Tag Archives: Africa

On “The Names of Continents” at Kigali

My poem, “The Names of Continents”, was performed @transpoesis End Violence, Empower Women poetry performance in #Kigali last week. It was read by Amina (in the rose blouse) accompanied by the guitar. Many thanks to Dr. Andrea Grieder and her team.

I stand in the street in the crowd with my aunts and sisters, we cause

Tremors and our leader who looks like my mother unties a child and

Feeds it from her own breast while the world of lies falls silent. She says—

Africa and Asia and America and Europa are named for women because the World

Itself is a woman, words for “seed” or “boy”, “song” “rain” or “man” from our womb is birthed

For there can be no words without sound and women are the sound and the soundness

Of all creation

From, The Names of Continents.


To My African Friends Concerned About the News From Nigeria

It is true have been having serious separatist issues, accompanied by hate speech, spearheaded by someone called Nnamdi Kanu who wishes to channel the nostalgia for the short lived Republic of Biafra. We fought a civil war over that in the 60’s. He is a charlatan who was coddled too long until he got out of hand. It was a serious issue, including ethnic hate speech and violent extremist violence too.
A few days ago, the Army submitted its analysis that his group is a terrorist group. The state governors from the southeast have proscribed the organization yesterday. We are waiting to see what happens after. There was some tension even in my hometown, which is in the north-central Nigeria, but it’s been contained.
So, don’t worry too much. Now you see a bit of why I laugh at you guys for your political impasses. Nigeria is far more complex, the crisis is as routine as the corruption is vast. This is a federation overheating, but this is also a federation that always manages to let off steam.
I’m okay. Thanks for the concern.
– Ra.

On Baldwin Again


“…a very complex country which insists on bring narrow-minded…”
– James Baldwin.

As an African, I have often thought of Baldwin as being central to understanding the African-American experience. The biopic/documentary, I Am Not Your Negrofurther underscores this and makes his position accessible to a new generation. I have been fascinated by him because to be an African, which is my insistence and protest, is to aspire to be the heir of all that is Africa, from Egypt to the Genocide in Rwanda to the African American population in the United States and elsewhere. That these experiences are organic and umbilical to mine.

This quote struck me.

And I think how the more things change the more they stay the same. In surveying the inter-African intelligentsia of which I am a part, the seemingly deliberate desire to be narrow-minded cannot be missed. In the argument for component countries, for example, or in the intelligentsia’s arguments for the ideological fruits of poststructural, globalised world of which the African people are the victims. In the desire to be accepted by members of a frame of reference based on excluding you.

Africa as a country is my argument. And this Africa is immensely complex. And it requires a broad based engagement with it, in its triumphs and catastrophes, its vagaries and variations. I am black. And everything black, to the precise extent of its blackness, is organic to me. And I will not say no to any of it.

I think that only when we have defined for ourselves the scope of what to be African means and accepted the reality of our descent and the validity of our dreams can we then become anything in global terms.

Hiding behind things, as adjectives and adverbs, is self defeating when what we are are nouns and verbs.

On Conrad by Achebe


[Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’”, Massachusetts Review, 18, 1977, reprinted Robert Kimbrough, ed., Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, Background and Sources Criticism, 1961, 3rd ed., London: W. W Norton, 1988, pp.251-261.]


In the fall of 1974 I was walking one day from the English Department at the University of Massachusetts to a parking lot. It was a fine autumn morning such as encouraged friendliness to passing strangers. Brisk youngsters were hurrying in all directions, many of them obviously freshmen in their first flush of enthusiasm. An older man going the same way as I turned and remarked to me how very young they came these days. I agreed. Then he asked me if I was a student too. I said no, I was a teacher. What did I teach? African literature. Now that was funny, he said, because he knew a fellow who taught the same thing, or perhaps it was African history, in a certain Community College not far from here. It always surprised him, he went on to say, because he never had thought of Africa as having that kind of stuff, you know. By this time I was walking much faster. “Oh well,” I heard him say finally, behind me: “I guess I have to take your course to find out.” A few weeks later I received two very touching letters from high school children in Yonkers, New York, who – bless their teacher – had just read Things Fall Apart. One of them was particularly happy to learn about the customs and superstitions of an African tribe.

