Who Speaks for Black Africa?

The era of brutal African dictatorships found many writers of conscience physically and emotionally brutalized. Indeed several works by the writers of that era came later as they began to explore what happened to them and post-colonial Africa. This examination has been an occupation for our writers and this is understandable in many instances. We should talk about this: Why are so many of our writers consuming several lifetimes examining obsessively what they decree is the African condition?

Do not get me wrong, we should all be grateful for the industry of these thinkers, many of whom endured heartbreaking abuse in the hands of military goons simply for owning powerful words. Their insights have been useful in understanding Black Africa, and in sharing with the world state sanctioned black on black crime in Africa. We will forever be in the debt of these fine warriors and wordsmiths. However, we should also rage against literary mulch, useful only as fodder for racist musings. I have never really advocated for positive stories out of Africa; I am simply concerned that if we are the sum of our experience, then contemporary African literature greatly distorts the rich history of the lived life of Africans.

There is now a blossoming industry of African writing that feeds on victimhood and the alleged otherness of Africans. The writers go to great lengths to market their works as truly unique. The problem is that every writer feels the same way and now each work seems to read, look and feel the same. We had Onitsha Market Literature, now we have African Literature. The title African Literature is threatening to be a parody of African culture. Most of these novels are poorly disguised personal and ideological opinions directed at the West, whose people it seems delight in self-flagellation – because they buy these books. The distortion of our history is on the march.

The worst offenders of this new dysfunction that I call African Literature are writers that live in the West. Many of them are like me, they have lived here for decades, cocooned and mummified in a culture of contrived despair. Africa lives rent-free in their heads and they could not tell you the names of their neighbors, they do not see parks, they simply mope around Babylon writing about their Africa. Writers who have lived in Western societies for decades, they clam up like drunken mummies, only to take a break from whining about their lot to write desiccated stories about the Africa of their past. And here is the hilarious irony: When a white person dares do the same thing, they raise holy hell.

This is interesting, because easily the best books on Africa that I have read recently were written by white authors. I remain indebted to them for actually doing the work, traveling to Africa, doing the research, interviewing actual people and then writing a book. Contrast that with the preferred methods of many of my compatriots, which is to simply staple together reams of personal opinions and call the result a novel. So my point is that African writers should stop yelling at white folks for writing about Africa. Let whoever wants write whatever the hell they want. We the consumers will vote with our money. In any case, most African writers have little credibility as far as this matter is concerned. They are mostly just as bad. I personally love Paul Theroux’s writing, I think he is a better writer on Africa (whatever the hell that means) than many African writers I have read. And yes, his prejudiced slips show just as magnificently as those of his African-writer brethren, so there. Who cares? I have enjoyed his perspectives on Africa.

Many times Africa’s unnecessary drama exaggerates and inflames Western prejudices. The other day, a Western liberal railed about the racism of a Western newspaper reporting about goats kept in a police cell in a God forsaken African country. I felt that he was pandering to the choir as they all always do. I asked him, “In your village, do you lock up goats in your police cells? So, don’t you think it is racism to accept less from your siblings?”

In many instances, my brothers and sisters are worse than Westerners in terms of the evil that they are rightfully upset about that. Let us turn our gaze inwards and examine ourselves. And yes, let us turn our gaze outwards and examine the savagery of the other. When you look hard, it is even more spectacular than Africa’s. Did America not just spend $35 billion on weapons that she promptly abandoned? This in the midst of the poverty of her people, and yes, Africans? Who talks about that savagery? Her African American children languish in jails at a cost per warrior of $80,000 a year and they will not spend $12,000 a year on educating her children. Who talks about that savagery? Our writers in the Diaspora are more qualified than anyone else to speak truth to power by pointing out these things. They should start writing and talking – about the Babylon that adopted them.

8 Replies to “Who Speaks for Black Africa?”

  1. I dont so much blame the writers. Writers on Africa have found that to sell or to be read, they neccessarily must potray Africa in a bad light. So they give the world a “unique” perspective to the Nigerian civil war or to the sufferings in Sudan. And the world gives them awards.

    The world, including Africans, believe any book form Africa or about Africa should contain a measure of sufferings and hardship.

    Whose fault is this?

  2. Blatantly cynical as always, but then again, true in many ramifications. I’ll keep this piece in mind when I dare to write about this Africa of my present.
    Thank you Ikhide!

  3. God Bless your heart Ikhide for this. your last line is a thought I’ve nurtured in my heart since i started following a certain Nigerian author on twitter.

