Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing
Author of You’re Not a Country, Africa!
Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Professor, University of Ghana, Legon
This keynote lecture was delivered in Johannesburg at the International Leadership Platform Conference convened jointly by the University of Johannesburg and the Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA) on February 19, 2014. On February 20, 2014, it was presented as a cultural diplomacy seminar at the Diplomatic Academy of South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation, Pretoria, at the instance of Mr. Anesh Maistry, Deputy Director, Foreign Service. On February 28, 2014, a version of it was delivered as a public lecture convened by the Department of English, University of Ghana, Legon.
Doubtless, when this keynote lecture was advertised and you saw the last keyword, “annoyances”, in the title, some of you wondered why the conveners of this prestigious lecture series decided to settle for an angry Nigerian public intellectual based temporarily in Ghana. Some of you may have wondered still: what’s biting the Nigerian professor? Why is he annoyed? We, South Africans, ought to be the ones screaming out our annoyance, having only been recently eliminated from the early stages of the African Nations Championship by his country – and on our own turf to boot! Fortunately, as I am not used to gloating about Nigeria’s continental football superiority, especially in the presence of our football younger brothers such as Ghanaians, Cameroonians, Egyptians, and South Africans, let me quickly assure you all that I may be annoyed alright, it’s got absolutely nothing to do with continental rivalries in football.
My annoyance – or annoyances, pardon the untidy plural – has also got nothing to do with the fact that I had less than two weeks to prepare and write this lecture, tucking it into the grind of other forthcoming keynote lectures in Nigeria and Canada next week. On the contrary, let me reassure the masquerade behind that punitively short-notice invitation, Dr. Pinkie Megwe, Executive Director of Internationalization, University of Johannesburg, that she taught me a valuable lesson when she sent that invitation in a tone that made it clear to me that she was not going to take no for an answer.
“You must come”, Pinkie had written before describing how prestigious this particular lecture platform is! It then dawned on me that if I was being asked to literally hop on the next flight and come down here to Johannesburg for this lecture, Pinkie was intimating me with the fierce urgency of the business of Africa. She was telling me that there can be no such thing as a short notice in our collective duty as writers, scholars, and intellectuals to write, think, and envision a future for this continent NOW! She was telling me that only the permanently ready thinker is worthy of the privilege of getting his or her hands dirty in the vineyards of Africanist knowledge production. Thanks to Dr. Megwe and how she ambushed me for this lecture, I now know that the famous motto, “Be Prepared”, belongs more to those who are called upon to think and write Africa than it belongs to Baden Powell and his Boy Scouts movement.
I am therefore immensely grateful to Dr. Megwe for the invitation and the epistemological teachable moment that came along with it. I am grateful to the University of Johannesburg’s International Leadership Platform, and co-hosts, the Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA) for the honour and privilege of being asked to come and share my reflections with you – and, alas, my annoyances! Thanks are due to the respondent, Professor Peter Vale, for agreeing to this task even at the risk of not receiving the lecture until a few hours to delivery! Finally, I want to thank you all, distinguished members of the audience, for “taking time out of no time” (as we say in Nigerian English) to attend this lecture. Seeing you all here reminds me of the ties that bind; of why I love visiting your beautiful country for I’ve been here for one and the repeated time since the 1990s.
This great country of yours is the site of the last great African anger and annoyance provoked by the fundamental unjustness of man to man (apologies to Bob Marley). You, South Africans, led your country, Africa, and the global community of conscience against this historical unjustness by articulating a struggle powered not just by the bombs of “Umkhonto we Sizwe”; the global resonance of your uprisings and wars against the apartheid machine (Sharpeville); the spectacular trajectories of your great anti-apartheid heroes and sheroes (Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe, M.D. Naidoo, Desmond Tutu, Michael Hermal, Winnie Mandela, Ruth First and countless others); but also, and more importantly, a struggle rooted in and nourished by a deontology of culture.
