By Yasmin Egala
I have always considered myself African, regardless of being raised and living in the UK. Aside from being able to speak an African language, I adhere to ‘African traditions’ such as respecting elders and cherish values that involve strong family ties and the extended family network. I have numerous ‘uncles’, ‘aunties’, and ‘cousins’ who are not blood related, but are family nonetheless.
My attachment to Africa was maintained by yearly trips to Ghana, West Africa. Trips where I would happily say goodbye to London weather and welcome much-needed Ghanaian sunshine. I was always filled with excitement during the run up to my trips back home. And such was the case as I prepared for my first trip to the motherland following my spiritual awakening from born to conscious Muslim.
On that trip in December 2006, I stepped off the plane and felt the hot African air stroke my face. ‘Ah I was home!’ I couldn’t wait to be overfed by relatives and enjoy the attention that came with visiting from the West. As I walked through immigration, it was a different experience; one I had never encountered. I caught sneaky stares and curious looks; not even my wide smile and polite manners made them turn away. It took me a few minutes to realise what was happening. It finally dawned on me: they were gawking at my Islamic clothing. My stomach turned. I had a lingering feeling that this trip back home was going to be very different.
Not a single day passed during those two weeks when I wasn’t asked, “Where are you from?”; “Are you visiting Ghana for the first time?”; “Are you an Arab?” At first, I laughed and replied enthusiastically, “I’m Ghanaian like you!” As the days went by, I took offence and became annoyed by such questions. What a major blow to my African identity! These instances became regular, and I slowly lost my desire to convince people I was a ‘real Ghanaian’ or even an African. My people no longer recognised me. Some were even bold enough to ask me why an African would choose to dress like an Arab. People dropped hints of ‘selling out’ my culture, as though I had turned my back on my heritage. I was completely caught off guard. The warm feeling of being home faded, and I instantly felt like a foreigner.
I was constantly explaining my reason for dressing the way I did even amongst some Muslims. Patriotic family members warned me not to imitate an Arab. I was to remember I am an African first and foremost, and never to ‘sellout’ my roots. My much-loved trips to restaurants and beauty salons turned into full-blown religious debates when I said I was Ghanaian. I was asked if I was an African or Muslim – I had to choose to be one or the other.
Feelings of rejection started to brew, and I felt frustrated. I got defensive in my attempt to explain my authenticity as an African, but my words fell on deaf ears. Devastated, I stopped answering questions and simply wanted to leave the land I had always called home. I never imagined being scorned by my own.
I returned to the UK confused and questioning my identity. Was I really selling out my heritage? Who could I call ‘my people’? I distanced myself from the Ghanaian community and continued to surround myself with practicing Muslims, but my eyes opened to a new reality: subtle racial prejudices. Aspects of my cultural identity were often questioned and wrongly labelled as contradictory to Islam. Social exclusions based on ethnicity and race at events and gatherings were also evident. Products of the Arab culture were accepted with an ultimate dream to aspire to live in Arab lands; yet the struggles of Muslims from other ethnic groups were brushed under the carpet. It seemed the Islamic ideal was confused with Arab culture.
To guard my Islamic identity, I felt I had to downplay my African heritage in order to fit in or be welcomed. Over time, I became tired of the blatant privilege I witnessed and being told to embrace products of other cultures I was not comfortable with.
Deep down, I was still proud of my African heritage, food, and the good manners it encouraged. I craved to find a practicing African community to be part of, and briefly met some African Muslims like myself. And just when I thought I’d found my place, I faced a different dilemma: their constant need to shun Arab culture all together and be ‘more African’. Pro-Africans were uncomfortable with my choice of clothing since dark-coloured clothing traditionally represents sorrow, evil, and pain. The endless reminders that my African identity should supersede my Islamic identity were disturbing. I was encouraged to dress in a way that makes me identifiable as an African before anything else.
I found myself suppressing my roots the stronger I became in my faith, particularly because I didn’t know how to balance religion with heritage. I wanted to be comfortable in an identity that represented who I was: a proud African faithful to Islam. Could I successfully balance my African heritage with my spiritual path?
(Picture source: pinterest.com)