I propose to draw from these rather trivial encounters rather heavy conclusions which at first sight might seem somewhat out of proportion to them. But only, I hope, at first sight. The young fellow from Yonkers, perhaps partly on account of his age but I believe also for much deeper and more serious reasons, is obviously unaware that the life of his own tribesmen in Yonkers, New York, is full of odd customs and superstitions and, like everybody else in his culture, imagines that he needs a trip to Africa to encounter those things.

The other person being fully my own age could not be excused on the grounds of his years. Ignorance might be a more likely reason; but here again I believe that something more willful than a mere lack of information was at work. For did not that erudite British historian and Regius Professor at Oxford, Hugh Trevor Roper, also pronounce that African history did not exist?

If there is something in these utterances more than youthful inexperience, more than a lack of factual knowledge, what is it? Quite simply it is the desire – one might indeed say the need – in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.

This need is not new; which should relieve us all of considerable responsibility and perhaps make us even willing to look at this phenomenon dispassionately. I have neither the wish nor the competence to embark on the exercise with the tools of the social and biological sciences but more simply in the manner of a novelist responding to one famous book of European fiction: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which better than any other work that I know displays that Western desire and need which I have just referred to. Of course there are whole libraries of books devoted to the same purpose but most of them are so obvious and so crude that few people worry about them today. Conrad, on the other hand, is undoubtedly one of the great stylists of modern fiction and a good storyteller into the bargain. His contribution therefore falls automatically into a different class – permanent literature – read and taught and constantly evaluated by serious academics. Heart of Darkness is indeed so secure today that a leading Conrad scholar has numbered it “among the half-dozen greatest short novels in the English language.” I will return to this critical opinion in due course because it may seriously modify my earlier suppositions about who may or may not be guilty in some of the matters I will now raise.

Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully “at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.” But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.”

Is Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, the other bad? Yes, but that is not the real point. It is not the differentness that worries Conrad but the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry. For the Thames too “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” It conquered its darkness, of course, and is now in daylight and at peace. But if it were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings.

These suggestive echoes comprise Conrad’s famed evocation of the African atmosphere in Heart of Darkness. In the final consideration his method amounts to no more than a steady, ponderous, fake-ritualistic repetition of two antithetical sentences, one about silence and the other about frenzy. We can inspect samples of this on pages 36 and 37 of the present edition: a) it was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention and b) The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. Of course there is a judicious change of adjective from time to time, so that instead of inscrutable, for example, you might have unspeakable, even plain mysterious, etc., etc.

The eagle-eyed English critic F. R. Leavis drew attention long ago to Conrad’s “adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.” That insistence must not be dismissed lightly, as many Conrad critics have tended to do, as a mere stylistic flaw; for it raises serious questions of artistic good faith. When a writer while pretending to record scenes, incidents and their impact is in reality engaged in inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery much more has to be at stake than stylistic felicity. Generally normal readers are well armed to detect and resist such under-hand activity. But Conrad chose his subject well – one which was guaranteed not to put him in conflict with the psychological predisposition of his readers or raise the need for him to contend with their resistance. He chose the role of purveyor of comforting myths.

The most interesting and revealing passages in Heart of Darkness are, however, about people. I must crave the indulgence of my reader to quote almost a whole page from about the middle of the stop/when representatives of Europe in a steamer going down the Congo encounter the denizens of Africa.

We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly as we struggled round a bend there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us – who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because we were traveling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign – and no memories.

The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there – there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly and the men were… No they were not inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you, was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough, but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend.

Herein lies the meaning of Heart of Darkness and the fascination it holds over the Western mind: “What thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours… Ugly.” Having shown us Africa in the mass, Conrad then zeros in, half a page later, on a specific example, giving us one of his rare descriptions of an African who is not just limbs or rolling eyes:

And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs. A few months of training had done for that really fine chap. He squinted at the steam-gauge and at the water-gauge with an evident effort of intrepidity – and he had filed his teeth too, the poor devil, and the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks. He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge.

