of this piece I mean individuals from ages 18-35) make up 29.6 % of your entire population but a whopping 56.4 % of your electorate. How are we using that power? Not effectively. In your last electoral period, voter turn out was 28.66% and 53% for parliamentary and presidential elections respectively. We are not even maximizing the efficiency of our current system and we want to complain. You did not help to cook stew and you want to tell me it’s too salty?

We must promote civil engagement, treat civics with the same regard and esteem that we treat “proper” subjects as opposed to upholding that ridiculous dichotomy that puts home economics, TD and civics on one end and math, sciences and business on the other. All subjects have their value; the biggest achievements in human history have been born out of interdisciplinary collaboration. Think on this though, while most people won’t ever have to use calculus again past the secondary school level, all will live under governments where they will have to pay taxes, require roads schools and hospitals, live under a system of governance that will inform everything from their freedom of expression to their access to the means of production. For any such system to work efficiently, we will have to be aware of our rights and responsibilities, know how the system operates and what we are entitled to so we can remind the pubic servants as their name suggests that they work for us. They should be looking out for us and the policies they put into place must be in the interest of that public as opposed to being so closely aligned to those of the elite few.

If these institutions have shown us time and time again that they are not creating leaders looking out for our welfare, leaders we can’t depend on then we must take it into our own hands to create institutions that will produce the kind of leaders we do need. We need to stop being so passive about the way we are being governed. Our leaders are not appointed by some higher power; the system in which they operate were created by men, the leaders placed in power also by men. With the advent of the internet, not only can we spread information faster and further but we can bypass traditional structures when they have failed us. Think crowdsourcing and collective consumption (Netflix is my favourite example). Let’s use it to further educate and organize ourselves to create the change we want to see in our countries.

We are lucky in our continent, our demographic is the largest. We can’t always be blaming our governments. Obviously we know they are inefficient and fundamentally flawed but since they have chosen to claim the label of democracy let us hold them to it. Democracy means the people’s rule or power. This puts the responsibility for our fate squarely in our hands. Our leaders all over the world are taking advantage of our general complacency and low engagement in matters of politics to play with our future as they see fit, neglecting their duty to educate us then turning around and saying politics should be left to politicians. To that I say no more. The country does not just belong to the politicians, it belongs to all of us. They are merely our representative and emissaries to the world. When our currencies lose value, it is not our politicians suffering, it’s Awa who now discovers that the same money she used to buy plantain can only buy half that amount now. We all have a stake in the future of our nations so it stands to reason that we should all participate to a certain degree in building it. The system of governance you use is the foundation for anything that happens in your country. How can we expect to build anything that can stand on such a shaky foundation? I will cut our leaders some slack (not too much though). They are stubbornly clinging to models of governance influenced by and derived from the people who subjugated us, the same models that insure our 3rd world position. We are a different Africa than we were in the 60s, we don’t need to keep conforming to those archaic models, doing the same thing year after year and expecting change. As we grow as a society our systems should evolve to reflect that. I strongly suggest looking to our past to inform our future.

Can you imagine if those who gained us our independence waited until it was convenient for them to do so? Or even worse, if they waited until the colonial powers got some humanity and allowed us to be sovereign nations? When they were benefiting from a system that allowed them to use a whole continent like their own personal supply closet? That kind of power is hard to relinquish. Our forefathers did not like their conditions, said enough is enough and fought to claim what was theirs by right. That was only the first step. We face a similar yet new challenge now. We are dissatisfied with our government but we have as much, if not more power than those who came before us. We are the new culture shapers and the future leaders. Let us exercise our right not just to vote but to vote well, make choices at the ballot boxes influenced not by demagoguery but actual information on who our leaders are, their political stances, and what they actually hope to achieve in office and how. We have the right to stable and continuous governments regardless of what party is in charge. Government activities should not be significantly affected in times were power is being transferred, pausing the political process sets a dangerous precedent. We have the right to the right to full transparency and by default accountability from our leaders. Any candidate from the municipal to the federal level who can provide that for me or at least lay the foundation for such a structure has my vote. It’s a shame that the way we frame our political discourse pits parties against each other, forcing us to chose between 2 sides of the same coin (that’s if you’re lucky enough to live in a place where your leader actually agrees to relinquish power when the time comes). If you focus too much on Broom vs Umbrella, Blue or red or whatever the case might be for your country, you’ll forget that the real fight is between the rulers and the ruled. We’ve been deceived into this false sense of powerlessness because of our lack of information. Today I just want to remind you that your government exist for you and not the other way around. As africans we need to stop looking outwards for the solution to our problems. If you find it outrageous that a country with a GDP of $594.2 trillion has 60+% of its population living under the poverty line, a GDP per capita of $2800 and 32% of its wealth concentrated within 10% of its population, you cannot keep quiet. It seems age has made our leaders hard of hearing yet good with numbers by the looks of their bank accounts. Well if they wont listen to your voice, at least let your vote be counted.

A small suggested reading list for any interested in youth political organization within the african context:

I Write What I Like: Collection of articles, opinion pieces and speeches and speeches by Steve Biko, South-african anti-apartheid activist and youth political leader.

