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Is There No Humanity in Africa? Rethinking Africa in Three Stories

Story No. 1: Let’s Start with Antarctica

Àpa Àìmúdélé Ni Kò Jẹ́ Kí Aráyé Mọ̀ Wípé Ológbò Ńṣ’ọdẹ.
(Yoruba proverb: It is its practice of hunting without displaying its kills that stops the world from understanding that the cat is not an idiot)

The question mark in the title is not ironic. I really mean to find out what the rest of the world at large thinks about my continent. If I am honest, I want, more precisely, to know what the rest of the world thinks when they see me and other people who look like me or are from where I am from.

When I typed each of the names of almost all the world’s continents into a reputable Internet search engine, I learned something remarkable. I found out that there are ‘things to do’ in Asia, in Antarctica, in Australia, in South and in North America, and in Europe. Without too much effort on my part, the Internet tells me that should I decide to visit Antarctica, I would enrich my life by visiting Deception Island, South Shetland Islands, King George Island, and Elephant Island. I don’t even need to spend any more time clicking on the links to these places, I see from the first page of results on ‘Antarctica’—they are beautiful.

I am grateful to Google, there are things to do in Antarctica, which means that there is a history of civilization in Antarctica. Despite knowing, from a long-ago geography lesson, that Antarctica is quite literally the least inhabited of the continents, I am assured—from the first-impression the Internet wishes me to have of the place—that Antarctica contains humanity.

If there is humanity to be acknowledged and, thus, to be respected in Antarctica, then I am even more assured by the Internet’s images and lists of things to do in Australia—Sydney, Melbourne, Cairns, and Gold Coast—that humanity is even richer ‘down under’. The list of Peru, Machu Pichu, Cusco and Rio de Janeiro are intended to give me the same understanding of an abundant heritage that also exists in South America. North America, I am told, has New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—I must go!

Tokyo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Dubai are a testament to something about Asia that I must find out about by going and doing things there. Without my having to know a single thing of depth about any of these places, Google verifies the claims of London, Rome, Venice, and Barcelona that there is history in Europe.

I was sure that simply googling the continents would give me absolutely no material whatsoever with which to answer my question. How saddened I was that it did. Africa is the only one of the continents that does not produce a list of ‘things to do’ when you type it into Google. The stale geography maps and satellite images of Africa that Google does offer, unsurprisingly, do not inspire the same level of excitement, as did the Google front pages of the other six continents. I am, also, personally at a loss to explain why among the pertinent pieces of information Google believes those searching for insight into the continent ought to have is Toto’s 1982 song ‘Africa’. It must be because the music video for the song features palm leaves, zebra print, and a spear and nothing says ‘Africa’ like palm leaves, zebra print, and a spear.

With a permanent population of about 200, there are apparently, at least, four sites of incredible interest in Antarctica. But over 1.2 billion Africans, speaking thousands of languages, and tracing some of their various cultural heritages to literally the beginning of all human existence, have not, since the very dawn of man, cobbled together any noteworthy sites. We have no remarkable cities: Ile Ife is not a place of astonishing historicity. The highlands of Eritrea are not a site of breath-taking beauty. Great Zimbabwe is not an ancient ruin of archaeological significance. Benin, it would seem, only truly exists in Bronze Head exhibits in London. Benin is not an African nation, whose history boasts the awe-inspiring Kingdom of Dahomey. Africa is not home to the first traditional religious festivals to which those of Trinidad and Rio now famously pay homage. The musical artistry of Mali, of Senegal, of Ethiopia would seem not to penetrate the ears of ‘outsiders’; and the poetry of Somalia sings boldly only to those whose minds embrace it as intellect and soul in unison. These, according to the Internet, are not things about which it could be said: ‘this is a thing to do in Africa’.

In other words, according to Google, there is no civilization, and no humanity, in Africa. Africa is a theoretical construction to be examined in other people’s books. It is not a living, dynamic place to visit, to interact with and to experience; it is not a place which itself has things of intimate value to teach you. Africa is a piece of land, easily shown, from afar, on a map. It offers the world no imagination, no intellect—it has no stories to tell. And so, if Africa has nothing to teach you, neither do I.

