Why Africa?

Vico’s The New Science is everywhere a reminder that scholars hide, overlook or mistreat the gross physical evidence of human activity, including their own.

Edward Said, “Reflections On Exile”, page 86

“…In the progress of nations, negroes have shown less capacity for self-government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary whenever they have been left to their own devices they have shown an instant tendency to lapse into barbarism.”

President Andrew Johnson, from Amy Kaplan’s “The Anarchy of Empire In The Making Of U.S. Culture”, page 83

Binyanvanga Wainaina’s essay How To Write About Africa was an eye-opening read. Veiled behind a cynical and mocking language, one could sense the great pain of a great writer. Wainaina’s words carried the frustration and incomprehension of a people who can only stand and stare in shock at the way the world – particularly that of mainstream media and popular culture, speaks about them, their lives, histories and culture. How, in the face of so many new voices, ideas, literature, arts, research, and politics emerging from the continent, it still remained buried under an overwhelming mountain of cliches and unconsidered prejudices. For Wainaina, being ‘African’ placed you into an entirely new class of human practice and agency – one that existed between the exotic and the egregiously barbaric, and outside the realm of normal, materialist human thought. Pointing his finger at European interlocutors, he mocked them for their consistent reduction of the place:

Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.

Though I had read his piece in 2006, his words stayed with me when I moved to Rwanda in 2012. The challenge he had posed – to avoid the knee-jerk reactionary practice deeply informed by centuries of European colonial imaginary about Africa, became one I was unable to take up for years. It was only in 2014, and after a chance meeting with a few research students from Harvard, that I found an idea, and an approach, that I believed would avoid some of the traps Wainaina spoke about. Of course, during that time there were many readings – Mbembe, Mamdani, Thiong’o, Diawara, Fanon, Anta Diop, W.J.T. Mitchel and Bernal and others  – beautiful voices, speaking back to Europe, reminding her of her terrible legacies in the continent, the lingering scars, and their modern manifestations in the form of ‘development’ policies and ‘free market’ agreements. Voices like the talented, brilliant and witty Chimamanda Adichie talking about the dangers of one story, and gently pointing how telling stories or making photographs, was an act of power, and contained with it all that that power means:

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.”

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

But it was Achilles Mbembe, who perhaps cut through the politeness, and the cynicism, and laid bare the brutality of the reduction of the continent and its people to a handful of cliches, ones that stymied a genuine intellectual, artistic, philosophical and political engagement with the region, and moved us to see it as an equal, though unique, material and historical space.

The literature of political science and development economics…have undermined the very possibility of understanding African economic and political facts. In spite of the countless critiques made of theories of social evolutionism and ideologies of development and modernization, the academic output in these disciplines continues, almost entirely, in total thrall to these two teleologies. This thraldom has had implications for understanding the purposes of these disciplines in Africa, for the conception of their object, and for the choice of their methods. Mired in the demands of what is immediately useful, enclosed in the narrow horizon of ‘good governance’ and the neo-liberal  catechism about the market economy, torn by the current of fads for “civil society,” “conflict resolution,” and alleged “transitions to democracy,” the discussion, as habitually engaged, is primarily concerned, not with comprehending the political in Africa or with producing knowledge in general, but with social engineering. As a general rule, what is stated is dogmatically programmatic; interpretations are almost always cavalier, and what passes for argument is almost always reductionist. The criteria that African agents accept as valid, the reasons they exchange within their own instituted rationalities, are, to many, of no value. What African agents accept as reasons for acting, what their claim to act in the light of reason implies, what makes their action intelligible to themselves: all this is of virtually no account in the eyes of the analysts.

Mbembe, Achille “In The Post Colony”, Page 7

Mbembe, Adichie and Wainaina are just a few of a growing crescendo of intellectuals speaking out against the stultifying, bigoted and reductionist stories emerging about Africa. And despite these new voices from the thousands of Africa artists, poets, writers, academics, musicians, politicians, intellectuals and citizens producing works that fundamentally undermine the cliches that we continue to create, the power to tell the stories that are remembered and repeated remains in the hands of the European. There is no avoiding the  fact that there still exists massive imbalances of power embedded in decisions about what to publish, how and where to distribution, determine the focus of discourse that continue to silence the perspectives emerging from the continent. What can give solace however, is that this power is receding, however slowly, and that our only choice is to continue to speak back, and to push back.

These new projects – from Burkina Faso, and Rwanda, emerge from my small effort to engage with African reasons for acting and their claims to act in light of reason. They do not attempt to explain Africa, but draw our eyes and minds to regions of African agency and formation. And since photographers tend to measure creativity in terms purely aesthetic, I have chosen to offer it in terms epistemic – my work begins in the history and politics of people, and the meanings they are inscribing in their societies. My readings are woefully incomplete, and this continent it too vast, too diverse for me to imagine even reading the tip of its incredible intellectual and artistic output. But I am reading. These projects are fundamentally about the ideas and imaginations of people I meet and work with. They are not metaphors for the entire continent, but local stories based on local political and historical realities. They are about ordinary people who are – much as the rest of us, as much victims as writers of their history. But perhaps most importantly, they merely add to a growing number of voices emerging from the continent. Today, the people’s struggle for  rights and justice are spreading in the region, from Burkina Faso to South Africa, and a generation is seeing past the bromides of neo-liberal hypnosis, and challenging political, economic and intellectual structures of repression, marginalization and erasure.

These works are nothing more than echoes of the voices of people I see and meet all around me, who are re-mapping the continent, writing its stories, refusing the enforced reductions and claiming their voices and place in our world.