Yovanka Paquete Perdigao and Henry Brefo
How should we present West Africa? Its vastness and immense diversity, rich cultural heritage and historical depth. How is West Africa perceived? How best do we enable an appreciation of the region and its people that avoids the pitfalls of cliché and superficiality? How could we collate a series of engaging stories, expositions and insights that were not just the usual ready-made and well-packaged versions of West Africa that already saturate news headlines? When should Africa’s history begin? Should we start from the usual vector – colonialism? But surely there is more to the continent than just that! Should we source a pure native Africa of war and poverty? Or pursue a decidedly contemporary tone, fraught with corrupt elites and downtrodden citizens on one side, and young tech-savvy activists holding governments accountable, on the other? And, of course, we could not possibly ignore the diaspora as an adulteration of an organic image of this part of the world. No matter how negligent or well-meaning the effort to tread familiar landscapes was, the subtle sleight of colonial indoctrination gained through a predominantly white curriculum was evidently at play.
Let us begin with the words of the African writer Chinua Achebe. As he points out, ‘until lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’.
This is not to say that Africa was delivered in the cradle of colonialism, with racism as its midwife. Rather, a way of recognising that Africa has a history and presence beyond its ill-fated encounter with the West. Peter Griffiths attempts to read the continent beyond the colonial prism and although he continues to be concerned with the notion of an African space, his exploration of African cities projects West Africa’s unique identity in the face of a harsh free market urbanisation. Nigeria’s Eko Atlantic, a high-rise real estate luxury development, cuts residents off from the local populace providing them a little taste of New York in Lagos. In Ghana and Ivory Coast similar urban utopias separate the modern nouveau riche from the masses, like a tale of two cities. A new Africa is slowly emerging on the horizon. Dementing the tracks laid by the Colonial powers, China is extending Africa’s networks and connectivity by retrofitting and expanding colonial infrastructures to facilitate intra-regional trade and better coordination between neighbours. Colonial infrastructure had largely been aimed at connecting externally rather than internally: roads were built to mainly facilitate the extraction of raw materials and natural resources from the interior to the colonial metropolis. Instead, what we are witnessing now is the connecting of local people to markets, buyers to sellers and rural residents to urban centres. As often becomes the case when global capitalism enters the game, the line between assistance and exploitation becomes exponentially thin.
China walks this thin line in West Africa. While the perception may make it appear that things are being done differently, the concern still remains as we ask: at what price? Though this remains a muted point in Griffiths’ critical but optimistic overview of West African urbanisation, the importation of Chinese ideas of urban futures in Africa gives pause for thought. It brings to the fore the rapacious competition in the projection of global futures in African cities against local interpretations of African urban development. It begs the question must the project of Africa be forever part of a totalising utopian history that surrenders cultural specificity to a globalised aesthetics. As Ziauddin Sardar, in a previous issue of Critical Muslim, cautions, the extrapolation of romanticised and universalised ‘images’, ‘metaphors’ and ‘accustomed narratives’ onto local structures, ‘can become an instrument not just of colonisation of the future but also of enslaving our imagination’.
It is a little known fact that ‘African urbanisation as we are told goes further back than Europe’. Indeed, before England was formed, following the battle of Hastings in 1066, West Africa had experienced a flourishing of great empires that thrived in Ghana and Mali, as beautifully captured in Jean Ndow’s account of the griot tradition in the Senegambia region. The recitation of the Sundiata epic in its oral essence presents an Africa with an elephantine memory. It is an expression of culture that defies the singularity of authorship to enrol the community at large through oral performance. Memory is de-commodified and socialised as fundamental to the collective identity of the Mande people. The space of performance, according to Ndow, can be a radical site for restoring indigenous knowledge production, which currently is under threat from the primacy of literary cultures. However, through modern techniques and digital technology, Africa can preserve and project its traditions into the future as part of the dynamic process of self-restoration. In a way, she calls for the decolonising of knowledge production, beyond the Ivory tower, by incorporating cultural practice in the telling of the continent’s illustrious history. What does decolonisation really entail, one may ask. Is it just a harking back to pastoral images of communal Africa or grand modernist utopian constructions of universal futures?
