The Afropolitan Youth? The albatross around Africa’s neck

I call myself an Afropolitan. I am unapologetic and unwavering in the description of my identity, despite its complex interpretations to different people.

April 9th, 2015

“What distinguishes this lot and its like (in the West and at home) is a willingness to complicate Africa – namely, to engage with, critique, and celebrate the parts of Africa that mean most to them. Perhaps what most typifies the Afropolitan consciousness is the refusal to oversimplify; the effort to understand what is ailing in Africa alongside the desire to honor what is wonderful, unique. Rather than essentialising the geographical entity, we seek to comprehend the cultural complexity; to honor the intellectual and spiritual legacy; and to sustain our parents’ cultures.”

I call myself an Afropolitan. I am unapologetic and unwavering in the description of my identity, despite its complex interpretations to different people.

Taiye Selasi- from Bye Bye Barbar

I am a young Sierra Leonean woman, rooted in her culture and grounded in the traditional values that was a part of her upbringing-a Krio woman, with a never-ending thirst to explore the world. Does this claim of identity come with its complexities? It does-the awareness of the privilege that comes with it, the question of the roles and “obligations” which I have to my home country, as well as to what truly constitutes being an Afropolitan in the first place. Being an Afropolitan comes with a sense of feeling both grounded and liberated. Grounded in the sense that I always have “home” to go back to…eat fufu, cook pepper soup, and listen to Krio folktales from my parents. Liberated in the sense that I feel that “home” is relative and forms into whatever I shape it into, using fragments of my Krio culture, fusing and meshing them with whatever I encounter during my travels. However, this straddling between home and foreign places, sometimes leaves me questioning whether I have an obligation of citizenry to always “go back” physically, and contribute towards making my country a better place for my generation. I thought seriously about this during my time in Brazil, where I had spent four months on a semester abroad program that focused on race, and human rights. Throughout the past four months, I had explored the problems regarding race, public health and human rights that affected Brazil. Many times during the program, I had wondered how much poverty and corruption in Brazil was very similar to what I saw in Sierra Leone. Sometimes when we (students in the program) were asked to offer suggestions on how to make an ongoing situation better, I would think to myself, “but what about back home?”.

My mind went back to all the problems about my country that constantly frustrated me and that defines my bitter sweet relationship with Sierra Leone-an undying love for my country, but an also exasperation with structures and systems that either do not work well…or do not work at all. Many times, I have explored the question of how much I can legitimately complain as an African youth…if I am not on ground to help solve the problems. And so many times I have told myself that the thirst for change is not tied to a geographical location, and that I can still make an impact from the diaspora in my own way, regardless of whether I am in West Africa or not.

These mind battles have led to conversations with my fellow West African youths in the diaspora as well, as to what exactly is our role as change makers in our respective countries. The reality of youth unemployment and limited opportunities in Sierra Leone is scary, but this also complements the boundless spaces for innovation, creativity and inventing new opportunities, by and for young people.

The gaps in the government, business, and education sectors, create opportunities that youth, both in the diaspora and at home can take advantage of and turn into entrepreneurial and social ventures. Africa has the youngest population in the world, with a whopping 200 million people aged 15 to 24 years of age living in sub-Saharan Africa. This statistic also goes hand in hand with the fact that the youth account for 60% of Africa’s unemployment rate. So what do these startling statistics say about the status of Africa’s youth? The answer is simple-the youth have the capacity to change the tide of Africa’s development growth and create a consistent upward surge of innovation, entrepreneurship and growth in all aspects.

However, the above statistics are primarily reflections of African youths living on the continent in Africa, and does not necessarily include African youth who have left the continent either for studies in the East and West, or who have simply migrated, constructing the standing problem of “brain drain”. So what can West African youths living in the diaspora offer to their “home”? How can they contribute on different levels to the tide of economic and social change that has been sweeping Africa? Moreover, the significant but controversial question…whether or not they obliged to be geographically located on the African continent to help make that happen. 

I choose to be an optimist about the Afropolitan youth’s role in development and social change back home. I realize  that even though it is wrong to hold someone under an obligation to “go back”, there does seem to be a collective energy from young West Africans in the diaspora to give back to their countries to help. The issue of “Brain drain” is indeed created out of lack of opportunities for youth and the startlingly high levels of youth unemployment, structures that do not cater toward youth development. However, the Brain drain also seems to sharpen the desperate need for youth in the diaspora to play their part in ventures that will enhance and improve development in their countries, irrespective of where they are.

African Youth in the diaspora, whether they are Afropolitan or not, are making different strides in their own way, to drive change, in many ways that might not seem conventional. Some are involved in filmmaking –documenting stories of African immigrants in new “homes”, others are involved in entrepreneurial ventures that sell African artisans works in the diaspora, while others write about the Africa they know, and these are published in newspapers all over the world, for example, Regina Jane Jere-Malanda, editor of New African Woman magazine.

In exploring my identity as an Afropolitan youth, I have broadened my mind to so many levels of understanding how geography, nostalgia, and the drive for change, are not just homogenous ideas, they are different for many young Africans who live in the diaspora. For a young Ghanaian woman who has lived in the U.S all her life, driving change might mean going back “home” to start a business. On the other hand, driving and contributing to change might also mean creating an online magazine that focuses solely on African stories, even though the Senegalese Editor is based in France. 

For African youth in the diaspora, there is indeed an important role for them to play in moving their countries forward. Should this limit them from exploring the things that might lead to an Afropolitan identity? I do not think so. No one should be obliged to be physically tied to a geographic location of “home” in order to make change happen. As Taiye Selasi aptly put it, we can “engage, critique, and celebrate” Africa as African youth, regardless of where we are.

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