Dec 24 2009

Stories We Tell About Africa (and those we don’t)

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:00 AM

Africa is overshadowed. With the U.S. economy flailing and Obama escalating a war in Afghanistan, with legislation to expand health-care poised for passage, with unemployment high, food-stamp rolls expanding and insecurity rampant — no wonder why Americans have less ardor for saving others around the world. The urgent question is, can Americans save themselves?

With the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the position of Africa in the “world system of consciousness” has reverted to past patterns. No longer are the needs of Africans center stage. Their health and wealth still matters; the need to promote peace, settle conflicts and reordering Africa’s dysfunctionall political boundaries remains urgent. Yet Africa has been overshadowed on the world stage, and that is good.

Saving Africa was always more of a sop to the diminished morality of Westerners than a serious developmental enterprise. Having retreated from the top priorities of the rich of the world, Africa retreats, not into obscurity but rather into self-reliance. Let the new decade bring more emphasis on the trials and succsesses of Africans, toiling in Africa, with Africans and for Africans.

The call for African self-reliance is no cover for complacency or to a furtive opportunity to ignore the failures of African political leadership and social structure. No matter the highs and lows of having Africans do for themselves, the power of narrative will continue to project onto reality the familiar meta-narratives of the past. More so than any other part of the world, “sub-Saharan Africa,” — “black Africa” — remains the object of self-generated fantasies and delusions by those from elsewhere in the globe.

Having written my own “delusion” about Africa — “Married to Africa,” a memoir of my marriage to a Nigerian — I’m keenly aware of how “the other,” in this case me, a white American of Russian and Italian ancestry — can mold the encounter with “ordinary Africa” in their own fashion. I might say I’m even obsessed with the willingness of outsiders to appropriate “African-ness” to their own ends, diminished or uplifting, moral or amoral. Africa remains, far too often for those who embrace it as an “imaginary,” a blank canvas, a place without history.

A few days ago I picked up an old copy of “West With the Night” Beryl Marham’s memoir of living and flying (a plane) in colonial East Africa. Hemingway this story of a woman adventure in Africa and loudly proclaimed Markham’s writing on Africa to be far superior to his own. Hemingway liked to find eternal verities in the African bush, or on Kilmanjaro (where he set one of his most famous short stories). But Markham refused to universalize her African experience. She was wise. Early in “West With The Night,” she writes true words about the impulse of visitors to Africa to create a web of their own illusions — and then to live and die inside this web. Her words bear repeating and not only because she seems to be writing to me:

“So there are many Africas. There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa …. Whoever writes a new one can afford a certain complacency in the knowledge that his is a new picture agreeing with no one else’s, but likely to be haughtily disagreed with by all those who believe in some other Africa.”

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