A virtual friend recently described me as “stray-away Anthropologist.” From my understanding straying away means wandering away from a given area or what can be seen as the correct path. Am I really a stray-away? What defines a stray-away African Anthropologist? Are we straying away from Euro-America Anthropology?
Anthropology is basically the study of a people’s way of life. Initially, Anthropologists studied communities in distant lands which were often termed as exotic, savage, and backward. I have always been fascinated by ethnographic writings by Anthropologists who were based in Africa from P.H Gulliver, Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard to Colin Turnbull. Over time I realized there was a big difference between what they wrote and stories I’ve heard that have been passed down from one generation to another.
Ghanaian Anthropologist and Writer Maxwell Owusu in his article Ethnography of Africa: The Usefulness of the Useless writes “….a careful reading of the typical “tribal” monograph ingeniously protected by an “ethnographic present” and written in obscure “scientific” and esoteric language demonstrates one thing; it is virtually impossible, particularly for the native anthropologist to falsify, replicate or evaluate it objectively. For, frequently, it is not clear whether the accounts so brilliantly presented are about native realities at all, or whether they are about informants, about scientific models and imaginative speculations, or about the anthropologists themselves and their fantasies.” Professor Owusu clearly documents the quandary an African Anthropologist finds himself in when engaging with a discipline that grew out of a self-interested Western imperialistic involvement in non-Western societies.
The predicament African Anthropologists face forces one to take a step back. It forces us to engage anthropological tools in the study of self in order to find what it truly means to be African. When I get defined as ‘stray-away’ I understand what the individual means. Yes, I am straying away from the norm. I am engaging anthropological tools in the study of self. I wonder if individuals like Gabriel Oguda and Oyunga Pala prolific writers with a background in Anthropology would say the same.
I believe African Anthropology is the study of the native errant self with a purpose of connecting the old Africa to the new Africa and paving the way for a great Africa. It is essential for Africa to engage scientific tools in the study of self, to focus on her so that she can finally find Africa. An Africa not founded on ideologies set by those who have exploited the continent for centuries but on the values true to the African people, the African way of life and the African belief systems.
Am I a stray-away? Yes I am. I am me. Not me a copy of another or a student impersonating a master. I am me, me learning who I am. I believe Africa should engage scientific tools in the study of self. Before we learn about the world, before we interact with the world, we need to know who we are, our norms, values and rules of conduct. We need to know what it means to be African, what we value and our worth as a people. Understanding who we are is paramount.
A few months back I came across the work of two exceptional African artists who had worked on a visual representation of one of the greatest Kenyan female leaders that ever lived. Before there was Kenya, there was the East African Protectorate and before that there were African rulers and one of them was Mekatilili wa Menza of the Giriama people. She was a charismatic leader, a brilliant war strategist and visionary who led the 1913 Giriama revolt against British invasion. Creative photographers Rich Allela and Dapel Kureng documented the life of Mekatilili so well with great artistry and awe-inspiring photography. These two artists prove that we do have the ability to document Africa as Africa is and as it has been while engaging our creativity.
Academics and creatives depicting Africa in their works should strive to look inward-out. We need to see Africa through the eyes of the African. We need to learn to take a step back and re-learn how to tell African stories the African way and with an African voice. Stories are powerful. The stories we tell ourselves can make us or break us. They can place us on the right path to greatness or divert us to a path of a thousand horrors and self-destruction
Today marks the second day of my 5th year as a practicing Anthropologist. Since the day I decided I will strive to engage scientific tools in the study of self. I am happy I choose this path. It is fun, exciting and challenging. It is 3 Am, the night is quiet, and the thought of ‘stray-away’ could not stay out of my head. I woke up to write this down, we need to stray-away! We all need to wander away from the norm, do something different, and see the world from a different perspective while staying true to our Africanness.
We need to break free from everything that is an impediment to our success as individuals, entrepreneurs, professionals and as a people; we need to stray away from 'normal'. Because the normal Africa, as it is, was crafted by another, crafted by the stories told to us. It is time to step back and ask ourselves “is this truly us or have we embodied the imagination of us as told by another?” It is time to tell ourselves stories that are not only true but are accurate representation of who we are, who we have been and document the endless possibilities we have as a people.
Image source: Rich Allela sourced from www.richallela.com