Due to my self-consciousness, I have never been a good speaker. This limits me very much, but I try to see it in a positive light. As far as I am concerned, "Shut mouth equals wide open ears". In short, I have proven to be an exceptional listener. Now I do have a friend, Sarah, who likes to talk. Fortunately, she has the gift of gab, so we make quite a formidable conversational pair. A while back, Sarah stumbled upon a group of topics that appealed to her, and she classified them under one broad heading that she baptised "Africology".
I was fortunate enough to witness one of her ruminations on the subject. "My friend," she said, "I hate to generalise, but have come to the realisation that it's almost impossible to get anyone's attention without making sweeping statements. So here's my general view of "my people.
“It's a favourite pastime of African scholars, students, and dreamers to imagine the potential that their continent and their people can aspire to, and to feel disillusioned at the obvious failure of their would-be heroes to achieve these dreams. "Where did Africa go wrong? What prevents our continent's people, with these rich natural and mineral resources, their brain power, varied culture and religion, and rich history from attaining the heights of glory that their ancestors once did?" -These are the thoughts that run through our heads as we watch yet another headline about a coup, an impending famine, a civil war or some other misfortune striking the continent. Day after day, we see more and more demonstrations of what people have come to view as the Westerner's efficiency and the African's mediocrity.
"Most of the times, the hopelessness of our situation leads us to believe that that we were powerless victims in the face of the evil machinations of another civilization, and that the effects of domination by that civilization have included the gradual destruction of our culture and our self worth. We enjoy reminiscing about the good old days: Remember, back when there were councils of elders? How about the congregations around beer pots, during which these most respected members of society would use their long straws to take turns sipping, ruminating all the while on the gems of wisdom that they had acquired in their rich fruitful lives? "In the past, I used to nominally say that all people were equal. That equality was abstract though, it wasn't a reality in my world. Now, with a new perspective, I could see that we all had equal potential. The ways in which we realized this potential were different. The resources that we had to make use of this potential were not the same. But, at the end of the day, it was all human potential. Not black potential or Caucasian potential.
"The little nuances of meanings that I had attached to certain words changed too. The word "primitive" stopped having negative connotations. It simply meant individuals who lived a life-style closer to nature, and in harmony with their environments. "Civilized" came to refer to what it had originally meant: city-dwelling individuals.
"Now, I have a confession to make. I may claim to be talking about "Africology", but these ideas can be applied to any community globally. I don't believe that there really exists a common African community. It has been convenient to conceive of one in order to support political and religious ideology, but the ties that supposedly bind Africans are not as concrete as we would like to believe. Yes, we are interconnected. In some ways the connection is subtle. In others, the historical bonds are too clear to deny. But I think that we will not feel justified in claiming equal potential with the rest of humanity until we are able to simultaneously see ourselves as individuals, and as members of a global community."
I think that this as good a point as any to conclude Sarah's little speech. Thanks to her, I had a lot to think about over the next few weeks. Admittedly, I found some resonance in her words because I could remember experiencing similar moments in my childhood. I could clearly remember those moments when it seemed that everything I believed had been based on a lie. Then there were also moments when life seemed to drop a key into my lap that proved to be the answer to all the unanswered questions that were troubling my mind.
Sarah, wherever you are, I wish you a Happy New Year. Continue to share your ideas with the people that you meet. The ones that you planted in our little community have already taken root continue to inspire us every day. "Considering the fact that I grew up in the city, and know next to nothing about my multi-cultural heritage, it may seem like I'm being sarcastic or displaying some so-called intellectual arrogance. In reality, though, I am only describing the thoughts that have gone through my own mind. It's all very well to talk about appreciating our past, and about the morals and values of our predecessors, but if we cannot connect these to our own individual selves, and our present reality, then it is as if we're merely describing a myth.
"Let me be more specific. In my childhood, my awareness of my heritage came partly from my primary school GHC (Geography, History and Civics) textbooks. I somehow had this picture of some form of village-based civilization. The different members of the community would be thatching their huts, or hunting, or fishing, or smithing in the village forgery. If you are given to flights of imagination, then you have probably managed to guess that all these pictures that I have described were contained right within the pages of my textbooks. I took what the books said literally, and believed that life was as they described it. I didn't have much to go on, and so couldn't embellish the pictures with my imagination.
"Furthermore, we all learnt about the different ethnic groups of the nation, their classification into different language groups, and their migration routes into their present-day locations. And then of course we had the folklore: "Why the Leopard has spots", "The Hare and the home-made horns", "Kapotei na Lulu." There’s nothing like the legends, myths and "fairy"-tales of one's own people to make one see things thru' their eyes.
“But is that really the case? Why is it that, after exposure to all this info about my ancestry, I still had a hard time imagining my ancestors as actual human beings with hopes, aspirations and dreams similar to mine? Why was it easier for me to identify with characters from American and British novels? Why couldn't I see the faith systems of my predecessors as being as real and valued to them as mine are to me? The answers to these questions would soon become apparent.
"At the age of 12 years, thanks to my family's ongoing hand-me-down project, I inherited my brothers' high school literature books. In theory, it was still early for me to use them, but the twins had just graduated from school, and my father had sworn that there was no way that he was going to go through the ordeal of buying those expensive books one more time. So two or three years in advance, I had a literary heritage that, thanks to our overwhelming educational system, would eventually come to occupy my every dream and waking thought. Among them, were some unfamiliar titles: "The Concubine", Things Fall Apart", "Arrow of God"... The names behind them were just as unfamiliar: Elechi Amadi and Chinua Achebe, among others.
"This tale is about to take a predictable turn, my dear friend. Simply put, I read the books; I read every single one of them, from the front cover to the back cover. At the end of my experience, I was excited. I can't find the words to describe the awakening it was to me. That brief education in literature made me realize that (as stupid as this may sound) my ancestors were human.
“Let me explain myself. I was a child. I tended to accept textbook material without much analysis or criticism of the content. As far as I was concerned, there was absolute truth, and grown-ups had access to this truth. So the ones who published our books knew exactly what they were talking about.
"You know that our textbooks condemned colonialism. But, at the same time, they were ambivalent about it. The message I got was that colonialism had been a necessary evil, that it had introduced my people to true religion, education and healthcare, without which we had all been primitive.
“Now the very fact that I subscribe to the faith that our colonizers introduced us to means that, until recently, I looked down upon practitioners of other faiths. More so the polytheistic faiths that we had been told our forefathers practiced. We classified them as pagans, period. But what pagan actually meant, I can't tell you.
“Now I realize that they were different communities with different beliefs and practices. They believed in a superior being, and worshipped this being in accordance with their different environmental conditions and histories. All the aspects of these faiths that we today classify as witchcraft and superstition, I see parallels of in my own “civilized” faith.
"Thanks to those books, I was able to picture pre-colonial Africa as a place where ideas were born, and where different societies put them into practice. It ceased being the text book images that I had stored in my memory. Now I know that, unlike those authors, I am not Nigerian. The writers of those books were describing their people. They were a people that I knew little about. For some reason, though, history and popular culture ties all members of the so-called African race together. I am a victim of that mentality. Once these authors were able to demonstrate that their forefathers had lived as fully as them, and had had the same struggles with morality and the human condition that they do, I was able to apply that view to my own people. And with that came a series of changes in the way that I thought.
First published in TakingITGlobal's Panorama Zine
on 23rd December, 2002.