East Africa probably has the most phenotypically, culturally and religiously diverse populations in Africa across the region. Let’s touch on the most interesting bits of this dynamic in this piece that I titled 50 shades of brown!
The coastline of east Africa, had centuries of foreign influence as a vantage point for entry to the Indian ocean. The Portuguese and the Arab were the first ones, fighting for control of the spice trade in the Indian ocean and then the British, French and Germans came along with colonization later. All these interactions brought on a diversity of physical features, religions and cultures to the region.
Phenotypical features: Due to the multiple foreign interactions, East Africans are a spectrum of looks. If you have ever met certain Ethiopians, you will realize they look a lot different than, say me, or what are described as African / black features. While their skin tone may go from dark brown to light caramel, they will often have Euro- Asiatic facial features such as a straight nose, looser and longer hair texture and other differences than Bantu Africans who have flat noses, coarse hair texture and fuller lips.This also goes for Eritreans, Somalis, Sudanese, Rwandese and the influence stretches to north Africa where Arab features are more prominent.
Religion:The two big religions in the world, Christianity and Islam are reflected in East Africa. Christianity was actually an earlier arrival on the African continent, showing up in North Africa, in the 1st or early 2nd century AD. In the 7th century Christianity retreated under the advance of Islam but it remained the chosen religion of the Ethiopian Empire and persisted in pockets in North Africa. In the 15th century Christianity came to Sub-Saharan Africa with the arrival of the Portuguese and the rest of its spread was through missionaries as a tool of colonization. There is also, the Ethiopian Jews, who are descendants of the Beta Israel communities of Ethiopia and have since migrated to Israel in large numbers.
With the Arab traders from the Persian Gulf and Oman came Islam, around the 7th century. Africa was the first continent outside of Asia that Islam spread to and between the eighth and ninth centuries, Arab traders and travelers, began to spread the religion along the eastern coast of Africa and to the western and central Sudan and now almost one-third of the world’s Muslim population resides on the African continent, with a large presence in North Africa, East Africa and West Africa.
Between Islam and Christianity, Islam had a stronger foothold because it has a negotiated and practical approach to different cultural situations as opposed to Christianity. For instance, Islam fit with African traditional values such as allowing a man to have more than one wife and for this reason and others, this made conversion to Islam easier and less upsetting than conversion to Christianity. Also we just never got to trust missionaries, because of the whole colonization thing. Christianity is still huge on the continent though to this day, being a great way to oppress people while telling them it’s ok they will be rewarded for this persecution in a life beyond this! I have some strong feelings about this issue, especially since my country Zimbabwe has become more religious as life got more harsh under our government.It is hard to have conversations with any of my relatives about what is happening to us, because the answer is always it is God’s will!
I want to take this moment to discuss African traditional religion, a concept that is foreign to most, even us young Africans born in the modern times.
Africans have always been religious since the beginning of day and in a not so surprising twist, in ways that are not any different from other religions. The basic concept of a higher or Supreme being who is the giver of life, existed across Africa society before western religion came to.Every locality may have its own local deities,festivals or different names for the Supreme Being but in essence the pattern is the same as in other religions.The idea of afterlife also prevailed in Africa culture, with the ancestors being a key part of people’s lives beyond death serving as a connection to the supreme being, cue saints in the catholic church. African traditional religion is a way of life that folks lived by and organized themselves around; a concept pretty close to Islam. My main point is African traditional religion, is no different from other religions around the world but the perception of it has been that of of a dark existence, an idea first perpetuated by the Europeans. To justify their ambitions in Africa, the Europeans demonized everything about Africans including our traditional religion. They called it primitive, savage and on encountering our rituals and shrines, decided that it was paganism and idol worship, like there are no shrines to Mary mother of God out there. To subjugate us they needed to convince us that our way of life was wrong, make you question the basis of your identity and sense of self so you submit to what some else says about you and does to you. I am not on board with Christianity for this! A famous quote I hold dear is from Jomo Kenyatta, a fearless leader in Kenya’s Mau Mau revolution and the first president of Kenya, who said.
“When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.“
Identity: The last interesting bit about the diversity of East Africa has to do with identity. Because they phenotypically look different than other Africans, sound different and may practice different religions than the rest of the continent, East Africans and North Africans are often the subject of debates around the African identity. This is amongst themselves, in relation to other Africans and the rest of the world as well. It’s a combination of colorism, racism and other “isms” out there and they are all compounded by the lasting impact of white imperialism on us all.
In relation to other Africans, the rest of us sometimes feel the Africans with Euro-Asiatic features think they are “better” than the rest of us and sometimes they “act” like they are. This is one of those points compounded by white imperialism where all people of color across the world, suffer from colorism and a negative mentality towards folks with darker skin and non European features. In addition, while in Ethiopia, I conversed a lot with different people about how they treated each other differently based on this mentality as well, and there is rampant racism towards black Africans in North Africa.
In relation to the rest of the world well, a lot of people always talk of Ethiopian women as the most beautiful African women. They definitely are, but that sentiment has undertones of racism and colorism as they are often referring to how they are black but with Eurocentric/ Euro Asiatic features.The identity struggle also comes with religion. And to that point I will let you read this article that I found very enlightening about the Afro Arab identity.
The author starts with these powerful lines..
“I consider myself very much Arab, very much African, and black. My language is Arabic, and my culture is predominantly Arab, I think. But my African blood is in there, too. Very much so. Maybe I’m not as African as a particular Zimbabwean beauty, and I’m not as Arab as a certain Yemeni soul. Maybe I am very much Afro-Arab. But I think all ethnic, cultural, and racial experiences are equally valuable. Despite the good vibes I constantly send to my identities—my various me’s—others are not always so gracious or understanding.”