As we explore the theme of Identity here at Ezibota this quarter, I am struck by how much of a recurring theme this has been in my past posts. Having and recognising a sense of identity determines how we choose to live our lives. As human beings, we are constantly faced with the question of who we are, whether it is in relation to nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, profession, how we talk, how we wear our hair, how we dress, etc. It is a recurring, challenging, and important part of what makes us human. Recurring in the fact that we constantly have to reinvent, reconsider and review who we are and the values that we stand for. Challenging in that the questions that we ask ourselves as a conscious internal examination are not always easily answered and require truly deep self-assessments. And important because life is an arguably empty shell without the conviction that having a stedfast sense of identity gives us.

In my very first post for Ezibota, I explored the dynamics of my own name and how none of them were truly exclusive to me and what this has meant for my understanding and appreciation of self. Recently in the Ezibota contributors’ Whatsapp group, we had an insightful discussion on the complexities and emotions attached to our names as Africans. Several of us have European or otherwise non-African names which we are primarily known by and answer to.

Our names do not only form a part of our identity, they are used to characterise us and construct identifiers that are uniquely associated with our personalities, mannerisms, and our general ways of doing things. Our identities show up through our names when someone does something that is very similar to behavior often attributed to us. For instance, “That is such a Beulah thing to say,” or “That is a Wasiu-ism.” More familiar uses of what I describe are found in words like, Darwinism, Shakespearean, Victorian and so on.

This proves how much power there is in a name; our achievements live on through our names. So if we all mean to leave a mark on the world, what does it mean for our identity when our achievements will not be associated with an African name, which will point back to African excellence, but rather to generic European names. In practical terms, what would it mean for me if I wrote an amazing book that sells across the world, but the name people associate with it is Lambert instead of Kuuku or Yeboah which point to my identity as a Ghanaian.

This explains the perhaps unfounded guilt some Africans, myself included, when they look at themselves and see a favouring of inauthentic names and identities. In a globalised world, I suppose it is only natural that identifiers such as names would become more fluid. There are people who have lived and died without setting foot on African soil but who have strong African names. Does this make them inauthentic? And yet, this sense of guilt permeates  so many facets of the African identity and points to the feelings associated with a loss of identity. It is like losing an important tribal heirloom. Some heirlooms like the Ashanti Golden Stool are said to contain the very soul of the Ashanti Kingdom/people. So imagine what losing it would mean. Or more aptly, imagine trading it for animal skin “thrones” of some Northern Ghanaian tribes or European style thrones; not even globalisation could explain away such a loss. And so while it is a very different example from a name, one can see and appreciate where the guilt comes from. 

For example, in part 1 of my post on African Genealogies, I explore this concept through the lens of the Englishness of my Grandfather and the trickle down effect this has had on the identities of generations that have followed him. He was well studied and proficient in writing/speaking English in a time when this was not the norm. I think my reflection on this was captured when I wrote:

“In as much as I feel a sense of pride in reading the English writings of my grandfather, I also have to ask myself, what pride can one hold in the mastering of a learned tongue, when with the passing of each generation, one’s own mother tongue has faded in the same measure as the learned one has grown.”

Thus, we are encumbered by that sense of guilt which says; our languages are diluted, our names are being replaced and we favour foreign sensibilities across the cultural spectrum. No matter how inadvertent these occurrences might be, and however debatable the argument of inauthenticity is in relation to our names and identities, our generation is waking up to the valid questions therein and the journey to discover corresponding answers.

But on a brighter note, even the most watered down facets of our identities as Africans remain resilient. This really comes through in my post Looking for Kwaku Anansi. In this post I explored the resilience of our stories and folktales as Africans and how in spite of much dilution over time and distance they organically reengineer themselves to fit new and modern circumstances. I use the character of Kwaku Anansi who originated from Ashanti folklore as a case study and explored how in spite of the passage of time, his name and stories live on in black cultures across the world today!

In many ways, the story of Africa itself and its people is the greatest ever told and so it stands to reason to believe that we are not going anywhere. We cannot be erased. And so as no individual is one thing, no African is a single thing.

While our names might be the most overt markers of our identity, the beauty of Africanness and an inherent sense of authentic identity is not in being able to carve out strict definitions of it. It is in being able to constantly rediscover what it means for our non-static lives.

Lambert Akwa
Lambert is a Communications Specialist and writer based in Accra, Ghana. He lived in the United Kingdom for five years studying Journalism and Publishing at Middlesex University.
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4 Comments on "African Identity: Naming our Place in the World"

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Nung Mabelle
Sometime ago I shared my self-view about identity and name in this video: Fast forward to now, I agree with @Deana’s comment “identity is similar to social constructs” and “it seems to evolve…change over time.” Growing up, I wore a lot of identities that were socially given to me. E.g. In high school it was “very smart,” African, quiet girl because I moved to a non-African country and took advanced classes. It’s only midway through college that I really begun to identify myself without looking through the eyes of those around me. I do think we have dual identities… Read more »
Deana Bolumbu
As I read your writing as as we’ve been on this topic of identity I’ve been thinking more of identity as ‘perceived’ vs ‘actual’ – have you thought about this in any way? I was thinking about it from a there is a higher being sense. It seems as though identity is similar to social constructs (that although not false are people created)…I was thinking of identity as you are who you think you are – if today I decided that I am an astronaut – I may not appear like one today, but I could lean into attributes that… Read more »

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