Why Afropolitanism?

Let us begin then by considering the terms ‘Africa’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’, which together make up Afropolitanism. 

Author

April 7th, 2015

“We would like you to write a sort of Afropolitanism 101,” the editors of the article you behold wrote to me. My reaction, apart from knowing that I indeed wanted to contribute to the edition, was how on earth does one write a ‘101’ about something (a theoretical framework?) as undefined as Afropolitanism is? How do you break down an idea that is still open-ended? Having mulled over it, I came to the conclusion that the best way to introduce Afropolitanism would be to share why I think it is a significant theory. Because to be clear: I view Afropolitanism as a theory rather than as an identity, label or movement, which it might also be seen as.

Let us begin then by considering the terms ‘Africa’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’, which together make up Afropolitanism. 

The origins of the term Africa are uncertain and disputed. Some claim that its origins are Latin and that the Romans used it to describe Tunisia before gradually applying it to describe the entire continent. Others claim that the term in fact originates from the Amazigh who called their country (Tunisia) Ifriqiya. These are just two of many assumptions about the etymology of the term. What is relevant here is not so much the origin of the term (mentioning only for context) but what it has come to represent. The term ‘Africa’ has come to be characterised by its palpability namely: it does not simply exist as an abstract outline in the mind’s eye as other continents tend to do, but rather it is a visual object, symbolically depicted on t-shirts, earrings, tattoos, posters, you name it.  

Cosmopolitanism dates to the Cynics of 4th century BC and to Diogenys in particular, the ancient Greek philosopher who coined the expression. Diogenys’s brainchild was that people did not simply belong to one single community, as was commonly assumed at the time. Rather, he believed that to be a citizen of a civilised community was to be a citizen of both the “cosmos” and the “polis” – meaning the world and the city.  The interpretation of cosmopolitanism was – and continues to be – a matter of vigorous debate but the key idea has remained the same since Diogenys’s time: difference enriches both the society and the individual if embraced and encouraged; hybridity is an opportunity for growth. As the Turkish writer Elif Shafak writes in a compassionate essay about the urgency of cosmopolitanism in her country, “Rather than reducing human beings to a single label, cosmopolitanism insists on the reality of blended selfhoods.” Mind you, as Shafak goes on to say, “Being a cosmopolite requires less hybridity than it means the appreciation of hybridity. It requires consciousness instead of blood and genes. [Emphases mine.] Does having a Jamaican father and a French mother automatically make one a cosmopolitan?” she asks, “no…Living in Brooklyn or Kreuzberg does not render one a cosmopolitan. If there is no mental/moral bridge between ‘I’ and ‘humanity’, there is no real cosmopolitanism.”

Afropolitans then, that is, enthusiasts of Afropolitanism, view it as a bridge between the ‘I’, ’Humanity’, and, ‘Africa’. In “Bye Bye Babar”, the piece in where Taiye Selasi coined the term Afropolitan, she wrote, “Afropolitans are not citizens, but Africans of the world”. But, is there a need to distinguish an African of the world from a citizen of the world? More importantly, is there any value in it?

There are no clear-cut answers to these questions. However, what is clear is that theories that arise simply for the sake of creating something new and modern rarely serve much use. Rather, it is those theories that describe something that already exists but which has not yet been named that are valuable. And Afropolitanism indeed describes something – a worldview – which not only exists and has not yet been named, but which is also a key part of African history. African cosmopolitanism is not a new phenomenon. In fact, Africa, with its vast histories of migrations, dispersal and cross-regional interactions, however burdensome, has some of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. From Accra to Luanda to Zanzibar, it is not the presence of Europeans that makes these cities cosmopolitan but rather the presence, and coexistence, of Africans from other parts of the continent as well as migrants from Asia, the Middle East and many other places. As Shafak says, “cosmopolitanism is not a foreign idea imported to the non-Western world”. 

Afropolitanism has, however, been accused of indeed being simply about something new and modern. Critics argue that Afropolitanism springs out of elitist, western and neoliberalist influenced African discourses. It has been declared a ‘vacuous and modish idea’ focused on identity to the detriment of social structures. Particularly importantly, critics have highlighted that not all Africans live in urban, cosmopolitan cities, and that in fact; urbanism is sometimes the cause of displacement, conflict and poverty in Africa. Even those who agree with Afropolitanism in principle have disagreed about the possibility of applying its insights to real change and progress.

 These concerns ought to be taken seriously. Derived of cosmopolitanism, Afropolitanism is linked to urban life and social class, which is a critical, oft-debilitating factor in shaping the experiences of Africans. To mould the theory, so that it can indeed be of potential value, its deficiencies must be placed at the forefront of the discussion. Dialogues ought to consider issues such as the relationship between individuality and community in the light of Afropolitanism; the prominence of global brands in Africa; whether an Afropolitan ethos could help create a thriving job sector or measurable tools to aid wealth distribution. Moreover, could its youthfulness and promise be used to reform education, can Afropolitanism provide impetus to modernise traditions that reinforce class or gender hierarchies. Also, as a theory by Africans about Africans, can Afropolitanism form a useful tool to critique the dominance of western backed initiatives without falling into the unattractive blindspot of hypocrisy. Above all, considering its roots in fellow citizenship, could Afropolitanism be an aid to solving conflicts and inequality? Basically, discussions should inquire if Afropolitanism offers a vocabulary which can help in creating a self-reliant Africa, which realises its economic, social and cultural potential simultaneously.

Paradoxically, it is precisely the ambiguity of Afropolitanism that gives it appeal. The tensions that exist in African society also exist in Afropolitanism. On the one hand, a progressive wave of socio-political, economic and cultural change is moving over the continent. Yet also, for every progress made, there is a concurrent concern: poverty, fundamentalism, gender inequality are growing in some parts of the continent. Afropolitanism, with its connections to technology, architecture, commerce, culture and art, provides a language for twenty-first century decolonization and progress. As Simon Gikandi argues in Negotiating Afropolitanism, “Afropolitanism constitutes a significant attempt to rethink African knowledge outside of the trope of crisis.” Indeed, by placing Africa at the centre of cosmopolitanism, Afropolitanism enables us to frame the critical discussions of our times (globalisation, modernity, development, culture, identity…) from a position of agency. However, Afropolitanism also exposes the inequalities and tensions that characterise our times by itself being marked by the very same problems and inequalities.  

 There is no doubt in my mind that both the opportunities and tensions of the present African moment form part of an urgent discussion. Afropolitanism, as a theoretical outlook with remarkable similarities to the African zeitgeist, presents in my view a fitting language with which that discussion can be held. However, such a dialogue should be driven by Africans themselves and it should not aim to pin down exactly what Afropolitanism is. In other words, a ‘101’ on Afropolitanism will hopefully never be written! As Kwame Appiah writes in his book about cosmopolitanism with the eponymous title, “cosmopolitanism is not the name of the solution but of the challenge”. The same extends to Afropolitanism.

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