As everybody knows, Conrad is a romantic on the side. He might not exactly admire savages clapping their hands and stamping their feet but they have at least the merit of being in their place, unlike this dog in a parody of breeches. For Conrad things being in their place is of the utmost importance.

“Fine fellows – cannibals – in their place,” he tells us pointedly. Tragedy begins when things leave their accustomed place, like Europe leaving its safe stronghold between the policeman and the baker to like a peep into the heart of darkness.


Before the story takes us into the Congo basin proper we are given this nice little vignette as an example of things in their place:

Now and then a boat from the shore gave one a momentary contact with reality. It was paddled by black fellows. You could see from afar the white of their eyeballs glistening. They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks – these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement that was as natural and hue as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look at.

Towards the end of the story Conrad lavishes a whole page quite unexpectedly on an African woman who has obviously been some kind of mistress to Mr. Kurtz and now presides (if I may be permitted a little liberty) like a formidable mystery over the inexorable imminence of his departure:

She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent… She stood looking at us without a stir and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose.

This Amazon is drawn in considerable detail, albeit of a predictable nature, for two reasons. First, she is in her place and so can win Conrad’s special brand of approval and second, she fulfills a structural requirement of the story: a savage counterpart to the refined, European woman who will step forth to end the story:

She came forward all in black with a pale head, floating toward me in the dusk. She was in mourning… She took both my hands in hers and murmured, “I had heard you were coming.” … She had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering.

The difference in the attitude of the novelist to these two women is conveyed in too many direct and subfile ways to need elaboration. But perhaps the most significant difference is the one implied in the author’s bestowal of human expression to the one and the withholding of it from the other. It is clearly not part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language on the “rudimentary souls” of Africa. In place of speech they made “a violent babble of uncouth sounds.” They “exchanged short grunting phrases” even among themselves. But most of the time they were too busy with their frenzy. There are two occasions in the book, however, when Conrad departs somewhat from his practice and confers speech, even English speech, on the savages. The first occurs when cannibalism gets the better of them: “Catch ‘im,” he snapped with a bloodshot widening of his eyes and a flash of sharp teeth – “catch ‘im. Give ‘im to us.” “To you, eh?” I asked; “what would you do with them?” “Eat ‘im!” he said curtly… The other occasion was the famous announcement: “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.”

At first sight these instances might be mistaken for unexpected acts of generosity from Conrad. In reality they constitute some of his best assaults. In the case of the cannibals the incomprehensible grunts that had thus far served them for speech suddenly proved inadequate for Conrad’s purpose of letting the European glimpse the unspeakable craving in their hearts. Weighing the necessity for consistency in the portrayal of the dumb brutes against the sensational advantages of securing their conviction by clear, unambiguous evidence issuing out of their own mouth Conrad chose the latter. As for the announcement of Mr. Kurtz’s death by the “insolent black head in the doorway” what better or more appropriate finis could be written to the horror story of that wayward child of civilization who willfully had given his soul to the powers of darkness and “taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land” than the proclamation of his physical death by the forces he had joined?

It might be contended, of course, that the attitude to the African in Heart of Darkness is not Conrad’s but that of his fictional narrator, Marlow, and that far from endorsing it Conrad might indeed be holding it up to irony and criticism. Certainly Conrad appears to go to considerable pains to set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his history. He has, for example, a narrator behind a narrator. The primary narrator is Marlow but his account is given to us through the filter of a second, shadowy person. But if Conrad’s intention is to draw a cordon sanitaire between himself and the moral and psychological malaise of his narrator his care seems to me totally wasted because he neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters. It would not have been beyond Conrad’s power to make that provision if he had thought it necessary. Marlow seems to me to enjoy Conrad’s complete confidence – a feeling reinforced by the close similarities between their two careers.

Marlow comes through to us not only as a witness of truth, but one holding those advanced and humane views appropriate to the English liberal tradition which required all Englishmen of decency to be deeply shocked by atrocities in Bulgaria or the Congo of King Leopold of the Belgians or wherever.


