Algeria and a question of identity: Who counts as African?

In our series of letters from African writers, Algerian-Canadian journalist Maher Mezahi considers what it means to be African as the continent gears up for its biggest football extravaganza.

Short presentational grey line

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a quote from one of the purveyors of pan-Africanism, the late great Kwame Nkrumah, who led his country Ghana to independence in 1957.

“Africa is one continent, one people, and one nation.

“The notion that in order to have a nation it is necessary for there to be a common language, a common territory and common culture has failed to stand the test of time or the scrutiny of scientific definition of objective reality.”

This passage aroused my interest as I have often tussled with the concept of us Africans identifying with cultures, nationalities and identities beyond those native to the continent.

That is especially the case on the coastlines where Africans have most interacted with other cultures and nations.

The Maghreb, for example, has an indelible Mediterranean flavour while many East Africans link their customs back to merchants of the Arab Gulf and Indian sub-continent.

The recorded history of Cape Verde begins with Portuguese colonial expansion and forced slavery in the 15th Century.

African v Arab limbo

I do think the principal reason why Nkrumah outlined the impossibility of a common language, territory and culture for the continent is the size of Africa.

I only understood that completely after my visits to the Sahara desert.

Anyone that has visited the vast sandy expanse will tell you that it will forever change your life.

Its immensity will leave you juggling with feelings of solitude, humility and a strange peacefulness.

Its immensity also constructs a very real barrier between North Africa and the rest of the continent.

I once read that Algiers – Algeria’s capital – is closer to Helsinki than it is to Lagos, closer to Dubai than it is to Nairobi, and closer to New York than it is to Harare.

In addition to the distance, colonial ties and mass emigration have drawn a subset of Africans into an increasingly common modern-era identity limbo.

As troubling as it is, I am never really surprised when fellow Africans ask me: “Why don’t North Africans consider themselves African?”

It is a question I am anticipating as I prepare to head to Cameroon for the Africa Cup of Nations – a football tournament which North Africans love to compete in (Algeria are the current champions).

Admittedly, a minority of North Africans sometimes problematically trumpet their heritage as somehow superior to being “African”, whatever that means.

I can hold no sympathy for such views that are best treated with the contempt they merit.

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