There was an ancient city called Great Zimbabwe built by the Shona people of southern Africa created between 1100 and 1600 AD.
There’s not much left of the city, but the remnants are quite spectacular. Whenever I think about them, I have to admit, my lips part into a smile.
Take the mystical beauty of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, an African Christian heritage that dates back to the 4th century; the resilient republicanism of the culture of Igbo people; the deep regard for matriarchy among the Asante and their beloved Queen Mothers; the enchanting traditions of poetry from the Acholi and Somali people; or the glorious gracefulness and strength of the Wolof people’s sabar dance…when I think of all this, my heart swells with pride.
And I constantly hope for a more united Africa. So, yes, I am a Pan-Africanist. Any day, any time.
Pan-Africanism is an enduring hope and appreciation for the continent, the people of it and what it can offer. With 54 countries, Africa is a vast land mass — 11.7 million square miles — that can contain the United States, China, India and the whole of Eastern Europe.
But even so, there is so much shared history between the people of the continent. For centuries, people in Africa migrated across the land, sharing cultures, exchanging ideas, trading with one another. There were wars and there was peace. As a Pan-Africanist, I want to see more peace.
Pan-Africanism. Sounds deep, right?
Well, let me explain what Pan-Africanism is not nor should be.
Pan-Africanism should not romanticize pre-colonial Africa. Times were not blissfully peachy back then, and everyone was not a king or queen. Those kings and queens had servants and some of those servants were maltreated or buried alive alongside the king or queen. In southern Nigeria, some people practiced ritual infanticide- killing twin babies because twin babies were considered evil. There was a lot going on. Like any other place in the world, civilizations in Africa had to evolve and through enlightenment and recognition of human rights, many of those civilizations left behind brutal or discriminatory practices.
Pan-Africanism is not glorifying blackness as a divine or magical race. It is not black supremacy.
Pan-Africanism is not about watering down or ignoring the unique diversity of African peoples in order to prop up simplistic notions of “African ethnicity,” “African culture” or an “African story.” Because those things just don’t exist.
Pan-Africanism is not glossing over the gaps and failures of today’s African governments.
Now, let me explain what Pan-Africanism is.
It’s an ideology that sprung up as a recognized sociopolitical school of thought in the late 1800s as a reaction against European colonization in Africa. In America, Pan-Africanism exemplified an awakened pride in an identity beyond “slave” or “descendent of slave” because for such a long time, that’s how many African-Americans (black people in America) saw themselves and were made to see themselves: as descendants of slaves. But Pan-Africanism came along with a message that empowered black people in America (including the ones in South America, the Caribbean and Europe) to acknowledge, for the first time, that they had a history before the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
“Slavery does not define me. I know who I am and where I come from,” is what Pan-Africanism meant to many black people outside of Africa.
With that in mind, Pan-Africanists sought to foster unity between indigenous people and nations in Africa. Some looked to Africa as a homeland, a sanctuary to escape the enduring racism in the New World. Some even made plans to return to Africa, thus you had the Back-to-Africa movement.
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On the continent of Africa, Pan-Africanism paved the way for strategic alliances that African leaders could tap into to break away from European colonialism or resist oppression and interference from Western nations. It was a way for Africans to band as brothers and sisters and work towards a common goal of advancing their communities.
Through Pan-Africanism, Africans began to emphasize and even celebrate what they had in common with one another. Africa is incredibly diverse. There are somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000 languages spoken on the continent (compare that to Europe’s more than 200) and more than 3,000 ethnic groups!
It’s the most genetically diverse continent in the world. That contributes to the varied physical differences in height, skin tone, body structure and hair type that exist among Africans. To get a better understanding of the genetic diversity there, you have to realize that Africans can have more in common, genetically, with Eurasians, than with other Africans.
With all that cultural, linguistic, phenotypic and genetic diversity, it would not be surprising for differences to rise and bring about tension. But Pan-Africanists try to say hey, our diversity doesn’t have to divide us. It can actually bring us together.
And that is why I will forever be a Pan-Africanist. I am amazed, not daunted, by the diversity of the oldest human inhabited land.
Pan-Africanism enables me, as a Nigerian, to say, “Oh cool! You’re from Namibia? Tell me more about your country, your food, your history.” Or, “Hmmm, let me visit North Africa because I’ve never been to that part of Africa” Or, “You’re welcome to my country, sister. You’re always welcome, brother.” So, it’s about opening your arms to others, not shunning them or spewing xenophobic rhetoric like, “they’re not like us” or “they’re taking our jobs.”
There are different ways to express Pan-Africanism just as there are different configurations of it. One configuration envisions a United States of Africa where all the existing countries on the continent merge into one powerhouse mega country. Another envisions strong regions: West Africa, South Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, North Africa. Another advocates for a more influential African Union, more intra-continental trade and the free movement of goods and people (remove passport restrictions, embargoes and tariffs). There’s a whole lot to think about but the ultimate goal shared by all the Pan-African schools of thought is peace and stability in Africa.
Can the individual countries of Africa become respected players in the international arena? Well, the global power shift is changing. By 2050, the United States will no longer be the third most populated country in the world. That title will go to Nigeria. African countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Egypt and Tanzania all have booming populations. Now what those governments intend to do with all that human capital, who knows. The higher population could be a blessing or a liability if it’s not properly managed.
We don’t hear much about Pan-Africanism today from an intellectual perspective. Back then, we heard expressions of romantic Pan-Africanistic visions in the music of Peter Tosh, Sonny Okosun, Fela Kuti, Bob Marley and my all-time favorite music artist Miriam Makeba AKA Mama Africa. We read it in the writings of Marcus Garvey, Walter Rodney, W.E.B. Dubois and Malcolm X. We heard it in speeches from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah. We saw it in the choreography of Baba Chuck Davis, Urban Bush Women and Garth Fagan.
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Pan-Africanism is still celebrated these days. Beyoncé has been referencing Pan-Africanist imagery in her music and videos in the last few years. Some of it is on full display in her visual album Black Is King (even though it’s saturated with cliché imagery).
The Nigerian afrobeats music artist Burna Boy dazzles in Pan-Africanist hues. In an interview one time, he said something like he doesn’t even see the need to correct people who erroneously say Africa is a country, because he actually wants to see Africa as one united country.
The 2018 Black Panther film was a Pan-Africanist vision. Wakanda symbolized the dream of a powerful, technologically-advanced African state where people of different ethnicities and expertise come together to fortify a nation.
Comedian Trevor Noah definitely exudes a Pan-Africanist aura, as well, using his platform to invite Africans (such as Lupita Nyong’o, Burna Boy and Chimamanda Adichie) on for candid conversations, to challenge stereotypes and amplify positive stories around Africans.
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So, you see, there are myriad expressions of Pan-Africanism.
At the end of the day, it’s about supporting holistic and ethical ways to improve the quality of life for black people around the world and for the millions of people who call Africa home. Because Africans are part of the global community and a more peaceful, sustainable Africa contributes to a better world.
That is Pan-Africanism.
by Chika Oduah