In essence, your worldview, your way of life, your stories, your memory, what you thought of beauty and ugliness and how you expressed those aesthetic sentiments, how you laughed, how you loved, how and what you ate, how and what you sang, and how you danced all came together to constitute the soul of your struggle. If there is anything to be learnt from the documentary movie, Amandla, it is that you did not just fight apartheid to a standstill, you danced and sang that tragedy to its ignominious end and, in doing so, you taught the rest of us, your admirers around the world, that the unfathomable zone of potential and becoming we commonly refer to as a people’s future cannot be envisaged or envisioned outside of their culture, understood in the broadest, evolving, and most dynamic sense possible.
Precisely because your future as the Rainbow Nation was secured at the price of a long-drawn struggle nurtured by your culture, by who you are; precisely because yours was the last great continental affirmation of the significance of culture – among other things – to the emergence statehood from colonial debris, you are auspiciously positioned to understand the dilemmas and the discontents framing current discussions of the role of culture in shaping the future of a continent whose friends and enemies agree is on the cusp of yet another historical moment. Having now shaken of the last yoke of colonial domination in 1994, the argument goes roughly, Africa must quit the path of blaming outsiders for her numerous challenges and begin to start being responsible for her present and future.
The morphology of this future and what exactly it would take to get us there is where the tough cut lies. Often, we get mixed signals from friends and foes alike. After 1994 and at the beginning of the New Millenium in 2000, The Economist, for instance, ushered Africa into the 21st century with the now infamous cover title, “Africa: The Hopeless Continent”. A little over a decade later, this mouthpiece of Western capitalist paternalism changed its tune and declared Africa a hopeful continent. This proclamation came in the context of a world suddenly gone gaga about the prospects of the African continent. The international capital and finance community, the development community, the global NGO and activist community, world governance bodies and their continental appendages in Africa, as well as the institutional and disciplinary world of the social sciences began to crowd the global space of discourse with dizzying statistics and data bearing narratives of growth and sustainable development; of GDP and capital flow; of governance and democracy. Ghana and Botswana were placed in showrooms as examples of Africa rising.
I spoke earlier of mixed signals. Let us not forget that despite this shift from Afro-pessimism to Afro-optimism by the global determiners of growth and progress, when it came to the acronyms they invented to describe who was rising, growing, or emerging in the global south, Africa was accorded little or no space. Thus we got the BRIC countries into which South Africa was admitted as an afterthought, a tag-along, to give us BRICS. And now I hear that we have the MINT countries. My own Nigeria thankfully made the cut this time. I think there has been a deliberate attempt here to put South Africa in BRICS and Nigeria in MINT. Put them in the same room and their rivalry will bring down the roof! There are also the famous Next-11 countries. Here, Egypt makes the cut. In essence, the gale of post New Millennium Afro-optimism from the North will only allow three of fifty four countries into its nirvana of acronyms.
Whatever the signals, clear or mixed, one thing informed these projections into Africa’s future. Whether those making such robust projections loudly are latter-day converts to Afro-optimism of The Economist or neo-Bretton Woods variety, or technocrats and development experts speaking in those familiar growth, democracy, and good governance talkshops from Davos to Addis Ababa; from the board rooms of corporate Africa to the seminar rooms of the continent’s Universities, we are told that Africa’s future is bright because of the boundless energy, genius, and creativity of her youth demographic.
The oldest continent, we are told, presents the ironic scenario of having the greatest number of young people on earth. This youth demographic is said to be opportunity. All that needs to be done now is for the African state to place the millennium development goals within the reach of this vast youth demographic, pursue infrastructural renewal and economic growth and expansion, eradicate the unholy trinity of poverty, ignorance, and disease, deepen democracy and good governance, and all other things shall be added.
Going by the tenor and body language of the African Union, that body certainly believes that the path to Africa’s future lies somewhere in the philosophy of the development community as I have sketched it out above. I should know. The African Union has been working on a vision roadmap for the continent as some of you here probably know. The fiftieth anniversary of the OAU in 2013 inspired the African Union to try to project into the next fifty years and determine what the continent would look like. The AU spent much of 2013 organizing talkshops all over the world. From academia to the corporate world, stakeholders in the future of the continent were asked to reflect on Africa in the next fifty years. The idea was to eventually produce some kind of Africa 2063 document – a roadmap for the continent in the next fifty years. I was privileged to be part of that process, alas, the culmination but not the origin of my annoyances in this onerous business of thinking Africa.
