What defines our national identity?


ON OCTOBER 24, 2017, Zambia will be commemorating her 53rd independence. During such an important national event, it is expected that a number of national identity themes will attempt to highlight who we are as a nation and as a people.

For many, the Independence Day events conjure up different themes of our country’s national identity such as our history, our culture, our music, our food, our languages, our social groups, our land, and our wildlife, including all aspects or things that speak to us as a people and are relevant to our context or settings as Zambians.
But what really defines our national identity? In Zambia, like in many parts of the world, it is evident that how we define our national identity is often a complicated and a contested argument. Recently, a discussion I had with some colleagues on the subject of what constitutes one’s national identity revealed varied opinions.
As such, a construct of what exactly constitutes this national identity remains a difficult task. This is partly because national identity is based on a mixture of values, language, history, culture and citizenship. The Oxford dictionary defines national identity “as a sense of a nation as a cohesive whole, as represented by distinctive traditions, culture, and language. But, despite this definition, it is clear that there still exists a lack of an explicit or clear description of national identity. For example, does a person’s ethnic belonging, tribe or language define who they are and gives them a national identity? Or does singing the national anthem or identifying with the colours of the national flag an expression of a country’s national identity? Or is it the possession of a national identity such as a passport or national registration card that constitutes one’s national identity? Thus, regardless of someone’s birthplace, ancestry or parentage, there is more to what constitutes one’s national identity than the mere acquisition of citizenship status of a given country or nationality.
For some, choosing where you want to live, investing time, knowledge and skills, and even money in order to contribute to the country of your choice constitute a far more significant indicator of one’s national identity. For others, speaking with what may be thought to be a ‘national’ accent, or dressing in a ‘national’ way, has a far more chance of being taken as ‘a national’ rather than ‘a foreigner’ regardless of your birthplace or parentage.
However, a number of researches assume that national identity is not merely the preserve of any single phenomenon but a complex of a number of political, economic, sociological, cultural and psychological phenomena. All these and other interrelated disciplines constitute factors that attempt to define national identity. For instance, the preamble of Zambia’s constitution affirms a set of different principles which ascribe to our country’s national values, ideals, aspiration and identity as a country.
Therefore, the expression of a country’s national identity is carried by many institutions such as the education system and the media (including all forms of electronic and print media) which instruct people in how to be ‘national’. The family is also another important agent of socialisation which helps to instil values and norms in individuals that speak to one’s national identity. The media particularly help to frame what it means to be ‘national’ by reporting on events in a particular way and using key descriptors that are known to that country. Such institutions play a role in partially forging the link between identity and culture, as well as shaping the relationship between universal values embedded in these institutions and those deemed to attach to a particular nation.
Like the media, the education system of any country is also an important institutional carrier of national identiti es. Therefore, public institutions like the schools, universities and the media have the power to reflect social and political processes through a national view, and in an increasingly diverse society today, they have the capacity not only to reflect national identity but also to amplify it. Thus, the key point is that public institutions are crucially involved in the process of producing and negotiating national identity, and reflect these values back to the population as a whole.
Therefore, as the country edges closer to the commemoration of independence events on October 24, our public institutions such as schools, universities and the media should work towards expanding further national themes, citizens’ national awareness and consciousness programmes that speak to our different contexts and are relevant to our settings as Zambians.
The author is a social commentator and blogger.

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