African Print: An Appropriated Cultural Phenomenon

NEW YORK - I am a proud Zimbabwean who is offended by being called an African.

“I am not African; I am Zimbabwean,” I majestically declare chest puffed intoxicated by arrogance.

After all I am on a crusade to stop non-Africans from thinking Africa is a country.

My analogy of choice is Canada and the United States; these countries share a continent yet are never classified as one.

People reward my assertions with looks that I infer as displays of disbelief.

The level of what I perceive as global ignorance is alarming. Why are people oblivious about Africa?

Information about Africa is readily accessible in books and on the almighty Internet.

I recall a Chinese co-worker asking me if Zimbabweans grow their own food. Annoyed, I asked what they did in China. He was apologetic and explained that he was not being offensive but was “curious”.

I explained how where there is land people grow food and that Zimbabwe was not floating in the air! My Chinese co-worker, was relentless and asked why there were images of starving African children on television.

At that point I went back to my customary “I am not African; I am Zimbabwean”.

I inquired about whether the images were of Zimbabweans to which he shrugged his shoulders.

I proceeded to “educate” him about how in Zimbabwe food shortages are caused by droughts not because we are not farmers.

I hammered home that we have always been innovative; all Africans are. My strong stance to defend my home country stems from pride and respect that I have for my mitochondrial DNA.

Reducing our continent to a country strips us of diversity and leads to generalisations about our capabilities.

Ironically my adopted home, New York City, is celebrated for is its rich diversity. The saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is very true as my allegiance to home has become stronger since I migrated.

I miss many things such as Mazoe Orange Crush, Cerelac, biltong, picking mangoes, Chicken Inn burgers, Jacaranda trees, and maZambia (African print fabric).

My ability to coerce friends to send me treats I miss only makes my heart grow fonder. When I lived in Zimbabwe I took it for granted, I did not even listen to the local music.

I listened to Radio Three; an English-speaking station that played hits from overseas in lieu of the local Radio Two which was culturally connected.

I often reminisce about a time when the Zimbabwean dollar was stronger than the US dollar; I am slapped back to the reality that we now use the US dollar.

Colonisation left many of us longing to assimilate with our former oppressors.

However, moving overseas provided space for reflection and necessitated the establishment of a cultural identity. I am connected to Zimbabwe because my ancestors are buried there.

I am particularly drawn to images of my late grandmother, my mother’s mother. Whenever I accomplish something I think of her and I hope that she is proud.

One thing in particular that I remember about my grandmother is her maZambia. When I was younger there is nothing she could have said to me to get me to tie a Zambia. I relegated African prints to a primitive culture.

My need for cultural identity and to capture the essence of something my grandmother had tried to pass down to me led to me craving African prints.

My obsession with adorning maZambia indoors once prompted my niece to ask me if I wore them because I had no clean clothes. Little did I realise that African prints are an example of appropriated culture. 

Appropriated culture should not to be confused with cultural exchange as it specifically refers to the idea of a dominant group exploiting a less dominant group fuelled by a financial incentive.

An example of cultural exchange is the introduction of maize to Africa by the Portuguese settlers.

We adapted maize and so the story of how it became a part of our staple diet is no longer remembered.

We also create words from English such as bhatiri for a battery or penzura for pencil.

These cultural adaptations are different from the cultural appropriation of maZambia.Pam Samasuwo- Nyawiri recently schooled me on the origins of African print and how there is nothing African about them.

I conducted my own research and found that African print is designed and sold by the Dutch.

In recent years some African print is made in China and West Africa, yet homage is rendered to the Dutch fabric Vlisco.

This revelation forced me to reflected on how little I actually know about my culture. I was remorseful for judging others as ignorant when I am ignorant of many things that I have never questioned.

Some of the lingering effects of colonialism are subtle and task us to examine things we cherish and perceive to be part of our culture.

We must examine their origins and determine whether they are truly authentic, as we risk continuing to have an appropriated culture.

Will knowing the origins of African print influence whether I will buy it in the future?

Absolutely. I want to buy African print made and designed by Africans. I just discovered that my grandmother wore Dutch fabric, I wonder if she knew... We must seek to identify and celebrate treasures that are truly African or else we risk upholding an appropriated culture. Cultural appropriation is exploitation and must stop.

The questions beg to be asked: should an appropriated culture ever be accepted as part of one’s culture when the benefactor is foreign?

When does appropriation become adaptation? Does the way we wear maZambia make them authentic?

*Pamela is an educator, an analyst with years of experience in management on the famous New York Wall Street. She is an avid reader, a running enthusiast, and a huge supporter of female developmental rights. Pam is based in New York and can be reached via email pmudzi@gmail.com

    Comments (4)

    Nice!

    Pete.NYC - 12 February 2015

    Another great article. I too became more connected to my home country after moving the Washington DC. I recall a conversation I had with a friends some years back, it got me curious as to the origins of "MaZambia". I did some research and found out they were of Dutch origin. I was so surprised by that. It made me think of all the things that have been introduced by Western countries, and became part of our every day lives.

    Ellie - 13 February 2015

    Thanks for teaching me something i was also ignorant of. It is an enlightening article and forces us to constantly question everything and understand how it came to be and probably question what is African and what defines that African-ness. Thank you for sharing. Keep up the good work.

    Taffy - 14 February 2015

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    dddddddd - 6 July 2016

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