I make a habit of collecting books about Africa ready in the twilight of colonialism (the late 1950s) and the early, heady and exuberant first years after independence. The outburst of independent African nations was accompanied by immense optimism and many leading scholars took turns in assessing the prospects for these newly freed peoples. Yesterday I picked up one of the most curious of these books, “The Lonely African,” by Colin Turnbull. An anthropologist, Turnbull is largely forgotten today but in the 1960s he was hugely popular for his romantic, closely detailed studies of “bush” Africas, people of the land who were being marginalized by the twin processes of modernization: political independence and urbanization.
In Turnbull’s first, pregnant line, he signals his immense appreciation for the polyglot character of the African continent. “It may be unneccesary to point out that Africa is not one vast jungle,” he writes, infested with animals and savages, but it is worth pointing out the immense geographical diversity of the African continent, a diversity matched by an equal diversity of peoples and cultures.”
Turnbull’s insights ring true, even today, 45 years after he published them. In 1962, when broadbrush labels for blacks and Africans were commonplace and indeed corrosive and chiefly negative, Turnbull’s perspective was fresh, arresting and even revolutionary. Yet in “The Lonely African,” as the title suggests, Turnbull insists upon a unitary African character and one that is rather confused, ill-suited to changing conditions and existentially bereft, trapped between “tradition” and modernity. In one typical observation, he writes, “In all the various situations in which the African has to choose between the old and the new he is in a dilemma, because he can accept neither with his whole heart and being.”
Turnbull’s comments are weirdly universal; the “African heart” is no more epistemologically grounded than the “Jewish soul” or the “Irish brain.” Less obvious is Turnbull’s embrace a duality, so popular at the time of African independence among intellectuals both African and non-African, that has come today to be seen as a false divide. Today we are comfortabe embrace both the old and new, mixing and matching the past, present and future, creating a melange that bears no resemblance to simplistic notions, even of post-modernity. Hence, the very title of Turnbull’s book evokes a bygone, an era of confusion and misdirection, a time that inspires our nostalgic ardor while at the same time crumbling on closer inspection. In these lonely times of ours, we do well to recall how far we have come.