5 Things You Didn't Know About Africa

This article was first published in the 3 Quarks Daily, July 26. 2010

Tolu Ogunlesi
... was born in 1982. He is the author of a collection of poetry, Listen to the geckos singing from a balcony (Bewrite Books, 2004) and a novella, Conquest & Conviviality (Hodder Murray, 2008). In 2007 he was awarded a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg poetry prize, in 2008 the Nordic Africa Institute Guest Writer Fellowship, and in 2009 a Cadbury Visiting Fellowship by the University of Birmingham. His fiction and poetry have been published in The London Magazine, Wasafiri, Farafina, PEN Anthology of New Nigerian Writing, Litro, Brand, Orbis, Nano2ales, Stimulus Respond, Sable, Magma, Stanford's Black Arts Quarterly and World Literature Today, among others. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria.


When Western tourists talk about Africa somehow it seems to me that what they really mean is East and Southern Africa, places like Namibia, Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana and parts of Uganda where you will find safaris and zebras and elephants and lakes in abundance.


Africa their Africa

When I think of Tourists’ Africa I almost never think of Nigeria. Tourists stay away from a country like Nigeria1 – those masses of foreigners to be seen at the arrival terminal of the Lagos International Airport (MMIA) are diplomats and NGO-types and oil workers and journalists and researchers, and maybe spies. (And of course the occasional ‘Nigerian letter’ victim desperately hoping to recover a lost fortune). For most of them there will be the lure of money to be made / earned – as hardship allowance or crazy business profit. Nigeria is one country where foreigners come to make money, not to fritter it away on guided tours and lakeside resorts.
In the Congo they will be aid workers and diamond-seeking businessmen and gorilla savers; dito the Sudan (minus the gorilla-savers and businessmen). In Liberia and Sierra Leone they will be IMF and World Bank officials. In Guinea Bissau they will mostly be cocaine merchants and US drug enforcement agents.


i-frica

If Africa didn’t exist, the world – the West, actually – would have to invent it. If they failed, then China would have succeeded. Indeed the anthropologist and Africa specialist John Ryle wrote3, in his review of Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, in the London Guardian: “In an important sense, “Africa” is a western invention. Despite attempts by visionaries to promote unity among the states that inherited dominion from Europe’s retreating empires, African politicians have never paid anything more than lip-service to the pan-African ideal.”
But we could even take that concept of invention to the extreme; beyond the invention of African “unity” to the invention of Africa itself.
Think of a planet without Africa, without what British journalist and author of 3 important books about the continent, Michela Wrong described (speaking on behalf of all foreign journalists) as “Africa’s various trouble spots, our professional bread and butter.”
I repeat this: If Africa didn’t exist the West would have had to invent it. If Africa didn’t exist, where would all that aid money go? Saving Europe’s poor? Or bailing out Greece and Iceland? Certainly not; it would have gone instead towards providing grants for publishers and novels churning out books about an ‘imaginary continent of Africa’, where the only thing that worked would be the dysfunction. If Africa didn’t exist, what we today know as Sci-fi would be set on a continent known as ‘Africa’.
What would the slave plantations of the New World have done in the absence of Africa? What would Mungo Park have done? David Livingstone? Lord Lugard? Lord Palmerston? Ryszard Kapuscinski? Bob Geldof? What would the World Bank and IMF be without Africa? If Africa didn’t exist, Steve Jobs would have come to the rescue with the i-frica.


The epidemic of the angry African

Ever since the arrival of television Africa has been greatly defined by its children. Kwarshiorkoed Biafran kids – with bloated bellies and flies in the eyes – shocked the world in the final years of the 1960s, and galvanized a massive humanitarian operation, the modern beginnings of the billion-dollar charity industry. A decade and half later the theatre of pity moved to Ethiopia. Bono and Bob Geldof (as we know them today) were born. The hungry African child motif took its place as the unifying metaphor for a continent of grossly disparate parts.
And then in the 1990s the helpless African child got tough competition, in the form of the child soldier. In place of the begging bowl, the African child now held a Kalashnikov. There’s an entire genre of literature built around these children; books like Chris Abani’s Song for Night, Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah Is Not Obliged, Uzodimma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation; Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, China Keitetsi’s Child Soldier: Fighting For My Life.
Today, decades later, another image is emerging, that will both reflect and define the image of the continent in the years to come. It is the angry African. She is everything that the child victim is not: educated, privileged, in many cases domiciled in the west. She is angry at the portrayals of Africa by Western media. She foams at the mouth when she sees the TIME Magazine essay on maternal mortality in Sierra Leone, has a JPEG file of the Economist’s famous “The Hope-less Continent” cover on her memory stick; can quote Binyavanga Wainana’s essay “How to write about Africa” line by rib-cracking line; and is an avid reader and commentator on blogs and websites, her mind an automated search engine programmed with one word: “Africa”.
The angry African is as helpless about her anger as the hungry African child is about her hunger. But unlike the hunger the angry African’s anger is justified; every bit of it. She has taken the AK47 from the child soldier, emptied it of its lead and filled its cartridges with ink instead.
True, African anger at Western portrayal is not new. Long before now there was Achebe (to mention only one example) and his trenchant critique of Joseph Conrad. There was the postcolonial anger of the sixties and seventies. So what’s new? The internet, maybe, which has succeeded in multiplying access to the instigators of the anger as well as to means of expressing it. If there were only a handful of angry Africans before now (mostly sequestered in Ivory Towers), today there are armies of them, let loose on the internet.
Backed up by blogs and Twitter and Facebook, angry Africans can wield their anger effortlessly. Beware, all you misinterpreters of the continent. Being wellintentioned will probably no longer save you. There’s a lot to learn from what recently happened to TIME Africa Bureau chief, Alex Perry.