In recent times, the deafening clamour of decolonisation from African universities has reverberated through Ivory towers in the West, shaking its hegemonic foundations to their core. On 9 April 2015 students at the University of Cape Town called for the pulling down of the statue of Cecil Rhodes. This galvanised a movement under the uncompromising affirmation #Rhodes Must Fall. Causing a ripple effect across campuses in major African capitals and former colonial centres, Ghana, a veteran of decolonisation, joined the ranks. At the University of Ghana, they even demolished the statue of Gandhi. In a blogpost, a Ghanaian student argued that ‘Gandhi was an unrepentant racist whose low and contemptuous view of blacks is well documented, both by himself and by historians’. School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, a beehive of left-wing politics with a murky colonial past, also saw its student population demanding a decolonised curriculum. The likes of Oxford and Cambridge even tagged along. For universities in the West it was a question of mindsets, which could be repaired through the inclusion of African authors on their reading list.
Unlike their western counterparts, West African students confronted the symbolic evocation of power, expressed through the capture of public spaces to selectively commemorate histories of racial conquest and triumph as national memory. The issue of mindset had been long resolved in the first bout of decolonisation that saw to Africa’s political independence in the 60s and 80s. Accordingly, the students had brought down the mnemonic violence of colonial rule and apartheid, embodied in the dead grindstones of white hegemony. The world watched with stirring indignation when the statute of Rhodes crashed to the ground. Protagonists in this act were charged with vandalism and destruction of national treasure by the global public. Liberal opinion argued for a plurality of historic effigies as a compromise. Others snubbed them as tetchy millennials obsessed with political correctness.
Political correctness, initially designed to discourage racial discrimination, has become an effective weapon to undermine the legitimate concerns of minorities and intersectional communities as pedlars of victimhood. Ironically, the West experienced euphoria when the wall separating East and West Berlin came tumbling down brick by brick, marking the triumph of capitalism – without a single shot fired in Europe. But what about the rest of the world? The euphoria transformed into geopolitical enmity and competition for space exploration amongst Western superpowers with devastating effect on African lives. Caught in the middle, African states came to know the end of the Cold War as a searing succession of civil wars, coup d’état and armed movements mostly funded by Western capital. For the Congo, Sierra Leone, Mozambique and others, this wasn’t simply a cooling of friendly relations between historic rivals, but a long summer of carnage.
Once again, when the statue of Saddam Hussein came crashing down there was jubilation around the world alongside the population of Baghdad. Those who participated in the statue’s toppling were deemed national heroes. Little did we know that Iraq would become a killing field for war-mongers. The scenes of the Rwandan genocide flicker in my memory with all the red flashes of dismembered limbs and disembowelled corpses sprawled along the dirt road of Kigali. Since then Kigali under the stewardship of Paul Kagame has risen like the phoenix from the ashes of ruins and wreckages, clothed in a new image. An impeccably clean city with grand skyscrapers and tarred roads. Yet the west revels in deriding Kagame as a dictator, simply because he dares to imagine a new world, a better future, without their approval. The ambiguity of Western attitudes and response towards Africa partly stems from the conceited belief that Africa and its people are racially inferior. Therefore, African lives, hopes and dreams should await western tutelage and sanction.
