I find that it is pretty difficult to encounter people who are optimistic or at least balanced in their perspectives about Africa as opposed to those who unleash bouts of Afropessimism with every statement that they make. There is no doubt that Africa is one of the most misunderstood continent in the world. The interesting thing is that those that unleash vitriol are those with the least understanding of the continent or with a skewed understanding of the continent gleaned over from the mainstream media that only picks out the most depressing stories and drills them into our collective consciousness. I was speaking to a colleague from a western European nation sometimes back and they told me that they really did not know much about Africa because all the narrative that is our there is that of starving children and endless conflict. That is the truth but I find it hard to understand why this is so. We have a problem. We are in the 21st century which presents us with more accessibility to a wealth of information and counter narratives but old stereotypes seem ingrained in the minds of all of us – including Africans. I will come back to this later.
First, let us start from the beginning: The earliest writing from Africa was presented by explorers and missionaries (precursors to colonialists) who portrayed Africans as people without heads. Sample these snippets about Africa/African peoples;
“This is the land where men are children, a land lying beyond the daylight of self-conscious history and enveloped in the black colour of night. At this point let us forget Africa not to mention it again, for Africa is no historical part of the world. ”
Freidrich Engles (1820-1895) German social scientist/explorer.
One wishes they had left it at that i.e. the part about forgetting about Africa – things would be very different, no doubt. Moving on…
“The study of the negro is the study of man’s rudimental mind. He would appear rather degenerate from the civilized mind …. He has not the ring or the true metal. There is no rich nature for education to cultivate. He seems to belong to one of those childish races never rising to man’s state.”
Richard Burton (1821-1890). British geographer/explorer
One last one…
“Human nature seen in its crudest form as seen among African savages is quite in level with that of the brute and not to be compared with the noble character of the dog. There is no gratitude, no pity, love or self- denial, no idea of duty, no religion, nothing but covetousness, ingratitude, selfishness and cruelty.”
Samuel Baker (1821-1893) British Explorer
The unfortunate thing is that this narrative has not changed and I am baffled by that. Africa continues to be a bashed continent. There seems to be only two emotions that seem possible with regard to Africa/ns either revulsion or pity or a combination of both. We must ask ourselves WHY?
It gets more appalling when the cynicism/self-loathing/self-degradation/ self-abasement comes from Africans both on the continent and in the “diaspora.” Have a look at these two examples (based on real events);
- A student comes from Africa an African country to study in a western university. They find that there is an African professor in the department. They refuse to be supervised by that professor because “I did not come here to be supervised by black people”. She gets an all-white supervisory committee. Halfway through the program she finds herself in a fix and realizes that the only person who can get her out of the mess and support her program and research is the “black professor.”
- A group discussion on philosophy is taking place in a campus class room. The discussion progresses and the student from an African country says “we have no philosophers in Africa”.
Sigh! Where does one even start when trying to deal with this? T-R-A-G-I-C!
I find it rage inducing that more often than not, if you get into a conversation with an African/ group of Africans (in the “diaspora”) the discussion is bound to quickly get steered into a whining fest about how Africa is this and that and why this place(insert any “developed” country) is better. If you try to counter that you are quickly reminded that if Africa was that good you would not be here (insert the country). So, it means that all those who are in the “diaspora” are there because they hate Africa so much. I say that this logic is illogical. And it is reinforced by the fact that I have met another brand of Africans in the “diaspora” who use all their energies to contribute to the rebirth of their society which has been relegated to the very bottom of human hierarchy by multiple forms of oppression – this group inspires me! Kenyan scholar Micere Mugo recently said that we should remember that other people have come and settled on the continent for centuries and benefited immensely from it. You have a right to do the same. And to extend the argument further Ambalavaner Sivanandan argues that “we are here because you were there”.
Why don’t we engage more into the history of Africa – I find that if you understand the history of the continent your views are likely to be very different – they will be tempered with a careful and balanced analysis of issues. Why do we not put some more effort in trying to understand how the world economic system/global capitalism is structured? If we do then we may see the continent with new eyes? Why is it almost seen as criminal for an African to feel good about themselves and to draw strength from their cultural heritage? It appears only other people have that right? Anyone who tries to take pride in being African e.g. by appreciating an African president (especially those that are unpopular in the west) is summarily branded a psychophant. I guess everything black is bad – I am made to understand that even the devil is black.
It is clear that colonialism and neo-colonialsims(s) has continued to wreak havoc in the minds of Africans. I think we need to engage very seriously in colonial discourse – we seem to have forgotten all our collective histories of struggle. Some will say that is the past but it is actually very much the present and the future if we still have those kinds of attitudes highlighted earlier. There is no difference between the thinking of those two students and the 18th century philosophers- or is there? We have been trained to loathe ourselves and we have perfected that science.
Wangari Maathai reminds us that colonialism was designed to weaken Africa’s cultural infrastructure, infiltrate our minds, make us feel like we were not good enough and that our history and traditions are rotten.
She writes in the ‘Challenge for Africa’…a book every African should read.
“When communities were told that their culture was demonic and primitive, they lost their collective power and responsibility and succumbed not to the god of love and compassion they knew but to the gods of commercialism, materialism and individualism with the people’s granaries and stomachs being as empty as their souls.”
“Once people have been conquered and are persuaded to accept that they not only are inherently inferior but also should gratefully receive the wisdom of the “superior” culture their society is undermines, disempowered and becomes willing to accept outside guidance and direction.”
What to do?
“What Africans need to do as much as they can is recapture a feeling for their past that is not solely filtered through the prism of colonialists. This will not be easy because 500 years is a long time to struggle against all forms of oppression.”
I quote extensively from Maathai because I think she is one of the greatest Africans to ever walk on African soil and she writes very eloquently about these kinds of issues. Other people have written extensively about similar issues and we need to read their works. I am talking about people like Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Chinua Acchebe, Wole Soyinka, Basil Davidson, Okot P’ Bitek, Gus Casely Hayford…you can add to the list.
There is a wealth of information on the internet now. You can have a look at these three.
The lost Kingdoms of Africaa by Gus Casely Hayford
Africa: A voyage of discovery by Basil Davidson
Africa: A triple Heritage Ali Mazrui
Instead of sinking into despair and cynicism let us(me included…i find I have lots of ground to cover) let us engage, diversify our sources of information, de-colonize our minds, support people and or organizations that are trying to work towards resolving African challenges or social justice issues, use our work (s) as avenues to further the cause of Africanhood/Africaness ….my point is – let us all do something ….anything BUT Whining because we need to find a cure for this disease. Yes, Afropessimism is a disease of the soul!