Africa is the past – and the future

Ever heard of the Rift Valley? It’s the place in East Africa where scientists tell us humans first learned to walk on two feet, and from where the humans who today occupy other parts of the world commenced their wandering. The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine 2009 summer issue had as its lead a fascinating piece titled: “We’re all African now.”
In it J.M. Ledgard writes: “According to potassium- argon dating, hominids lived here for 900,000 years. They made handaxes which they used to butcher the hippos, zebras and baboons they hunted and scavenged … The Kenyan anthropologist Louis Leakey uncovered a Homo erectus skull here in the 1940s; the brain cavity was disappointingly small. There must have been grunts, gestures with stones, blood, the sky blotted with vultures, ape children kept back in the darkness …”
Ledgard goes on to declare: “We are all Africans. We originated in Africa. That is proved by the continent’s rich genetic inheritance. Africans are more diverse than the rest of humanity put together, because they are drawn from the pool of humans who did not leave …”
Africa is indeed the world’s past. In its darkest recesses lies overwhelming shame – the shame of slavery, of colonialism, of neocolonialism – fuelling the guilt of the world.


But Africa is also the future. Ask China.

Ask Europe in a few decades, when its streets will teem with pensioners, beneath whose combined weight economies will totter; when it’d be easier to find a mosquito in Germany, than a teenage German.
55 percent of the world’s cobalt is in Africa, as are 15 percent of the world’s arable land, 16 percent of its gold, 89 percent of its platinum, and a sixth of its population. Add China and India and Western Europe together and the resulting landmass would still be smaller than Africa.
There is an invasion of fibre-optic cabling across huge swatches of the continent, that is certain to smash much of the invisible ceiling that has kept Africa on the ground floor while the world inches towards the penthouse.
It is a fact that it is now much harder than ever before to be a dictator on the continent. Vicious wars have ended in Liberia and Sierra Leone and Angola.
Africa, the scar of yesterday (In 2001 Tony Blair called the African situation “a scar on the conscience of the world”) is also the potential star of tomorrow. It is where the guilt of the world will be assuaged.


How to read about Africa

I have written before about the ’ink-attracting’ nature of Africa’s many fires. Africa has turned the world into firefighters; firefighters with cash and ink in their hoses. What many do not bother to realize is that there are as many “experts” from within as from without.
In a You-Tube Q & A session with readers, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof was asked why his “columns about Africa almost always feature black Africans as victims, and white foreigners as their saviors.”
His interesting response: “The problem that I face — my challenge as a writer — in trying to get readers to care about something like Eastern Congo, is that frankly, the moment a reader sees that I’m writing about Central Africa, for an awful lot of them, that’s the moment to turn the page. It’s very hard to get people to care about distant crises like that. One way of getting people to read at least a few grafs in is to have some kind of a foreign protagonist, some American who they can identify with as a bridge character.”
So there – we meet the lazy American reader who cannot engage with a piece unless he sees either of the following: a “Donate” button or a White Character created by a White Expert. It is important for Americans interested in learning about Africa to read not just the Western interpreters of Africa but also the Africans who daily spill ink about a continent they care very much about and probably know more about than many of the foreign experts ever will. Please read people like Nicholas Kristofs – but also make sure to read the Tatalo Alamus and the Reuben Abatis.
In his 2007 TED lecture Chris Abani said: “If you want to know about Africa, read our literature. And not just Things Fall Apart, because that would be like saying I’ve read, Gone With the Wind, and so I know everything about America.”
Speaking in 2008, author of Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe told Transition Magazine: “The last five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light and now the time has come for Africans to tell their own stories.”
They have since started telling those stories. You only need to pay a little more attention.


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