The many voices of Africa
The idea that the diverse cultures of the African continent form a single entity is the outcome of romantic imperialismBy John Ryle • 2005 • Granta 92 • Revised • 2,813 words
This has been the year of Africa, according to Our Common Interest, the report of the Commission for Africa. It’s been the year when a combination of indigenous resolve and cash from Western governments was to launch a new assault on the roots of poverty in the continent, stimulating trade, increasing aid, tackling corruption and cancelling debt.
In the months since the appearance of the Commission’s report, events in African countries have indeed had higher than usual media visibility. But this has not been because of progress in combating poverty. It has been, rather, the familiar cavalcade of war, famine and mass killing: first in Sudan, then in Uganda and Côte d’Ivoire, and then in Sudan again. In the West, in the world’s lucky countries, it may have been the year of Africa; for many Africans, in much of Africa, it was another year of living on the edge.
The Commission could be right, in certain cases, to see change on the way. In a number of African countries things do appear to be getting better. Across the continent civil wars are fewer. Gross national product in a number of countries is on the up. But it is a mistake is to extrapolate from this to the fate of the entire continent. The very word Africa—that sonorous trisyllable—seems to invite grandiloquence. Because the continent has a clear geographical unity it is tempting to hold forth about it. The great apologist for British imperialism, Cecil Rhodes, aimed to colour everything imperial red from the Cape to Cairo; since his time the tendency been for Westerners—and often Africans too—to seek to impose a single reality, a general explanation, on the whole vast realm.
The word “Africa” invites grandiloquence
Thus a recent US newspaper report can assert that “Africa has never been more dangerous, nor more ready to join the rest of the world”; another that “Africa is coming together, taking its fate into its own hands.” But which “Africa” is being invoked in each case? Can Botswana and Ghana, those havens of stability, be more dangerous than ever? Are sequestered despotic states like Equatorial Guinea or Eritrea ready to join the rest of the world? Is the African Union “taking its fate into its own hands”?
The idea that the diverse polities of Africa—even of sub-Saharan Africa—form a single entity is, as the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued, the product of European colonialism, of romantic imperialism. It is a notion that has since been embraced by other epic dreamers: Rastafarians, pan-Africanists and most recently, it seems, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In truth Africa is far less homogenous—geographically, culturally, religiously and politically—than Europe or the Americas. Do South Africa and Burkina Faso have any more in common with each other than, say, Spain and Uzbekistan? They don’t. To say that the whole of Africa has “never been more dangerous” because of current wars in Congo or Sudan, is like saying Europe has never been more dangerous because of the war in Chechnya.
In thinking about the continent it is generalization itself that is dangerous. A century of colonization by Europe, which failed to bring Cecil Rhodes’ vision to pass, is the principal source of any actual historical affinities that exist between one African country and another. And this short history of colonial occupation is also the source of the combination of strategic interest and moral concern that finds expression today in the Commission for Africa, a body that brings together the great and the good–and not-so-good–of the two continents.
Our Common Interest duly warns against generalization. It then goes on to generalize. Africa, it says:
has suffered from governments that have looted the resources of the state; that could not or would not deliver services to their people; that in many cases were predatory, corruptly extracting their countries’ resources; that maintained control through violence and bribery, and that squandered or stole aid.
All this is true of many countries in Africa. But why the past tense? Has the violence and corruption ceased? And why does the report provide no specifics of this looting and embezzlement? Should those responsible not be named and the exceptions be applauded? The recommendations of the Commission include, after all, an unprecedented level of debt forgiveness and financial aid to African governments. There is, to put it mildly, some risk here of throwing good money after bad.
A look at the list of Commissioners provides a clue to this reticence in the report. They include two African heads of state, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and former President Benjamin Mpaka of Tanzania. On the whole African big men like these don’t acknowledge their own mistakes, any more than European big men do. Nor do they pull their neighbours down, whatever their crimes may have been against their own people. That’s why South African President Thabo Mbeki refuses to condemn Robert Mugabe. And why Mugabe gives refuge in Zimbabwe to Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was Meles Zenawi’s murderous predecessor as ruler of Ethiopia. Perhaps it is surprising that those who drafted the report of the Commission—which is, it should be said, a well-researched and frequently forceful document—got as much plain talk into it as they did.
The capacity for hope in the face of catastrophe
The optimism of the Commission is not to be dismissed, either. To risk a generalization, the capacity for hope in the face of catastrophe is a characteristically African gift. How else could people who suffer so much survive?