Wheats of Grain – Fictional account of the Kenyan independence struggle and its repercussions by prominent Kenyan writer and social critic Ngūgī wa Thiong’o.

Originally published on The Naked Convos.

The Perpetual Guest: Where Are You From?

“Where are you from?” I always smile to myself when I get this question. Most people expect a clear cut answer, one where Home is a defined, concrete area but that is simply not my truth. Such an expectation comes from the rather static concept of identity we seemed to have developed as a society over time. In an increasingly interconnected world, perhaps it is time we start thinking of our culture and identity in terms balance versus absolute truths. We have to accept a growing reality in the multicultural world that immigration creates: many people no longer identify with just one culture. This gives space for an emerging sector, that of the cultural hybrid. This happens in various degrees and the implication stretch far and wide from the effects on the concept of the nation state to the formation of individual identity.

In the wake of wide spread “globalization” a lot of attention has been given to the immigrant. The conditions in which the african immigrant comes to be are varied. Most of us are familiar with the Africa to the West direction first marked in the seventies, usually composed of economic migrants. You also have those who left for academic purposes on various bursaries and lottery winners. One subset of African immigrants that gets very little attention is the African immigrant with Africa. The dynamics in place for this immigrant are such that he tends to always feel like a guest.

Allow me to give you a brief overview of my upbringing. My parents are originally from Cameroon but I was born and raised in Ivory Coast. The latter is a country that is very welcoming to foreign nationals who make up about twelve percent of the population. While I knew I was Cameroonian (my passport told me so) my main connection to this country was through bedtime stories, food and monthly meetings the Cameroonian community my family belonged to organized.

French is the official language in Ivory Coast and as such my parents thought it natural to send us to a french primary school. I went to Groupe Scolaire Jaqcues Prevert. The parentals then decided to enrol me into The British School of Lomé, Togo. They happen to come from one of two english speaking provinces in Cameroon so we grew up with both languages in our household. Additionally they had ensured that we watched cartoons both in french and english to ensure we had a healthy grasp of both languages. The switch between school systems caused little discomfort. Both schools were international (though populated predominantly by africans of various nations) so I was always surrounded by people of different cultures. In my early years I never really thought of my nationality passed the passport level. Beyond the African cup of nation and the world cup where my nationality was a shining beacon of pride fed by a competitive spirit, being Cameroonian was just another label akin to girl, student, book lover: central to my identity yet not all encompassing. The ghost of my foreignness always loomed over me, not threatening but as a marker of my difference.

My educational environment afforded me a lot of peculiar opportunities. One area that was particularly affected by this multicultural upbringing was my choice of reading material. I have always been an avid reader. Hemingway or Arundhati Roy, if it’s written I’ll read it. It wasn’t until half way through secondary school that I realized I had almost never read anything about an African by an African. I had an english teacher who was very insistent on teaching books that were not in the english literary canon. The first african novel I read was Sembène Ousmane’s “God’s Bits of Wood”. In it, I saw a story that was unfamiliar yet mine. I started becoming more aware of my continent’s history. Over time I was exposed to more material which allowed me to widen my perspective not just on who I am but what it means to be human. My literary and cultural upbringing led me to accept the singularity of the human condition but there was a disconnect between this knowledge and how I saw myself portrayed in relation to others.

Due to the tumultuous history the west has with our continent, a negative light is shed on those who happen to identify with them. I was raised in a way where I saw flaws and merits in both cultural influences. It is inevitable that I would grow up accepting both as part of who I was. I love foutou banana and sauce graine but I wouldn’t pass up a good steak either. The idea that if I accept one I must deny the other needs to be challenged. This our obsession with compartmentalization has lead to a strict binary of the self and the other, the native and the foreigner. My upbringing has lead me to realize that the relationship between the self and the other is much like a mobius strip, one constantly influencing the other, always linked. Our attempts to reconciling both cultures have not yet rising beyond the metaphorical level of slapping an ankara pocket on a denim shirt. It tends to ignore the dynamic nature of culture, placing more importance on the static versus the fluid. Where does an individual such as myself fit in this ORGANized world?

Twenty three years later, I am settled in Canada and about to give up my Cameroonian passport for a Canadian one. I want to know why part of me feels uneasy. I was born an immigrant within my own continent and I cannot help but feel like a guest at times. I consider myself an African at my core but I cannot completely identify with any african nation due to my fragmented upbringing. It is not lost on me that my position is one of privilege. Trying to situate myself in african society does not and should not invalidate the experience of those who do not share the position I was born into. When I go to my own village I am treated as a foreigner because I cannot speak my mother tongue. I think and communicate in languages that are not native to my own and I have been influenced by a myriad of cultures. I am constantly bombarded with conflicting ideas of what it is to be African. If what I am is not a real african then what is?

Over the years my answer to the question “where are you from?” has been varied. Now when asked, I will tell you I am Cameroonian by blood, Ivorian by birth, West African by association and Canadian on paper. Does my perpetual guest status make me any less african or am I simply part of a growing demographic, an as of yet unclassified subset of the afropolitan world?

Originally published on The Naked Convos.