How the West views us as black people has been the question that has occupied African thinkers for a very long time. It is a question that has unfortunately eclipsed the even more critical question: Why do the others view us with such condescension and disrespect, bordering on racism?
I am still fuming after reading the book Onitsha by Nobel laureate J. M. G. Le Clézio, a book set in 1948, in Nigeria. Le Clézio lived in Nigeria with his family in 1948 at the tender age of eight. He was clearly taken by the injustices he saw against Africans at the time.
It is ostensibly written from the perspective of someone sensitive to the plight of Africans in colonial Nigeria, but who ends up unwittingly revealing his own prejudices. It is the classical story of white liberal orthodoxy, the type that earned writers like Joyce Cary and Joseph Conrad, Chinua Achebe’s rage.
Think of Nigeria in 1948. The University of Ibadan was founded that year. Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president had been long back from London and America. Think of Soyinka’s Ake, that wondrous memoir of Soyinka’s eclectic and wholesome childhood. Think of Chukwuemeka Ike’s book The Potter’s Wheel, about the adventures of a precocious little boy set in about the same time as Onitsha’s plot.
When you read Azikiwe, Soyinka, and Ike, you come away with memories crafted by African writers of a society that was embracing Western education with a robust fervor. Just like in the West. So, what then do we make of Le Clézio’s view of the same Nigeria of the 1940s as a place of simple-minded Africans sporting exaggerated physical features and child-like emotions and innocence?
Liberal orthodoxy is avuncular and patronising and it bestows upon the “helpless” African a benevolent but malignant label – subhuman. It is malignant because most days these days we spend our waking hours trying to convince the other that well, we are human, just like them. Why do they see us differently from how we see ourselves? Is racism alone the answer to that question?
In a perverse sense, the earthquake that rocked Haiti’s wobbly foundations exposed the pathetic rubble that passes for black life not only in Haiti but almost everywhere our people live. Chew on this: 10,000 NGOs pretending to do work have gulped billions of dollars in “aid” to Haiti in recent years and yet the country is so poor, it is called a Fourth World country. Nigeria is the next embarrassment waiting to happen. Every day Nigeria is rocked by quakes of thievery, savage violence and pure unadulterated incompetence. So, what is wrong with us?
As people of colour, it sometimes seems that we spend our days loudly proclaiming our humanity. We are on the defensive all the time. It is exhausting. How can we demand respect from others when we so obviously demand disrespect and ridicule? Call me a hopeless idealist but we can prove that we are able to overcome the machinations of a racist God.
The difference between our race and the other seems to be that their cognitive elite of leaders take care of their societies, while our cognitive elite take care of themselves only, the people be damned. Why is that so? Are we cursed? I reject the notion that this constancy of turmoil and neglect is our fate. We must take care of our own just as their cognitive elite takes care of their own people. We must care for those who clawed for every penny just so we can go to school.
We are suffering the result of a virtually uncritical acceptance of any and everything alien that lands our shores. This greed is killing us. We have made ourselves the other. We have helped ourselves earn it. In the ruins of Africa intolerance comes baying out of churches and mosques. If you don’t look like them you will not be born again. I think it is disgraceful that we are condoning hate in the name of intellectual freedom.
On a fairly regular basis we are made to endure horrid expressions of hatred and bigotry. Our thinkers, our intellectuals need to reflect upon their role in building the Africa of our dreams. Let’s dream of the impossible. Let’s undo the mean harvest of racist bigoted deities. As thinkers, we must be bold, we must explore new ideas, do bold things, not simply spend all day parroting nonsense in the name of scholarship.
As writers we should push for the next level of awareness. I urge all of us as thinkers to model the behaviours that have made the Western societies we live in so much more successful than our ancestral lands. Let it not be said that we are children of a lesser god.