Vangi’s Voice: What if we defined ourselves for ourselves?

By Vangile Ganthso @Vangi22

A few days ago, on my way to a performance, I met a Senegalese man on the Gautrain.  He asked me if I was a writer, said he could tell that I was, and proceeded to share his many views on how my ‘African’ appearance was beautiful because I am a ‘real’ African woman and would probably make a good wife and mother and blah blah blah.  The truth is, I probably will be all these things and am a real African woman, but not because of any of the things he pointed out. I am a ‘real’ African woman because this is the land I was born in, am a descendent of and dedicate my life’s purpose to.  Not because of my hair and hips.

It seems everyone has strong opinions on what they believe ‘true’ African aesthetics should reflect, and anything outside that is said to be supposedly ‘westernised’. More than that, however, people also seem to have strong views on who African heroes should be.  We are constantly being told, as Africans, who we should be, how we should look and who we should revere; perhaps to keep us in tow somehow.  But that I can handle, because it’s nothing new (truth be told).  What I can’t handle, is when Africans fall into the trap of consuming these identities without deciding for ourselves what works for us.

A few days ago, on my way to a performance, I met a Senegalese man on the Gautrain.  He asked me if I was a writer, said he could tell that I was, and proceeded to share his many views on how my ‘African’ appearance was beautiful because I am a ‘real’ African woman and would probably make a good wife and mother and blah blah blah.  The truth is, I probably will be all these things and am a real African woman, but not because of any of the things he pointed out. I am a ‘real’ African woman because this is the land I was born in, am a descendent of and dedicate my life’s purpose to.  Not because of my hair and hips.

This conversation lead me to examine the extent to which we, as Africans (and African women, more specifically) allow ourselves to be defined by others.  We are led to believe that hair, skin tone and hip size are a reflection of ‘Africanness’. We are guilted into revering Madiba as the single greatest (South) African export, sold Alek Wek as the ‘African original’ and misled into believing that Cape Town is more palatable than Lagos because it’s ‘cleaner’. Most tragically, however, we are willing to swallow it all, without question.

Why are we not questioning what we are being fed? Heck, why are we not feeding ourselves? When Madiba is turned into a saint and Makhulu Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is forgotten, why are we not asking who this benefits? Who gets to decide that Nadia Buari is more beautiful than Lupita Nyongó, who is more beautiful than Noleen Maholwana-Sangqu; and why? These questions seem so basic but are in fact revolutionary, and key to understanding what goes into creating the African aesthetic. More importantly, these kinds of questions help us understand who benefits the most from these aesthetics we so willingly define ourselves by.

So often it feels like Africa is a victim of the Big Bad West and the two are pitted against each other as opposites, whereas both the west and Africa have influenced each other in many ways.  It may not have always been even, but the influence has been on both sides.  We just haven’t always demanded that it be on our terms. There is absolutely no reason why we should continue to be consumers of our own identity, when we ought to be the drivers. We have many faces, are multi-faceted, and have many leaders to choose from because we are in the incredible position of being everything! We just need to own that.

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Vangi Gantsho is a poet, first and foremost. She is a firm believer in Africans telling African stories and has shared her stories on various platforms in South Africa and abroad. Her voice is that of Black Woman, because that is the only truth she knows.

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