Thus Marlow is able to toss out such bleeding-heart sentiments as these:

They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest.

The kind of liberalism espoused here by Marlow/Conrad touched all the best minds of the age in England, Europe and America. It took different forms in the minds of different people but almost always managed to sidestep the ultimate question of equality between white people and black people. That extraordinary missionary, Albert Schweitzer, who sacrificed brilliant careers in music and theology in Europe for a life of service to Africans in much the same area as Conrad writes about, epitomizes the ambivalence. In a comment which has often been quoted Schweitzer says: “The African is indeed my brother but my junior brother.” And so he proceeded to build a hospital appropriate to the needs of junior brothers with standards of hygiene reminiscent of medical practice in the days before the germ theory of disease came into being. Naturally he became a sensation in Europe and America. Pilgrims flocked, and I believe still flock even after he has passed on, to witness the prodigious miracle in Lamberene, on the edge of the primeval forest.

Conrad’s liberalism would not take him quite as far as Schweitzer’s, though. He would not use the word brother however qualified; the farthest he would go was kinship. When Marlow’s African helmsman falls down with a spear in his heart he gives his white master one final disquieting look:

And the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory – like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment.

It is important to note that Conrad, careful as ever with his words, is concerned not so much about distant kinship as about someone laying a claim on it. The black man lays a claim on the white man which is well-nigh intolerable. It is the laying of this claim which frightens and at the same time fascinates Conrad: “… the thought of their humanity – like yours … Ugly.”


The point of my observations should be quite clear by now, namely that Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked. Students of Heart of Darkness will often tell you that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness. They will point out to you that Conrad is, if anything, less charitable to the Europeans in the story than he is to the natives, that the point of the story is to ridicule Europe’s civilizing mission in Africa. A Conrad student informed me in Scotland that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz.

Which is partly the point. Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot. I do not doubt Conrad’s great talents. Even Heart of Darkness has its memorably good passages and moments:

The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across tile water to bar the way for our return.

Its exploration of the minds of the European characters is often penetrating and full of insight. But all that has been more than fully discussed in the last fifty years. His obvious racism has, however, not been addressed. And it is high time it was!

Conrad was born in 1857, the very year in which the first Anglican missionaries were arriving among my own people in Nigeria. It was certainly not his fault that he lived his life at a time when the reputation of the black man was at a particularly low level. But even after due allowances have been made for all the influences of contemporary prejudice on his sensibility there remains still in Conrad’s attitude a residue of antipathy to black people which his peculiar psychology alone can explain. His own account of his first encounter with a black man is very revealing:

A certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days. Of the nigger I used to dream for years afterwards.

Certainly Conrad had a problem with niggers. His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts. Sometimes his fixation on blackness is equally interesting as when he gives us this brief description:

A black figure stood up, strode on long black legs, waving long black arms…

as though we might expect a black figure striding along on black legs to wave white arms! But so unrelenting is Conrad’s obsession. As a matter of interest Conrad gives us in A Personal Record what amounts to a companion piece to the buck nigger of Haiti. At the age of sixteen Conrad encountered his first Englishman in Europe. He calls him “my unforgettable Englishman” and describes him in the following manner:

(his) calves exposed to the public gaze … dazzled the beholder by the splendor of their marble-like condition and their rich tone of young ivory … The light of a headlong, exalted satisfaction with the world of men … illumined his face … and triumphant eyes. In passing he cast a glance of kindly curiosity and a friendly gleam of big, sound, shiny teeth … his white calves twinkled sturdily.

