Want to speak against racism? Do you have an African identity?

Thursday March 5 2020


The greatest success of colonialism lies in Africans who do not speak out racism or on African erasure of our identity. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

By The EastAfrican

Conservation professional Kendi Borona, a firm believer in the application of indigenous knowledge systems, has been asking pertinent questions related to naming of African animals.

Two Kenyan elephants recently died of old age—Julian from Rukinga, which lies between Tsavo West and East National Parks, and Tim from Tsavo Mkomazi.

Kenya Wildlife Service also reported last week a rare event of an elephant from Amboseli, Miss Angelina, birthed twins, a male and female. The calves were named Amora and Aurora B. They have three sisters: Aspen, Amola and Aurora.

Each year, a well-attended naming ceremony dubbed Kwita Izina is held for newborn baby gorillas in Rwanda. The naming is not taken lightly, with deep thought given towards positive names—such as Umusaruro (harvest) or Uburumbuke (prosperity)—reflecting the gorillas’ African heritage.

“What is in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. This is a line spoken by Juliet in the famous balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Everything, the African would say, everything.

In the colonial script, some people got new names as a mark of “civilisation” separating them from “primitive” Africans. Some began to believe their higher education, western religion and mannerisms transcended race and were above racist issues faced by the average African.


Many of our parents gave us European names, abandoning African ones, for easy pronunciation by Westerners. During his first day in school Nelson Mandela was given a new identity after he told his teacher his name Rolihlahla, which was given to him by his father. She promptly named him Nelson.

He went home with a new name, given without context, whose meaning he did not know, to carry for the rest of his life.

Today’s success is often seen as a correlation of the distance between aspirations to Western “civilisation” away from African “primitivity”.

This translates into being in influential decision-making positions courtesy of a good education and the connections that come with it. It also means not discussing racism and erasure of African identity publicly. Silence by people in decision making positions is a conscious choice moulded on colonial and neocolonial practice.

Speaking out often comes at a cost such as being ignored and isolated at work and in private clubs, weakening career prospects and loss of deals.

Those who attempt to begin public conversations on racism soon realise their decision is seen as a political choice. Silence is a survival tactic of the expected conformity to racism.

Confronting racists directly and more forcefully is also difficult as one is quickly reminded of African “tribal” divisions they should first deal with.

Erasure of, or attempts to erase our African identity runs counter to pluralism.

The choice by Africans not to speak on everyday forms of racism and erasure of African names, shows not only how deeply rooted and tenacious these forms of anti-pluralistic discrimination are but also how overpowering the odds are.

Fifty-seven years after independence, those denying Kenyan elephants African names are knowingly or unknowingly being accomplices to the erasing of the continent’s identity.

Drawing on the example of Rwanda, Kendi says, by insisting on African names for gorillas, “Rwandans understand that if you have the power to name, you have the power to own. Rwandans understand the politics of naming and how it intersects with imperialism.”

Do not consider yourself powerful if you are wealthy, influential and in a decision making role yet do not speak out or do anything about racism. Racism is an act of power over you that makes you as helpless as the Kenyan waiter who’s caning by a foreigner made news worldwide.

Let us speak out against the erasure of African identity!

The greatest success of colonialism lies in Africans who do not speak out racism or on African erasure of our identity.

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail:info@mdahalo.org