Take one example. In Sudan, where I work for part of the year, the conflict in Darfur has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians, victims of a government counter-insurgency campaign that deploys tribal militias as proxy fighters. In January 2005, members of this government concluded a peace agreement with rebels in the south of the country, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), ending the twenty-year civil war there. The Khartoum government calculated, no doubt, that international pressure over the massacres in Darfur would be constrained by unwillingness on the part of the West to put in jeopardy the deal with the SPLM. And they were right. Despite huffing and puffing by various parties, the government of Sudan has got away with mass murder again. The North–South peace deal in Sudan is called, optimistically, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement, but it only covers the south; comprehensive peace in large parts of the country is absent. Peace there, as the saying has it, is the milk of birds.
The language of peace-making is everywhere, though. Sometimes it is curiously belligerent. angelic peace locomotive crushes life out of war devil mongers was the headline in one Khartoum newspaper reporting the agreement. The less peace there is, it seems, the more people want to hear the magic word. A South Sudanese hip-hop artist, Emmanuel Jal, and a veteran northern Sudanese musician, Abdel Gadir Salim, recently recorded an album called Ceasefire. The two singers have not met: their album was made by sending recorded tracks back and forth between London and Khartoum and Nairobi, in Kenya, where Jal lives in exile. The result of this collaboration-at-a-distance is a wondrous fusion of the 6/8 merdoum rhythm of western Sudan with rap techniques honed in the dance halls of Nairobi, on the other side of the equator.
The songs are in a mix of English, Arabic, Nuer (Jal’s mother tongue) and Sheng, a street language that is Kenya’s equivalent of the Spanglish of Latinos in North America. Polyglottism has not hindered Jal’s rise to global fame in the music world. In July, he performed in Cornwall at one of Bob Geldof’s Live 8 concerts. In August, he sang at the memorial event in London for John Garang, the leader of the SPLM, who was killed in a helicopter crash shortly after the formation of the new government in Khartoum.
To meet him, Jal is the model of a modern hip-hop artist, all torn T-shirt, fatigues, shades, neck chains, and back-to-front baseball cap. His lyrics, though, are a long way from the febrile swagger of gangsta rap. Jal was a child soldier in Sudan, where guns are easier to get hold of than iPods, so he has, perhaps, seen enough of the real thing. As anti-war poetry, his songs, “Gua” (“Good” in Nuer) and “Ya Salaam” (“Peace” in Arabic), may not be quite in the Wilfred Owen league. But Wilfred Owen never had such an array of tablas and saxophones and ululating backing vocalists supporting him:
Just think for a minute
It will be so good when there’ll be peace in my homeland
Not one sister will be forced into marriage
Not one cow will be taken by force
And not one person will starve from hunger again
Children will go to school, I hope we can do this
I can’t wait for that day
Culture as a driving force
Our Common Interest puts stress on culture as a driving force in the fate of nations. By “culture” the report means mainly political culture, the energy of local communal organizations and, contentiously perhaps, religious networks. There’s a tip of the hat to language and the arts, but this could, perhaps, have been taken further. Take Jal’s multilingualism. This is striking on the world stage, but not so remarkable in sub-Saharan Africa, where everyone speaks at least two languages. The continent is home to more than 2,000 of them—2,058 according to the website www.ethnologue.com (and they’re not counting Sheng, the Kenyan street-language, or other new-fangled youth languages and creoles). That’s a third of the global total. Most of these languages were born to blush unseen, known beyond their spoken range only by proverbs, part of the great treasury that the Commission on Africa refers to as “intangible cultural heritage”.
According to the dictum of the English philosopher Francis Bacon, “the genius, wit and spirit of a Nation are discovered by their proverbs”. No one has tried to count the number of proverbs in Africa. A recently-published collection of sayings of the Akan of Ghana catalogues 7,015 from this single ethnolinguistic group. If every African language boasted as many proverbs as the Akan do there would be fourteen million in the continent altogether, enough to tie several government commissions in knots.
Language in general is an area where Africans have an edge over Europeans or Americans. And in this respect many outsiders such as myself, who claim some knowledge of African societies, practise a double standard. No respectable British or American news organization would send a representative to France who was not fluent in French, or to Russia without Russian, but it is rare to find a Western journalist—or a foreign aid worker—who speaks any African language properly. This is true even in places that have been the subject of quite intense, long-term, sophisticated news coverage, such as South Africa. How many of the Western correspondents who have made their reputations there speak Sotho, Xhosa, Sindebele or Afrikaans?
Some months back I called in on a south Sudanese acquaintance in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, Dr Bellario Ahoy. Dr Bellario is a medical doctor who served for many years in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and has recently been appointed to a post in the new government in South Sudan. In the interstices of war service, Dr Bellario managed to make a collection of proverbial lore in his native language, Dinka. Like all such collections these Dinka sayings combine universal received wisdom with cultural specificities, clichés with odd and striking images, admonitions with their opposites. Some are oracular and hard to understand.
When I saw him, Dr Bellario, contemplating the destruction of his homeland, invoked the words of the Dinka prophet Ariathdit, who led opposition to the British imperial presence in Sudan in the early twentieth century. On returning home after long imprisonment by the British, Dr Bellario explained, Ariathdit spoke the following words, which have become a Dinka catchphrase: Piny nhom abi riak mac, “the land may be spoiled yet it will remain intact”. Dr Bellario glosses the phrase as Ariathdit’s realization that although he had lost his battle against the British, this did not mean that the whole world would be destroyed. War and peace, good and bad fortune, all offer the chance of renewal. This dignity in the face of catastrophe is a kind of optimism. It combines fatalism, opportunism, and a sense of the limitations of human understanding. As the Mongo people, in neighbouring Central Africa, put it in one of their own proverbs, the root does not know what the leaf has in mind.
Dr Bellario has a project he would like to organize: a cultural exchange whereby young people from one area of Sudan go to live in the territory of another ethnic group and learn their language. In other parts of Africa, not held back by war, this has happened already. Though most African countries are still predominantly rural, they will, on average, become fifty per cent urban in a couple of decades. As elsewhere in the world, it is the city that is the site of hybrid vigour.
Sheng, the language of East African hip-hop, is an example of such vigour: a second-generation hybrid, mixing Swahili (which is itself an East African lingua franca, with a Bantu backbone and Arabic extremities) with English, our familiar Anglo-Saxon creole. Sheng has been spread by hip-hop artists like Jal, and by the drivers and turnboys who operate matatus, the devil-may-care minibuses that are the core of the public transport system in East Africa.
These matatus were the subject of some recent reflections by Binyavanga Wainaina, who is the Editor of Kwani, an Africa-wide literary and political magazine published in Kenya (the name means something like “So?” or “So What?” in Sheng.) Binyavanga celebrates the intricate customization of matatus, vehicles whose paintwork is startling enough to cause a traffic accident. “Brash, garish public transport vehicles,” he calls them, “so irritating to every Kenyan except those who own one, or work for one.”
And not just Kenyans. Any visitor to Nairobi notices the turnboys hanging from the doors of matatus, half-cut on miraa (the stimulant leaf favoured by Somalis, grown in central Kenya), calling out destinations at the stopping points and cramming passengers into the vehicle until the wheels splay outward and the transmission hangs just a few inches from the ground. Herds of these matatus careen around Nairobi with cool disregard for other road users, challenging onlookers with the intricate typography of the slogans that bedeck them: Hard Target, Sweet Baby, Happiness, Slander, Down with Homeboys, Tolerance of Ladies. Or one that may seem to confirm the upbeat conclusion of the Commission for Africa: No Condition Permanent. Another Kenyan commentator, Joyce Nyairo, compares the traffic in Nairobi to music. “Matatus,” she says simply, “are jazz.”
A beat that’s hard to live without
Proverbs. Graffiti. And jazz. African music, like language, has been the site of endless mutation, within Africa and beyond. It is Africa’s most triumphant export. Emmanuel Jal’s Nilotic hip-hop and his duets with Abdel Gadir Salim are just one expression of an inexhaustible hybridity that has had the peoples of northern countries dancing to an African beat since early in the last century. Music is where the traditions of Europe and African meet on equal terms. As the musicologist Stephen Brown puts it:
One of the most important events of the twentieth century was the marriage of African and European musical languages. It wasn’t just one marriage, but a series of marriages—in the American South, in Cuba, in Jamaica, in Brazil, and, of course, Africa. There is something about each of the two music cultures that seems to need the other… European music provided harmonic progressions organized round a tonal centre—an idea which, once you’ve heard it, is irresistible. African music offered its polyrhythms, rhythms that occur in layers—a kind of beat which, once heard, is hard to live without.
A kind of beat that’s hard to live without. Africa is part of everyone’s life, whether they know it or not. Along with ivory, slaves, diamonds, gold and oil—and their accompanying human cost—it has given us the soundtrack of modernity.
And finally—here’s one generalization it’s now safe to make—somewhere in Africa is the place we ourselves come from. Humanity’s ancestral home, the key site of primate evolution and the emergence of modern humans, is in the Rift Valley, somewhere between Kilimanjaro and the Red Sea. This is worth remembering: there is a sense in which if it were not for Africa we would not be here at all. ★