    No. i dont have anything against this young man. on the contrary i have a deep respect for his intellect and for his artistry. the first time i came across his work i was browsing the aisles in the African section of the bookshop at the palms in ikoyi- which is a thing i do regularly, checking out who the latest African author in print is, but most importantly, fantasizing about the best spot where my book might one day sit- one can only dream yeah? anyway i picked up everyday for the thief- and the scene where a child thief is being burnt alive fell open. it was amazing. the words were so beautifully put, each one perfect in its place, a beautiful symphony of words that sang to my eyes and delighted my senses. i developed an immense respect for him standing there in the palms.

    and so when he came for his reading of open city i dragged my girlfriend for the book-reading, i told her its going to be three hours of boring for you- but you love me right?

    needless to say my admiration for the young man only grew stronger when i saw him and heard him talk as he was interviewed by tolu ogunlesi. he was the figure of who i thought i wanted to be, young, intelligent, successful- successful not in the way the world defined it, but in the way that he would have it.

    he said he was moving back to Lagos for a while to promote his book and research the next one. and i was like that’s great. that’s absolutely great. i was so affected by this young man that i whipped out my smartphone and started following him on twitter.

    i shouldn’t have done that. Really shouldn’t have.

    four to fives times a day he would tweet little poetic pieces of grief and misfortune that were a delight to read but a bleak picture to imagine. within days of landing in Lagos his laptop had been stolen and he had seen four policemen set upon an innocent man.

    i was like okay then- i can see where this research is heading. im starting to get a picture of what this next book set in Lagos would read like.

    when i watched the Chimamanda TED talk about a single story i applauded, not because i hated the negative stories about Africa- but because she said – the danger of a single story is not that it is wrong, but that it is incomplete.

    This young man is in the limelight now, his book is doing well, and i realize that it would be presumptuous of anyone to tell a writer what it is he can write or tweet about, but the truth remains- he probably has a large audience of foreign followers, and following his tweets- no one will ever know what the real Africa is.

    the truth of the matter is this Ikhide, in my time on earth spent in lagos- i have never seen firsthand four policemen set upon a man. i have been robbed though but it took all of twenty five years to get me robbed.

    i also imagine that if you walk at night in any major city in the world with a thousand dollar laptop strapped to your back- chances are you will get jacked. i know- we have satellite TV in this jungle too.

    fine it happened to him, i don’t dispute that, and he has a right to tweet about it, but the Lagos i read from his tweets is a Lagos where armed bands of policemen and hoodlums harass peace loving people at random in the streets, less than two days after coming into the country, and people slice and dice each other , and trains run into people or something of the sort almost everyday.

    that is a Lagos far removed from reality. that Lagos is simply not true.

    and as you rightly stated and a point i keep picking up- when a white man does it- we go all up in arms and use fancy phrases like white savior industrial complex. in fighting against bigotry we have become the biggest bigots, no longer seeing white people as the humans we so desperately fought to be seen as, but as white. we reject aid where we should take it, scoff at the good intentions of people who genuinely care, entangle the love and worry of white teenagers in post colonial politics and sovereign grandstanding even their parents would not understand.

    I want for us to be able to talk about Joseph Kony and not be ashamed of it, because on the other hand i can take a cab for less than 2000 naira and have free wifi. i want for bbc to be able to do a documentary about garbage pile sifters that want to be rocksters and it will be okay , because i have a tomato seller in the market that after grinding my tomato pulls out his china knock off phone and adds me on Facebook with a 3g connection.

    i want to be able to see on CNN the atrocities our leaders are doing , looting our funds and be angry, not at CNN but at ourselves, but then i can turn over and smile because i remember that i have friends who have formed internet start-ups that are just about beginning to be profitable.

    we are beautiful people, just like the rest of the world. we laugh, we cry, we kill each other, we love each other, our cars break down, we loot our treasuries, we build bridges and hospitals- sometimes. i get off work on a friday and enter the brt buses provided with state funds by an honest politician, stop by a five star hotel and drink a 100,000 naira bottle of champagne provided with state funds by my friend- the son of a not so honest politician.

    this is life in africa. this is life in any continent in the world.

    Steal the mona lisa, cut it in two- try to sell each part separately. you will get laughed at. but sell the painting whole – and you get rich.

    i don’t want good stories, i don’t want bad stories, i want whole stories. i want Africa told in full – all of it, the grime, the slime, the glitz, the glamour. and told by anyone who would want to – white or black. and i want us to apologize for none of it.

    While i respect an artists right to his subject, after reading that authors tweets i made a vow. hopefully i will be pursuing an Msc soon in a foreign country. i vowed that when i get there i would poetically tweet true stories of grief wherever i would find it. not to paint in a bad light the country that would so graciously host me- but to demonstrate that grief is not native to Africa – and that telling that single story of any place- artistic license or no- is the most unfair thing any writer of any race can do.

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