It began with one question: If Africa was a bar, what would your country be drinking or doing? I kicked it off with a guess about South Africa, which wasn't exactly according to the rules because South Africa's not my country. But alluding to the country's continual attempts to build a postracial society after being ravaged for decades by apartheid, I tweeted, #ifafricawasabar South Africa would be drinking all kinds of alcohol and begging them to get along in its stomach.
And then I waited. And then I had that funny feeling where I wondered if I crossed the line. So, I sent out a few other tweets about my own country and a few other African countries I'm familiar with. And then I waited again, but this time I read through almost every tweet I had ever tweeted to convince myself, no, to remind myself that I'm really funny and that if nobody gets it, that's fine.
But luckily, I didn't have to do that for very long. Very soon, people were participating. In fact, by the end of that week in July, the hashtag #ifafricawasabar would have garnered around 60,000 tweets, lit up the continent and made its way to publications all over the world.
People were using the hashtag to do many different things. To poke fun at their stereotypes: [#IfAfricaWasABar Nigeria would be outside explaining that he will pay the entrance fee, all he needs is the bouncer's account details.]
To criticize government spending: [#ifafricawasabar South Africa would be ordering bottles it can't pronounce running a tab it won't be able to pay]
To make light of geopolitical tensions: [#IfAfricaWasABar South Sudan would be the new guy with serious anger management issues.]
To remind us that even in Africa there are some countries we don't know exist: [#IfAfricaWasABar Lesotho would be that person who nobody really knows but is always in the pictures.]
And also to make fun of the countries that don't think that they're in Africa: [#IfAfricaWasABar Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco be like "What the hell are we doing here?!!"]
And to note the countries that had made a big turnaround: [#ifAfricawasabar Rwanda would be that girl that comes with no money and no transport but leaves drunk, happy and rich]
But most importantly, people were using the hashtag to connect. People were connecting over their Africanness. So for one week in July, Twitter became a real African bar. And I was really thrilled, mainly because I realized that Pan-Africanism could work, that we had before us, between us, at our fingertips a platform that just needed a small spark to light in us a hunger for each other.
My name is Siyanda Mohutsiwa, I'm 22 years old and I am Pan-Africanist by birth. Now, I say I'm Pan-Africanist by birth because my parents are from two different African countries. My father's from a country called Botswana in southern Africa. It's only slightly bigger than Germany. This year we celebrate our 50th year of stable democracy. And it has some very progressive social policies. My mother's country is the Kingdom of Swaziland. It's a very, very small country, also in southern Africa. It is Africa's last complete monarchy. So it's been ruled by a king and a royal family in line with their tradition, for a very long time.
On paper, these countries seem very different. And when I was a kid, I could see the difference. It rained a lot in one country, it didn't rain quite as much in the other. But outside of that, I didn't really realize why it mattered that my parents were from two different places. But it would go on to have a very peculiar effect on me. You see, I was born in one country and raised in the other.
When we moved to Botswana, I was a toddler who spoke fluent SiSwati and nothing else. So I was being introduced to my new home, my new cultural identity, as a complete outsider, incapable of comprehending anything that was being said to me by the family and country whose traditions I was meant to move forward. But very soon, I would shed SiSwati. And when I would go back to Swaziland, I would be constantly confronted by how very non-Swazi I was becoming.
Add to that my entry into Africa's private school system, whose entire purpose is to beat the Africanness out of you, and I would have a very peculiar adolescence. But I think that my interest in ideas of identity was born here, in the strange intersection of belonging to two places at once but not really belonging to either one very well and belonging to this vast space in between and around simultaneously. I became obsessed with the idea of a shared African identity.
Since then, I have continued to read about politics and geography and identity and what all those things mean. I've also held on to a deep curiosity about African philosophies. When I began to read, I gravitated towards the works of black intellectuals like Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon, who tackled complex ideas like decolonization and black consciousness. And when I thought, at 14, that I had digested these grand ideas, I moved on to the speeches of iconic African statesmen like Burkina Faso's Thomas Sankara and Congo's Patrice Lumumba. I read every piece of African fiction that I could get my hands on.
So when Twitter came, I hopped on with the enthusiasm of a teenage girl whose friends are super, super bored of hearing about all this random stuff.
The year was 2011 and all over southern Africa and the whole continent, affordable data packages for smartphones and Internet surfing became much easier to get. So my generation, we were sending messages to each other on this platform that just needed 140 characters and a little bit of creativity. On long commutes to work, in lectures that some of us should have been paying attention to, on our lunch breaks, we would communicate as much as we could about the everyday realities of being young and African.
