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How can Africans on the continent and in the diaspora find common ground and collaborate?

I have to confess, where African and diaspora relations are concerned, I thought that it would be simpler to frame my thoughts and present them than the task has proven to be. I have been – in a word – naïve. There is nothing simple about the factors that separate or, conversely, bind people of African descent in the least. The numerous conversations I’ve either participated in or witnessed have borne this out.

First of all, one has to account for the fact that people of African descent in the diaspora are not even unified around what to call themselves. Names and verbal identifiers have power, something that virtually every African society recognizes, understands, and takes pains to execute with meaning and honor. In the same way, Black people in the diaspora are very conscious of what to call themselves as a group. Some within this microcosm of the African family are comfortable with being identified as “African American,” while others rebuff the label, stating that they are simply “Black.”

The latter group has explained that it is because they feel no connection to Africa, other than the awareness that someone in their varied genetic past was brought to America as a slave, ostensibly. For diasporans living in England, the lines to their African descent are usually easier to draw because of the nature of slavery in the UK and the migratory patterns of diasporans emigrating from the Caribbean and African nations in the Commonwealth and the colonies. If the average diasporan, whether they are recent immigrants or have been separated from the continent for several generations, do not feel a connection to the continent and vice versa, how can there be any hope for collaboration between the two groups? The answer lies in a remnant.

The second obstacle blocking cooperation between the diaspora and the continent is an unwillingness to, or a fear of, having an open an honest conversation about the perception each holds about the other.

“I wish my grandfather had also been taken as a slave,” a taxi driver once told me wistfully when I visited Accra a few years ago. “Then me too, I could also have an American passport and have a good life.”

Drawing of the interior of a slaving ship. Image: BBC
Drawing of the interior of a slaving ship. Image: BBC

I’m sure he meant what he said as a compliment, and certainly his sentiment was borne out of limited information he had about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and its horrors, but it did nothing to lessen the hurtful impact of his words. The short ride that we had did not allow for a full history lesson on the matter, so I opted for stony silence for the rest of the ride.

On the other end of the divide, I have heard Black people/African Americans say breathtakingly cruel things about Africans. The tags range from “uppity”, “uncivilized”, “ugly”, “stupid”, or just African, where ‘African’ is used as a pejorative. All of these things are usually said within the safety of a group-setting, where the comments are likely to be allowed to pass without much opposition. When these sentiments are played out and expressed online, for example, it should come as no surprise that the reactions are hostile.

On the far too rare occasions where there is a concerted effort to understand and work together, the results are heartwarming. All people of African descent and origin have much more that unifies us than separates us, a fact that takes no in-depth investigation to uncover. On the surface, our collective love of basslines, bright colors, gold and well-seasoned food should be enough to draw up a treaty for a lasting alliance! Beyond that, there is spiritual kinship that compels us to see ourselves in one another. In a 2014 reading of Americanah in Atlanta, Chimamanda shared an anecdote about the first time she was called “sister” by a Black man during an early visit to America. She describes how her body language rebuffed his appellation as she gave him a side eye and a cold shoulder, but then she would later understand what his greeting meant. In America, she was African (and Black, by extension) in a way that she never was as a woman living in Nigeria.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Image: Vogue
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Image: Vogue

I referred to a remnant earlier; a regiment in the battalion of Blackness that will ultimately bear the responsibility of ushering us all into much needed partnership with one another. These organizations and individuals are working in public spaces online and in community centers and town halls in pockets around the world. On Twitter:

@DiasporaConnect serves as a place for the diaspora to connect and collaborate on causes and projects benefitting their hometowns.

@africagathering is the first all-inclusive platform featuring problem solvers, thinkers, technophiles, women, doers, investors to come and share positive ideas about Africa.

@Afridiaspora curates African Literature, African Stories and diaspora stories. Storytelling is something that is a strong African tradition, and an element Africans never lost, no matter where ocean currents carried us.

The African Leadership and Progress Network has compiled an impressive list of diaspora organizations around the globe on their website.  Anyone looking to connect and partner with likeminded organizations and individuals will find this a valuable resource.

Muhammad Ali and Kwame Nkrumah. Image: Huffington Post
Muhammad Ali and Kwame Nkrumah. Image: Huffington Post

The work of connecting diasporans and Africans is hard, but it is not impossible. The great architects of the Civil Rights and decolonisation era prepared a great foundation, and we all have much to learn from their example. Many abound, from the friendships formed between Kwame Nkrumah and Muhammad Ali to Fela Kuti and Nina Simone, and we have seen that art, politics and sports have a place to play in our unification. With the convenience of the Internet and air travel, it should be easier for us to work together for the purpose of our economic, physical and mental freedom, if only we have the resolve. Our generation unwittingly demonstrated that we have a latent desire for unity in 2010 during the World Cup. Remember how we all screamed and cheered for any African nation playing against a “foreigner”? Do you recall how baffled (and afraid) the world was by our display of unity? Once we transfer that resolve to all other areas, we’ll be indomitable… but first we have to be brave and courteous enough come to the table and talk.

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