By Matthew Ayibakuro
Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or’ Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, or ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow,’ ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’, and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.
It is about ten years now since Binyavanga laid down these wise words for fellows like me who are grappling with the challenge of discussing development in Africa to follow. His article is simply witty, mildly aggressive and funny at the same time – a refreshing read indeed.
Overall, the article demonstrates how complex the task of thinking and talking about Africa – knowing Africa – really is. For a continent of fifty-six countries with about one billion people and over 2,000 languages, it would require thumbing through endless literature on politics, economics, history, social science and anthropology to acquire a meaningful conception of the countries and peoples in the continent; some herculean task that would be.
Luckily, you may not have to go through all that stress. Nowadays, there are experts on Africa everywhere very eager to imbue you with their specialised knowledge of the continent. There are those who work for the ‘mother’ development institutions: the World Bank, UN, IMF, USAID, DFID, etc., setting the agenda and trends on what the continent needs to do to develop and alleviate ‘the people’ from poverty. If you are not opportune to meet these palatial people, then you are sure to gain insights from very confident academics working in some specially-funded development department in a Russel Group or Ivy League university. These people know Africa, its economy, politics, culture, problems and they know the solutions too. Some of them have actually been to Africa for a week or weeks, months or on the odd occasion, years. How can we therefore question their wisdom? I humbly don’t.
Beyond the academics, there are also experts who are part of classy think tanks located in one of the many posh capitals of the world thinking and talking Africa. You must have met or at least seen some of these experts. You cannot miss them on CNN or BBC or Aljazeera dishing out wisdom on the continent after some customary disaster in the horn of Africa or at its tail, or perhaps after the visit of a very important leader from another part of the world to Africa – what does this mean for the continent, how many people have died already from the disaster and how many more will die if nothing is done, what needs to be done now to prevent another disaster??? By the time the news anchor says, ‘Thank you for speaking to us”, all the answers are there. Time to move on, albeit leaving behind quite farcical conceptions of the continent that have made campaigns like the one depicted in the picture above imperative.
So, with all these experts guiding our thoughts and opinions, we have come to know Africa. We can also claim to be mini-experts now. We know some of the prognosis of Africa’s problems and can argue the solutions too. For Africa to develop, it has to collaborate with Western countries in trade, investment and technology, etc., so it can also be ‘modernised’ with tall buildings, railroads, and all the other beautiful things. Alternatively, you can argue along the lines of my personal favourite, which you are sure to come across when we mini-experts are talking about Africa – the problem of Africa is the west with its insincere aid, suspect business deals and capitalist corporations that keep exploiting Africa and disrupting its ability to develop on its own. Classic!
About a year ago, armed with the expert-driven knowledge and mentality that we all need to ‘help’ Africa develop, and equally passionate about the development of the continent, I decided my starting point would be to blog about my theories and thoughts about the continent. I was excited about the many things I would write about – how aid is bad for Africa, how financial institutions in western countries are aiding the perpetration of corruption in African countries, how China is suddenly becoming so prominent on the continent and the need to be suspect of their intentions and impact, and my preferred of all, I would blog on the theme of “Africa Rising”.
I needed to do some research. I started with Binyavanga’s article. Perhaps I should not have, as it delayed the commencement of this blog for over a year, but I am glad I did. In the months that followed, instead of writing, I ended up reading more articles and blogs and books, realising all the way how one could easily fall prey to the many undue generalisations, fallacies and (mis) conceptions about the African continent.
So, does starting this blog now mean that I have found the ‘holy grail’ to thinking and talking about Africa? Sadly not. What I found though, is that when we do not take the time to read and think about Africa as Africans, others would and are actually doing the thinking for us. If we do not start talking about this continent and the issues affecting it from our perspective, others will continue to do the talking for us and spoon-feed us their perspectives. It then becomes utterly ridiculous when we turn around to vehemently criticise their opinions when we gave them the initiative in the first place, and put ourselves in an undesirable defensive position.
It is on this note that I invite you to join this dialogue on issues of development in the various countries in the continent of Africa. Perhaps we will find the many answers we seek by talking about the few we now possess. In doing so, we will try, like Kwame Nkrumah posited, to ‘face neither east or west‘ this time around, but ‘face forward’ at all times.