Irrational love and irrational hate jostling together in the heart of that talented, tormented man. But whereas irrational love may at worst engender foolish acts of indiscretion, irrational hate can endanger the life of the community. Naturally Conrad is a dream for psychoanalytic critics. Perhaps the most detailed study of him in this direction is by Bernard C. Meyer, M.D. In his lengthy book Dr. Meyer follows every conceivable lead (and sometimes inconceivable ones) to explain Conrad. As an example he gives us long disquisitions on the significance of hair and hair-cutting in Conrad. And yet not even one word is spared for his attitude to black people. Not even the discussion of Conrad’s antisemitism was enough to spark off in Dr. Meyer’s mind those other dark and explosive thoughts. Which only leads one to surmise that Western psychoanalysts must regard the kind of racism displayed by Conrad absolutely normal despite the profoundly important work done by Frantz Fanon in the psychiatric hospitals of French Algeria.

Whatever Conrad’s problems were, you might say he is now safely dead. Quite true. Unfortunately his heart of darkness plagues us still. Which is why an offensive and deplorable book can be described by a serious scholar as “among the half dozen greatest short novels in the English language.” And why it is today the most commonly prescribed novel in twentieth-century literature courses in English Departments of American universities.

There are two probable grounds on which what I have said so far may be contested. The first is that it is no concern of fiction to please people about whom it is written. I will go along with that. But I am not talking about pleasing people. I am talking about a book which parades in the most vulgar fashion prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies and atrocities in the past and continues to do so in many ways and many places today. I am talking about a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question.

Secondly, I may be challenged on the grounds of actuality. Conrad, after all, did sail down the Congo in 1890 when my own father was still a babe in arms. How could I stand up more than fifty years after his death and purport to contradict him? My answer is that as a sensible man I will not accept just any traveler’s tales solely on the grounds that I have not made the journey myself. I will not trust the evidence even off man’s very eyes when I suspect them to be as jaundiced as Conrad’s. And we also happen to know that Conrad was, in the words of his biographer, Bernard C. Meyer, “notoriously inaccurate in the rendering of his own history.”

But more important by far is the abundant testimony about Conrad’s savages which we could gather if we were so inclined from other sources and which might lead us to think that these people must have had other occupations besides merging into the evil forest or materializing out of it simply to plague Marlow and his dispirited band. For as it happened, soon after Conrad had written his book an event of far greater consequence was taking place in the art world of Europe. This is how Frank Willett, a British art historian, describes it:

Gaugin had gone to Tahiti, the most extravagant individual act of turning to a non-European culture in the decades immediately before and after 1900, when European artists were avid for new artistic experiences, but it was only about 1904-5 that African art began to make its distinctive impact. One piece is still identifiable; it is a mask that had been given to Maurice Vlaminck in 1905. He records that Derain was “speechless” and “stunned” when he saw it, bought it from Vlaminck and in turn showed it to Picasso and Matisse, who were also greatly affected by it. Ambroise Vollard then borrowed it and had it cast in bronze … The revolution of twentieth century art was under way!

The mask in question was made by other savages living just north of Conrad’s River Congo. They have a name too: the Fang people, and are without a doubt among the world’s greatest masters of the sculptured form. The event Frank Willett is referring to marks the beginning of cubism and the infusion of new life into European art, which had run completely out of strength.

The point of all this is to suggest that Conrad’s picture of the people of the Congo seems grossly inadequate even at the height of their subjection to the ravages of King Leopold’s lnternational Association for the Civilization of Central Africa.

Travelers with closed minds can tell us little except about themselves. But even those not blinkered, like Conrad with xenophobia, can be astonishing blind. Let me digress a little here. One of the greatest and most intrepid travelers of all time, Marco Polo, journeyed to the Far East from the Mediterranean in the thirteenth century and spent twenty years in the court of Kublai Khan in China. On his return to Venice he set down in his book entitled Description of the World his impressions of the peoples and places and customs he had seen. But there were at least two extraordinary omissions in his account. He said nothing about the art of printing, unknown as yet in Europe but in full flower in China. He either did not notice it at all or if he did, failed to see what use Europe could possibly have for it. Whatever the reason, Europe had to wait another hundred years for Gutenberg. But even more spectacular was Marco Polo’s omission of any reference to the Great Wall of China nearly 4,000 miles long and already more than 1,000 years old at the time of his visit. Again, he may not have seen it; but the Great Wall of China is the only structure built by man which is visible from the moon! Indeed travelers can be blind.

