Everything Pundit

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Location: Every, Where

Sunday, February 27, 2005

An African Question

I like the way that one continent, Africa, has the unique ability to make any foreigner who visits one small corner of this vast continent – an instant expert, on all things African. Last week during my usual doodling Internet tour I stumbled across AfricaPundit, a blog dedicated to African news and opinion. With stifled curiosity I followed the link to the blogger’s bio, hoping to God that the said blog would belong to some, at-least-moderately-distinguished African expert on African political economy, a la InstaPundit, rather than the usual suspect – a Caucasian of European descent with what can at best be described as a passing fancy with the continent.

What is it with all Western Europeans and Americans, that a single visit by an individual to one African country, in this case Ghana (for three months), seems to instantly inflict the said person with instant expertise on an entire continent? Does the odd Japanese student or two visit Kosovo-Albania and return home to pontificate on the woes, trials and tribulations of Europe? (If you are Japanese and are aware of such reciprocal phenomena in your part of the world please let me know). Last month we had Sir Bob Geldof spouting off about being tired of known as “Mr. Bloody Africa” – hello? Fair play to him he goes on to state the very obvious:

"Who's interested if the leader of Niger goes on Newsnight? It's `Get Geldof'. I'm `Mr Bloody Africa'. Bizarrely in our society, there's confusion between politicians and celebrities. Bono and I are under no illusions."

Newsnight by the way, is a current affairs news/discussion programme hosted by Jeremy Paxman – Britain’s own er… what do you call that CNN guy again? Back to the matter in question, no-one cares if the leader of Niger goes on Newsnight because, guess what? No-one knows who the leader of Niger actually is. When the name of that continent “Africa” is mentioned to or by an actual African the mental picture conjured up is that of a woman in colourful flowing robes, or a cool beer in a summer-hut-style beach bar, or a calabash-full of sweet palm-wine after a hard day tilling the land.

A European or an American has just two mental pictures of Africa – one is a child with a skeletal body, with a baseball-sized head and flies in his eyes, and the other one, if not AIDS, is Nelson Mandela, oh and perhaps – Bob Geldof. Sir Bob happens to be a famous man, and he has aligned much of that fame with Africa, it’s as simple as that – here’s an exercise for all non-Africans, name me the Mauritanian Prime Minister without looking it up on Google. You see, more people in the “connected” world care about Geldof far more than they do about Sghair Ould M’Bareck, or John Agyekum Kuffour, or Laurent Gbagbo. Once Geldof aligns himself with Africa, apart from Mandela, he becomes the only ‘African’ they know. The very fact that Sir Bob uses the phrase “Mr. Africa” is itself significant – he is most famous for aid to one country in particular – Ethiopia.

When Africans think about themselves they think about being Gambian, Senegalese, Guinean, Sierra Leonean, Liberian, Ivorian, Burkinabe, Ghanaian, Togolese, Kenyan, Zimbabwean, Rwandan, (these are all countries by the way) long before they actually might consider themselves African.

I am not actually intending to be condescending when I stress the fact that the list I make is of countries – I know very well that while you may gather that they are states of some sort or the other, your grasp of their autonomy may not be complete. While I understand that an unfortunate naming policy may make many an American, for one, to equate My Country = My Continent, with Africa, my friends, this is not so, in fact, hardly. Africa is a massive and diverse place (the second largest continent after Asia) – from Mauritania to Madagascar to Egypt to Equatorial Guinea you are talking about the continent with the most countries (53) and the most languages (anyone’s guess), in the world.

You simply cannot tar the whole place with just the one brush – yes pun intended, shoot me! While I admit to be of the class that uses the term “sub-Saharan Africa” to denote those countries with very recent histories having gained independence within the last fifty years, all of them, where people are largely of a darker shade of skin – my knowledge of Africa is a lot more than passing.

Bob Geldof laments his “Mr. Bloody Africa” status – but I’m afraid, he created it. And because of that, no-one will listen to the real “Mr. Bloody Africa” because who knows who, or where he is? Western educational and media systems are deliberately designed to do this, education is socially biased towards the country or area in which the said education takes place and the media is just there to sell footage. Newsnight and Larry King Live (I’ve remembered his name now) would not be so popular if a more proportionate say 25% of coverage was dedicated African news and issues; and teaching about Africa in Western schools barely ever goes anything beyond the you-know-what usual-suspects (AIDS, poverty, dysentery, diarrhoea, diphtheria…).

