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The Exoticisation and Otherisation of the Afrikan by the Afrikan

Written by Doreen Gaura for POVO Journal 2014: Inaugural Women’s Edition

In the last decade or so we have seen an increase in Afrikan visibility and participation in the marketing of the continent as a commercial and creative hub. We have embarked on re – branding the image of Afrika i.e. moving away from the traditional Afro-pessimistic narrative to a more positive vibrant one as well as reclaiming the marketing rights of our own continent and cultures. This paradigm shift has reaped benefits for more and more, mostly young, Afrikan designers, artists and entrepreneurs both on the continent and in the Afrikan diaspora.
It is a cause for celebration particularly in light of the reductive, Afro – pessimistic narratives that have plagued us for centuries and enabled the violent dispossession and subjugation of our people. However, I fear that while it has created room for Afrikans and our cultures in the global market as well as facilitated cultural exchange amongst ourselves as Afrikans on a much larger scale, I feel that this new visibility and celebration of our various cultures and the different aspects thereof has done very little to facilitate a shift from the exoticisation of the Afrikan and Afrikan culture.

If anything, it would appear to have not only validated it because that same narrative is now being vocalised by Afrikans “so it must be true”, but we now participate in the exoticisation of ourselves and our cultures.

I can personally think of many examples of this that I have either observed or encountered personally over the years both as a Zimbabwean immigrant living and working in Cape Town, South Afrika and as a Zimbabwean emigrant returning home every year for a visit. During my last visit to Zimbabwe I was called “exotic” by strangers for spotting natural/afro-textured hair and donning afro inspired clothing and accessories. I found this both very problematic and somewhat offensive at the same time even though on all three occasions it was intended to be a compliment.

The term “exotic” does not sit well with me, particularly when it is said in reference to people (of colour) or to POC cultures and heritages and this is because of the historical baggage that comes along with that term. Historically, and even in the present day, the term exotic mostly serves the purpose of propping up and sanctioning the otherisation of the “exotic” subject so as to fetishise and objectify them/it making them/it inferior to what is considered the “norm”. This thinking operates on the premise that there is a singular norm and anything that deviates from this alleged norm then automatically becomes unusual and abnormal.

The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the US defines exoticisation as:
…a process by which a human figure is cast as foreign, not in the concrete sense of belonging to a foreign country or ethnic group, but in the phenomenological and ethical sense of being “other.” The other is considered an object of interest and contemplation for the viewing subject, who presumably represents a cultural norm. The hallmark of exoticization in European and American literature is the construction of the other as strange and mysterious—often in some desirable or attractive but nevertheless distanced way—as if she did not exist within a plausible cultural or psychological context.

What I take issue with when I’m referred to as exotic, particularly by fellow Afrikans and more especially by fellow Zimbabweans is that the things that aren’t foreign about me BECAUSE I’m a brown/black Zimbabwean or Afrikan are the exact things that my viewer considers exotic and distances themselves from; things such as not relaxing my hair or not wearing a weave or even not identifying as a Christian but instead as an Afro – spiritualist. This of course speaks to the politics of decolonisation and betrays to what extent we are really a nation (and perhaps even a continent) of Anglophiles whose idea of normal is really Euro-centric and it is often through this Anglophile/ Euro-centric lens that we engage with our cultures or identities and wind up falling into the trap of commodifying them as opposed to promoting them.

The commodification and exoticisation of ourselves, our cultures and our identities also seems to entrench the socio economic and political issues that already plague our communities. It appears to disenfranchise certain communities (particularly the rural ones) who by the way are usually the ones who preserve, live and identify with these cultural aspects more than those who wind up profiting from commodifying and commercialising said cultures. We end up replacing the current perpetrators of the exploitation of our people and our cultures. Also it is very problematic how we seem to be only embracing our cultures because we feel that there is business to be made from them for as long as the west is still enamoured by the idea of the exotic other.

The exoticisation of Afrikans is nothing new and we have seen this in stories like the Allan Quartermain series and various other aspects of pop culture that romanticise and fetishise the idea of Afrika as an endless majestic wilderness filled with adventure and “primitive but mysterious and alluring jungle people”. It is this sort of exoticisation that we seem to have internalised and adapted somewhat. Since the emergence of Afropolitanism, which has come under much justifiable criticism we have seen more and more young Afrikans appearing to be engaging with both their own as well as other Afrikan cultures. I say appearing because of late I have wondered to what extent most of us actually engage, if at all, with the plethora of Afrikan cultures we are enthusiastically commodifying and consuming.

