Talking identity in the global African community

In the lead up to Africa Day on 25 May, we’ve turned our gaze north of the border for a month-long focus on inspiring, captivating and challenging creativity from Africa. In doing research for this our editorial team was often unsure whether work created by Africans living in the diaspora – particularly those who’ve never visited nor lived in Africa but still identify as “African” – could be included in the series. We haven’t come to a hard and fast decision around this, and don’t intend to, but the question did spark a desire to gain a clearer understanding around what in means to be an African in the diaspora.

Enter Beulah Osueke, the founder of Ezibota, which is a community focused solely on connecting Africans by offering a healthy and supportive space for members to develop substantive relationships. “Ezibota’s mission is to connect the disconnected with the overall vision of a connected and empowered global African community,” Beulah explains. “By definition, those in the African diaspora are spread out, navigating their adoptive countries while working to hold steadfast to the traditions of their native lands. As someone who finds herself straddling two continents, I thought it was necessary to create a space where being an outsider was the norm; where conversations about familial pressures and teachers mispronouncing last names did not make you feel alienated but comforted in seeing the number of people who shared similar stories.”

Ezibota meet up in New York
Ezibota meet up in New York

Practically, Ezibota does this by providing a community for those familiar with the challenges of balancing many different worlds. The various components and community features of Ezibota include a discussion board, private messaging, and a protected member directory. Their contributing team produces online publications that serve as commentary on current events as well as reflection on personal growth and experiences. They also host monthly community chats allowing members from across the globe to engage in organised discussion around a universal topic.

The personal connections that Beulah has formed through Ezibota have impacted her tremendously. “I did not forsee the opportunities that creating this community would afford me,” she says. “I’ve made great friends who have graciously allowed me to expand my understanding of global affairs like politics and religion to intimate subject matter like navigating personal relationships and exploring self-identity. I have connected with several members both online and in person and look forward to fulfilling our vision of a connected and empowered global African community.”

To investigate Africanness in a global context, we tapped into the Ezibota network to chat with African creatives who currently find themselves (or at some point have found themselves) in the diaspora. Graphic designer Wambui Kabue, clothing designer Olu Yerokun as well as Beulah herself shared their thoughts and experiences in the insightful Q&A below.

Beulah Osueke, Olu Yerokun and Wambui Kabue
Beulah Osueke, Olu Yerokun and Wambui Kabue

Where were you born?

Olu Yerokun: Atlanta, Georgia (USA).

Wambui Kabue: I was born in Nairobi, Kenya (Africa).

Beulah Osueke: Houston, Texas (USA).

Where do you live now? Is this home?

Olu: I live in Little Rock, Arkansas. This is home for now until life takes me somewhere else.

Wambui: I live in Kenya now. The meaning of home has shifted for me over the last nine years. I spent five years in Australia and that became home for a while. Now I like to think I’m in-between homes.

Beulah: I currently live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA. This isn’t home for me, Nigeria is.

What does it mean to you to be African?

Olu: To be “African” in America means to further the legacy of my ancestors. To live in a world of duality, where you understand two cultures and hopefully find a place of comfort in that you’ve identified who you want to be, and no one can take that away from. It also means to share my culture with others to hopefully remove the ignorance there is surrounding the African diaspora.

Wambui: To me it means being part of a special group of people who are incredibly diverse with a rich history and an exciting future, while at the same time being misunderstood, marginalised and exploited for because of that diversity and richness.

Beulah: Being African means knowing your roots and having the respect and appreciation to hold onto your culture and family traditions. To be proud and African is to celebrate what the rest of the world wants you to be ashamed of.

Olu Yerokun (Pidgin English Co)
Pidgin English Co by Olu Yerokun

How do you express your Africanness in your life and work?

Olu: In life I started a clothing brand called Pidgin English Co to help people express themselves through clothing. I try to mix American and Nigerian styles together to hopefully start conversations around culture. A shirt, hat, or a pin can do a lot. At work I like to let people know I’m African but specifically Nigerian. I try to incorporate African prints in outfits when possible.

Wambui: I think because I am African I see the world through a particular lens, so whether I’m aware of it or not the choices I make in my work and my life are a reflection of this viewpoint. I try to make a conscious effort whenever possible to include imagery of Africans and other people of colour in certain projects.

Beulah: In creating Ezibota, I have worked to cultivate a space where young Africans representing many different truths and experiences can gather free of judgment, alienation, or dismissal. I work to create a space of empowerment and solidarity, something I rarely find offered to Africans on the continent or in the diaspora.

What language(s) do you speak? How does this link to your personal identity?

Olu: Currently only English but I’m working on my Pidgin and Yoruba. I personally identity as an Americanised Nigerian. I think we have to be specific with nationality and ethnicity. I was born in America but raised as a Nigerian. Some might say I’m the true definition of African American but it’s all about what makes you comfortable and secure in who you are.

Wambui: I speak Kiswahili (national language) English (colonial language) and Kikuyu (mother tongue). I used to think that being able to speak the languages of my country well would make me more Kenyan, more of a patriot, but now I think it’s more important how you use whatever language you speak to communicate ideas or feelings with those around you.

Beulah: English and muy poquito Espanol. I only know a little Spanish because I took four years of it in High School and two years in college. As immigrants my parents spoke Igbo at home but didn’t make an effort to teach me the language. In retrospect, I wish they would have.

Wambui Kabue
Illustration by Wambui Kabue

Do you think that “African” is a useful organising concept?

Olu: I don’t think it’s useful because it creates this idea that all nations on the continent are the same. It gives people a pass to be ignorant of geography and in their understanding of culture and history. I think nations on the continent should be more unified, but we also have to find the beauty in our differences.

Wambui: I think the word African has suffered from negative connotations. We need to continue re-defining the meaning of the word and I think the most powerful way to do this is visually.

Beulah: Yes, because regardless of the differences in our nation’s histories, no other continent has been violated like the continent of Africa. Our truth is unique, our resilience incomparable. There is an understood kinship when you encounter another black African.

Do you feel connected to other Africans, whether living on the continent or in the diaspora?

Olu: Yes, I believe we all have similarities that show our connections and allow us to learn from each other and grow. The internet is allowing us to connect more and more. We are discovering shared stories and experiences that help us understand each other better. I think the open dialogue is healthy and allows us to create a better future.

Wambui: Yes I do feel connected, mostly through personal relationships with other Africans in my own country and those I have made in the diaspora.

Beulah: I do, I make it an effort to connect with my people. And most of the time, it’s extremely effortless.

More Africa Month on 10and5.

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