Monday, July 16, 2012

The "Real" Africa

The brief summer holiday seemed over in a flash, and ended much as it had begun—sitting in the Johannesburg airport, waiting for an onward flight.  This one was back into the bowels of the archives in Lusaka.  The evening was a still one—quite different to the night during which I had arrived in South Africa.  Then, the winds had been strong and the clouds thick.  The plane had hit an ireful patch of weather which sent it skittering across the sky and, more unnervingly, dropping precipitately down into the banks of clouds which covered the city, once with the result that my neighbour found himself wearing his glass of wine.

Beneath the clouds, the vast city smouldered, its light making the ethereal layer over the city pulse with life and energy.  And it was that light which made me think about what Africa means to people.

An expression that one often hears in the continent—usually from the mouths of expats, aid workers, visitors or volunteers (not all of them, by any means, but enough to make it irritating)—is “The Real Africa”.  This is a phrase which makes my aspiring historians’ hackles go up.  What it insinuates, to my mind, is that there is a particular way that Africa—a continent of over fifty countries, hundreds of millions of people, and as diverse a collection of geographies, cultures and histories as can be found anywhere—ought to be. 

I think that the casual reduction of these geographies, cultures, and histories into one packaged ‘norm’ ought to be offensive to anyone.  But to someone who studies the continent’s history it is particularly galling for its suggestion that “The Real Africa” is a ‘pristine’, ‘unspoilt’, ‘timeless’, ‘primitive’ sphere, wafting in place on a gentle breeze, unruffled by either external developments (and the notion that events in Africa might have an impact on the world beyond its geographic boundaries never even enters into the equation) or by its own experiences.  Anything in Africa which deviates from this story, so the perverse line of reasoning—adopted by an appalling array of actors—goes is somehow ‘inauthentic’, fabricated, ultimately unacceptable as ‘real’, and inevitably disappointing.

This narrative has an illustrious genealogy.  The German philosopher Hegel famously pronounced Africa a continent without history, bereft of anything of interest to humanity and its scholars.  This was a story reinforced by successive waves of European exploration, exploitation and rule, proponents of all of which relied in their rationalisation, administration, and die-in-the-last-ditch defence of colonialism on an idea of Africa as a simple place, disconnected from reality as they knew it and from the dynamic world of historical change that characterised the rest of the world.  These were sentiments defended not just by the scions of imperial rule during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but by prestigious historians like Hugh Trevor-Roper over one hundred years after Hegel consigned the continent to a state of historical irrelevance. 

And today, the idea of “The Real Africa” as a place somehow out of time makes for some strange bedfellows.  The aid workers who pride themselves on roughing it in the bush and who denounce any manifestation of social change since the ‘50s as a blemish on “The Real Africa”; politicians who labour under the misapprehension that the continent is a country; travellers who inveigh against cities and those who live in them as deviant from “The Real Africa” of the unspoilt bush; white residents who condemn social change amongst African communities as being out of step with “the African mentality”—they are all, at the end of the day, paid-up members of the “Africa is a Country—and one Without History” brigade.

South Africa gets particularly targeted by this Company of Swashbucklers.  Its urban areas are “too modern”, its population “too cosmopolitan”, its industries “too developed”, and its history “too different” to satisfy those who like ‘their’ Africa pegged to a fixed temporal and geographical board.  The attempt to homogenise the continent goes in some unsavoury directions when it is picked up by those who look back fondly on the colonial era.  South Africa’s government is “too ambitious” and “too aggressive” for the taste of some—the equivalent of the ‘uppity’ tag that the Clintons and the Republican Party tried to throw at the Obamas in 2007-08—insufficiently compliant with vested interests (though this isn’t to defend the ANC from the more substantive charges directed against it).

This combination of geographic illiteracy and historical ignorance has many dearly-defended bulwarks, but one of its strongest redoubts can be found in the bookshelves not only in the United States and Western Europe, but also in countries like Zambia.  The most popular genre of writing relating to Africa are the memoirs of colonisers—whether from the heady early days in East Africa (the likes of Elspeth Huxley and Karen Blixen) or the painful, drawn-out end to colonialism in southern Africa (Peter Godwin, Alexandra Fuller).  Bookshelves—in the ‘history’ section of bookshops no less—are chock full of this stuff.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the literature.  Although I find it offensive and misleading in some respects, it offers a snapshot of how an era was experienced by a subset of people.  Most of it is interesting (if often not for the reasons its authors might have imagined), some of it is even well-written, and a few of the books that comprise the self-serving and largely rose-tinted genre are even thoughtful.  The real problem is that it is all that most people read.  The literary pygmies who shape most people’s perceptions of an entire continent are dwarfed by the likes of Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Peter Abrahams, Nadine Gordimer, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Alan Paton, Ahmadou Kourouma, J M Coetzee, and Ferdinand Oyonyo, to name but a few.  Most people have at least heard of Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, but very few are familiar with the earlier, more epic journeys of Ibn Battuta.  People might know about Huxley’s homage to Lord Delamere and the other colonisers who pillaged Kenya, but very few will have read the griots’ tribute to Sundiata of Mali. 

As a result, many people in the U.S. and Europe (and not a few long-time residents in Africa who should know better) view “The Real Africa” as one that was inhabited by blissful, peaceful white settlers, living out their bucolic existences until their lives were upset by the in-migration of hordes of irrational Africans, demanding something as unreasonable as the return of the lands that were stolen from them, the restoration of rights denied them, and the reinvigoration of the social lives long hindered by the shackles of colonialism.  And then the “Africa is a Country” brigade protest when those social lives diverge from the since-reified state in which people lived (whether in actuality or in the imaginations of colonisers) at the moment of colonial conquest.

But is it any wonder?   In the Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Hegel wrote, “At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again.  For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit...What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature” (99).  It is this “Spirit” which still animates the views of too many people towards the continent.

It was late as I rode the taxi from the airport into Lusaka.  The streets were largely deserted, and the route took me past an open stretch of plain, a new government hospital, the Arcades and Manda Hill shopping malls, a series of harrowing compounds, skyscrapers, the Ghanaian embassy, and the dusty streets leading to Mulombwa close.  All of those things—none of which fit with the “Spirit” described by Hegel and sustained by ignorance today—are as “real” as the villages, the game reserves, the initiation rites, the riverine valleys, the ancient ruins, and the colonial era edifices that dot the continent. 

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