I left Liberia exhausted and cynical. The happy, formative memories of my younger days in Cameroon and Swaziland were largely forgotten. Now much of my perception of the expansive continent were consumed by the tragedies of the Ebola epidemic and tales from the Liberian Civil War, the blatant corruption and hypocrisy of African officials and colleagues, and the bullshit politics of the international aid world. Describe Africa in three words?
This. Is. Africa.
Those three words, synonymous with the cancerous dysfunction that seems ever present no matter what African country you happen to be in, compress a landmass larger than the combined areas of Europe, the USA, China and India, 54 countries, thousands of languages and over 1.1 billion people into a tired, lazy stereotype. And because of that, why should anyone bother? Why should the West bother? Why should African leaders bother? Why should African people bother?
Why should I bother?
I had always tried to see beyond that, to realise there was more to Africa than all of its frustrating problems, that above all that it was a patchwork of places woven from the vibrant threads of individual stories. Yes, it was far from perfect; what place is for that matter? But I never wanted to treat that as the whole story. And despite that open mind, based on the experiences I’d already had, on the people I knew, people I spoke to in Liberia, black and white, African or otherwise told me I was wrong.
It wasn’t a lot of people – I could probably count them on one hand – but their words stick with me more vividly than anything else that was said during that period of my life. I was a young, stupid, rich white boy who knew nothing about Africa. I had to stop being so black and white. I was being “post-colonial”. I had to have a little more humility. I couldn’t possibly understand poverty because, quite simply, I’m not from a “poor country”.
So much for everything I poured my energies into when I was younger. Perhaps I should have just gotten drunk in the park instead.
Yes I have had a relatively privileged life, albeit rather modest by “Western” standards, by sheer lottery of birth, but that in no way makes me naïve, ignorant, or – how dare they suggest – unqualified to be even capable of forming my own valid judgements and opinions, based on my own learning and experiences. And if you are going to make it about class or race or whatever, there is more to the world than the dichotomy of “rich white” and “poor non-white”.
Fuck that shit. Fuck that simplistic view of the world. Fuck being told you can’t do something because of the colour of your skin (because that’s the reality of what you said).
The purpose of discouragement is to knock people down a peg, so you can feel better about your inadequacies. This is true regardless of whether it concerns the discouragement of friends, colleagues, people groups, or whole continents. And then when the discouragement sinks in and a person takes it to heart, that discouragement becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps it is some colonial throwback; this is Africa then means Africa is this now. Discouragement – and control of the dialogue – by the colonial powers made the colonised peoples submissive and slave to that discourse.
Yes, colonialism wasn’t that fabulous if you were on the receiving end of it. And then there is the nice little topic of slavery. My hometown (Paisley) was a well-known cotton town, famed for the Paisley Pattern, that was mass produced there – the cotton originated from the New World, picked by slaves who had been transported from Africa. But the funny thing about a slave trade, is that it’s a trade. Slaves didn’t just come from nowhere: you had to buy them. It wasn’t that a ship full of British or Dutch or French or whatever sailors just showed up and enslaved half the indigenous population (although I won’t say that never happened). But slaves were traded like a commodity – like gold and oil and cheese – and they had been widely traded in Africa for centuries before the colonial period. At that time the Atlantic slave trade, what typically associated with the term slavery, came into being and men, women and children were shipped to the New World in exchange for luxury goods from Europe. It wasn’t until the British made international slave trade illegal in 1807 (and that the whole industry began to unravel.
“We think this trade must go on. That is the verdict of our oracle and the priests. They say that your country, however great, can never stop a trade ordained by God himself.” The King of Bonny (now in Nigeria) on the abolition of the slavery.
Africans – or should I say rich African leaders – were complicit in the slave trade. They valued people’s lives less than fancy goods from Europe. Like fine clothes, ornaments, spirits, cars, iPhones… It seems like the reality of the situation hasn’t really changed. It took the most powerful nation on earth to democratically pass a law to stop the international trade of slaves that weren’t even its citizens. And Africa? Africa could have, at any point, chosen to stop the lucrative supply of human beings. But it didn’t. The huge continent, let down by its leaders’ small minds.
Today nothing seems to have changed. How many dictators? How much corruption? How many human rights violations? How many genocides? How many millions of people still living in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, let alone their children, without access to clean drinking water, adequate sanitation, medical care, electricity, education… 50 years after being unshackled from colonialism, 100 trillion US Dollars of aid later, and the place is still a shit show. Why?
Because people’s hearts and minds haven’t changed in 200 years.
That’s what “This Is Africa” really means. It’s not that things are under developed. It’s not that the power grid doesn’t work properly (or in Liberia’s case, doesn’t exist at all). It’s not that things are chaotic. It’s that people – specifically those that have the power to make a difference – just don’t care.
They don’t care.
So tell me again why I should care?
Cape Town International Airport: I feel simultaneously calm but excited, like a pot simmering on a stove like it does before it begins to boil. After weeks, if not months, of gentle encouragement I finally decided to join my old colleague and housemate from Liberia on what seems to be a somewhat foolhardy road trip around 9 countries in Southern Africa. Signs are in English while girls with gorgeous caramel skin chatter and gossip in Xhosa or Zulu or some other Bantu language, and the PA system rattles a mix of Afrikaans and phlegm over the noise of a nearby coffee machine. There are so many different skin tones and languages and stories intermingling all around me. I’ve returned to the Rainbow Nation to get beyond my cynicism and discouragement; to remind myself of Africa’s true diversity.
In my core, I know this was the right decision. Once again I’m optimistic for the continent of Africa, and of the millions of individual lives here. The discouraging voices have been silenced – they are wrong – and although I clearly don’t have the full picture (nor does anyone else), I’m at least starting to assemble some of the pieces.