‘Africa? A book one thumbs
Listlessly, till slumber comes.’
Africa as a book is an appropriate image – the continent is crammed with stories and multiple meanings. Africa’s tales, their impact and their relevancy to modern African awareness are what I set out to discuss here. Unarguably, Africans share similar characteristics that stretch beyond the physical. Proximity brings about contagion if shared ancestry doesn’t complete the job – we share the same consciousness, and yet we don’t seem to realise it, properly realise it in a way that helps. By ‘consciousness’ I mean value systems, dreams so bright it’s as if they sprang out of the hot earth and sang down from the sun at the same time as the first humans were loved into existence. It hardly needs to be said that we dream of life, success, and the peace and prosperity of those who share our bloodlines. And stories are my only way into this world, because I can look and look at modern Africa for hours, years, my whole life, saw open my head and cram it with rolls of printed-off statistics, death rates, birth rates, Gross National Products and still not know where it is that I come from, what its problems are and have been, and how they will be resolved. These aren’t the words of somebody who is familiar with the colourful emergencies of Africa, the necessities of trudging to the well and back, swaying under the weight of clean, bucketed water in the absence of the tap variety. Rather, this is the muddled, tangential thought of someone who is ‘in’ a Nigerian cultural framework but not ‘of’ it, being carried along by a culture at a distance from its source and its pervading influence.
Let’s define a mythology as a story system, a belief system. In an archetypal sense, the stories contained in the mythology are just as true as the world we see around us today. And a story that fits snugly into a mythology is ideally a series of images and symbols that have the power to reveal how people really relate to the world they live in.
As a mix of first and second generation – that is, born ‘back home’, feeling more comfortable in my skin ‘back home’, but embarrassed and often baffled by the Nigerian tendency to over-God things, to over-expect things, to be over-frank, I find Africa in the weirdest places, with the startlement of someone waking up in the middle of the night and catching a glimpse of themselves in the mirror across the room. I have sat mortified as a couple of Jamaican girls decided to call me ‘jungle bunny’ in primary school, all three of us knowing that there was something temptingly wrong, actually hateful, in the name yet none of us knowing exactly why. I’ve sat slit-eyed and exchanged glances of mixed embarrassment and defensiveness with another African whilst other classmates earnestly express their wishes to ‘help feed the Africans.’ I’ve nearly reeled with longing at the smell of camphor on folded traditional attire, wishing that I was back at my cousin’s house, sitting on the veranda watching the heat chase lizards across the mosquito netting.
My Africa are so personal that I can only replace them in my mind with my country, Nigeria, with its various leadership crises and its new hope under a non-military president who seems determined to battle the structure of corruption and bribery. Yet this narrowing of the field of patriotic concern is indicative of a mindset found amongst most of the second generation Africans that I know – specificity is all. If I meet someone whose parents are Nigerian, too, I’ll eagerly enquire what parts they’re from, and be philosophical if they turn out to be an Ibo (‘Never trust an Ibo!’ a Yoruba friend of mine often says, half-jokingly. ‘They won’t even think twice about killing you whilst you sleep…) and ecstatic if they are Yoruba. Even an Ibo, however, is better than, say, a Ghanaian, with whom there is little or no point of contact. Word on the street is, we Nigerians stole jollof rice from Ghana. But do Ghanaians eat moin moin and eko? Have they had to put up with the flabby, sandy taste of eba until they got to an age where they could safely proclaim that actually they’d prefer a risotto? At times it feels dangerously as if there isn’t a sufficient common culture. We all feel somehow that we will never be purely African enough for our parents at the same time as accepting that it’s not our fault. But some divider exists between us, because our search for fellow Africans in our situation is selective – we’re running around looking to see ourselves. We need our stories back.
It is possible that Africa has reached a point where it can chiefly be thought of as a collection of countries rather than as a continent. Each country seems compartmentalised in its own challenges – South Africa’s box is still layered with the thin fissures left over from apartheid, the shadow of preternaturally fierce children-made-soldiers starkly overlays the image of Sierra Leone, and Somalia and Ethiopia’s names are ever twinned with starvation and poverty. And Nigeria. In Nigeria, respect for ‘traditional’ beliefs runs alongside exuberant Christianity. The country may be a rich tapestry of beliefs, but the 80s and 90s saw the bleakness of rule by military junta – first Ibrahim Babangida, then his successor, Sani Abacha, led the country in a state of fear and internal violence, from the execution of the environmentalist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight fellow protestors for speaking out against the pollution of Ogoni land by petrol companies such as Shell, to the death in custody of Moshood Abiola, the President-Elect who was to have helped turn Nigeria around under an ideology of representative democracy. Wole Soyinka, one of Nigeria’s most phenomenal talents, escaped the turmoil of those times with his life – Wole was fast assuming the role of a Cassandra of Troy, cursed not to be disbelieved but to be suppressed in his own country, unable to keep from warning of future peril.
In her novel, The Secret History, Donna Tartt observes that one of the most heartbreaking things about the development of a sense of ‘self’ and ‘other’ is the realisation that you are alone inside your head, that you are a sealed unit, and no one can fully understand what happens inside you. For a while, it felt like this when I was being pumped with information about what seemed like the imminent collapse of my country. One of my friends was a Kenyan and another was from Zaire, and I couldn’t talk about what was going on because the doubt and anxiety seemed so painfully unique – my parents were sick with fear over what their country was becoming. I didn’t want to see what was happening to a county that I had forgotten how to belong to. Nigeria had been wounded, and it was bleeding people – Nigerians were leaving for Europe, and not just for ambitious educational purposes like my parents did. They were leaving behind weak life chances and coming to England, to a place where, according to a recent poll, 60% of the population would ‘prefer not’ to live next door to a member of an ethnic minority. To leave their homes for this veiled hostility suggested a huge problem – the Kafkaesque unease of it, the following of a niggling problem out of the corner of one’s eye is excellently captured by writers who specialise in cataloguing Nigeria’s blood flow, it’s spillage into other countries. Writers such as Emecheta in Second Class Citizen and The Bride Price ask what’s happening, and whether it’s better away from Nigeria. The things I wanted to hear about Nigeria when I was eleven or so were not: ‘we are living under a terrible military junta who are doing dodgy deals with what oil we have, and people are dying’. I wanted to hear that: