Security in Our Identity

If our parents gave us nothing at all, they gave us our physical appearance, name, hair, eyes, dimples and traits — and in some cases, an inheritance. But our physical appearance does not equate to our identity. Who we see ourselves to be. Perception is important. Who you are and who you see yourself to be are two completely different things. And further on, who people see you to be also can be just as destructive as it may be constructive.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Yet many of us lose the ability to love the skin that make up our persons or the history that makes up our heritage. Why? We get so consumed in the identity created for us by society that we forget that beneath the surface of our smile, our skin, our borrowed culture, lays a surface layered with centuries of history. A surface that embodies our very self, core, mother tongue-our identity.

We derive our identity from many things. Amongst these is our culture (the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society). As Africans, so much of our livelihood and lifestyle is embedded in culture. But the common danger is we often just live it. We know something about where we are from, but we do not choose to know how this contributes to who we are and the struggles we face daily.

Identity is defined psychologically by Weinreich (1986a) as the qualities, beliefs, personality, looks and/or expressions that make a person (self-identity) or group (particular social category or social group)”.[1]

Basically, you are who you see yourself to be. Easy isn’t it? But finding and keeping our identity is one of the constant struggles we face daily. Actually, dare I say, many know their name, town, family, ‘history’ and so on but actually don’t know who they are. If you don’t know who you are, you actually don’t know what you need to have and where you need to be (daily choices) to bring out your best. For example, I am sure we may know an ‘adult’ who may have a very good phone, but all they know or prioritise is to make/receive calls-and the occasional texts, so they think that is all they need. However since they don’t know the phone-its features, how they can maximise it, etc., they are actually losing value of their asset. Just like some of us-without you knowing who you are you are lost.

A lost man is a man who’s been so clouded by the ideologies of society that he is easily shaken when something -or someone- threatens the authenticity of who he is. But a lost man need not be lost if he realises that for him to know himself, he has to know about himself. “For the lack of knowledge my people perish” and indeed many of us are at a state of perplexity, unable to cite who we are confidently. This in turn affects who we become-or don’t become.

A scene from ‘Osuofia in London’ just came to mind, where the British Nigerian lawyer sounded like a whole new person when he was angry. Stating that his accent changes to the dialect of his mother tongue when he is angry. In as much as it was a funny scene, I couldn’t help but think of how confused he is-we are. Many of us continue to battle between who we are and who we think we should be. You can’t move forward without knowing your past.

An example of some of the works archived by Nana Oforiatta-Ayim’s Cultural Encyclopedia Project

You need to know the traits and battles that those who identify themselves with you have faced or what they continue to face that hinders their progress-in order to equip yourself. When you are new on the battlefield, instead of risking your life to find out about your foe yourself on the battlefield, learn from your comrades. Truth is, the civilians cannot tell your story on the battlefield as well as you or your comrades can and this is why, as a continent, Africa must tell its own story. Yes we have BBC Africa and various African mediums including GCR, fantastic bold journalists who are deciding day in and day out to be true to their people. We may also have people who have achieved feats like Nana Oforiatta-Ayim whose Cultural Encyclopedia Project is about reclaiming African history’ as expressed by David Adjaye. But as long as our children are only partially taught about their heritage, it is not enough. It is not enough that we wait for the Western world to dictate what we know, hear, or comprehend, when all it keeps doing is compressing our truth to limit the perception of ourselves. Talking about what inspired her decision, Nana Oforiatta-Ayim stated:

“… And at the same time I was also thinking that the narrative that is told about Africa is still the backwards narrative: no innovation, it’s ahistorical and stuck. Yet with everything I was reading, it was stories of innovation, of knowledge, of technology” [2].

A clear contrast between us telling our story versus it being told for us. Embedded in our ethnicity is: history, background, tribe, family, struggles- these represent our past and present. But until we capture the true essence of these, whether we recognise it or not, we miss an element within our aspirations.

Unfortunately, many of us have become victims of this ‘identity crises’. Yet the worst part of why we stay in that condition is our passiveness. Not taught who we are so we never ask. What we don’t know will hurt us if the components of our past keep affecting our present. Hence I would say that a lost man is lost, not because he has been clouded by the ideologies of society, but by his lack of desire to find out who he is.

As the psychological identity relates to self-image (your mental construct of yourself); I would entreat us all to evaluate our self-image. Not the image ‘given’ to us by our parents, siblings, friends, partners and certainly not by society. Let us educate ourselves and our future generations. No one would do it for us. If we don’t reach out to our own, no one would. When we understand who we are, we become stable in mind, secure in actions and passionate for our cause.

Culture is rich. Culture is bold. Culture is embedded is us. We need not throw away the pride and heritage that existed before us but hold on to it. We can only hold on to it by knowing it, living it today and teaching it for tomorrow.

Stephanie Foster

1. Weinreich, P. (1986a). The operationalisation of identity theory in racial and ethnic relations, in J.Rex and D.Mason (eds). “Theories of Race and Ethnic Relations”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.