I started to question this when I noticed that in conversations with fellow young people, be it in South Afrika or Zimbabwe, around “afro-print” couture for example, most people treated the plethora of prints being used in the fashion industry as though they all emerge from a homogenous culture, called “Afrikan”. Not many bother to learn more about the origins of the prints they were using or buying and what, if any, significance or meaning they hold to the bearers of that particular culture. Because we use whiteness as the standard or default for normal, modern, urban, progressive, sophisticated etc we appear to be more interested in engaging with our identities using Euro-centric rules and norms i.e. moving away from the roots of said identities while maintaining the things that have received the West’s endorsement and approval and that can fit seamlessly into the neoliberal capitalist imaging of the world at the expense of the sacred aspects of our identities. What appears to be a celebration and promotion of Afrikan identities is in most instances a celebration and promotion of Western identities and norms just with an Afrikan twist to it.

It is true that doors have been opened up and conversations started about our Afrikan cultures with business opportunities being provided for our Afrikan designers but to what extent are the designers engaging with the cultures they are “marketing” in order to be considered representatives of said cultures? Is a Kente inspired printed fabric the same as a Capulana print one and therefore can be used interchangeably? Are the symbols in these prints just meaningless pretty squiggles and designs on a piece of cloth or do they represent something? To what extent are the rest of the beneficiaries of those cultures being included in this distribution of their identity? Is the appropriate respect being awarded to the sacred aspects of the things we are marketing? Is commodifying Afrikan cultures creating multiple and nuanced narratives or just creating an illusion of representation and adding an Afrikan voice to the already existing reductive narrative of the “exotic other”? In my opinion these are all pertinent questions that elicit the necessary conversations that I believe we should be having as young Afrikans.
That we are not is indeed problematic or has the potential to be. Don’t get me wrong, I am not entirely against the marketing of our cultures ourselves as I am for the idea of (re)discovering, (re)claiming, and (re)framing/branding our identity first as black Afrikans then as members of various ethnic and cultural groups that fall under that banner (of Afrikan) that is removed from the imposed monolithic common identity that is “human” which is usually understood as a synonym for Europhile but I believe that we need to stop viewing and identifying ourselves using a Westernised/ white gaze.

Others may wonder if it is still necessary to be talking about such things and if these things still matter but for as long as we and the rest of the world determine our value by our ability to produce Afrikan flavoured versions of Western convention and form because we are “inferior” we still have lot of talking, learning and unlearning to do. Of course, there will always be the risk of opening ourselves up to continued exoticisation by others through this promotion and celebration of ourselves and our cultures, that is unavoidable, but at least we can aim to dismantle the ever reductionist narrative somewhat and more importantly we can cease to legitimise and reinforce the problematic racialised inferiority imposed on us by ideas of Euro-centric supremacy.

 
 

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Yindaba Kabani Nxa ndilahl’umlenze: That Time When I “Hung Out My Thighs For All To See”

Written by Doreen Gaura for iamTehn 

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So it was a regular Saturday morning (and by morning I mean well after midday) and I was chilling at home, you know? Vegeing out, minding my own business, dealing with my most recent existential crisis (I get a lot of those and quite frequently too) of whether or not getting out of bed and showering was something that featured in my immediate future when my phone went off. It was a whatsapp message. “Could it be Great Mother Universe stepping in to rescue me from the prospect of a dreadful day of planlessness brought on by that insidious devil called brokeness?” I wondered as I excitedly picked up my phone to open the message. I could barely contain my excitement I was almost certain I was going to need to open a bottle of wine right there and then and take a swig straight from the tap just to calm my nerves when lo and behold, right before my eyes, was a message from one of my uncles instructing me to change my whatsapp profile picture right before he proceeded to question my sanity. o_O!