To draft a 2063 agenda for the entire continent, the AU needed to consult very widely. Inevitably, these consultations involved Africans of the old and the new diaspora. The AU wanted both categories of Diaspora Africans to contribute to drafting this all-important document that would have been produced by Africans at home and abroad about the future of our beloved continent. Thus it was that in October 2013, I had the extraordinary privilege of being invited to New York by the African Union to be part of the Diaspora Consultations meeting on the Africa 2063 agenda. Our brief during the said meeting in New York was unambiguous: we were asked to project into the future, as far ahead as 2063, to encounter the Africa of our dreams. We were asked to engage the question: what Africa would you love to see in 2063?
As I contemplated the theme of that meeting in my apartment in Accra, prior to departure for New York, I thought it was dangerous business to gather academics, technocrats, and bureaucrats in New York and asked them to envision Africa fifty years down the road. I thought that the AU was in a way asking us to encroach on the coveted territory of prosperity Pentecostal Pastors who have taken over the entire continent and are assuring Africa’s one billion people that next year, and the year after the next, until we get to 2063, shall be the year of their miracle and abundance. My apprehension was further deepened by certain developments. After being told that I would be addressing a plenary session of the New York meeting from the perspectives of culture and identity, I sat on the patio of my residence on the campus of the University of Ghana, a cup of coffee in hand, and tried to start reflecting on the subject that was taking me to New York.
However, I had difficulty concentrating on that task because just across the road from me, an open air campus-for-Jesus prosperity Pentecostal crusade was rounding up a week of intense miracles and testimonies and the participants in that spiritual revelry were determined that the huge loudspeakers they had deployed for the occasion would cause an earthquake on campus and around Accra, so loud was the noise of the singing, the ministration, and the anointing. As I was blogging about the event on my Facebook Wall, the officiating pastor said something I’m sure all of you in this room have heard before.
It is something I have encountered in country after country as I have crisscrossed the African continent in the last two decades as a writer and a student of the evolving cultures and identities of the youth of Africa. It is something that has made me arrive at the conclusion that prosperity Pentecostalism, along with its cultures, styles, and modes of social inflection, is now the most significant cultural wind blowing across the continent, rivalled perhaps only by the social media revolution. The Pastor in Accra asked his audience to close their eyes. Then he thundered: “next year, Forbes Magazine will release another list of the wealthiest Africans. If you can see yourself in that list, please stand up and scream for Jesus.” The resultant decibel level from his audience shocked awed me. I assure you, you can’t make these things up.
We were in October 2013. The image of nearly one thousand undergraduates of the University of Ghana screaming in Pentecostal jouissance, assured that they would appear in the January 2014 edition of Forbes Magazine as Africa’s newest billionaires, is what I took with me the following day to board the Delta Airways flight which took me to the African Diaspora consultation meeting on the Africa 2063 Agenda of the AU in New York. On board, I thought about it all. All we need do to have an idea of Africa in 2063 is listen to the continent’s prosperity Pentecostal Pastors as they enrapture hundreds of millions of our citizens from Kenya to Zimbabwe, Nigeria to Tanzania, Ghana to Namibia, Congo to Cameroun, Uganda to South Africa, and our job would be largely done. Africa in 2063 would be littered with Forbes-rated billionaires flying private jets.
Although, I would very much have loved to claim all the promises and miracles of prosperity Pentecostalism for Africa and Africans by the year 2063, I had other agendas in mind as I boarded the plane for New York. I was going to do a plenary on what role culture might play in Africa’s march to 2063. I thought that what I witnessed in Accra would be a good entry point for an auspicious discussion of the power, appeal, and relevance of culture to any discussion of Africa’s future.
