What makes you an African? Is it the colour of your skin? The texture of your hair? The curves of your lips? Outward looks might hint at a person’s identity but the true measure is the heart. At least that is what I keep telling myself.
You see, I am light skinned and for the average person, I wouldn’t look African. The continent is my birthplace. It is the place where I took my first breath. In fact, it is the place where I experienced a lot of firsts. Above all else, though it is the place that has shaped my heart.
Maybe that is why I measure a person’s identity, not by how they look but how they are. Through their heart. Because by looking at me people cannot really tell who I am. They have to get to know my heart better to make a good judgement about me.
I do not want to generalize talking about Africa. It is not a country, after all. It is a continent with so many different cultures and peoples. Africa is so diverse that I feel generalizing about it would be unjust and unfair. In fact, individual countries within the continent alone are so diverse. So I will focus on what it means to be an Ethiopian. The lower denominator. When I say Ethiopian in the following text - it is a lower denominator for African.
An Ethiopian is someone that has grown up in a deeply socialized way. It takes a village to raise a child. Ethiopians know what that means.
Ethiopians by nature are social because the village raised them. Ethiopians are by nature kind-hearted to strangers. Easy to approach. They are as beautiful as they are powerful. They are as generous as they are strong. They are as courteous as they are proud.
These are some characteristics of what it means to be Ethiopian. Above all else, though it is the solidarity and unity that brings it all together. Meet an Ethiopian abroad and strangers become family.
My own experience is a testament to this. As a mixed-race child - identity was always a variable that I could not get right. Was I ferenji (a white man)? Was I Ethiopian? You know the saying: You are the master of your own identity? Well to a certain degree that is correct and to a certain degree it is not.
In Ethiopia - I have always been made to feel welcome and at home. I think that is one characteristic of Africa. I know, I am generalizing and I hate to do that but maybe in this instance, my generalisation works. Even though colonialism has destroyed a lot of the social fabric of the continent - Africans are still welcoming. In a very generous way.
In my search for identity - Ethiopia made it easy to make me feel at home. So as a lost child, I quickly found my foundation in being Ethiopian.
However - it has also enabled me to develop non-Ethiopian characteristics and still feel accepted. Having grown up in so many worlds and different cultures you tend to borrow some good and some bad of it all. However, in Ethiopia as long as my heart is right - there’s always been acceptance and inclusion.
It’s funny - in Ethiopia, I very quickly forget my skin colour as do people around me in a social setting. Maybe it’s cause they see the heart and engage me in that way. In Europe, it’s the exact opposite. I look more like a European. However, I’m still labelled an Ethiopian. No matter what. So maybe they see the heart as well.
So what makes you an African? Not your looks I’d say. But your heart. Towards your family first, your community second and the greater world at large. What makes you an African you ask? I’d say it’s that you are by nature kind-hearted to strangers. Easy to approach. That you are as beautiful as you are powerful. That you are as generous as you are strong. That you are as courteous as you are proud. That you are as selfless as you are bold.