In 1953, when Ghana expressed a desire for independence, the British administration grumbled that the country was not ready for self-rule. Surely, it would benefit immensely under British guardianship, the argument resounded, up to a time where the mother colony deemed it appropriate for her dark pickaninnies to leave the nest. Ironically, Britain could not find the same maternal yearning for her colonial offspring aboard the HMS Windrush in 1948. Adorned with all the paraphernalia of Englishness, the black and brown sons and daughters of the Empire upon arrival were met with racial hatred and violence by the legitimate spawns of rule Britannia. Am I not a man and a brother, the iconic image of the supplicant slave, kneeling with his manacled hands outstretched, asks the ‘other’, his master, judge, jury and executioner. The same conflicting sentiment runs through the ongoing Brexit debate. The chants of let’s make Britain great again and take back our borders, conjures the horrors of racism, the terror of living in the shadows of your dark skin. Lord Kitchener, the Jamaican calypsonian and of the Windrush generation, said it best, ‘if you’re white you’re right, if you’re brown stick around, if you’re black go back’. For Chuku Umunna, politician and former member of the British Labour Party, this hasn’t been that easy. Back in 2015, though tipped for leadership in the party he quickly withdrew his bid citing that ‘mixed cultural and class background’ were ‘a chain round my neck’.
In Playing in the Dark (1992), Toni Morrison argues that the rejection of people of colour in the mainstream centres the ‘unracialized, illusory white world’ as the norm, by displacing and choking the representation of an Africanist presence. In this tepid and hot climate of racial tensions, Kalaf Epalanga, a celebrated Lusophone writer and musician, reminds us that the liberation of Africa remains incomplete without the fostering of strong bonds of solidarity across the African diaspora in centring a constituted image of a global Africa. Through Afrobeat – a cross pollination of musical interaction across the black Atlantic and African continent – Africa rides the waves of self-determination to rewrite its own history, without entreating Western sensibilities and sensitivities. Crossing linguistic, national and cultural borders, it uses the medium of music and dance to showcase the plurality of African cultural idioms constituted within an emancipatory ethic that enunciates the irrepressible presence of a unified ‘global Africa’. Each generation according to Frantz Fanon is entrusted with the sacred responsibility of either inventing a new future or accepting the status quo. Thus Epalanga tell us, Afrobeat signifies a cry for resistance: ‘Resisting to be labelled a victim, passive and at the mercy of Western charity, resisting being labelled an immigrant when many of these musicians were born in Europe and carry two or more nationalities.’
But in resisting Western hegemony we must go beyond the realm of music and dance to liberate the self, shackled in the signs and codes of representation that entrench debauched notions of cultural difference and reinforces racial stereotype. In a cartoon drawn by Mark Knight, that was published in the Australian newspaper Herald Sun, Serena Williams is depicted as a raving hysterical toddler, with large lips, hideous eyes, flat wide nose, and spitting out a dummy in an ape-like pose. Every inch of her appearance is amplified to harmonise with white disdain for difference – the black body. To add insult to injury, the visceral portrayal of Serena is contrasted with Osaka, a Japanese-Haitian, featured as a slender white woman with delicate features and blonde hair. The newspaper employed all the familiar racist tropes of black people in America, since Jim Crow. Yet the Australian Press Council, a watchdog responsible for promoting good media practice and upholding standards in Australia, ruled that the cartoon did not breach media guidelines but simply used exaggeration to illustrate the events that occurred at the US Open final. Supporters of Mark Knight spat back at his critics on social media with the claim that labelling his cartoon to be racist shows that the world has gone too PC. It seems that in the realm of satire, anything goes provided that the assault is aimed at a black body, at best a black woman. In contrast, Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed, in this issue, brings a dialectical thrust to the politics of identity, moving beyond the black and white binary, to interrogate that unnerving space between the self and the ‘other’. Through a candid self-introspection of living with divergent religious and cultural identities with discontinuous narratives, she tells of the incredulity of South Asian Uber drivers and Mauritian and Nigerian work colleagues upon learning from her name, that she might be a Muslim. The question ‘Are you A Muslim?’ whenever asked, conceals the complex interplay of race and culture in demarcating parochial fixed boundaries of identification grounded on the appeal of imagined communities.
