View From The South
It's wonderful that the contentious twentieth century has gone. So, dear NI reader, let us welcome one another into the twenty-first century. A couple of months ago this would have sounded absolutely futuristic. What some of us cannot get over, though, is how normal - as in 'old' - the new century already
There is a peace in Sierra Leone which only needs 9,000 troops to police. At this rate, peacekeeping troops might eventually outnumber that country's population. We're still getting bloodcurdling rumbles from Burundi and Rwanda. The fighting among the fascinating array of factions in the Democratic Republic of Congo has definitely not ended, in spite of all the peace accords. The only new news worth sharing about that poor rich country is that the press in Africa is bored with the length of its name. So everywhere these days it's 'DRC'. We are not even amused by the tale of a Kinshasa woman who lived in the same city all her life but in three different countries: born in the Congo, went to school and got married in Zaire and is now a working mother in the DRC.
It would be bad enough if it were only Africa. But it isn't. The Irish peace accord is beginning to sound like the latest war call. The status of Jerusalem is. well, very much the status of Jerusalem. Voters in Austria have worked themselves up into vesting a neo-Nazi party with democratic respectability. Funny word, democracy.
What's the world coming to? My uncle the World War Two veteran had a ready answer: 'The world is coming to nothing, since it never went to anything.' Of course, like all African veterans of European wars, he was considered slightly 'off'. Wouldn't you be, if you had gone to fight on the side of your enemies and ended up with fake medals, a flat but soft tummy and a permanently dry mouth?
The world's goings-on are neither new nor changed - unless we count our dreams and fantasies. So let us relax - 'chill' is what young people in North America recommend. Great advice, but is it the product of optimism or pessimism? Contemporary African generations seem afflicted by a heavy dose of cynicism of a depressing kind. The buzz from the thoroughfares of Lagos, Harare and Kampala is that people have almost given up on themselves and on life. So what exactly have they seen? What have they heard?
At the beginning of last year the BBC's World Service/Network Africa called for nominations for 'the African of the millennium'. By year's end the overwhelming choice was Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana between 1957 and 1964. Very strange, almost whimsical - and rather cool, too.
In 1966, following the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah, Ali Mazrui wrote a now-infamous demolition piece called Nkrumah: The Leninist Czar. Hot on the heels of that, Russell Warren Howe, a Washington Post reporter, did an equally scurrilous piece in which he told the world that, at worst, Nkrumah was a 'psychotic' and, at best, 'a colourful scoundrel'. The main thrust of the piece was a clear admonition against Africans making the mistake of seeing Nkrumah as 'a great African'.
In a letter responding to Howe, I thanked him for all his efforts on behalf of Africans and added that we were 'going to send Kwame Nkrumah to Bellevue' - a hospital for the criminally insane in New York. I finally promised him that 'any time we want to publish the names of our "great Africans" we shall submit the lists to you for approval first'.
The evidence 32 years later is that no-one took either Russell Warren Howe or me seriously. Africans! Strange, stubborn, people. Which reminds one of the English District Officer, Simon Pilkings, in Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman. Assuming that the 'natives' around him were being too open, he confided to his wife Jane that the Africans were a talkative, indiscreet lot. When Jane, very nicely but firmly, asked him to consider whether the kind of information the Africans chose to share with him was really worth very much, his response was that Africans were a clammed-up, devious lot.
Africa was never about to win very much in the past one hundred years, was she? But 'O happy day.' begins the jubilee song.
Ama Ata Aidoo is a Ghanaian novelist.