In On The Postcolony, Achille Mbembe writes that “speaking rationally about Africa is not something that ever comes naturally.” Would you wonder why?
The tragedy of knowledge production today, just as it was in the past, is that Africans continue not to be the intended targets of whatever is written about Africa and Africans. So, when European explorers from the late 18th century and earlier 19th century started ‘discovering’ places in Africa, there “discoveries” were structured around pan-European epistemological universe. European understood that Africans lived in the places they “discovered.” But what Africans knew or valued meant absolutely nothing to Europeans unless it informed what Europeans understood about their interests in Africa.
In the western context therefore, what Mungo Park did in the 18th century regarding Niger River was a discovery. The African was epistemologically non-existent.
Even after the end of the official European colonialism in Africa, nothing has changed much in terms of knowledge producers and consumers. Africa and Africans remain objects of study and analysis.
Today, a western journalist will bask in the glorious idea that she is not the same as her racist counterparts of the past. But she’ll fly to Africa only to report on the dirtiest “news” stories she can find on the continent. A scholar doing some fieldwork in Africa wryly smiles away any insinuation that his research is a continuation of the colonial condition through what Michel Foucault would call a discourse. But his research only picks on “what is wrong with Africa.”
Both the academic researcher and the journalist are agents of pan-European knowledge production. Whatever they produce is for the consumption of European readers or learners, so it makes little sense for them to put into consideration the nervous concerns of the Africans.
For the African in the streets, colonization is gone so there is nothing to dread in the journalist and the research scholar. But for the critical African, the question remains: What exactly is the nature of their interests in Africa and what purpose does their work serve as far as the interest of the Africans is concerned? But this sounds like a ridiculous and needless question. Not from the African context, though!
Apparently, the journalist is after the truth to expose the ills of African dictatorship. The scholar is doing in depth, objective research that would make the world understand the nature of this dictatorship beyond the superficiality of journalistic pressures. “So, what is the big deal?” says the uncritical inquirer? “Leave these people alone because they are letting the world know about our famine, corruption, tribalism, dictatorship, ethnic cleansing” …that is, the real Africa.
Therefore, it makes sense to leave them alone and let them do the good job of exposing the African evils.
But then one wonders! If these people are the only medium through which the western world learns about Africa and all they write about are the ills happening in Africa, how will western audience know that there are good things happening in Africa? Will they just assume that Africans are people just like the rest so both good and bad things happen in Africa and that they are only focusing on bad things because these are the things Africans need to change?
Sounds about right!
Unfortunately, the western man and woman on the street does not think beyond what the television tells him or her and the western students takes what is written in books as the truth about anything, not just about Africa. While Allan Bloom wrote of The Closing of the American Mind, one is left wondering when the American mind was ever open? Besides, the Western mind remains closed to knowing Africans as a positive humanity. The darkness of African Joseph Conrad wrote about in the 20th century is the same darkness western journalists and scholars continue to highlight. And this continues to make the western mind closed to a positive Africa.
To many westerners (educated or not) even today, Africa is still simply a jungle or people who cannot help themselves. It is not surprising that in April 2020, two French doctors, Jean-Paul Mira and Camille Locht, proposed first testing COVID-19 vaccines on Africans. It is also not surprising that the United Nation agencies beg for funds to feed hungry African to no avail while the wealthy westerners were able to raise nearly a billion dollars within a day to rebuilt Notre Damme Cathedral when it was burnt down in April 2019.
Human lives against a building! Go figure! To many westerners, there is Africa and its animals. That’s all! As David M. Hughes has argued in Whiteness in Zimbabwe, European-Africans “In their own minds…. turned away from native, African people and focused instead on African landscapes.”
So, who will write Africa positively to the western audience? The African scholar is not read seriously in the west (perhaps patronizingly), the African journalist is treated in the west like a toddler trying to teach a university course and the western journalist and scholars are picking on the darkness of Africa.
The Conradian darkness therefore continues.
But what is the problem? There is a tendency to confuse a high literacy rate to high knowledgeability or a credible interest in understanding the world. When it comes to Africa, westerners, educated or not, do not self-interrogate because Africans do not have the capacity to challenge them. But when an African challenges them, the African is dismissed.
A few years ago, I attended a gathering in Calgary, Alberta, were those gathered regularly met to talk about building a just and inclusive world. I then asked the audience how we will build an inclusive Canada when we have not even made Calgary inclusive. This is when one European-Canadian young woman agreed with me and related how her community members asked her to present to them about Tanzania after she lived there for a few months. She argued that instead of asking Tanzanians living in Calgary to present to them, they only asked someone who looked like them even if her knowledge of Tanzania only boasts of a few months.
So, what is the point here, really? If the scholar and the journalist focus on what is wrong in Africa, there is little sense in expecting the image of Africa to change in the western consciousness. After all, where will they get the good image of Africa from which the western mind will be open, to use inverted Bloom’s expression.
The western journalist and scholar today are part of, if not the determinants, of African’s image. In the words of the Congolese philosopher, Valentine Mudimbe, they are part of the invention of Africa, in contemporary sense.
Kuir ë Garang is the editor of The Philosophical Refugee. He's a PhD Candidate at York University in Toronto.