Beyond faith, Pentecostalism has morphed into a powerful subculture across the continent, affecting every aspect of life, from governance and democracy, to the diction and worldview of a significant proportion of the continent’s youth. The language of development and post-development, with its long list of sustainable this and that, industry, technology, innovation, economic expansion, science, technology, and all the usual suspects presupposes a citizenry ready to travel along those paths under the guidance of a visionary leadership. What happens when a significant proportion of this citizenry evolves in a mainstreamed subculture of immediate miracles? Can Africa’s planners and policy makers afford to ignore this and allied cultural forces now shaping African identities as they project into the future?
I did not get the chance to make these submissions in New York. Indeed, I had very little time to situate culture as a key plank in the envisioning process being undertaken for the continent. Unlike all the other plenary presenters who were allotted fifteen-minutes individually for their presentations, I discovered at the venue of the event that two of us had been lined up for the segment on reflections on culture. Worse, we had to cram our respective presentations into a fifteen-minute slot, a fact we both found out only at the very moment of presentation. Evidently, the African Union, like the continent’s technocrats, bureaucrats, planners, policy makers, and political leaders, is persuaded by the thinking that the hardware language of growth and development, of macro and micro-economics, of cutting-edge technology and industry, of GDP and other dizzying data from the IMF, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and relevant agencies of the UN, is more germane to the continent’s advancement than the software language of culture.
It dawned on me painfully in New York that whenever two or three development experts are gathered in the name of Africa’s future, culture is always invited as a sideshow, as entertainment. The development experts and data wielders in New York would have been content if I had made a presentation on Nollywood as momentary diversion from their very serious business of thinking Africa and her future as statistical numbers to be crunched. For them, GDP, growth data and development statistics were the path to that future. No need to understand the cultures, subcultures, and countercultures informing the imaginaries and identities of that much-touted youth demographic and how such cultures might shape destination 2063.
If I was annoyed by the peripheral space allotted to the possible role of culture in Africa’s future and development during the New York plenary sessions, more annoyance(s) awaited me on my return to Accra. This time the event was a book launch attended by the usual suspects: diplomats, technocrats, bureaucrats, academics, and the like. As it happens, discussions were lively and engaged. Then I asked a question about history and culture. A diplomat responded that we’ve had enough of “this history and culture stuff” and what we need now are science, technology, and accelerated development. We were in the Institute of African Studies where that response ought to have struck everyone as odd. As no one flagged it, I did not want to be forward, being a visitor. I let it pass but filed it in my memory as one of those instances where culture is seen as an obstacle to development. My ilk and I often feel a sense of alienation in such development gatherings.
My ilk? I am talking about those of us working as writers, scholars, and activists in the continent’s arts and culture establishment, lone voices screaming in the wilderness, struggling to persuade Africa’s bureaucrats, technocrats, planners, state officials, and policy makers that they labour in vain if they continue to give a short shrift to culture as they map Africa’s path to her future and destiny. I am sure you understand that there were other annoyances before my own recent histories of annoyance at being constantly invited to meetings and development talkshops in Africa and outside of the continent where culture is meant to entertain neoliberal thinktank types trafficking all day long in GDP data and statistics funded largely by our friends in Bretton Woods. I am sure you all remember Ngugi wa Thiong’o and his lifelong frustration and annoyance over the language question in Africa. Ngugi’s case is too familiar to bear repeating here.
But we must mention the less familiar case of Chinua Achebe. He too was down that road in the 1980s and he reminds us in the essay, “Africa is People”. Like my humble self in New York, Chinua Achebe had the misfortune of being among development experts in one of those meetings where Africa is somehow expected to develop outside of her cultures. Says Achebe:
“I believe it was in the first weeks of 1989 that I received an invitation to an anniversary meeting—the twenty-fifth year, or something like that—of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in Paris. I accepted without quite figuring out what I could possibly contribute to such a meeting/celebration. My initial puzzlement continued right into the meeting itself. In fact it grew as the proceedings got underway. Here was I, an African novelist among predominantly western bankers and economists; a guest, as it were, from the world’s poverty-stricken provinces to a gathering of the rich and powerful in the metropolis. As I listened to them—Europeans, Americans, Canadians, Australians—I was left in no doubt, by the assurance they displayed, that these were the masters of our world, savouring the benefits of their success. They read and discussed papers on economic and development matters in different regions of the world. They talked in particular about the magic bullet of the 1980s, structural adjustment, specially designed for those parts of the world where economies had gone completely haywire.”