As I said earlier Conrad did not originate the image of Africa which we find in his book. It was and is the dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination and Conrad merely brought the peculiar gifts of his own mind to bear on it. For reasons which can certainly use close psychological inquiry the West seems to suffer deep anxieties about the precariousness of its civilization and to have a need for constant reassurance by comparison with Africa. If Europe, advancing in civilization, could cast a backward glance periodically at Africa trapped in primordial barbarity it could say with faith and feeling: There go I but for the grace of God. Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray – a carrier onto whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate. Consequently Africa is something to be avoided just as the picture has to be hidden away to safeguard the man’s jeopardous integrity. Keep away from Africa, or else! Mr. Kurtz of Heart of Darkness should have heeded that warning and the prowling horror in his heart would have kept its place, chained to its lair. But he foolishly exposed himself to the wild irresistible allure of the jungle and lo! the darkness found him out.

In my original conception of this essay I had thought to conclude it nicely on an appropriately positive note in which I would suggest from my privileged position in African and Western cultures some advantages the West might derive from Africa once it rid its mind of old prejudices and began to look at Africa not through a haze of distortions and cheap mystifications but quite simply as a continent of people – not angels, but not rudimentary souls either – just people, often highly gifted people and often strikingly successful in their enterprise with life and society. But as I thought more about the stereotype image, about its grip and pervasiveness, about the willful tenacity with which the West holds it to its heart; when I thought of the West’s television and cinema and newspapers, about books read in its schools and out of school, of churches preaching to empty pews about the need to send help to the heathen in Africa, I realized that no easy optimism was possible. And there was, in any case, something totally wrong in offering bribes to the West in return for its good opinion of Africa. Ultimately the abandonment of unwholesome thoughts must be its own and only reward. Although I have used the word willful a few times here to characterize the West’s view of Africa, it may well be that what is happening at this stage is more akin to reflex action than calculated malice. Which does not make the situation more but less hopeful.

The Christian Science Monitor, a paper more enlightened than most, once carried an interesting article written by its Education Editor on the serious psychological and learning problems faced by little children who speak one language at home and then go to school where something else is spoken. It was a wide-ranging article taking in Spanish-speaking children in America, the children of migrant Italian workers in Germany, the quadrilingual phenomenon in Malaysia, and so on. And all this while the article speaks unequivocally about language. But then out of the blue sky comes this:

 In London there is an enormous immigration of children who speak Indian or Nigerian dialects, or some other native language.

I believe that the introduction of dialects which is technically erroneous in the context is almost a reflex action caused by an instinctive desire of the writer to downgrade the discussion to the level of Africa and India. And this is quite comparable to Conrad’s withholding of language from his rudimentary souls. Language is too grand for these chaps; let’s give them dialects!

In all this business a lot of violence is inevitably done not only to the image of despised peoples but even to words, the very tools of possible redress. Look at the phrase native language in the Science Monitor excerpt. Surely the only native language possible in London is Cockney English. But our writer means something else – something appropriate to the sounds Indians and Africans make!

Although the work of redressing which needs to be done may appear too daunting, I believe it is not one day too soon to begin. Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth. But the victims of racist slander who for centuries have had to live with the inhumanity it makes them heir to have always known better than any casual visitor even when he comes loaded with the gifts of a Conrad.


On Kigali: Why #Kigali, Why #Rwanda?



Why Kigali, Why Rwanda?

1. Because a young girl in her twenties offered to drop me off at a restaurant yesterday and when I asked what she did, “School?” She said she was in the process of starting her own company. We spent the next fifteen minutes discussing her brilliant startup idea.

2. Because on Monday, I sat with my friends at a cafe overlooking the city and we batted solid ideas around centred on causing a major disruption in an African industry that will remain unnamed for now. There was never any doubt that we could do this. It was only about finessing our ideas and strategies. Both my friends are female, early 30’s. And for one of them, this is not the first time she is redefining a “closed” space.

