Saturday, October 9, 2010

Cut Africa Some Slack

In everlasting memory of the aguish of our ancestors.
May those who die rest in peace.
May those who return find their roots.
May humanity never perpetrate such injustice against humanity.
We the living vow to uphold this.

--Memorial message created by a 1992 convention in New York of African and Caribbian leaders to commemorate St. George’s Castle

I recently had the chance to visit St. George’s Castle in Elmina, the oldest and arguably most prominent slave castle in the world. It was controlled by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and finally the British, though by the time the British got it slavery was petering out. Probably the most ironic part of the experience was the prominent Portuguese church right in the center of the castle. I saw nearly the same thing when I visited the apartheid museum in South Africa – how a group of individuals, convinced of an idea, could do something so morally wrong while at the same time claiming it was God-ordained.

There really are few words that could adequately sum up my experience. It was overpowering, enlightening, and a smack in the face. To stress the latter, and to be perfectly honest, it felt like a tour-de-blame. If seemed like they were saying “Look what you did, white man.” Does that bother me, being blamed for sins of my ancestors? A bit. It’s impossible for me to equate what Africans feel to a white male’s perspective, since we are basically at the top of the world food chain. But, pulling from the only example that bears any resemblance for me, I don’t blame Muslims or Middle Easterners for what happened on 9/11, and that only happened a few years ago, not centuries.

Still, the destruction of the Twin Towers didn’t have the same debilitating ramifications on my country’s economic and political development as slavery and colonization did on the African continent and blacks in worldwide. Just a couple days ago I was doing an interview with an average local about Africa’s development and democracy, and I asked if he had any more comments. Usually they say no, but he had a question: “Why do you in the West always portray Africa negatively?”

On the spot, I had to come up with an answer, so give me a handicap. Now, I’m not a journalist or politician, I told him, but I would surmise there are two major factors. The first being that the media, in general, prefers to show negative stories, and there is certainly no shortage of them in sub-Saharan Africa, a region in which Ghana is the only country to have two back-to-back peaceful transitions of power from one party to another. The second factor, I think, is that for a continent that is arguably the most abundantly endowed with resources in the world and in which has had billions of Western aid dollars poured, it still is home to the world’s greatest population of people critically struggling with poverty (To be fair, I added, the West is certainly partly to blame for the results of this aid).

Sub-Saharan Africa has underperformed, and the West is great at showing how it has screwed up. But should Africa’s underachievement be unexpected? It seems to me a bit unfair to expect that African countries immediately become civilized, developed, and forward thinking, when they have only had independence for less than 50 years. Look at Western countries, those who are giving the blame. Our own United States, a few decades after our 50-year mark, got into a civil war over how we had been treating people as property. The French had a bloody revolution about the mode and form of government and society. And less than a century ago, the now economic powerhouse and progressive Germany was “cleansing” its population.

Certainly, Africa should learn from our mistakes to as great of an extent as they can, but maybe holding them at a bar as high as or higher than that to which we hold ourselves is unfair. For example, we stress we won’t give aid, by George, unless they adopt free market policies like liberalizing their markets, while at the same time slapping huge tariffs on their agricultural products, which make up the vast majority of African economies.

I think the young age of their democracies and thus the need to give them time was made clear to me when I asked a local civic leader (and others) why African leaders just won’t give up power when they are voted out. The answer: When you come from humble backgrounds, as many of this first crop of African leaders do, hell no you don’t want to give up your power. As these countries develop, and more young, progressive-thinking, and well-off politicians take office, it’s probably more likely that they’ll give up power peacefully and less likely they’ll espouse country-killing corrupt policies. At least, that’s my optimistic hope.

(Note: the last pic is me peering out of the single person-wide exit door to slave ship)


  1. Thanks for this great piece of writing Rob. I like the way you argued your points out on this complex issue. I agree with the fact that the West should stop giving their own reasons why Africa failed, because normally it does not solve any problem.

    With the issue of the media, I personally believe when we are able to be economically independent things will automatically change. Definitely, Africa has a promising future in reference to the new crop of young Africans both home and abroad who are now thinking of ways to Unite Africa and be economically independent.

    My favourite line "May humanity never perpetrate such injustice against humanity".

    Nii Bruce

  2. Thanks Isaac for the thoughts. I do agree that money leads the way, but we definitely need good rules in play so that businesses play nice. In this respect, perhaps there needs to be some simultaneous leadership in government and economic progress. But hey, look at Bangladesh – it’s consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, yet it’s moving ahead, albeit with growth very concentrated on the elite.

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