Monday, July 04, 2005

Guardian Unlimited: Humiliated once more

The UK based Guardian posted a very interesting opinion article on the look of Europeans on Africa, especially in light of the current push by Tony Blair for alleviating poverty on the "motherland". It is true that the continent keeps being portrayed as a 'wasteland' of lost, needy and somewhat 'uncivilised and backward' people, where the quintessential 'White men's (today re-styled the 'International's community's') burden' to bring them joy, happiness, and the God given Western civilization.

As the author - Madeline Bunting, a Westerner - states, "The recent focus on Africa reinforces our perception of it as picturesque, pitiful, psychopathic and passive". And it is true that although I was extremely impressed by the success and good intentions of the Live 8 concerts, I cannot help but agree that the undertones of the concerts were not really empowering for Africans.

The focus of this type of event never seems to be to acknowledge and redress a wrong that was done to Africans - and any rational mind must admit that at the very least part, if not all, of the current situation in Africa result from the abject colonial and neo-colonial policies pursued by countries in the Western world (and the USSR from the 50's up to the 80's, to be fair) and their client governments and juntas. The focus always seems to be on how good and benevolent the people in the West are and/or should be. Just like the root causes of islamic terrorism, the root causes of Africa's desolation always seem elucted in the process.

Once, I would like to see an event of the Live 8 magnitude that ceases to treat Africans like distant endangered exotic animals that need saving, but like real and equal people, with families, cultures, and yes, civilizations, that are simply living the consequences that history and oppression has brought upon them, and that need a human to human - as opposed to Monarch to subject - care and attention. Something to the effect of what was done for Nelson Mandela in the 80's, but at the continental level. Is that too much to ask? I, as an African, want to be seen as a human first, with the rights and the abilities that it entails; not simply as a poster child. I come from the place that spawned the entire human race, doesn't that make me human enough? I want people to treat me like a person with a DIFFERENT culture, as opposed to an INFERIOR one. Only within that framework can we find sensible ways to deal with the situation. As long as there will be that colonial under-pinning to the initiatives taken by the West, I doubt we will solve the situation, without crating another worse one: identity crises, eradication of entire cultures, terrorism, etc.

Now do not get me wrong. There are plenty of well-intentioned people, NGOs and institutions in the West that understand all this, and that do a lot of work on a deep and genuine level. It is not my intention to minimise their work, or to demean it. What I want to do, is put it in a bit of perspective. I appreciate their work, and their intentions. I am simply putting their work in what I see as the right cultural, economical and historical context.

To see this story with its related links on the Guardian Unlimited site, go to

Humiliated once more
Madeleine Bunting

The recent focus on Africa reinforces our perception of it as picturesque, pitiful, psychopathic and passive

Monday July 04 2005
The Guardian

Call me naive, but I thought it was possible that 2005 could achieve even more than a historic breakthrough deal on debt relief and aid for Africa. The conjunction of this key political moment with a huge cultural festival, Africa 05 - television and radio programmes, festivals of music, museums all over the country hosting exhibitions - seemed to hold the promise of achieving one of those lasting shifts in public understanding of Africa.

What seemed within grasp was the start of a new relationship between the neighbouring continents of Europe and Africa - at last. Could Britain open a new page in its long engagement with Africa, finally drawing a line under the colonial themes of "saving" and "civilising" the continent? The wealth of African creativity evident everywhere - art, music, sculpture, film - would reinject into the public sphere a perception of the immense ingenuity, resourcefulness and reflective inquiry of Africans. It would shatter the myth of Africans as powerless victims at the mercy of western generosity and do-goodery.

It would help us to put back into the political landscape a sense of African agency. It would correct the media myth that the fate of millions of Africans is passively lying in the hands of eight men arriving in Gleneagles on Wednesday, and make clear that, given half a chance, Africans can shape the circumstances of their daily lives - and their often-precarious survival - far more powerfully and effectively than the G8.

The hope was that people would get to see more of Africa than starving black babies on their screens. We would get to hear about Africans much like ourselves - with the same hopes, fears and aspirations; we would, finally, begin to identify with them as human beings. That shift of perception offered a radical potential for a more equal engagement between Europe and Africa - the kind of sustained long-term relationship necessary to deal with the huge challenges to our species of climate change and Aids.

You may say that was ludicrously naive. And I begin to fear that you are right. What we are seeing now in this unprecedented media focus on Africa is a very old theme. In 1787 the slogan of the Quaker abolitionists was "Am I not a man and a brother?" But the radicalism of this rallying cry was belied by the image on the Anti-Slavery Society's seal of the African slave - he was on his knees. His liberty and dignity was ours for the giving, not his for the taking. The relationship at this G8, more than 200 years later, is similarly framed: African as supplicant to the (mostly) white men.

An entire continent has been reduced to a "scar on the conscience of the world", stripped of its dignity and left more powerless than at any intervening point since 1787. The images we saw of Africans at Live 8 on Saturday were the dying, the starving and the desperately impoverished. Postcolonialism in a globalising economy is proving even more humiliating for Africa than colonialism: its huge wealth in natural resources sequestered in secret bank accounts; its commodities commanding ever-smaller prices; its vicious wars with the exported arms of the industrial world; its government policies dictated from Washington and Geneva. Even its suffering exploited to jerk us into attention and to supply our emotional self-gratification. To the partying Hyde Park crowd, Kofi Annan said "thank you". But for what?