It appears to me that the average white, Caucasian Westerner actually knows so bloody little about Africa, that when they get to know a pinch more, they think they’ve sussed it all. When I was in my first year at university, not that long ago (ok, over a decade), I actually had an argument with a first year geography student (to spare her the blushes I’ll not mention her name), over whether Africa was a country, or a continent. Please don't contest this, I don't think she wants to be named (and shamed), just to back me up - plus she's still my friend.

The only time ever, that I won the famous Wellington Arms pub quiz (on my own) was the night that by chance the picture questions happened to consist of a map of Africa with 20 blank countries for you to name. (For those of you who don’t know, typically the first 10-20 questions in the average English pub quiz are name-the-celebrity “picture questions”). Yours truly of course got all twenty. If I remember correctly, the nearest contender managed three. I’ll grant AfricaPundit some respect in that in his bio he explains that in reality he is no Africa Expert and in that, in his own words it is quite a misnomer to call him a “pundit”. Quite.

But if this would suffice in making the average blog-reader a little more circumspect in his or her analysis of AfricaPundit I would be satisfied that most people would read it with a pinch of salt. But the audacity of the opinion – Nelson Mandela is “truly naive if he thinks that a simple redistribution of wealth from the West to the Third World would solve the problem of poverty”, and the apparent extent of the readership tells me otherwise.

It appears that it is simply the lack of truly articulate, intelligent and perhaps somewhat media-savvy voices in the real African community that leads many a self-aggrandising Africa-nobody to leap out and stick their hand up. In fact, in not so much of a roundabout way, that’s exactly what AfricaPundit admits to with: “since I didn't know of any other African news blogs, I figured I'd start my own.” And there is nothing wrong with that, fair play to the lad – this is the one great thing about blogging, anyone can blog, about anything, anywhere in any manner they choose. If Africans really want to be seen, heard, read, regarded and viewed for what they really are and not what a crass and biased Western media portrays them as, or what an ethnic-fabric-Caucasian-open-toe-sandal-wearer would like them to be or whatever – then Africans must speak for themselves.

But not only should Africans just speak for themselves, Africans should be brave and speak openly and truthfully about the issues that matter in a manner that fosters clean, if even sometimes painful debate. Rather than just narrow the focus to African issues the real African pundit (professional or otherwise) should also give the African perspective on issues outside of Africa – well into deep space. Come on, all the teenage wet-behind-the-ears whiteys who spend half-a-year with the peace-corps or VSO or whatever condescending, do-gooding-but-in-truth-debilitating organisation inadvertently teaching Ghanaian kids that they are intellectually inferior, comes back home an expert on all of Africa. And before you ask about the “intellectually inferior” comment, show me the African kids (undergraduate unqualified teachers) who are allowed to go teaching at secondary level to Americans, Canadians, or Brits, or Germans, or the French for three hours let alone three months.

Qualified African Nurses are transported by the shipload to the Western world from the countries that need them the most, to look after the Western sick. In return what do Africans get? Dumb, unqualified teenagers sent to poor rural secondary schools to be venerated by awestruck black teenagers. A handful of antiretrovirals allocated reluctantly to help combat a growing pandemic that’s estimated to kill 6000 per day, and no doctors or nurses to dish them out because they've all been hauled over to Yankee and Blighty. Platitudes from the United Nations over obvious and open killing, mutilation, rape, all kinds of human rights abuses and downright preventable pestilence of all kinds (malaria, cholera, typhoid, Ebola – just to name a few). Yep, it’s not fair and I am sick and tired of being a backbencher.

So me too, as an African, I will stand up to be heard. Many a non-African, whether with an axe to grind, a point to make – relevant or not, is now an Africa Expert. I care about Africa, but I also care about everything else – doesn’t everyone? (Only kidding, I know you don’t). I will make much comment on Africa and all things African, but even better still, like those who know nothing (whether they admit it or not) who comment on the continent like they know it more than I, I too will have comment on all those things I know absolutely nothing about. Like Canada, like the U.S. of A., like Russia, like Georgia, like Lithuania, like England and St. George, like space-travel, like the Orang Pendek, like the Middle East and crude oil and Aladdin’s Cave, and so I announce myself, I’m EverythingPundit.


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