I was so angry I almost did actually open that bottle and take that swig but because I was operating in rationing mode due to my most recent post holiday financial crisis and also, well, because I am not an alcoholic (of course) I opted to make a really strong cup of filter coffee instead. That and ignore the message. I have a general rule not to respond to anything whilst I am angry, especially if it’s coming from family, friends or jobage people a.k.a. colleagues. My weekend shot on by, in that hateful bullet-speed way weekends tend to do without any further incidence. Monday arrived, uninvited as usual, *blegh* and yet another message pertaining to the offending image found its way to my whatsapposphere but this time it was from another uncle, whose approach, to his credit, was a lot more tactful because he first acknowledged its “artistic” value (bless his heart) before telling me that he considers it inappropriate. I again chose to not respond instead waited another couple of days before I eventually did.

During this waiting period I experienced various emotions; of which, to be honest, most of them were really just a variation of anger; and also drafted and redrafted my response to them, all the while leaving the controversial image, right where it was, as my profile picture. After venting to friends, consulting the ancestors and battling with myself over what to do I eventually respectfully responded to both uncles inviting them to a mature and respectful dialogue on the issue of my (exposed) thighs and my identity as a post-colonial/ Afro feminist, Afrocentric Pan-Afrikanist and Afro Spiritualist woman.

Outside of the obvious personal/subjective elements that this whole situation just by its very nature presents, there are greater issues that speak to public politics as well as identity at play. This seemingly minor debate goes beyond my whatsapp profile picture, power struggles within my family and my uber sexy thighs (yes, I have decided that they are uber sexy) but speaks to various problematic issues that exist within our communities, especially in Zimbabwe. It is really because of those issues that I’ve got my knickers all bunched up in an uncomfortable knot and has left me feeling some type of way and I’ll quickly highlight two of them here.

  1. One of my uncles, rather predictably, pulled out the “our culture” card and I felt compelled to inform him that in recent years I have made the conscious decision not to put too much stock in the dictates of our quasi “Afrikan” culture as much of it is grossly contaminated by the influence of our colonisers and their religions. It has, in the main, become so bastardized that much of it, and how we engage with it, makes a mockery of our pre-colonial/”authentic” ancestral heritage. It is true that cultures evolve and some may argue that is what happened with our cultures on the continent as they have done most everywhere else in the world but what people do not take into consideration is the conditions under which our cultures “evolved” i.e. oppression, colonisation and slavery. When the occupiers of our lands came, they observed and judged our societies and the way we lived. They decided that our way of life was wrong, they interpreted it using their own understanding and in certain countries, like SA for example, they decided to codify our laws using this understanding and make them secondary to their own which they deemed superior.

It is worth noting that many of our societies had more “revealing” dress codes in those days and the sexualisation of the black body as we know it today (both female and male) is as a result of the adulteration of our cultures and it has reconfigured our moral compass to align itself with that of the colonial masters, ultimately dividing our communities by not only introducing foreign definitions of masculinity and femininity; creating binaries in societies that traditionally had a lot of grey areas but also by creating new hierarchical structures that are more oppressive and destructive e.g. patriarchy.

  1. My uncle also pointed out that according to our “Afrikan” culture (because we must remember ka that Afrika is a country with one culture, one chief and one donkey and plough) certain parts of the body are not meant for public consumption and true as that may be this is not true to the parts in question here and as I have already highlighted, back in the day, and in very few places today, boobs, thighs and buttocks were the order of the day in our communities’ fashion trends, from the oldest gogo to the youngest little whippersnapper in the village. The female body is sacred. This was true then and this is true today and our people knew that respect of this body was not only the responsibility of the soul in it but also the responsibility of all who gazed upon it and that is why it was not necessary to impose morality and ensure personal safety and bodily integrity by covering it up.

This kind of thinking that informed my family’s intervention plays out almost daily in public spaces where in our cities and villages, women are subjected to being harassed and stripped by mobs of mostly men, for donning clothes considered indecent and you have countries like Uganda that have even criminalised the wearing of mini skirts. The notion that certain parts of the female body being exposed automatically translates to an open invitation for anyone to help themselves to it, be it by physically taking it forcefully, or by hurling verbal abuse at a woman and her body and turning around and placing the responsibility and blame on the victim of their violation not only vindicates but also condones the alarmingly increasing levels of gender based violence in our societies. It also supports the notion that we (women) are minors and that our bodies do not belong to us but instead belong to the men in our communities giving them the go ahead to define and dictate how we should live in them and for the men to do with as they please. What is particularly troubling is that instead of men (and other women) standing with us to fight these heinous forms of oppression and violation which are the ones that actually go against our authentic culture, they endorse them.

