In Search of Africans

In Search of Africans


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



For an American audience, black as understood in African American parlance does not help

 us to understand the nationality dynamics of Darfur. Africans are first and foremost

a historical and cultural group. They identify themselves as such. Most are black



In Search of Africans

By Kwesi Kwaa Prah


When he comes to the issue of who is an African, [Mahmood] Mamdani  shifts into post-modernist over-drive and writes that,

‘Africa’, in this context, was a subaltern identity that also had the potential of being either exclusive or inclusive. The two meanings were not only contradictory but came from the experience of two different insurgencies.  

The inclusive meaning was more political than racial or even cultural (linguistic), in the sense that an ‘African’ was anyone determined to make a future within Africa. It was pioneered by John Garang, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south, as a way of holding together the New Sudan he hoped to see. In  contrast, its exclusive meaning came in two versions, one hard (racial) and the other soft (linguistic)—‘African’ as Bantu and ‘African’ as the identity of anyone who spoke a language indigenous to Africa.

The racial meaning came to take a strong hold in both the counter-insurgency and the insurgency in Darfur. The Save Darfur campaign’s characterization of the violence was not one-sided and the contest over the meaning of ‘Arab’ and ‘African’: a contest that was critical precisely because it was ultimately about who belonged and who did not in the political community called Sudan. The depoliticization, naturalization and, ultimately, demonization of the notion ‘Arab’, as against ‘African’, has been the deadliest effect, whether intended or not, of the Save Darfur campaign.

Mamdami must not underestimate the power and relevance of language as an identification reference point. Language is a central feature of most cultures. Arguably, it is the most crucial feature and at the same time, one of the principal distinguishing features of homo sapiens as a culture creating animal. It is through language that we relate societally, through language we transact our social lives.

I personally knew John Garang, for many years. Indeed, I spoke to him on the phone, long distance, about a month before his very strange death. Nowhere does he define who an African is, in the political terms Mamdani writes about. Garang was always a proud Dinka from Bor.

Mamdani’s so-called inclusive definition of an African as “anyone determined to make a future within Africa” is most perplexing. When I read this definition to an intern in the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS), Cape Town, Nana Kofi Appiah, his immediate and hilarious response was that this is an invitation for the pillagers of Africa.

Does this sort of idea apply to other people in other parts of the world? Does a similar formulation apply to Chinese, Indians, Arabs or Europeans? If I arrive in China or India with a wish to make a future in these places, do I, on the basis of my wishes, become Chinese or Indian? Cecil Rhoses, Verwoerd, Ian Smith were are all people who were “determined to make a future within Africa,” were they Africans? I dare say they never even wished to be so regarded. Mamdani’s understanding of the so-called inclusive definition of an Africa makes Africaness very cheap. I say, ‘if everybody is an African, then nobody is an African.”

We all know that, by appearance and looks you cannot tell a Sunni from a Shia, Northern Irish Protestant from a Catholic, a Palestinian from and Israeli, a Pakistani from an Indian, or numerous such examples. Black, in Darfur, does not really help us to identify an Arab from an African. The difference is more subtle and decisive. Africans are attached to more eclectic varieties of Islam than Arabs, they are more likely to be cultivators than pastoralists, and they identify themselves as Africans and speak more African languages. They form the overwhelming majority of the population.

For an American audience, black as understood in African American parlance does not help us to understand the nationality dynamics of Darfur. Africans are first and foremost a historical and cultural group. They identify themselves as such. Most are black, but there are blacks who are not African. From South India through Sri Lanka to Melanesia many such groups are to be found.

Years ago, I argued elsewhere that; “The racial definition of an African is flawed. It is unscientific and hence untenable. No serious mind today would use the race concept in any way except as an instrument for poetic imagery. What I am saying is that no group of people has been ‘pure’ from time immemorial. Notions of purity belong to the language of fascists and the rubbish-bin of science. But before my observations are misunderstood let me take the argument in another direction. Most Africans are black, but not all Africans are black, and not all blacks have African cultural and historical roots.”

Additionally, one must not forget that Arabization and Arabism for Africans represent instruments of thraldom in a tradition, which precedes Western colonialism by a millennium.

Source: Kwesi Kwaa Prah. “The Politics of Apologetics; Genocide Denial, Darfur Version.” CASAS, Capetown. Pambazuka.

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posted 31 March 2008




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