Eventually, Chinua Achebe did have his eureka moment:
“Suddenly I received something like a stab of insight and it became clear to me why I had been invited, what I was doing there in that strange assembly. I signalled my desire to speak and was given the floor. I told them what I had just recognized. I said that what was going on before me was a fiction workshop, no more and no less! Here you are, spinning your fine theories, to be tried out in your imaginary laboratories. You are developing new drugs and feeding them to a bunch of laboratory guinea pigs and hoping for the best. I have news for you. Africa is not fiction. Africa is people, real people. Have you thought of that? You are brilliant people, world experts. You may even have the very best intentions. But have you thought, really thought, of Africa as people?”
Out of annoyance, Ngugi wa Thiong’o screams that Africa is language. Out of annoyance, Chinua Achebe screams that Africa is people. Language. People. Culture. You begin to wonder why those experts and technocrats who insist that Africa’s youth bulge is an opportunity also insist on not seeing the nexus between youth cultures and the future of the continent. You wonder why political leaders across the continent insist on the false dichotomy between science and technology on the one hand and culture on the other hand. In my own country, Nigeria, for instance, the scramble for science and technology (alias accelerated development) attained such a maddening frenzy that policies were put in place to discourage arts subjects which came to be seen as obstacles to development. Politicians began to openly denigrate the teaching of African history, cultures, and languages in our schools.
This is what renowned Nigerian historian, Professor Toyin Falola, refers to as “the persecution of the arts and humanities” in African educational systems by bureaucrats and officials of state keen on the teaching of science and technology and development-oriented subjects. By doing this, the state creates a dichotomy and a false hierarchy between science and technology on the one hand and arts and culture on the other hand. Says Falola: “here comes the bad news for the persecutors. Creating, managing, and solving underdevelopment is a human cultural concern. And this is where the humanities come to the fore as they generate greater imagination, thereby creating more intellectual creativity, encouraging broader reflection on the future of society.”
The University in my own part of Africa is of course not left out of this persecution business. If you look at recent vision documents by some leading Universities on the continent, you will detect the underhand privileging of certain disciplines in response to the funding priorities of the World Bank. I believe I don’t need to tell you which disciplines are being de-emphasized and which ones are being privileged and narrativized as being more germane to Africa’s growth and development by the concerned Universities.
The complicity of the African University with this scenario is one frustrating source of annoyance for this is the site where the critical connections between culture, science, and technology ought to be made. The gown ought to make these connections and persuade the town to see them. I don’t know how much of Kwame Nkrumah’s great essay, “The African Genius”, you all remember. That essay was the keynote address he delivered at the founding of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana on October 25, 1963. While giving the new Institute a mandate to tie culture to development (and not separate them as is annoyingly done today), Nkrumah indicates that the premium that he and his generation of African leaders placed on culture stems from their understanding of the fact that growth, development, science and technology all depend on a people’s creative genius which, in turn, depends on taste.
Taste is a function of culture. Taste is a matter of aesthetics. What a people consume and how they consume it depend entirely on their cultural life-world. Innovation, science and technology respond to taste as shaped by culture. Twitter was invented because somebody somewhere understood America’s cultural obsession with information that could be packaged and consumed quickly like fast food. Innovations in the automobile industry are entirely driven by years of field surveys into taste as driven by culture. This is the meeting point of technology, development, and culture. Africa’s science and technology in the future will be driven by the cultural tastes and predilections of the peoples of Africa.
