“How can you be African?” a Swazi acquaintance asked once, asking me to defend my claim to the continent. It did not come as a surprise. We have been taught – by schools and universities, by media, by governments across the world, even in North Africa – that ‘Africa’ really means ‘sub-Saharan Africa,’ and that the North does not belong to the rest of the continent. I previously wrote about this issue of the false separation of “Arab” North and Black South and would like to continue this discussion. The very word “Africa” comes from Tamazight, the indigenous language of North Africa.
In this political cartoon, an Amazigh man looks at various signs and ‘labels’ of North Africa in English, French, and Arabic. In red letters, the entire region is labeled “Tamazgha” using Tifinagh, the script of Tamazight.
I have always considered myself African. I did not used to think there was anything strange about my light skin or my dark frizzy-but-not-frizzy-enough hair. I was Amazigh, African and Mediterranean. These were not contradictions. It was not until later that I realized other Africans, in the U.S. to live or study, did not consider me African. The arguments given are many: those in the North are Arab, they don’t call themselves African, they speak Arabic and they are light-skinned. I could only protest, but I am not Arab, I do call myself African, I don’t speak Arabic and many Amazigh people are dark-skinned!
North African states and dominant institutions have put forth the idea that being Arab is more prestigious than being Amazigh, as Amazigh culture is African and thus considered ‘backwards.’ Media articles like this one question whether Africa has ‘lost’ Libya. To prevent this progressive Arabization in the face of discriminatory regimes, we must seek to revive our cultures and take pride in our heritage. As one recent article noted: “If Morocco continues to deny its connection to Africa, it is because it has been silent for a long time about its Amazigh heritage.”
Amazigh Libya (Source; Amazigh activists in Libya are now fighting for the recognition of their culture and identity in post-Gaddafi Libya. (See also The Amazigh renaissance, CNN, and Libya's Amazigh celebrate their New Year [of 2963] with a concert, BBC)).
Amazigh activists, however, have not been silent about their ideas of the connection between the North and the rest of Africa. The Algerian singer Amazigh Kateb put forth strong ideas about African identity – Africanité – in a 2010 interview with Alice Mutasa (available in both French and English). Amazigh explains the basis of his song Africain:
I think there are more and more people who are concerned with this idea of ‘Africanité’… African nations have a common denominator in terms of our history – it’s a history of slavery, colonialism – unfortunately these are negative elements, but often countries and people who have been dominated, colonised, have taken elements from the coloniser to re-invent their country… We are in the process of constructing a ‘new Africa’, although we’re far from achieving this goal, because we still live within the colonial geography; we’re still in the middle of wars which aren’t really historically African, but which were imported by colonialism, by the tensions created by colonial frontiers…Today, if we want to really create a new ‘African identity’, we have to really search for the essence of this ‘Africanité’; like in the text of ‘Africain’ – ‘every day when the sun sets we have to create fire’
Kateb’s other comments regarding African identity, colonization and the West are well worth reading. His own African identity comes through clearly, demonstrating his devotion to the continent and the development of a ‘new Africa’ that African people ourselves re-invent. This philosophy, along with Kateb’s music, can serve as an inspiration to young people beyond just the North, across the African continent and African diaspora.
Amazigh Kateb, son of the Amazigh writer Kateb Yacine, sings “Africain” from his 2009 album Marchez Noir.
Academics, too, have promoted the separation of the North from the ‘rest’ of Africa. Yoruba scholar Oyèrónké Oyewùmí says, “Qualifications such as North Africa or Arab Africa or even white Africans should be introduced and used to describe other groups that have come much later to share a continent which in origin is associated with people of a darker pigmentation.” Oyewùmí does not mention that the Imazighen of North Africa are indigenous Africans, not Arabs or a foreign group that arrived later to “share” the continent. Even Frantz Fanon, revolutionary of North African “decolonization,” began Toward the African Revolution with a reiterated equivocation: North Africa is Arab. Fanon’s insightful analysis of “native” and “colonial” is complicated by the fact that he did not even recognize the existence of the indigenous people of North Africa, instead supporting the aims of Arab colonizers. In contrast, Amazigh Kateb is a true decolonial African leader in that he understands the dynamics of colonizer-colonized in North Africa and seeks to move forward in creating a new Africanité and a new Africa.
I do not wish to address the question of whether Afrikaners or other settler populations ought to be called “African,” nor the complex issue of internal colonization by one African group in another’s land. Imazighen are not an external group and the nation Tamazgha is our indigenous homeland, spanning the entirety of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Western Sahara, Azawad, the Canary Islands and large parts of Mauritania, Niger and Egypt. There are, in addition to Imazighen, other indigenous ethnic groups in North Africa, such as the Nubian and Beja people. They, too, have struggled against Arabization and Arab hegemony in Sudan and Egypt.
A Nubian woman from southern Egypt. (Photo credit: carlosvasconcelos40)
It is frustrating for an African to have to fight for recognition in African cultural events or communities, feeling that one have to prove ones ‘African-ness.’ Imagine if you had to do the same. Yet I feel compelled to do so: if not African, what am I? The North does not belong to the Middle East, and certainly not to Europe. As the Senegalese politician and intellectual Léopold Senghor comparing Amazighité to Négritude, said, “We must once again touch on cultural identity and establish its roots in African civilizations, in négritude and 'berberitude.'”
As a single voice from the continent: I am African. I am Amazigh. In the words of the great Amazigh writer Kateb Yacine, Africa has not yet lost its North.