This is a two part essay on the issues of access and identity for Africa's cosmopolitan elite and implications for the social, economic and environmental.
It has been a while but in my last blog post (Three Augusts), I alluded to the problems societies faced in regards to inequalities cut along race, gendered, religious, ethnic and many other lines. I then made the claim that with money you can eradicate your disease of not being white-male, and enjoy access to everything. “Access” that is the key word for my blog post today, and more specifically what we mean by access, how this access is attained and what the repercussions are for the social and environmental. So what do we mean by access? There is a certain lifestyle we envision for ourselves, and to realize this vision we need to be able to move fluidly from one space to another. Whether it is commuting to your work place/school/etc, or transiting via high-end Airport terminals, or simply going to the supermarket, you must be globally and locally (glocal) mobile to actualize your vision. However, access to these spaces is not shared equally and having enough money, for instance, to get on the plane, is just one step to being accepted into these spaces and then another to flourish in them. To discuss all the factors that contribute to someone’s acceptance into these spaces will require much more than a blog post. Confined as I am, I hope to at least get two messages across:
1] To the environmentalist, the issue of focusing less on material possession is not just a problem in terms of what we value, it is to some extent a necessity to ‘look’ a certain way to access the global arena with all its benefits.
2] To the African cosmopolitan elite, there are socio-environmental (and economic) implications with the products we buy and that in-turn impact on our developing societies.
What products? What ‘look’? It’s still quite vague, so again it is important to zoom in. And to make it easy for us we will look into what we wear as our second skin, or more aptly, fashion. Primarily we are referring to clothes, but it goes deeper than that especially when we apply a gender lens. There is a politics of self-presentation, especially for women. Liza Cowan, a feminist from New York during the women’s liberation movement in the 60s, succinctly put it this way “the clothes I wear help me to know my own power (Hillman, 2013).” Aside clothes, there are a myriad of forms of implicit and explicit communications that go on in these spaces which impact on a person’s access, such as behavior, and or language. But clothes is such an explicit communication of self and therefore easier to study and reflect on, we can use it as a first step to acknowledging the barriers African women and men face in their quest for empowerment and upward mobility.
The motivation for this blog post is mainly derived from my personal observations and mounting academic evidence in the field of feminism and other cross-cutting disciplines (feminist political ecology) that deal with the issue of equal access to resources. This essay is broken down into two parts. This part introduces the problematic of access in Africa before expanding on what I mean by cosmopolitan elite, the people who have the most access on the continent. The second part, (will be released later this week – so keep an eye out) goes into depth on the issue of access for Accra’s cosmopolitan elite and sheds light on the obstacles they face in engaging with the glocal environs.
Who has Access in Africa?
Africans are and always have been consumers. The globalization phenomena is really more of the same of what has been going on for a long time, that is trade between people and regions of the world (Prestholdt, 2008). But the level and speed at which these transactions take place has increased exponentially, and Africa, now more than ever, is being integrated into this new economy.
But I should be clearer. When I say Africa I don’t mean everyone on the continent. I rather mean the people who have access to capital and resources. These groups can be separated along multiple lines, but I would say the largest distinction is between the urban and rural, whereby people located in the cities are increasingly more exposed to opportunity for a better livelihood. The groups that populate the messy and quite un-understood realm of African urban environs vary in socio-economic class, education, political affiliation/ethnicity, and gender. But underlying a majority of these groups’ behaviors is the desire to move upward on the socio-economic ladder, which means acquiring material possessions to indicate to wider society their position in it. The people best positioned to meet their material needs are those who have access to the new global market, and this connection can be seen with the positive relation between foreign-earned currency and house owners in Accra for instance (almost all house owners have worked or lived abroad, or are connected to someone who has) (Grant, 2009).
Dissecting along gender lines we see that women are limited in their access to these glocal lines of communications, which are vital to earning foreign currency (Mahler & Pessar, 2001). This has little to do with women’s lack of endeavor or agency and more to do with their location in relation to accessing these opportunities of engagement with the global market (2001). There are very real issues of power, access and gender, which intersects and lay on top of each other and they have been widely studied. However, the African women who have been able to overcome these barriers provide us with an opportunity to understand how they perceive these difficulties, and more particularly how they see fashion as a contributor to their engagement with the global market. Thus, my interest in looking at the women among the cosmopolitan elite in Africa, more specifically Accra, and their perceptions of fashion in relation to their access to these glocal spaces.
So what do we mean by cosmopolitan elite? To make the definition more real to my readers I will ground the definition in my lived experiences.
It goes without saying that my definition is very much based on my experiences as a mixed race male, who has benefited from Ghana’s integration into the new economy, through my exposure to higher education and living abroad that my parents paid for. But that doesn’t deem my experiences un-generalizable, since others have experienced a lot of what I have gone through in some way or the other. Once again, this situating of myself may seem irrelevant, but as feminist researchers have argued there is no real objectivity in the world as Western science has claimed. There is no ‘god trick,’ where a person produces knowledge (online article to academic research) without being aware of their biases or world-views, and thinks their knowledge transcends all boundaries (Haraway, 1988). There is power involved in the way we produce knowledge and now more than ever with the misinformation crisis the Internet has sparked, it is important we incorporate our biases into our writings.
So the cosmopolitan, as I define them, are those who have and are constantly moving between the local urban spaces (such as Accra) and global urban spaces (New York, Boston, Dubai, London, Cape Town etc). Whether it may be for higher education, vacationing, or business, these people have or have had access to foreign resources and thus have an advantage, in a way, over those who have not. But within the cosmopolitan there are stratifications, and a good example of this is with the blurring of the once prominent dichotomy of global north and global south. There are people in the global south heavily influenced by Western culture and relatively rich and educated who move through these global urban spaces quite comfortably. These groups are whom I refer to as the cosmopolitan elite. Instead of receiving the stereotypical “do you live on a tree?” question from a well-to-do but ignorant Westerner, you may now receive an exclamation “oh your English is better than mine!” or “hey! You have an iphone 6 like me!” With the way we look and talk, the African cosmopolitan elite has been able to use certain indicators (ex. phone, clothes, speech) to communicate their position within global urban spaces. However, mobility up these global social ladders does entail certain pressures, and the same way that studies revealed fitting-in struggles black students faced in white prep schools (Cole & Omar, 2003), is the same way that aspiring African cosmopolitan elite may get caught between two cultures.
Consequently, there may be a perceived need by the African cosmopolitan elite to do more to portray their status not only as an African, but also as a member of the global society (since this will bring further access to opportunities for instance). These pressures may take shape in the way we think we ought to look and act, with implications on how we perceive clothes and what they represent as we try and make our lives better.
Having established what I mean by access, or lack thereof, and who the cosmopolitan elite are, I hope I have given you enough to ponder until the next article where we will go deeper into these issues and get insights from two interviews I conducted with people I consider to be part of this cosmopolitan elite. Until then, I would like you to think of your own interactions with the glocal spaces I discuss, and reflect on whether you identify with the experiences I have alluded to.