The following is an excerpt from my newly published book, Africa in Fragments. It is lifted from the book’s conclusion, where I analyze Africa’s future or futures in light of globalization, migration, and cosmopolitanism.
African peoples, problems, and issues have shifted radically as trans-national human mobility has intensified in a globalizing world. The resulting cosmopolitanism challenges familiar terms of identity such as “African,” “black American,” “native-born blacks,” “diaspora,” “African American,” and “black.” These terms shift meanings as people of African descent and those in solidarity with them explore new spaces and engage in new kinds of politics. But as Stuart Hall and Simon Gikandi have argued, cosmopolitanism has not simply collapsed the cultural boundaries of identity and localized claims to modernity and authenticity; it has also produced unintended outcomes. In some ways, cosmopolitanism made Africans, wherever they are, return to brands of politics, narratives, and cultural practices that seek to reestablish the blurring lines of difference in both inter- and intra-racial contexts.
Increased mobility of Africans within and outside Africa has been critical to this ambivalent engagement with globalization. This to-ing and fro-ing has the capacity to produce two equally profound outcomes for Africa. One is that Africa’s participation in globalized processes will grow, aided by the agency of its mobile youth who, increasingly displaced in the political and social spaces at home, see travel, mobility, and international economic and epistemic transactions as a potential springboard to earn a reckoning.
The other effect of increased African mobility is paradoxical. As African peoples are increasingly sucked into institutions dominated by the global North, and as they are exposed to the bland homogeneity of global capital and consumption patterns, they will ultimately seek avenues to escape globalization’s cultural erasure and retreat more and more into cultural and aesthetic forms deemed authentically African. This ability to choose when, where, and how to engage with globalization will prove decisive for Africa, for it will insulate the continent from the worst aspects of global flows while harvesting their tangible and intangible benefits.
Some analysts and scholars have begun writing the story of Africa’s brain gain, locating instrumental intellectual and economic capital in the returning diaspora and African immigrant returnees who are plunging into new ventures and pioneering new economic sectors in various corners of the motherland. The brain gain narrative is a powerful one, and it documents an ongoing process that is easy to miss. I would argue, however, that the narrative’s casting of global Africans as those who merely return with expertise and ideas to power economic change in Africa is reductive. It does not fully account for how returnees are increasingly being joined in these transformative endeavors by Africa-domiciled professionals for whom migration is not an option, but who travel from and between African nodes to access and adapt ideas to local problems. The narrative of brain gain also does not account for how this diverse group of Africans is changing the very terms upon which Africa engages with globalization.
It does appear then that lamentations about Africa’s victimhood in the global cultural industry and about the negative effects of cultural imperialism on Africa is premature. In the long term, the proactive and reactive agency of young, mobile, and self-conscious Africans will ensure that Africa’s marginality in global processes is complemented by the opportunities that only marginal global communities can create and exploit in a globalizing world, opportunities that peripheral communities have to seek in order to be economically relevant in increasingly zero-sum global interactions.
The process I am signaling is not new. Perceptive scholars like Simon Gikandi and Stuart Hall have identified similar responses to cosmopolitanism, itself an outgrowth of various phases of globalization. In responding to cosmopolitan influences, communities in the global South and those with origins there adopt an ambivalent attitude. They reap the benefits of cosmopolitan openness while embracing and, at times, recreating culturally parochial signs, symbols, and objects that can root them in specific locations, experiences, memories, and traditions. The celebration of cosmopolitanism proceeds in tandem with a retreat to parochially grounded identities that confer certitude in a world in flux — a world in which cosmopolitanism and globalization mask hegemonic Western cultural ascendancy. No one wants to be globalized out of existence, so globalization paradoxically generates its own contradictions, its own antithesis, as globally disadvantaged communities who feel threatened by the economic and cultural hegemony of capital seek recognition and secure identities in parochial economic and cultural innovations.
In the next few decades, Africans will continue to search for their place in global processes, but they will resist complete assimilation to the cultural and economic imperatives advanced by such processes. Africa’s future will be partially animated by this creatively deliberate ambivalence towards globalization. Specifically, a key transformative trend will grow in the next few decades of the twenty-first century: African cultural and economic markers and techniques will be exported abroad, naturalized and recalibrated and then re-exported back to the continent in a process that one may call Afroglobalization — a fascinating process of cultivating and exporting African authenticity only for the human and material cultural bearers of that authenticity to find their way back to Africa in new, potentially inspirational forms.
Stuart Hall, “Cosmopolitan Promises, Multicultural Realities” in R. Scholar ed., Divided Cities:The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 2003 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 20–51;
Simon Gikandi, “Race and Cosmopolitanism,” American Literary History 14:3 (2002), 593–615.
Moses E. Ochonu is Associate Professor of African History, Vanderbilt University, and is the author, most recently of Colonialism by Proxy: Hausa Imperial Agents and Middle Belt Consciousness in Nigeria (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), and Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (New York: Diasporic Africa Press, 2014).