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Sunday, 11 April 2010

Sometimes a thing is just a thing

This article below gives a good indication of some of the thinking of frustrated young Africans. It is reproduced here without permission

“Sometimes a thing is just what it is, a thing....when we see lightning killing people we don’t ask why, we just stay out of thunderstorms”. This quote from the Virgin of the Flames by Chris Abani strikes me as the most astute summary of Africa and African attitudes I’m yet to come across. It summarises our way of thinking and why we survive so many catastrophes and more importantly why catastrophes continue to befall us
Unlike other colonized or conquered people with the exception of certain tribes in Namibia who attracted the unwelcome attention of the Germans virtually no African peoples have been exterminated. Despite the best efforts of wars, slavery, floods, disease, malnutrition, droughts, climate, more wars, colonialism, independence, dictatorships and more wars, Africa and Africans survive.
Africa always finds a way.
Because to us a ‘thing’ is indeed just a ‘thing’. Not to challenged, questioned or bent to our will. But rather to be accepted and a will to be bent to. By adapting to disasters and seasons and our flora and fauna we have been able to survive. By accepting the superiority of another tribe or an enemy a village pays tribute but survives, living and going about its business in relative peace.
A river with dangerous undercurrents regularly sucks people in who venture too far from the shore. It is declared off limits, the Elders state there is an angry River goddess that requires placating and the river is avoided except for rituals at particular points of the year. No one is inclined to check for fords or river patterns. The village remains idyllic and isolated. It survives, it exists but it doesn’t expand or necessarily prosper. Risk is averted, evil is avoided, life and the way of life is preserved but by corollary so is ‘evil’
The ability to adapt, improvise and overcome is without doubt the most striking thing about Africa. If anything distinguishes us it is that we survive. At least as a people if not as individuals. The collective survives because the collective accepts the ‘thing’ and although they might lose some people on the way the collective always survives in some shape or form
The question is though; would the casualty rate be the same as actually confronting these ‘things’ as accepting them?
This is the very reason we are so ill used and we accept the tyranny of Big Men. We laud and flatter illiterate murderers and thieves because we meekly accept their itinerant power. We are willing to be co-opted and accept second best for no other reason or question than ‘that’s how it is’
Leaders cannot be confronted because they are ‘ordained by God’.
In order for a people to survive in a harsh and aggressive environment it is necessary to accept and adapt, but in order for a people to advance and progress they need to challenge and modify. Sometimes it is necessary to climb a mountain for no other reason than that it is there. Maybe there’s nothing at the top? Or maybe on the other side is a fertile valley.
Development and survival are two different things. Great Britain developed because it was a cold rain swept island without much opportunities, which was generally always a naval defeat away from being absorbed by larger European powers. The people did not accept these things they spread out, fought, conquered, exploited, oppressed and their island progressed.
Great Britain was not made good by kind words and generous deeds but by brigands, pirates and slavers who did not accept the strictures of their society or even the strictures of the law on a small feudal island but went out on the premise that a thing may be a thing but if I grab it and hold on to it, it becomes my thing and to hell with whoever doesn’t like it. For every Lugard, Rhodes, Livingstone, or Stanley there are thousands who died and will remain unknown except for some obscure entries in old shipping logs or scientific societies records. But for the 100 who died 1 or 2 prevailed and seized entire nations for themselves or their home countries.
This is not an advocacy for murder, rape and pillage. Instead it is an observation that the biggest prison of any peoples are the prisons that their minds and cultures permit. Those that looted Africa in the name of colonialism did so with the benefits to themselves and to their people in mind as they recognised that their advancement depended on everyone around them. Thus even today you can walk around London or towns in the North of England and see remnants of towns and public works built by slave traders and colonialists. Because by shoring up their home countries they guaranteed a market for the products they were extracting. Yet at no time were these people more numerous than those they ruled.
So what has changed today?
A tiny number of uneducated, unskilled people can hold entire nations to ransom with ill equipped and ill disciplined armies simply because we accept it is so.
With that acceptance comes impunity, the impunity to steal, kill and impose themselves without the slightest compunction and it is impunity that is the greatest impediment to real change in Africa.
In order to eradicate corruption and poor leadership it must be a top down exercise, mainly because the top strata are the most guilty and least numerous. These people cannot yet be prosecuted in their own courts so they must be held to account in other ways.
The lack of consequence and retribution removes whatever incentive the powerful have to perform as expected
But how and who? Why should I try and dam the flood when I can go along with the flow for as long as it takes me? Why fight for tangible and possibly nonexistent goals if I can’t feed my family?
Because if not you then who? Someone must first climb that mountain and peer into the abyss below. Someone must prove the route that others might follow. Possibly like those first prospective colonialists he will be unknown and unmourned but on his back a great civilisation could be born
We can stay out of thunderstorms and avoid lightning, but sometimes lightning strikes the house as well, and then we’d all get burnt and electrocuted anyway. Sometimes it is worth one of us stepping out and getting wet and watching where the lightning comes from so at the very least we can warn the others

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