3. Because I have been here for a week’s holiday since Monday and the electricity has not blinked. You will understand it better when I say my freinds and I are also making an IT gamble in Nigeria and for three days last week, my developer/partners were unable to work because there was no electricty in Abuja. Coders work in quiet plugged in environments, air conditioned with their headphones on, food is usually not important until they are ravenous. You cannot he hauling your computer from one end of town to the other “looking for light” and you simply cannot do your job by buying the obligatory beer at a bar or restaurant where people come and go.

4. Because you are surrounded by young people, all creative, all confident, with more brilliance and intelligence than the continental average. And Nigeria does not even approach the continental average.

5. Because you can travel three hours from Kigali to Gisenyi, by Lake Kivu at the DRC/Rwanda/Burundi border on excellent roads that have working streetlights all the way. And there, you can sit and eat the best tilapia and sambaza with chips at the New Tam Tam Bikini restaurant by the lake.

6. Because, in Kigali, you have beat cops at every corner in a way that makes you feel very secure. I have on occasion asked for directions and they were all very helpful, even though they had little English just as I have no Kinyarwanda or Swahili. There is a sense of a country that takes itself seriously, where law and order means something.

7. Because Rwanda has the best coffee in the world (sorry EThiopia) and has a cafe culture.

8. Because Kigali has culture, like Lagos but not like Lagos for the latter’s chaos.

9. Because the busses work and even the okadas, called motos here, are safe.

10. Because the business climate is so good for the entrepreneur it would freeze Nigerians stiff to realize how much easier their money would perform better here. Wages are comparatively high, yes, but quality of life is also generally high which impacts on employee productivity. You don’t need to “know somebody” at every level. A Rwandese company is Rwandan, sometimes I wonder if a Nigerian company is not an adopted child from a hated mother in Nigeria. Nigeriam business climate makes it so hard to make money.

I have no doubt that the Rwandans have their own peculiar issues which I do not see, which I might never understand. But that is the burden of their being native. But Rwanda shows something, that Africa can get it right if we can make the structural changes and implement the checks neccessary. The population of the country is about 11 million, the size of Lagos. And Lagos will not be on my top seven places to live as a young businessperson in this Africa.

On Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kwani? 2013)

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor ( © Esther Ashieng Onyango)

I’m delighted to have finally read Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s debut novel, Dust. Finally, because it took all of two years to get it. It was released in Nairobi, by Kwani? , in 2013, just after I left the city following the GRANTA Workshop at which the Jalada Writers Cooperative kerneled itself. I was only able to get a copy two years later courtesy of the South African novelist Zukiswa Wanner, during a second trip to Kenya a few weeks ago.

Dust is the story of a family and its secrets, all unraveling after the murder of a young man, Odidi Oganda, by police on the streets of Nairobi. It follows the impact of this on his retired policeman father, Nyipir, his artist sister, Arabel Ajany, and on a wider cast of international characters united, fatally more often, by the careering chaos of Kenya’s history. The novel dips back to the time before independence, through the definitive assasination of Tom Mboya, up to the contemporary post electoral violence (2007). Ms. Owuor weaves the story of her country so cleverly and delicately, in sentences and with a style that knows the value of each word yet is luxurious with its language. And this threading, for we are weaving a history here, of desire and betrayal and loss, hangs on the skeleton of a plot that does not let up. The prose is effective, the language luxurious, and there is not a spare paragraph that can be skimmed over. The silences of each character is significant, these are not the tricks of a puisne author, just as the words of every character, and such characters they are, all mad, all true. . .the words of every character are fraught for this is a writer who knows, and one who knows everything.

Dust is a story about each of our countries, our countries the lines we have drawn on the face of this island called Africa. The novel mirrors what our fathers have done, what is left of the ugliness they have built at the cost of so much blood and potential. Listen–

“His mind tumbles back to a different time, when brother, son, mother, father sealed family members in rooms and huts and set these alight in honour of covenants of terror that guaranteed silence: If I speak, may the oath kill me. Much later, the horror was painted over and replaced with myths of triumph, repeated, repeated again, then adorned in all seasons of retelling. Nyipir waited for the inheritors of these silences to call out the names of their undead dead. Not a word. Now, fifty years later, the murdered were shrieking from earth tombs of enforced, timeless stillness, wailing for their forgotten, chopped-up lives.”

