Africa: thoughts in progress

The three small syllables that make up the short word, Africa, are enough, it seems, in today’s world, to reduce most people to a sort of small-minded, self-confined, self-limiting mess. Those three syllables spoken in that particular order now inspire so much presumption and assumption and pity that it might be better to change the name of the continent entirely. It seems it has reached a stage of no return and I find it almost impossible to imagine that one day people – all of us – might understand those three syllables in a way which might give that entire continent a space of mutual respect in which to act. Never before (how grandiose) has one word been so overused and so misused so often. And the people of that continent, Africans, have come to stand for more than even they might ever have imagined. Africans are called upon to speak for everything that, in the West, is understood and presumed to be Other. Africans are invited to comment on our current electoral process, as if to add ‘colour’ and interest to a process that so many people here are, it seems, well and truly sick of. An African – a Kenyan – is invited to discuss with John Humphreys his opinion on our elections, as some sort of colourful (yes!) interlude to the otherwise serious debates of the Today programme. Why not a Venezuelan, or a Thai, or a Albanian, or an Italian? No. It must be an African because Africans are the furthest most extreme beings from our way of life. That is what we are led to believe and that is what most of us here believe. And even the Kenyan knows that he is being set up when he speaks on the lead news programme and so he resists the questions, which he fears are all traps, and instead makes rather banal statements about the possibilities for cheating whilst missing the bleedin’ obvious because he is too busy beating himself up about flawed Kenyan elections and his own belief that our system, here, is probably better. So when Humphreys gets cross, the Kenyan backs away even further insisting that he is here to learn something from our system. God Help Kenya. Humphreys got even more cross that the Kenyan – representing, don’t forget, an entire continent in terms of Today editorial (un)thinking – didn’t say what he was supposed to say. He just panicked and said more or less nothing of value. (Does anyone say anything of value on Today?) And, of course, being a colourful interlude, it was a supershort item so Humphreys had to hurry the Kenyan along – We haven’t got much time! We haven’t got much time! Quickly if you can! Quickly if you can! – increasingly disrespectful and intent on humiliation.

Having spent time living and working In ahhh Africa oohhh (actually a handful of countries but allow irony, friends) I have – for the last 15 years or so – become increasingly aware of the way in which European, mainly British, people (friends, usually) refer to that (my) experience. People tell me of their observations about how I have changed since I ‘came back from Africa’ or how I have never quite been the same since I ‘went to Africa’, as though I visited the underworld and lived down a dark cave full of water and bad, dark things that sent me a bit crazy. On the increasingly rare occasion I get invited to dinner parties in certain parts of Islington, if a political discussion occurs, certain guests will use Africa as their trump card to show that they are people who care. So a Hedge Fund manager around a dinner table in N1 recently told me that what he really cares about is clean water for Africans – a statement, one assumes, that no one in their right mind would ever try to take issue with. He cares that African people have clean water ergo he’s actually a nice guy even though he’s making (and occasionally losing) hundreds of thousands or millions or billions on hedge funds. Dropping the word Africa into a conversation is like dropping your faith into a conversation: Actually, I believe in Jesus and that’s why I want my children baptised. You can’t really argue with that. Likewise, stating that you care about Africans (all of them) and whether they have clean water is a religious statement, a statement of belief in goodness and pureness and honesty. (Of course, you rarely hear them say that’s all that they think Africans should have. Clean water! That’s enough! That is, joking apart, the nub of it, surely). Sometimes people say to me, people I may not know very well but have met through a friend of a friend, I hear that you have lived in Africa. Goodness. I have also lived as a cleaner in the South of France but no one has ever been in the slightest bit interested in that. I lived with two old dames and their cat and their tortoise. I cleaned bathrooms for German tourists, extracting pubic hair from showers, and cut up cabbage for the soup. I read poetry with the nude poet upstairs and had a brief relationship with an Algerian which the two old dames put a stop to. (They threatened him and told him never to set foot near their auberge again, but for weeks I thought he’d just lost interest . . . dear oh dear).

I have almost reached the stage where I believe that any interest in that huge and complicated continent can only be false and without meaning. Africa has become perhaps a parody of Africa. (A perfect example is the recent questionnaire in the Guardian colour supplement in which every single MP apart from Nick Clegg said that their living hero is Nelson Mandela: that brand, that special Mandela brand, somehow robbed and cheapened and exploited and stripped of all – any! – meaning because every fucking half-wit British MP insists that Mandela is, must be, the only possible, one and only hero. He’s black! He’s kind! He’s brave! He’s alive! And he fought the whites! Ah… and he also does not threaten us… but never mind about that folks.!Clegg, for what it’s worth, said JM Coetzee was his hero. A greater irony you could not get, though I have to say that Coetzee might be closer to my hero than Mandela. Although I’d probably choose a nobody in the middle of nowhere known by noone.)

Many over here, in the West, (the more genuinely well-meaning and reflective and considered among us) insist that only Africans can speak or write or sing about Africa (as long as it’s only Africa that they comment on – and they don’t try to expand their reach beyond the continent’s borders). They must do so in a way that Westerners expect and understand (before it’s even been done). The literature that gets published by Africans or that is published by people that the publishers like to think are Africans (when in fact they are Black Britons quite distanced from the continent) is, largely, literature that is acceptable to the mundane (and largely white) middle classes who still (like Cameron) get excited when they meet a black person. The regurgitation of the parody of Africa is now being produced by Africans themselves or by people who we like to label as African. If they step out of line, people struggle with this, especially publishers, and so the African (or the non-African who is labelled an African) does not get published. Of those Westerners who are “serious” about Africa, the duty is to criticise, like adults, the continent, so long as you have enough African friends (real ones) to show that you do really like Africans and you do really understand Africans, & it’s just that you really understand that the continent, Africa, does need help. Just call it constructive help. And you are prepared to give it. To devote your life to it. In any way possible. No other continent engenders such loyalty (faux loyalty?) as Africa. I have never met someone who is devoted to South America in the way that people are devoted to the entire continent of Africa. You might get India devotees, but that is a single country. You don’t get people who swear allegiance, devotion, commitment for ever and ever amen to the whole of Asia.

The narrative of Africa seems to have completed itself. No matter if Desmond Tutu is now inviting people to discuss the end of aid, the rise of China, the rich Africans and so on on the BBC . . . because, to a large extent, the panels with whom he chats are themselves caught up in the parody. Trapped. Tutu is allowed on with his polite guests precisely because they all know the confines in which the debate must remain. They all know the rules and references which confine discussion, reflection, thought, argument on Africa. Even if Bob Geldof is banned forever from ever doing more charity work to save starving Ethiopians, it’s too late.

The only appropriate response now is silence.