Multiple Identities in Postcolonial Africa

Tawana Kupe, Lecturer, Department of English, University of Zimbabwe, and Research Fellow, University of Oslo

In discussing identity in the African context, one needs to look at multiple identities as well, not just because it is fashionable as Kivikuru says, but because its an integral part of the complexity of African identities. "Multiple identities are especially characteristic of what Kivikuru calls urban bridgehead elites." They belong to a small group of professionals and the ruling elite. These people have been educated in various institutions both in the North and the South. They are the mediators between people and institutions in the North and people in the South. They run the institutions inherited from colonialism. These are people who have access to not only the "national" media but international media and other forms of communication and some travel abroad as well. Yet they are still members of specific ethnic groups. They take part in traditional and cultural rituals that the new Christian faiths they also belong to frown upon as heathen. A major characteristic of these people is that they behave and relate differently in these different situations. To some extent they have to and they are also expected to. Further, in the villages they are seen and proudly displayed as examples and trophies of "modernity." But they are also often criticised for being alienated. One of the themes of most of African literature is that of culture conflict and identity crisis experienced by those who became Christians and attended formal colonial educational institutions or went to study at universities abroad. The expectation by their families and the whole community which sometimes contributed financially in their education was that they would become an asset to the family and community, not individuals with alien values.

Multiple identities also have something to do with the fact that the distinction between the rural and the urban in Africa is not very sharp in many aspects. The interaction between rural and urban people is very high. Among all classes of people there is both a real and romantic attachment with the rural areas. The rural areas are associated with origins, roots and identity. This identification is problematic because in many cases land dispossession during the colonial era displaced many people from their ancestral lands. In fact among a large majority there is an existence in both places. Urban people still maintain rural homes in order to supplement their meagre urban wages and also because the urban area is still seen as a place of employment rather than permanent residence.

[From Tawana Kupe. "Comment: New Forms of Cultural Identity in an Afican Society." Media and the Transition of Collective Identities. Ed. Tore Slatta. Oslo: University of Oslo, 1996, pages 119-20. Available from Department of Media and Communications [].

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