Monday, July 11, 2005

"My Africa"--Couldn't Agree More

Two Sundays ago, not too far from where I live on the Spintex road, as I sat down to have dinner, three young people in a BMW saloon car would have just lost their lives after crashing into a carelessly-parked articulator truck.

Here is a bit of the story from Daily Graphic online:

Carelessly Parked Truck Causes Fatal Accident

A BMW saloon car last Sunday crashed into a carelessly parked Leyland articulated truck loaded with sugar on a section of the Spintex Road in Accra, killing all the three occupants in the saloon car on the spot.

The accident occurred around 9 p.m. at a section of the Spintex Road near the Manet Estate Junction.

According to some eyewitnesses, the BMW car, with registration number GT 451 Q, was moving at top speed and ignored several signals to slow down, leading to the accident.

The impact of the crash was so great that it left the saloon car mangled.

Story by Edmund Kofi Yeboah

Today, scanning articles from, I came across this article, entitled "My AFrica", which co-incidentally touches very much on the BMW and loss of life that affected the writer. Are the two related? The writer touches on G8, Live 8 and perceptions of Africa.

I do know, my friends, that you are visiting this site, but, pray, why no comments?

I would appreciate your thoughts -- on this, and the middle class story below. Thanks!

LAST Monday, I received a phone call from my mother as I was on my way to work. 'We've got some bad news,' she said. Mentally, I rifled through the possibilities encompassed within that sentence: death; disease; natural disaster. Even so, I wasn't prepared for what came next. 'It's your cousin Kobby,' she said. 'He was in a car accident. A truck ran into him. He's dead.' For a few moments I found myself gasping for air. Then I felt the tears well in my eyes. I talked to my mother for a while longer, hung up, and spent the rest of the day feeling dazed and numb. I mention this now for a number of reasons. The first is that my cousin Kobby and I were close. He was a dozen years younger than me. A 25-year-old who was energetic, ambitious and already successful enough to earn more money than his parents put together. The formalities of a eulogy demand that those who die before their time are described as having the world in front of them. But in Kobby's case it was true.
I mention this also because Kobby was African. He was born in Ghana, where my parents come from, and where most of my extended family still lives.

Africa has been in the news a great deal this past week. Each time I hear it mentioned I think of Kobby. And I do so with an anger and a sense of injustice that has nothing to do with his untimely passing and everything to do with the clichhs with which the continent is conjured in Western minds.

It has been a strange, disturbing week. First Live8. Then the G8, closely followed by the bombs in London. And in between, the private tragedy of Kobby's death.

Africa has been common property, but what a difference there is between Western impressions of the continent and the Africa I got to know through Kobby's eyes.

For most of the politicians, pop stars and commentators who have been pontificating on the subject this past week, Africa is not a place so much as a problem a byword for disease, starvation and corruption. Watching Tony Blair pose with the other G8 leaders for their photocall on Wednesday, I thought of his description of the continent as 'a scar on the conscience of the world'. His words were supposed to bring a sense of nobility and moral urgency normally lacking at such gatherings. But to me they sounded like an echo of the old colonial notion of Africa as 'the white man's burden'. In both phrases there is an assumption that African people can't help themselves. That the only ones who can 'do something' about Africa are white Westerners.

By comparison, Kobby's Africa was brash, dynamic and urban. He lived in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, worked at an advertising agency, drove a BMW and could rarely be separated from his mobile phone. And he was part of a generation of young people who had grown up at a remove from the upheavals the coups and skyrocketing inflation rate that afflicted Ghana in the 1980s. His generation believes in a future created by its own skill and enterprise. If Kobby had still been alive to watch the leaders huddle together last Wednesday, he would have mocked the gloom and pessimism with which they discussed his homeland. And he would have pointed out that he and his friends did not recognise themselves in such a view of the continent. This is not to say that poverty and disease aren't grave issues affecting Africa. Only that such a picture is not representative of the continent as a whole nor shared by those who throng the streets of its cosmopolitan cities.

At the root of such an impression is the belief that civilisation has somehow passed Africa by. Following Live8 last Saturday, I clipped out some of the headlines from newspapers: 'Africa misses the beat as the world tunes in'; 'Plagued by disease and ravaged by war'; 'Two decades of despair'; 'Just do it for the children'. In all of these there is an assumption that Africa remains sunk in some primordial, tribal state, too backward and unsophis ticated to take part in a debate about its own future.

