Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Criticizing Africa for change and criticizing Africa as a career: Sentimental concerns versus sadistic pleasure

 Kuir ë Garang*

"When there is a crisis in Africa, the west lights up in excitement! It's almost like the 'rediscovery' of Africa, again. Africa appears! It's almost sadistic!"

Photo: Microsoft Icons

For someone who writes political commentaries, some of which negative, the above question may sound odd. But let's get the context. Seriously. 

In fact, I'm not going to stop writing political commentaries on South Sudan and Africa. To me, it is a personal, moral duty. But something about the recent crisis in Ethiopia and the current crisis in Sudan have made me realize something ominous, and sad. It is about the purpose of criticism.

There are various reasons why analysts, critics, journalists, writers, and scholars write about (and mostly against) Africa, especially African leaders.

Some of us, who were born in Africa, have a vested interest. We criticize African leaders because we want change in governance and service provision. As such, we don’t criticize to denigrate. We criticize to inspire change.

But this is not necessarily the case with [some] western scholars, writers and journalists who write about Africa.  Some of them have made criticism of Africa, especially the focus on negative events, a career. They criticize not because they want change.

Unfortunately, those of us who criticize African countries get lump up together in the same category as westerners who have made negative writings on Africa a lucrative profession.

It’s unbelievable.

They don't want Africa to improve! They want it to be the way it is! It's good for business!

When there is a crisis in Africa, the west lights up in excitement! It's almost like the 'rediscovery' of Africa, again. Africa appears! It's almost sadistic!

Sadly, this sadistic excitement about African crises puts Africa on the front pages of major newspapers and websites. And then the excitement disappears, and Africa vanishes from the front pages…until the next crisis, the next horror!

It is almost impossible to see Africa on the front pages of western newspapers for something positive. Even academic journals also focus on negative topics as regular and special issues are riddled with negative themes. This has become standard.

This, like the colonial Dark Continent narrative, continues to perpetuate this dark image of Africa in western consciousness. It is like the tragedy of the commons. Who will write positively about Africa?

When, for instance, a boy or a high school girl in the west tells an African immigrant to 'go back to the jungle', the same journalists and scholars who project Africa as the abode of horror, who only show animals and the jungle, civil wars, famines, corruption, and dictatorship, reflect these young people as informed and ignorant.

But the same people criticizing these kids are the ones who gave them this image of Africa. Where else can these young people get a mysterious, non-existent positive image of Africa? The same people who create the image criticize the very consumers of their labours.

Getting lumped up with the Dark Continent careerist is to be uncharitable to those of us who only want change. There are those who benefit more from a chaotic Africa than from an orderly, successful, and peaceful Africa. What would they do if Africa changes for the better? It would be a loss to them. They may reorient to the new realities. But this would take time.

For those of us who have relatives in Africa, a positive change is a necessity. We therefore want African leaders, however harsh we may appear to them, to improve.

We also want Africa to be peaceful so we can visit and drive through the countryside without fear of being robbed, being shot at or, worse, getting killed.

How beautiful would it be for a South Sudanese living in Canada to go to South Sudan and drive from Narus to Renk without feeling insecure! How beautiful would it be for a South Sudanese from Australia to go to Juba and debate senior political leaders without being intimidated!

“But wait!” you may say! “What you are saying is preposterous! How can you, in good conscience, compare modern western writers with colonial writers?”

I hear you. But think.

Slave traders and slave masters did not acknowledge that slavery was evil until it was abolished. European countries believed the atrocities they committed in Africa were part of the ‘civilizing mission.’ Not until the end of official imperial colonialism did some, of good conscience, acknowledge the horrors of their ways. Today, westerners are missing the picture. What they do in and about Africa is objective and necessary, apparently. They write what they see. Right!

While Joseph Conrad and Mary Kingsley, for instance, may have written about their 19th century African horrors; modern westerners are writing their African horrors.  It pays to make Africa dark and anomic than to make it bright and hopeful!

Below are some horrors.

This is how Alex de Waal begins his article, The Revolution No One Wanted:

'Khartoum, is being destroyed in a fight to the death between two venal, brutal generals…But if we look at the city’s 200-year history, the fighting shouldn’t be a surprise. Khartoum was founded on a command post built for the purposes of imperial robbery – and every subsequent regime has continued this practice. In ordinary circumstances, Sudan is run by a cabal of merchants and generals who plunder the darker-skinned people of the marchlands and bring their wealth to Khartoum, a relatively opulent city and a haven of calm. But the logic of kleptocracy is inexorable: when the cartel is bankrupt, the mobsters shoot it out. We saw this in Liberia and Somalia thirty years ago. The ransack of the Sudanese state today is ten times bigger.'


Horror: ‘cabal of merchants and generals’, ‘venal brutal generals’, ‘cartel’, ‘mobster’. You’d think de Waal is writing about Italian Mobsters in New York or Montreal in a tabloid. But mind you; this is London Review of Books.

First, let me be fair…

Photo: Reuters

To many of us, de Waal is describing an objective reality.  It happened; it is happening.  We have seen ghastly images of Rapid ResponseForces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces destroying the city and killing innocent civilians.

Photo: Reuters

The above portrayal of the Sudanese crisis is therefore welcome. On face value, this is okay, even admirable.

But think!

Has de Waal ever described a positive African event in such a strong, captivating language? (This is a topic for another day). For now, I can say that his only focus are African horrors.

Let’s go back in time. Nineteen-century.  Mary Kingsley, in Travels in West Africa, writes:

‘The more you know of the West Coast of Africa, the more you realise its dangers. For example, on your first voyage out you hardly believe the stories of fever told by the old Coasters. That is because you do not then understand the type of man who is telling them, a man who goes to his death with a joke in his teeth. But a short experience of your own, particularly if you happen on a place having one of its periodic epidemics, soon demonstrates that the underlying horror of the thing is there, a rotting corpse which the old Coaster has dusted over with jokes to cover it so that it hardly shows at a distance, but which, when you come yourself to live alongside, you soon become cognisant of. Many men, when they have got ashore and settled, realise this, and let the horror get a grip on them; a state briefly and locally described as funk, and a state that usually ends fatally; and you can hardly blame them.’


Horror! This is West Africa, the ‘white man’s grave’, as it was called then. And here is Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness:

‘We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell?’

Horror! What else could they have done? As Achille Mbembe has noted in On the Postcolony, it is difficult to write positively about Africa. True. That is why some of us criticize African problems.

However, we also mix the positive and the negative. We don’t focus exclusively on the depressing. That would be to take pleasure in African problems, to be sadistic.

It is therefore important to distinguish between those who criticize because they want positive change and those who take sadistic pleasure in talking about African problems…the horror!



Kuir ë Garang is the editor of The Philosophical Refugee. Twitter @kuirthiy 

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