In other words, the construction of homogeneous ethnic, religious and racial identities within synchronic narratives have the power to exclude. In a bold exercise of self-affirmation she staunchly declares ‘So, what am I? I am a Muslim woman, a Hausa woman, a Nigerian woman, a West African woman, an African woman, a Caribbean woman, with a Christian British-Caribbean mother and a Muslim Nigerian father’. There is no hierarchy in her multiple identities. As Henry Brefo argues, this partly stems from the notion of an organic history of Islam, reflecting Islamic encounters that produced conspicuous forms of local conversions. He contrasts this with the case of the Asante Kramo in Ashanti, Ghana, revealing that Islamic identities did not follow the same trajectories but were produced out of specific historic relations that entailed unique sets of interaction between Muslims and local populations. Asante Nkramo, Brefo suggests are a ‘hybrid’ socio-cultural group whose sense of identity owes much to, but is not limited to, the colonial reconfiguration of Ashanti political, social and economic space. Consequently, identities are negotiated as an outwardly elaborate performance that turns on a disavowal of historic affinities to emphasise cultural difference. Evidently, Africa possesses a complex history that has shaped intricate forms of self-formation outside of the black and white dichotomy. And as such decolonisation must also deconstruct linear interpretations of an African past beyond neat and ordered narratives that suppress historical deviation from the colonial presence. It should aim at restoring the public archives, bringing to full circle the fragmented and divergent histories of the continent as Ndow’s essay argues.
This argument underlines Hang Zhou’s contention with the negative portrayal of relations between the People Republic of China and West African states. Going beyond the dominant narratives of greedy shrewd Chinese imperialists versus servile juvenile Africans, he highlights the cultural exchanges between the two countries. Particularly, he notes the growing interest in African literature in China. This is a positive development, with the potential of countering Eurocentric notions of Africa as a dark continent, of no historical consequence or importance to the World. The emergence of African consciousness amongst the Chinese is a good indicator of cross-cultural interactions on both sides. Whilst we remain suspicious of the Chinese state’s growing interest in Africa, it will also serve us well to try and understand how the ordinary Chinese citizen perceives and engages with Africa.
Recall Achebe’s warning. Who will recount the lion’s perspective? With this goal in sight, the philosophical underpinning of the decolonisation movement conceptualised under the term Consciencism was provided. But it was Ngugi Wa Thiong’o who popularised and invigorated the movement in his seminal work, the thought-provoking essay Decolonising the Mind. Ngugi provided coming generations of Africans a road map to a comprehensive decolonisation, aimed at restoring the African personality on the world stage. He helped a broader audience understand that colonialism was not simply about the exploitation of land, labour and natural resources but also an assault on the African imagination, by implanting its memory on the African consciousness. Credit must be given where it is due, decolonisation as a political movement did not commence in Africa but India. In 1947, India painfully wrested itself from the hubris of British tyrannical rule. Africa took notice and since then has sustained the spirit of the movement, moulding its own version, whether it be manifestations of Pan-Africanism, described in Nouria Bah’s essay, or the assertions of religious identity uncovered by Brefo. Today, the slogan decolonising the mind has found African leaders envisioning an Africa beyond aid, in practice beyond the bondage of IMF and foreign NGOs. Clearly, decolonisation is not just a black African story but holds resonance for all people of colour.
In challenging the colonial domination of Africa’s historical imagination, the millennial generation, the pulse of Africa’s future, are leaving indelible marks on the consciousness of public memory. They are navigating the monolithic manifestations of the past, whilst resisting its enduring omnipresence in an audacious manner to give life to new imaginings of space and time. The physical act of pulling down vestiges of colonialism in public spaces serves as a figurative performance of spatial emancipation.
In a millennial spirit, Joy Oluwagbemileke Jegede, Africa’s youngest lawyer, goes beyond the common stereotypes associated with Africa’s youth. In her ‘Last Word’, Joy illuminates that Africa, as the continent with the youngest population, has such an abundance of talent to offer the world. From the realm of economics, sports, politics and business, young Africans are paving a new path forward through their creativity.
The hunter has for too long been celebrated for his exploits of the hunt. The time has come for the Lion to tell his side of the story.