Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Children of the Diaspora: Connecting with ‘Home’ Because it’s Cool? Let’s Discuss.

I’ve recently been thinking about the ways that young Africans living in the Diaspora perceive their parent’s culture and, unlike in the past, I think there has been a shift towards a real celebration of cultural traditions. At secondary school it seemed that those whose parents were from Africa wanted to act like they were from Jamaica rather than show roots in Zimbabwe or Nigeria, which weren’t deemed as ‘cool.’ But today there’s certainly the impression that British-African kids are prouder of their heritage.

Part of me wonders if this promotion of our parents’ home country is down to recent trends that position particular African cultures as exciting, exotic and fashionable. On the surface, ‘ethnic’ style prints are all the rage, there is widespread enjoyment of Afrobeat music and there is a real celebration of afro hair in its natural, kinky state. But has this type of positive focus made African youth outside of the continent more embracing of their parents’ culture, or is this actually just a few industries making external views of our culture the barometer by which we as younger generations are now measuring ourselves and what it is to be African?

Style icon and singer Solange Knowles, rocking her signature natural hair
Style icon and singer Solange Knowles, rocking ankara and her signature natural hair

Whatever it is, perhaps this change could also be down to advances in communications, with modern technology now enabling easier and better quality connections to ‘home,’ and with more airlines offering affordable flights. Perhaps second generation Africans born in the Diaspora are getting to see that the images presented in the media don’t match the whole reality on the ground; that African countries aren’t all disease ridden, poverty stricken and perpetually at war; that in fact, there are a plethora of buzzing, modern and dynamic countries that people are and can be proud to be from.  Or perhaps it’s actually the negative portrayals of a monolithic Africa that have given rise to a reticence to identify with our nations?

If we look to fashion, brands such as Sika, Yevu and Boxing Kitten (that span the UK, Australia and the US) are examples of designers who have chosen to reinterpret and celebrate ‘African’ fabrics. Of course their modern designs resonate with a youth from all over, if not more so with those coming from the Diaspora. But the designers’ choice to focus on a print synonymous with Africa could also prove that growing up outside of the continent doesn’t mean that one can’t also have an appreciation of those cultural influences – that wherever you are from, you can use them as a reference to roots and inspiration.

Chinelo Bally of The Great British Sewing Bee - representing her Nigerian heritage on British TV.
Chinelo Bally of The Great British Sewing Bee – representing her Nigerian heritage on British TV.

But is wearing Ankara, eating Sadza and having natural hair just surface level acceptance of one’s roots for those in the Diaspora? I often wonder what role language plays. Personally, I wish I had been taught Shona growing up and still bear a grudge to this day. I have attempted to learn the language as an adult but it’s not the same as growing up with your parents speaking to you in their mother tongue. My mum migrated from Zimbabwe as a child with her family in the 1960s and following their arrival, my grandparents found that when they spoke to her in Shona she would always reply in English, so they eventually stopped pushing. Perhaps, growing up in an uber-English environment meant that at some level she felt embarrassed by her parent’s culture, which was so different to the British norms she was surrounded by. In the long run this meant my mum wasn’t able to teach me Shona as she didn’t feel confident speaking it.

Whilst discussing this idea – how language is filtered through generations – with a group of West African mature students I teach, an interesting point was raised. Many stated that they had wanted to ensure their children’s English proficiency and were told that speaking their own African languages would make this harder, so in essence, theirs was an attempt to make their children’s transition to the UK easier, not an attempt to deny them of their cultural heritage. Perhaps this style of adjusting into foreign cultures has lead to a backlash of sorts by African youths in the Diaspora – those who are now longing for a way, if not by language, then by aesthetics, to show their connection to their ‘home’ country?

Fuse ODG - a popular Afrobeats artist making waves within the music industry.
Fuse ODG – a popular Afrobeats artist making waves within the music industry

When I think of migrants from countries outside of Africa, for example India, I have the impression that there has been a stronger emphasis on maintaining cultural ties. Languages and traditions appear to have been held onto and seen as an integral part of their identities. Could it be argued that this has been aided by the outside culture’s more ready acceptance of their norms? For example, Saris seem to have been considered beautiful for a longer time than Kente cloth has been deemed cool, and whilst Tikka Masala (admittedly not authentically Indian) is highly popular, I’m not seeing ready-made Fufu being sold at my local supermarket. This makes me wonder why certain elements of African cultures are less readily affirmed, while our music and certain fabrics are now celebrated.

These type of questions are numerous but I look to the future with optimism. It’s great that there has been a movement (literally) of young Africans in the Diaspora choosing to go ‘home’ and Afropolitans experiencing and re-discovering the land of their parents in a new way. Plus, although I’m sure it’s not as straight forward as simply landing on the continent (you can still very much be seen as a Westerner, which can be frustrating if you have gone with the intention of fitting in), the migration back to Africa is an exciting thing to watch.

In any case, I think while the youth growing up in the Diaspora may relate to Africa in a different way, being both of it and not, perhaps it is that balancing act – these unique connections to ‘home’ – which will ultimately contribute to a great and dynamic future and set the real barometer for what it is to be ‘African.’ Whatever else it holds, for me personally, the future needs to include a flight to Zimbabwe.

Shingai Shoniwa - a successful Zimbabwean singer who grew up in the UK
Shingai Shoniwa – a successful Zimbabwean singer who grew up in the UK

Written by Sekai Makoni

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