To you, I am a being, not human;
since I am assumed to have nothing of worth to say.
In your eyes, I am empty, is all. All that is left
is that I await your instruction: Má mi mọ́ (do not breathe again).

STORY NO. 2: HE RESPONDED: ‘I SENSE A THEME’

Eewu bẹ loko Longẹ, Longẹ fun ara rẹ eewu ni.
(Yoruba Proverb: There is danger at Long‘s farm (Long is a name of a Yoruba legend), Long himself is danger; beware of situations that have a past history of being dangerous.)

At the end of last year, I decided to refresh my bookshelves. I visited a large bookstore in London. In that bookstore, I located a member of staff to help me find three books. I was looking for Segu by Maryse Conde; Daughters of Africa, edited by Margaret Busby; and V.Y. Mudimbe’s The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge.

I was lazy; so I asked the clerk to help me with my search. I assumed that in order to find these books on my own, I would have to go to at least three different thematic sections of what was a bookstore spread over six floors. I grounded my assumption in the fact that I was, after all, looking for one literary anthology, one novel, and a work of philosophy. To me, each book, at least in content, was entirely different from the others. So, I called out my list to the middle-aged gentleman.

He greeted me politely and responded immediately, ‘I sense a theme’, he excitedly proclaimed. My face and tone must have given away my irritation because when I asked, ‘what theme would that be, then?’ he mumbled, ‘Africa’, and meekly went to his desk.

It turns out that Waterstones, Piccadilly, did not have a single one of the books I was looking for. I was out of luck in more ways than one. I wanted my books but the clerk’s response to my list annoyed me more. I laboured over the incident. Was I being unfair? After all, all three books are indeed all either about, or written by, Africans.

But, I continued to question myself, what if I had gone into the store and asked for three different books? What if I had asked for The Ethics of Authenticity by Charles Taylor, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, and the Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre, edited by Eugene Benson; would the same clerk have replied, ‘O Canada!’?

Let me ask, how do I distinguish myself to you from my fellow ‘Africans’ as being African, and, yet, also, still, truly, me? When you meet me, you ask me what I think of ‘Chimamanda’, assuming that I must be, in some way that is intangible but still necessary, connected to her Americanah; just because. You will be astonished, but it has never once crossed my mind to ask you if you knew of an Oliver when you were a boy. Without needing to know every single one of you, I am still, imaginatively, able to conceive that you are not all the same, that your lived experience is enough different from your other continental fellows to make you, you.

I imagine your advice to me: Ilé ba tójó wà ló bùsi (beauty was added to the King’s house by its having been burnt down). I answer you with a question: why should your ignorance be heaped atop the difficulties that we must overcome to be better people? Are the challenges borne simply of existence, and which do not exclude any of the continents, not enough?

Enough.

I will admit that in your mind I am something. But blurry, not concrete. My words are readily interchangeable with those of any other given ‘African’. Together, we form a romantic community in which no single individual is worthy of note. Yes, the story has moved along enough for you to understand that we are humans—but a sort of pre-modern kind, fit only for documentation in books or documentaries, like strange fishes that just happen to look ever so… human. We are a wonder—our hair, our behinds, our lips. As a group, we seem all to be athletes—fit for hard labour.

You will give us this: our words will be housed in your bookstores, but since the contents of our thoughts are not independently distinctive enough to your mind, you will hesitate to include them into broader intellectual, philosophical, and artistic categories.

Is it my fault,
or is it yours that
to your intellect, I am without individual outline
—merely thematic?

STORY NO. 3: IF HE DIDN’T HAVE AN AFRICAN WIFE NK

Díẹ̀ díẹ̀ nimú ẹlẹ́dẹ̀ẹ́ fi ń wọgbà.
(Yoruba proverb: Little by little is how the pig’s nose enters the yard.)

A Dutch man lives in Belgium and is married to a woman from Cameroon, whom he met when she was living in Paris. They have two sons. His sons look a lot like their Cameroonian mother, who is beautiful. They have taught their father, who grew up celebrating ‘Zwarte Piet’ during the Christmas period as a boy in the Netherlands, that the tradition is morally obscene. From their point of view, mocking the country’s Afro-Dutch population, most of whom trace their ancestry to the former Dutch colony of Suriname with blackface celebrations in the name of the birth of Christ would seem to be anathema to Christianity.

