“Where were you born?” the border guard asked me, holding my passport with barely disguised confusion. “Cape Town,” I answered. Seeing her eyes glaze over, I added, “South Africa.” The guard took a large pen and scrawled BORN IN AFRICA on a piece of paper next to my date of birth and my father’s name. Looking at her scratching, I repeated, “It’s South Africa.” But in thick ink, there it was: Born in Africa. In rough geography, of course, it’s absolutely true. But I strongly doubt that someone from Paris would ever to mention “France,” or that BORN IN EUROPE would have been scrawled as her point of origin.
When you are born on the second largest continent in the world—in which 11,700,000 square miles are divided into 54 countries, peopled by 690 million souls speaking 300 different and active languages—an insistence on distinctions and the appreciation of linguistic, cultural, political, and social variance is not a petty exercise in semantics. The details are essential.
In the last 20 years, the number of African immigrants to New York City has increased substantially, to now include over 450,000 city residents. The growth manifests itself in the architectural fabric of the city, as seen in the increase of African mosques and churches and African-centric businesses. There are perhaps 50,000 legal African immigrants venturing into the United States annually, and an untold number of illegal ones. Some have left their homes to escape catastrophes such as wars, epidemics, or natural disasters; others to take up unbeatable job opportunities at universities, corporations, or in the art world. They come from places as disparate as Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Egypt, and Botswana.
In coming months the Brooklyn Rail will create its own journey through Africa by profiling one person from each country who now lives in New York, creating a space in which the interviewees can articulate their sense of home, the new African diaspora, and their understanding of the term “African-American.” Along the way, we will try to identify the various meanings contained in the umbrella term, “Born in Africa.”
Hlonipha Mokoena: The Afro-Politan
“I think I like the term Afro-politan,” says Hlonipha Anne Mokoena. “Achille Mbembe talks about it: Someone who is an African and a cosmopolitan, someone who embraces and claims an African identity while being open to living and working and learning from other parts of the world.” For the last few hours Hlonipha has spoken about her childhood in Soweto and Natal; her Zulu grandmother’s penchant for both revising Steven Biko’s manifesto on celebrating blackness and correcting televisual accounts of Zulu history; her first encounter with the notion of a Pan African identity at eleven through a poem praising Kenyan founding father Jomo Kenyatta—“I didn’t know who he was but I knew he must be important to have a whole poem dedicated to him”; and her astonishment at the way in which most people she meets in New York assume that she has fled Africa because of war, famine, or disease.
In reality, Hlonipha Mokoena is a professor of anthropology at Columbia University who teaches, among other subjects, a course on the history of South African intellectual discourses. She belongs to a long line of young, brilliant South African thinkers and writers who have been attending and working at Columbia since the turn of the 20th century, among them Pixley ka Isaka Seme, who graduated in 1906. As Seme, perhaps the first of the Afro-politans, once observed, “I enjoy hard work, and I have always desired to be in the center of things. This is why I came to Columbia. New York City is the cynosure of all American life; the greatest interests of the country are directed from this center.”
When I ask her about being “born in Africa,” Hlonipha tells me a story that pokes gentle fun at notions of Africa as a color-oriented and color-filled landscape. “I was born with jaundice,” she says, “so for me, perhaps in my first few weeks of seeing Africa, it was all yellow.” The baby with her own unique color-filter was born in 1976 to two Zulu parents. And yet, with the inaccuracies that plagued many official apartheid South African documents, her own birth certificate has her listed as a member of another, entirely separate Nguni group, the Shangaan. Her full name, a total of only eight syllables, contains a series of markers that speak to a history rich with oral tradition, the inevitable effects of colonialism and the consistent and insistent shadow of apartheid.
“Hlonipha” is an Nguni name, which can be found in Xhosa, Zulu, and Swazi, and it means “respect.” Her middle name, Anne, originated for bureaucratic purposes only; it functioned as a signifier of her entry into the realm of the official, and was the name that would appear on certificates and documents. However, on her first day at school, she introduced herself as Hlonipha and stuck to it, something she is grateful for today, when so many people are struggling to abandon their European names and re-assert their African ones. Mokoena means “crocodile,” and while she points out, “I’ve only seen a crocodile at the zoo,” her grandmother often invokes the Zulu phrase, “Mokoena wa metoi maholo” (Crocodile of the Great Waters). The mistaken designation of her as “Shangaan” on her birth certificate did not only represent an annoying cultural inaccuracy—it was also potentially dangerous. If for some reason she was ever deported from “white” South Africa, she would have been sent to Gazankulu (the Shangaan homeland), where none of her family lived.
Hlonipha’s first encounter with the concept of a pan-African identity occurred at school. In a gesture both rare and brave in South Africa in the ’80s, her teacher taught the class to recite a poem dedicated to Jomo Kenyatta, which ended with the heady refrain, “Raise our Flag!” Hlonipha recalls the act of speaking the poem while assembled in a room with 30 or so other eleven-year-old girls as establishing a sense of connectivity between her own understanding of the anti-apartheid uprisings in South Africa and the fight for independence in Kenya. It fostered a desire for a shared African identity.
Today Hlonipha’s sense of place and connection has been tempered by age and academia. Hlonipha is quick to point out that the belief that two people from places as disparate as Botswana and Senegal should automatically have something in common is fraught with the desire to imagine Africa as a space of easy generalizations. She pauses reflectively and says, “It’s difficult enough to embrace the entirety of Zulu-ness, never mind of South Africa” as a whole. “As an African,” she continues, one must consider “the sheer immensity of the continent and the experiences it contains, psychological, political, social, the languages...even the food.” Here she stops and with a laugh notes, “When I am asked to cook something South African I have to think, should it be biryani (an Indian rice dish) or should it be amasi (an African sour-milk drink)?”
When I ask Hlonipha to hone in on a moment that expressed what it means to be Zulu, she tells a story that speaks directly to what it means to live in a postmodern, post-colonial Africa. In the 1980s, a mini-series chronicling the life and times of Shaka Zulu was shown on South African television. While Hlonipha and her friends sat captivated, watching the (often jarringly inaccurate, not-so-subtly racist) show, her grandmother would challenge the screen, “That’s not what happened!” and then turn to her grandchildren to fill in the gaps and counter the lies. Playtime became orientated around Shaka narratives—young kids began forming themselves into regiments, re-enacting the battle scenes they had watched on TV. What it meant to be Zulu in that moment was refracted through performances both on and off screen.
In general, Hlonipha describes her moral commitment to the continent as being fostered by her family’s sense of community, and the pride they felt in not just living, but also in trading and working exclusively with black people. “Just because my upbringing didn’t perfectly articulate the notion of Pan-Africanism doesn’t mean that I don’t understand myself as a black African woman,” she says. One of the many lessons that her grandmother taught her from Biko was based on his statement, “Don’t you know that black is beautiful and white is common?” Hlonipha thus observes that “When kids teased me about being dark, I didn’t know what they were talking about...I grew up being taught that there was nothing better than a black person.”
When asked about the most challenging aspect of being an African in New York, Hlonipha points to Americans’ general lack of geographical knowledge regarding the continent. “Most people ask, ‘but where in South Africa are you from?’” The other assumption that amazes her is that she is running away from something destructive and awful. Not so, she insists, shaking her head. “I am an economic migrant. I’m running towards something.”
Nadia Davids is a South African-born playwright who is currently based in Brooklyn. She was nominated for the Noma Award for her play At Her Feet.