If Nkrumah could see these connections in 1963, why have things become so hazy in 2014? If these connections are not being made today by the African University, if certain disciplines and fields are being privileged while others are “persecuted” in response to the funding stimulus of the World Bank and such other bodies and agencies in the global North, is there any wiggle room for strategic critique and remedial actions? Is there any agential location from which one could resist the ideological preferments of those who pour millions into the preservation of the cultures, tastes, and ways of life of the global North, preserving culture and the arts, funding museums and other locations of culture and memory, only to turn around and tell you that your own culture is antithetical to science, technology, and development? As our friend, Binyavanga Wainaina, recently puts it, how does one imagine “the new” or “newness” in Africa when the very paradigms of imagining are de-funded, discouraged, and stigmatized as inimical to progress, growth, and development?
The problematic of newness, of imagining the new in Africa, brings us back to the question of the youth bulge and what that demographic phenomenon portends for the future of the continent. As I stated earlier, policy makers, bureaucrats, and experts in the development community bandy data and statistical figures ranging from 60% – 70% youth demographic for many African countries, with youth sometimes defined as persons thirty-years-old and below. Whichever way one looks at it, the majority of Africa’s one billion people fall within the youth demographic. Using conventional language and its assorted registers – GDP, growth, development agendas, plans, etc – Africa’s bureaucrats and development experts pay attention to everything about this particular demographic except for their cultural predilections and predicament.
Yet we forget that their peers in America have invented Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest in response to specific cultural imperatives and stimuli; we forget that their peers in China, Japan, South Korea, and other parts of Asia are in a daily competition to invent apps informed by the cultural circumstances of those places. In essence, the youth of other continents are meeting the world, unleashing their genius and creativity on the rest of the world from the platform of their respective cultures. On what cultural platform are the youth of Africa expected to meet the world and compete with their peers when, as stated earlier, the teaching of African history, cultures, and languages is treated largely as an impediment to science and technology disciplines in many an African school system? Lack of sufficient attention to the power of culture can sometimes mean the difference between being the next Mark Zuckerberg or just another burden on Africa, eating grass in sheepish obedience to the instruction of your Pastor while awaiting the immediate miracle of your millions tomorrow. I’m sure you all know a thing or two about this grass eating business here in South Africa.
Something is awfully funny and I dare not conclude this lecture without mentioning it. Whether we are dealing with the politicians, technocrats, or bureaucrats in Africa, those who are loudest in disavowing the organic linkages between culture and science and technology; those who file criminal charges against culture, accusing her of being an enemy of progress and an obstacle to sustainable development are the first to run for cover under the umbrella of culture the moment their comfortable prejudices are threatened. Think of the anti-gay legislations in Nigeria and Uganda and how the politics of it all has played out as a culture war between Africa and the West. All of a sudden, those who would have Africa shake off the shackles of culture and backwardness in order to embrace progress, science, and technology became custodians of “our culture”. They spoke authoritatively in the name of culture, defined it, protected it, determined what it must include and exclude, and framed Africa as a puritanical cultural entity in opposition to the corroding influences of the West.
Culture was suddenly back in business! Beyond prejudice, beyond the tragedy of the politics of exclusion on account of a person’s sexual orientation, there is a crucial point that has been overlooked in the back and forth between the protagonists and the antagonists of the gay laws in Nigeria and Uganda. Through slavery, through colonialism, through every manner of historical tragedy, the humanity of the African was questioned on the basis of his culture. The responses to these historical tragedies – Negritude, cultural nationalism, etc – were mostly gestures of cultural affirmation. Today, the gay controversy reminds us that culture is still the site where Africa is being asked to provide evidence of her membership of the human family. Culture is also the site where Africa is pushing back, claiming rightly or wrongly to be resisting foreign imposition.
As 2014 came upon us, many technocrats and development experts across Africa momentarily dropped their GDPs, their data, their statistics, their micro and macro-economic indicators, hoisted culture on their heads and went to war against the West in the name of culture! Now, ain’t it amazing, as my favourite country music crooner, Don Williams, would put it?
I thank you for your time.