A novel like this, side by side with the Ugandan novel Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, makes my argument for a shared African reality easier to make. This reality teems with stories–of Lagos and Kampala, the Chad and Turkana–that have a common human, African core. A space authentic enough to question in endless creative ways within its own ever expanding frames. What does Nigeria mean? What does Kenya mean? This is a story of my generation engaging with the hideous reality we find our parents have built for us. Wuoth Ogik, the homestead in Turkana, which forms the microcosm of Africa is thus our uniform, belaboured heritage. Dust is fiction that will resonate with the young in any African country, for we see clearly our Nigerias and Eritreas in Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Kenya.

“Here they were, the ’better future’ their parents, teachers, and leaders talked about, drinking Kenyan coffee (with milk), tree-tomato and minty pineapple juice, and one Masala tea. Post-Kenyan independence older women, lines beneath eyes, enmeshed by national subtexts, still hiding from anonymous bogeymen, still trying to plaster, with easy words, the fetid moral swamps engorged by the sludge of what a nation does, or does not do, with its freedom.”

At the end of the novel, Wuoth Ogik is abandoned and burned. Everything has to start anew. 

Thank you for reminding us in this novel, Yvonne, of what we must do with our heritage of lies and what we must do afterwards.

Kwani? (2013)
Kwani? (2013)

On Yesterday at #Writivism in #Kampala

At my poetry panel yesterday

The quality of delight that was yesterday in #Kampala is only now finding words. So, after breakfast with Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, I’m headed back to the lobby trying to get my Blackberry to connect via WiFi, I sit beside a lady with a green cap-hat on her head. I notice it, en passant. After a while, wanting to make an inquiry, she asks if I’m Ugandan. I look up, the cap-hat is off, and who is it but NoViolet Bulawayo eh? I express my admiration, we chitchat. And it’s not 10am yet.



Our friend Jolly comes to drive us to the National Theatre where the festival is holding. My panel on the publishing industry goes very well; Ghanian writer Nii Parkes, the irrepressible Zukiswa Wanner, award winning Kwani? editor Clifton Gachagua and a nice guy named Charles from the Ugandan department in charge of books and copyright. High point was some reviewer chap who reviews books for a Ugandan newspaper–until he confessed to reading other people’s reviews to write his reviews and then, wait for it, to not reading the books he reviews at all. Na wa for this kain “reviewer” o, a proper hack if there ever was one. Nii Parkes had some serious words for him. As did we all. Strike 2pm.

Then I got to meet former GRANTA head honcho Ellah Wakatama Allfrey again, and she’s with a gorgeous tall friend of hers, Vimbai Shire–an immensely talented book editor with a huge reputation. Strike 6pm.

With Vimbai Shire, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Ellah Allfrey, Oteino Oweno and Zukiswa Wanner

Then it’s knocking down Club lagers aplenty with Zukiswa, Richie Maccs, Nii Parkes while Abubakar the Teetotal watched football–and who walks in but Ayeta Wangusa eh? Lovely lady, and she’s got this accent I could listen to a long long time. And she’s got this absolutely sexy friend with her. I grow heads, steal glances, consider becoming a predator. Hahaha! Zukiswa, Nii and I knock down another round of Club lagers in Ayeta’s honour. Who’s to say no eh? Writers gather experience, no no to the life.

With Ayeta Wangusa

I call it a night at about 1am when our friend Jolly comes and ferries NoViolet, Abubakar and I back to Makerere.

The amount of creative energy out here in #Kampala yesterday is enough to transform Africa, turn the Sahara into an oasis as in the bromide. But, not a bromide. In truth. We can do this, we must do it.

And who is the dynamo bringing this energy all together? Here’s a BIG Nigerian salute to the dynamo man Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire and the Writivism volunteers. And well done, specifically, to Ms. Jolly, Sheillah and Mercy–lovely Ugandan ladies who are taking care of this Nigerian very well.

– Ra.