The controversial image that is my profile picture when captured and posted as such was never meant to be sexualized and by extension controversial. The focus when captured was not on my thighs but on my feet and the water and it was in this spirit it was posted which begs the question “who is really responsible for any discomfort in this context? The subject of the image or the one engaging with it or both?”

We take pride as a nation in being conservative, despite the fact this conservativeness can be attributed to colonisation gone “right” more than it can be attributed to the preservation of our cultural identity and heritage. It is only in an attempt to justify oppression and exploitation that people pull out the “culture” card and champion and claim it as ours even though most of it really isn’t not to mention that most of us have turned our backs on our ancestors and their ways of knowing and doing and labelled them as evil and/or demonic. The result of this is an increasingly divided community with women being pitted against men and vice versa by false cultural ideals and ill informed western neo liberal (western feminism) ideals simply because as women we fight for our natural and authentic cultural rights to be respected, loved, seen as equals and to be safe in our homes and our communities. Not only will I continue to challenge this foolishness but mina ngizabe ngilokhu ngilahlumlenze wami ngoba thina njengabantu abamunyama, siphila ngengoma njalo ngiyaziqenya ngalokho (I shall continue to dance this way because as children of the soil we live by the drum and I pride myself in this). That is the way of my people.

 

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Afrika’s Lament by Philisile Mudekunye

My lips are the bark battered by wind
My skin the ground cracked by drought
My arms are the wiry sinews that hold up a bridge (to many lands)
My feet as hard as the rock I dig my heels into

Thin, hungry, bleeding from the cracks in my skin

Pitied by passers by
Loathed by the ones I bore
Rejected by those who came with a mind to save me

Battered face, bruised body
Yet I’m soothed when I look in the still pool of water
For the reflection does not capture the turmoil within me
The children in my womb are at war, forgetting they are of the same yolk

In my hands are silver and gold
But my children flee from my embrace
They instead stand afar and watch as strange men come forth to caress and ravage me
Strange men with tongues that can’t even say my name

My garments are tattered,
My hair a tangled mess
Covering a brilliance that even I shy away from
My infinite wisdom hidden from my children,
who are only mesmerised by the stumbling traveller

I am a mother, my arms wide open
Yet my children flee from me
I am a woman, bearing within me untold treasures
But my little ones want none of it

* Philisile Mudekunye is a 20 something year old Swazi-Shona lady, medical doctor by profession, but a student of life. A lover of life, laughter and all things beautiful. “I’m passionate about issues that affect women…I also dream of and pray for the day Africa will sell her treasures to the West only on her own terms.”

© Philisile Mudekunye 2013

 

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Patrice and Laygwan Sharkie In Worship of the River

I can not begin to express just how much I am in love with this song and not simply because it is sung by one of my favourite musicians but because it is sung by men who in their tribute to the Goddess, to woman and to Africa exhibit reverence for our roots. From a Zimbabwean perspective, the introduction venerates the Shona Goddess Dzivaguru or Dziva whom, amongst the Shona, is the Goddess of the river, the earth, the rain clouds and the darkness of the night. Patrice personifies her here and therefore, she not only represents our continent but she represents the Woman:

He went down to the river
And this is what she said:
I look simple yet I’m complex
I do not distract
I have the same color 
As the son I was built of
My shape is beautiful

A little further into the song Laygwan alludes to the inspiration for his name and also gives praise to what I assume is the Gwan of the Bambara of Mali. The Gwan are believed to represent fertility and childless mothers are taken to Gwan societies/ associations to help them conceive. In Mali you will find Gwan sculptures which are usually of a mother and a child and a father:

“lay” was born from the soil
that was planted by the “gwan
I am the son of sons of chamnuka and
Nehanda hrere true kwere kwere african

Patrice aka Patrice Bart-Williams is Sierra Leonine-German decent and is based in Europe while Laygwan Sharkie is a Zimbabwean musician, also based in Europe. No matter how far you may be from the Motherland, it is hard to stop loving her and longing for her, if at all your love was pure and true. In fact, sometimes you find that it takes you leaving to realise this love. Enjoy! 

With love,

From Africa x

 

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