Blair's Africa agenda is yet another expression of what Professor John Lonsdale, the Cambridge historian of Africa, described in a lecture last week as "the self-righteously civilising mission of the past two centuries" of Europe towards its neighbour. He concluded that "it is a construction that infantilises not only Africans, unable to fend for themselves, but us too, like babies demanding the instant gratification of self-importance".

What the past few weeks have reinforced in popular perception is the absurd simplification of an entire continent so that it is explicable in terms of just four adjectives: picturesque, pitiful, psychopathic and, above all, passive. This is the formula used by such interlocutors as Bob Geldof and Rolf Harris (the BBC seems to think we won't watch Africa without a white face to show us around). In the Geldof episodes I forced myself to watch, I heard only two Africans speak - a few whispers from a frightened child, a few words from a wizened elder - and none in Harris. Sumptuous maybe, but these programmes were riddled with stereotypes - setting suns, crowds of smiling children, inexplicable crazed violence - and had little new to say. This kind of TV reflects a profound lack of curiosity in Africa; a sharp contrast to the early 20th century, when Africa revolutionised western art, or the 60s, when a wave of new African leaders drew nervous respect across Europe.

The lost opportunity that 2005 may come to represent is not for want of trying. Visit the near-empty galleries of the Crafts Council's Africa exhibition to marvel at the beauty and skill of the basket-making, the beaten silver, the woven clothes; visit the British Museum's Africa galleries to admire the beauty of El Anatsui's woven tapestries of bottle tops. All over the country this year are examples of African art's use of recycled materials - from bottle tops to bed springs, machine guns to petrol cans. But Africa 05's director, Augustus Caseley-Hayford, is bitterly frustrated at the refusal of the mainstream media to engage - a kind of wilful incomprehension that he can only see as racism.

It is almost as if the west can't accept African agency: we want the simplification of the four Ps because it so neatly caters for our fears, derived from the colonial history of the "dark continent" of Joseph Conrad fame. Is this the price that has to be paid for an instant of western attention?

The west, in its rapacious and impatient greed, destroys with contempt or indifference all that it can't appropriate for its own aggrandisement. Africa exposes - like no other continent - the hubristic arrogance of the western industrialised countries that dominate the globe and are forcing an entire species into one model of human development - a model with catastrophic shortcomings.

Now is precisely the point at which we need to learn about the genius of Africa's own history of development, which, Lonsdale suggests, lies in the extraordinary resilience and self-sufficiency to survive and adapt in habitats not always conducive to human life. The resilience is derived in part from an investment in relationships (rather than things); partly it lies in the qualities of self-disciplined willpower that sustain individuals against all the odds. These are skills we've forgotten or may never have had, but the coming centuries suggest we'll need to learn them from Africans.

If we recognised the immensity of this achievement of human endeavour over thousands of years, it might help to dismantle the self-satisfied superiority by which the west lays claim to a monopoly on concepts of progress and development. We - Africans and westerners - might begin to reframe the debate and ask ourselves if it isn't the grossly polluting G8 which is a scar on the conscience of the world.

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited


Black River Eagle said...

Good essay Malau, and it is so good to see you back in action. Hoping that both you and Ntumba are doing well as I've been worried.

The attention and focus on Africa and on African writers in the MSM and in the Blogosphere is just massive! Everywhere you turn people are writing and talking about Africa, finally.

This is your time Africa. Run, run, run, run with the world's attention like gazelles. Teach us who you are and how you think and feel about the world that we all live in and must share with one another fairly.

Help us to learn how to help Africans in ways that will really work for a sound future. Help us to work with you to restore dignity to the peoples of a great and magnificent continent. Know that you are loved by so many of us, unconditionally.

Black River Eagle said...

I've re-read this post today (August 15th, 2005). It is a marvelous and intelligent expression of your feelings and I'm sure that millions of African people feel the same as you about these issues.

I left a comment with references to "Le Salon" and "The Exiled Afrikan" at the Booker Rising blog yesterday re: a post about voter registration and preparations for national elections in the D.R.C. Check their post for Sunday, August 14th "Planned Elections in Congo to Cost Estimated $430 Million".

I'd love to see you or Carine comment on this subject here and also at Booker Rising, one of the leading blogs on African-American views and issues in the U.S.A.

You and Carine are sorely missed in the Blogosphere and your readers (fans) are eager to see you return soon. Hoping all is well with my two young friends from the D.R.C.

The SeaWitch said...

How refreshing it is to stumble across a blog that's actually WORTH reading! I couldn't agree more with you regarding the West's continual portrayal of Africa as the retarded cousin in the global dysfunctional political family. Unfortunately, people won't open their chequebooks if the recipients don't look desperate enough to be 'deserving' of their cash. It's high time we stop throwing money at the problem (and patting ourselves on the back for it) and start investing real time and real effort to reduce the problems which have relegated African countries to the bottom of just about every economic index ever printed. Keep updating your blog and I'll keep reading it!

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