The same rationale informed the patronising spectacle of millionaire rock stars singing for Africa without deigning to share the stage with any Africans themselves during the concert. Bob Geldof shrugged off complaints about a lack of African artists on the London bill by claiming he wanted headline-grabbing shows full of people who fill stadiums and arenas. Try telling that to the scores who watched Live8 on TV in Africa. Contrary to what he seems to believe, not all Africans live in mud huts without electricity or running water.

The singular irony of such a misconception is that complex links of trade, culture and politics have been running between Africa and Europe for at least the past 500 years. If for a large part this has been an exploitative relationship, based on a Western hunger for the continent's natural resources, it is important to remember that it has never been a simply passive one. In 1601, there were so many Africans in London that Queen Elizabeth threatened them with expulsion from the capital for fear of their effect on 'native' English culture. Over the course of centuries, the identity of both Africa and the West has been shaped and reshaped by the result of such patterns of migration and commerce. Yet, in Europe, much of that history is rarely acknowledged. In its place is the myth of African primitivism devised originally as a moral justification for slavery and honed in the 19th century by explorers such as David Livingstone and Henry Stanley, with their Boy's Own stories of the 'dark continent'.

Perhaps it seems unnecessarily pessimistic of me when I suggest such attitudes still persist. But I've been witness to them on countless occasions. Not least while I was at school in Britain during the 1970s. I was born in London, but lived in Accra between the ages of two and five with my family. We moved back to London in 1974. As the only African children at our school, my brother, sister and I were a source of endless fascination to the other kids. They patted my hair for springiness and pulled its coils straight to test for tensile strength. Only my eyes and teeth would be visible in the dark, they'd insist, reaching for the light switch to confirm their theories. To their disappoint ment, I failed to turn up for lessons with a bone through my nose but, so far as the rest of my class was concerned, Africa was a land of mud huts and cannibals. And who could blame them for their beliefs when they'd grown up on Tarzan movies and television series about white adventurers in the bush like Cowboy In Africa and Daktari?

Having an African background during those years meant being heir to an excruciating sense of shame. On one hand, there were the images of spear-carrying savages from Tarzan and Tintin In The Congo. On the other, there were the posturings of dictators like Idi Amin and Joseph Mobuto who summed up the worst venality and corruption of Africa's post-independence era.

Despite its difficulties, Africa has changed for the better since the days of Amin and his ilk. It's more democratic, more prosperous and more optimistic about its future.

This, anyway, is how Kobby helped me see the continent. Three years ago, I travelled round Ghana researching the material for my recently published book, Black Gold Of The Sun. It was the first time I'd been there since 1974. I carried with me the fugitive memory of sounds and smells from childhood, but I had no real idea what to expect of the place I'd briefly called home.

Kobby took me under his wing. For two weeks, in Accra, he took me to nightclubs and bars where young people dressed in Ralph Lauren and Rocawear, and listened to Jay-Z and Beyoncc, and to restaurants and fashionable clothes stores where you could eat food from France and buy clothes from New York. He showed me where the gangsters hung out and where the wealthy lived. And he took me beyond the city, to the immense slave forts of Cape Coast and Elmina, where the exchange between Africa and the West had been at its most exploitative. Through his eyes, I came to see Africa as the place of diverse, contradictory riches it truly is. And I realised that nobody owns a monopoly on the story of Africa. It is told and retold every day by its millions of citizens who, as Kobby was, are interested in nothing more than making the most of their lives. It's presumptuous of the West to believe it knows Africa and can, therefore, solve its problems. The French talk of 'Les Africans' and that seems to me a far better way to view the most culturally diverse continent on the planet. Even so, each time in the past week that I've thought of that multitudinous whole, I have always glimpsed one face, one voice, that seemed to me, to sum up all the energy and hope of the continent. I'll miss you, cousin Kobby.


Post a Comment


Blog Widget by LinkWithin

Footer Fancies

eXTReMe Tracker Who Links Here
Brochure Design - Small Business Bible
Brochure Design


BlogCatalog / StumbleUpon

My Photo Gallery

BlogCatalog Stuff!