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AFRICA IS A CONTINENT with more than 50 countries, 2,000 languages and countless cultures, a sometimes troubled patchwork of tribes, regimes, religions, governments and rival ethnic groups. Diverse indeed, but there’s perhaps one thing the residents of this continent might agree on: Puhleeze, Angelina Jolie, don’t pluck any more of our kids for one of your celebrity adoption stunts.
That was one fruitful idea that emerged from the Sept. 11 panel, « From Apartheid to Darfur: Africa’s Struggle Against Disdain, » a Black Mountain Institute event that drew together several African authors. (CityLife is a media sponsor of the Black Mountain Institute’s events.)
If anything, the panel, moderated by Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka, offered a fresh glimpse into a complex continent that, through the prism of mainstream media, has become so warped as to approach parody — a nation of starving, fly-plagued children just waiting for Bob Geldof and Sally Struthers to swing in and save the day. Each writer hammered home — whether with humor or quiet gravity — the idea that this whole idea of there being a single African consciousness is hopelessly fatuous. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said she’s ever only aware of being « African » per se when she’s approached by the media — as though she can act as some sort of soundbite-delivering spokeswoman on African issues.
« I’m Nigerian, but I’m often approached by the media about general African issues, » she said. The upside: « It’s forced me to learn about Africa. » The downside: « I’m hyper-aware that I come from a place that is misunderstood by the majority of people. Only in America am I African. »
And with that American gaze comes a one-dimensional view of Africa that she almost sees as a sort of media colonialism. « Looking at Africa through the lens of catastrophe doesn’t make sense, » she said. « It’s not the only story. You can’t engage [Africa] unless you understood the complexity. » She told a story about a colleague who had read one of her novels, only to dismiss the native Nigerian’s work as inauthentic. Why? « ‘Because the characters aren’t starving,' » she said he told her. On top of that, she was also guilty of the grave literary sin of having her characters actually drive cars. But to Adichie, talking and writing about the ordinary things — « the person who braids my hair, the friend who owns a cyber cafe » — are crucial to bringing the world to a fuller understanding of Africa’s texture.
Novelist Chenjerai Hove, from Zimbabwe, said he comes across the same sort of misunderstandings. When the Rwandan civil war exploded into genocide in 1994, Hove was teaching at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon. He told his students he must return home. They acted as though he were jumping right into a croc pit; they were blissfully unaware that Zimbabwe is quite a safe distance south from the tiny country. It’d be like a Nevadan worrying about civil war in Canada. « I told them, ‘I’ll be all right,' » he said to audience laughter.
Sometimes that ignorance approaches astounding levels. Author Alexandra Fuller, who is white, spent her formative years in Zimbabwe, which used to be called Rhodesia — named after Cecil Rhodes. The ruthless colonizer of Africa — founder of De Beers diamond company and namesake of the Rhodes Scholarship — should perhaps be remembered for this caustic irony: He barely set foot in the country he founded. « I’m a child of the disdainful ones, » said Fuller, who noted that her parents were fairly, ahem, Rhodesian in their views as well. « You’ve got 150 whites in Rhodesia, but millions of blacks, but we had everything. » Wherever you go, she said, « all oppression looks the same. Like a lack of imagination. We have to unlearn the language of empire. »
And strike out the roots of it that have taken to the African soil. Nigerian author Chris Abani — whom the government tortured for writing « subversive » fiction — spoke of a disdain that bubbles from within. « The idea of disdain is so deeply rooted [in the country], it’s almost a self-loathing, » he said. And on top of that, Africans are « not allowed to explore this due to translation and literacy issues. »
So how do we fix it all? You don’t. « I’m intensely irritated by the question, ‘How can we save Africa?' » said Adichie. « No one can. It’s too young. »About 50 years young. This isnt to say that international aid is unwelcome. But you can’t blame the continent for still having the aftertaste of colonialism on its tongue. The Black Mountain Institute’s Executive Director Carol Harter asked: Then how does the international community help Africa without condescension or imperialist meddling?
It was one more thing these writers of disparate regions and views agreed on: Not with handouts, but with partnerships. « You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have boots, » said Adichie. And before going in and building wells, said Adichie, don’t forget to consider your assumptions: « Do the villagers want a well? »
By ANDREW KIRALY, managing editor of CityLife. email@example.com