View From The South
What 'Hopeless Continent'?
I grew up knowing that Europeans had dubbed Africa 'The Dark Continent'. My emotional response was to wish that the description referred exclusively to the pigmentation of the skin of the majority of its peoples. It did not. I am not a psychologist or a psychoanalyst. However, I do know that it has not been easy living with that burden.
That expression was first used in the Nineteenth Century. Since then its ugly odour has clung to Africa, all things African, Africans and people of African descent everywhere, and has not faded yet. Any time we were confronted with it we felt like we were carrying the proverbial sack-full of salt, to which a steady trickle of water was being added. Was it any wonder that some of us hoped that a new century would usher in new beginnings all round?
Little did we know.
At first it was only a rumour. Then, last March, The Economist had a map of Africa on its cover, with the headline 'The Hopeless Continent'. What, one wonders, is the source of such malediction? What compels some editor in London or New York to characterize a whole continent of nearly 700 million people, and all of its 300,175,000 square kilometres as 'hopeless'? What have Africans done to deserve such absolute hexing? Many Africans at home and abroad who saw the piece greeted that damning declaration with a characteristically resigned: 'But what did we expect? Europeans have always done this sort of thing to Africans. They are just at it again.'
However, those of us who are paranoid or incurable believers in conspiracy theories go further. We suspect that The Economist has got a really dark and sinister aim. Clearly, as our masters' voice, one of its agendas is to make sure that Africans do not regain any of the self-confidence they may have lost from the 'Dark Continent' label. Otherwise, what do the editors at The Economist know about what is in store for Africans which Africans themselves do not know?
In any case, we would beg to differ. Given what it has already weathered, it should not even be remotely possible to describe Africa in this way. Actually, what intrigues us conspiracy theorists is how, over the last few centuries, what should have been unique attributes have been negotiated into problems for this continent.
Africa is geographically the centre of the world, neither East nor West. This characteristic has become a source of trouble. The desire to consign the North - especially classical Egypt - first to Asia and then to Europe has led some Euro-American academics to attempt the most incredible intellectual acrobatics. Not that we should feign too much surprise. Africans have been the subject of consistent and bewildering pseudo-scholarship, always aimed at proving that they are inferior human beings. Even when there was genuine knowledge it was handled perniciously: by anthropologists and social engineers, cranial and brain-size scientists, sundry bell-curvers, doomsday, medical and other experts. It is at once interesting and rather pathetic that the men who work on the genome project felt compelled to declare that out of the three billion genes in an individual's pool not a single one supports the notion of racial difference!
Meanwhile, those who know it for a fact credit Africa with an almost inexhaustible percentage of the whole world's natural resources. The desire to loot these riches has led stakeholders to abuse its people verbally, physically, psychologically and in other unimaginable ways. The campaign to portray Africans and people of African descent everywhere as next to animals must surely have one objective: to demonstrate that Africans do not deserve to have Africa - at least, not as much as others do.
For any of the calamities which others visited on us to succeed our own leaders had to collaborate: which many did, in diverse and devious ways over the last 500 years, not just willingly, but also quite often at the heads of singing and dancing throngs. What really hurts is that these dangerous liaisons netted our leadership nothing more than trash: always. These days they are also laughing all the way with their pennies and cents to the banks in Zurich, the Bahamas, Luxembourg.
Dear Reader, here is an invitation. On a clear day, fly from Zurich across the Alps. Take note of those blindingly beautiful, perennially snow-capped European mountains. Look through the window as you cross the Mediterranean, the sea that separates Europe from Africa - or connects Africa to Europe- and around which so much has happened over the last 6,000 years. Then get prepared for the arid dazzle of the Sahara, the earth's largest desert. Keep looking, so that you do not lose sight of the sheer expanse of it or its many changing selves. Keep looking, as the plane flies over the charming promise of the Sahel, followed by the immense savannahs. Then prepare yourself for the awesome greens of the forests. Shortly you will be approaching the coast. The Atlantic welcomes you.
Even on such a clear day it would not have been easy to see human habitation on this trip. What there is, is always lost in that great expanse of nature. So what is the problem? We know that there is still not a single resource useful to humans, some of which does not stand on a piece of Africa, lie beneath its soil or around its gulfs, capes, bights and bays.
If there really is any argument, then it is about whether Africans are ever going to shake themselves free from the present malaise and build a meaningful life for themselves out of the over-abundance of their physical environment.
Dear Economist: Africa a 'hopeless continent'? Hardly.
Ama Ata Aidoo is a Ghanaian writer. Her latest publication is The Girl Who Can and Other Stories.