But of course, this luxury was not available to everybody. So this meant that if you were a teenage girl in Botswana and you wanted to have fun on the Internet, one, you had to tweet in English. Two, you had to follow more than just the three other people you knew online. You had to follow South Africans, Zimbabweans, Ghanaians, Nigerians. And suddenly, your whole world opened up. And my whole world did open up.
I followed vibrant Africans who were travelling around the continent, taking pictures of themselves and posting them under the hashtag #myafrica. Because at that time, if you were to search Africa on Twitter or on Google or any kind of social media, you would think that the entire continent was just pictures of animals and white guys drinking cocktails in hotel resorts.
But Africans were using this platform to take some kind of ownership of the tourism sectors. It was Africans taking selfies on the beaches of Nigeria. It was Africans in cocktail bars in Nairobi.
And these were the same Africans that I began to meet in my own travels around the continent. We would discuss African literature, politics, economic policy. But almost invariably, every single time, we would end up discussing Twitter. And that's when I realized what this was. We were standing in the middle of something amazing, because for the first time ever young Africans could discuss the future of our continent in real time, without the restriction of borders, finances and watchful governments.
Because the little known truth is many Africans know a lot less about other African countries than some Westerners might know about Africa as a whole. This is by accident, but sometimes, it's by design. For example, in apartheid South Africa, black South Africans were constantly being bombarded with this message that any country ruled by black people was destined for failure. And this was done to convince them that they were much better off under crushing white rule than they were living in a black and free nation. Add to that Africa's colonial, archaic education system, which has been unthinkingly carried over from the 1920s — and at the age of 15, I could name all the various causes of the wars that had happened in Europe in the past 200 years, but I couldn't name the president of my neighboring country. And to me, this doesn't make any sense because whether we like it or not, the fates of African people are deeply intertwined.
When disaster hits, when turmoil hits, we share the consequences. When Burundians flee political turmoil, they go to us, to other African countries. Africa has six of the world's largest refugee centers. What was once a Burundian problem becomes an African problem. So to me, there are no Sudanese problems or South African problems or Kenyan problems, only African problems because eventually, we share the turmoil.
So if we share the problems, why aren't we doing a better job of sharing the successes? How can we do that? Well, in the long term, we can shoot towards increasing inter-African trade, removing borders and putting pressure on leaders to fulfill regional agreements they've already signed. But I think that the biggest way for Africa to share its successes is to foster something I like to call social Pan-Africanism.
Now, political Pan-Africanism already exists, so I'm not inventing anything totally new here. But political Pan-Africanism is usually the African unity of the political elite. And who does that benefit? Well, African leaders, almost exclusively. No, what I'm talking about is the Pan-Africanism of the ordinary African. Young Africans like me, we are bursting with creative energy, with innovative ideas. But with bad governance and shaky institutions, all of this potential could go to waste. On a continent where more than a handful of leaders have been in power longer than the majority of the populations has been alive, we are in desperate need of something new, something that works. And I think that thing is social Pan-Africanism.
My dream is that young Africans stop allowing borders and circumstance to suffocate our innovation. My dream is that when a young African comes up with something brilliant, they don't say, "Well, this wouldn't work in my country," and then give up. My dream is that young Africans begin to realize that the entire continent is our canvas, is our home. Using the Internet, we can begin to think collaboratively, we can begin to innovate together. In Africa, we say, "If you want to go fast, you go alone, but if you want to go far, you go together." And I believe that social Pan-Africanism is how we can go far together.
And this is already happening. Access to these online networks has given young Africans something we've always had to violently take: a voice. We now have a platform. Before now, if you wanted to hear from the youth in Africa, you waited for the 65-year-old minister of youth —
to wake up in the morning, take his heartburn medication and then tell you the plans he has for your generation in 20 years time. Before now, if you wanted to be heard by your possibly tyrannical government, you were pushed to protest, suffer the consequences and have your fingers crossed that some Western paper somewhere might make someone care. But now we have opportunities to back each other up in ways we never could before.
We support South African students who are marching against ridiculously high tertiary fees. We support Zimbabwean women who are marching to parliament. We support Angolan journalists who are being illegally detained. For the first time ever, African pain and African aspiration has the ability to be witnessed by those who can empathize with it the most: other Africans.
I believe that with a social Pan-Africanist thinking and using the Internet as a tool, we can begin to rescue each other, and ultimately, to rescue ourselves.