Since marrying his wife, this Dutch man has not only come to accept the understanding that a large part of the amusement that made up his childhood depended on the suffering of others; he has gone further. He has a deep knowledge of the cultural history and origins of how the people of Suriname came to be in the Netherlands. He sees his country differently than he used to. Let’s call my Dutch friend Luuk.

I met Luuk for the first time a few months ago. As soon as he opened his mouth to ask me what books I was currently reading, I thought to myself, if this man asks me if I know Chinua Achebe, I will leave immediately. I did not know Luuk’s background. And I would later feel ashamed of myself for simply assuming that he would be as ignorant about my continent, and as disdainful of my personhood, as had been my experience with too many other people who looked a little like him.

Luuk taught me a few things that I did not know. He took me through his reading list, an array of Zimbabwean literature about which I had, up until then, been unaware. Stanlake Samkange, Yvonne Vera, Petina Gappah, NoViolet Bulawayo. He let me teach him a few things too. He was not astounded at the concept of African philosophy; he did not laugh as if it was ludicrous to believe such a thing as African philosophy could exist. He didn’t receive the knowledge of philosophers such as Odera Oruka, Kwasi Wiredu, Kwame Gyekye, and Paulin Hountondji, as if I had just told him a folktale about a three-chested bear. He had not heard of their works and ideas, that was his fault, he wished to correct it.

It was clear that Luuk’s wife had given him an understanding for, and sensitivity to, a wide variety of African heritages, histories, literature, art, music, and so on. And had Luuk fallen in love with someone else in Paris? What then? Would we have been able to have the conversation we did? Would it take only his having African sons for him to feel, deeply, the wrongness of ‘Zwarte Piet’ and want to learn more about Dutch history in Suriname? It burns persistently in my mind: why can you not see, think, and feel my humanity from where you are?

The popular imagination seems to hold that the erasure of Africa’s humanity by the outside world began with a loud and thunderous crash. It did not. Too many believe that some of the things that Africans continue to list as evidence of this erasure are only little things that we must get over. The Waterstones clerk did not, after all, proceed to pull his lips over his face, while scratching under his armpits in search of a banana, when I called out the list of books, I wished for him to help me find. Now that would have been a story. The rest then are small and unimportant things that could in no way serve to, daily, call into question the fact of my humanity. I am telling you that they are not little things.

To believe me, you have to first believe that I am capable of accurately interpreting my own reality. You have to believe that my interpretation of my own reality is more valid than yours in the examination of my experience of living, just as yours would be the more valid were your experience of living the focus of my query. Furthermore, you must believe that when it comes to judging a reality for all of humanity, my interpretation sits alongside yours equally, and to understand it you must value it not as something that is yours but rather you must value it as not belonging to you.

Speaking on the difficulty of examining what could be called a distinctly African philosophy, V. Y. Mudimbe notes in The Invention of Africa,

‘the fact of the matter is that, until now, Western interpreters as well as African analysts have been using categories and conceptual systems which depend on a Western epistemological order. Even in the most explicitly ‘Afrocentric’ descriptions, models of analysis explicitly or implicitly, knowingly or unknowingly, refer to the same order. Does this mean that African [ways of life] and African traditional systems of thought are unthinkable and cannot be made explicit within the framework of their own rationality? … thus far the ways in which they have been evaluated and the means used to explain them relate to theories and methods whose constraints, rules, and systems, of operation suppose a non-African epistemological locus.’​

Theoretically, I do not believe Luuk had to marry a thoughtful woman from Cameroon to be the intellectually rounded person he now appears. It is, however, testament to what I see as the persistent shame of the current state of things where Google says there is nothing to do in all Africa, that I believe that had Luuk not married his wife, he would definitely have asked me when we first met—apropos of nothing—if I was from Biafra.

I long for one of our faces to be the first form
that comes to mind
when you imagine
a person.