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Black Skins White Masks Revisited: Why I Am No Longer Talking to Nigerians About Race

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If Nigerians want to be the true Giants of Africa and, indeed, the world, they must walk it with the empathy and humility befitting of a true politics of black and pan-Africanist solidarity.

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Black Skins White Masks Revisited: Why I Am No Longer Talking to Nigerians About Race
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I had been a lazy author. I was so absorbed in my excitement for my first visit to Nigeria, that I didn’t bother to look through Aké Arts and Book Festival’s draft program in time to communicate any adjustments I had before it had to be finalized. When I did finally look through the program days before the 2016 edition I discovered a curiously titled panel: “The Irony of Black Lives Matter in Africa.” I was concerned for two reasons. First, I felt there was no “irony.” Second, there was only representation from West Africa: moderator, Nigerian Patrick Okigbo, Nigerian novelist Helon Habila and Ghanaian-Kenyan Kinna Likimani. As soon I saw this I pestered Lola Shoneyin, the festival founder and organizer, to add me onto the panel. I was sure that the experience of living between two African countries that suffered white minority, settler-rule late into the 20th century—by virtue of my having been born in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa—would lead me to have a different response to the two Nigerians and Ghanaian-Kenyan on the panel.

Months earlier, my first visit to Uganda for the 2016 Writivism Literary Festival had given me my first real encounter with the “experience gap” between black people on the continent. During the day Uganda National Museum, Writivism’s venue, is a hive of schoolchildren. I was struck by the appearance of a particular group of girls from Gayaza High School. They had the most beautiful school uniform I have ever seen: an assortment of red, yellow, green, orange, pink, purple and blue short sleeve dresses that sung against the girls’ dark skin. More than that, their heads crowned in a variety of beautiful natural shapes and styles—short, medium sized, buns, round, square. A product of the South African “Rainbow Nation’s” schools that insisted on unflattering uniforms (including my high school’s kilt-inspired skirt) and hair very intimate with sodium hydroxide, I found myself staring, and, overcome with emotion. When it came time to introduce myself during the Festival’s schools outreach, I tried to express how happy I was to see the girls: You look so beautiful. Can I take a picture to take home? The other African writers and the girls themselves didn’t get it. That every girl had natural hair was nothing to talk or write home about, let alone take pictures. What else would I have them do with their hair?

They couldn’t understand why I was making such a fuss, because that to them, was the default. With some help from Nigerian-Barbadian-South African writer Yewande Omotoso, I tried to explain why it would be noteworthy that they had hair the way they did. I was unsuccessful. Not for a lack of words, but a lack of context.

All of these different attacks on black bodies—whether on African soil or outside of it—is not unrelated to white racial capitalism and coloniality which is sophisticated enough not to need the presence of white bodies to function. This is after all why, for example, African countries remain one of the world’s largest markets for skin lightening creams.

If I had visited the Gayaza Girls just a week later, I would have given them the example of their South African age mates at Pretoria Girls’ High School who, on the very day that I returned from Uganda, were protesting against bans on afros and other racist practices at their historically white school. This incident would have helped me explain how the absence of visible racialized markers—namely white teachers and white classmates with hair “that falls” and is the acceptable standard of feminine “neatness” in school codes of conduct—meant that the Gayaza Girls were spared the same kind of explicitly racial pathological relationship to self and body. The girls were avid readers, and so, if I had had better presence of mind I might have given them a black girlhood reading list: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack, Monkey!, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, Kopano Matlwa’s Coconut or even their own country woman, Doreen Baingana’s Tropical Fish. Without these examples, the Gayaza Girls and I fumbled our way to some of sort of understanding about this hair issue. The girls thought it a strange experience, but as readers who had developed enough empathy and curiosity to learn of the experiences of far off lands, they smiled and nodded as I shared anecdotes from my years as a black girl aspiring to and failing the standards of “hair that falls.” I was at first a little frustrated that I had to explain, but I quickly reminded myself that this was how it should be. This was the beauty of a childhood in which your imagination is fully formed before encountering the daily delusion that is whiteness.

*

I had something of this regional “experience gap” in mind when I gate crashed the Aké panel, which began as I expected: How can we as Africans be concerned about Black Lives Matter in the United States when we were not looking after our own in our countries? What are African Americans saying about the Chibok girls? While some of these rhetorical questions contained valid concerns, they were undermined by the generally dismissive and flippant tone towards the subject of race and blackness that I’ve come to expect from many Africans who did not grow up in “former” settler colonies. Fortunately, Kinna Likamini, who had also lived in Zimbabwe and the United States, was able to make the global and historical links of black people within the context of global white supremacy.

All of us are suffering coloniality, it’s just that the significant presence of white bodies in South Africa and the United States make it easier to visualize

I complemented her by offering examples of the specific experiences of “former” settler colonial South Africa where, under black governments protecting white property interests, black lives have clearly been shown not to matter. The first was the example of Marikana massacre, where 37 black mine workers demanding decent wages were killed after orders from then-Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a shareholder board member of the company, for the police to take “concomitant action.” The second was closer to home. It was my experience as a student in the “Fallist” movement that effectively debunked the myth of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation ever having existed. It began when shit literally hit the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) statue of Cecil John Rhodes’ and students demanded its removal, part of a call to decolonize Eurocentric symbolism, curricula and staff demographics of historically white university campuses such as UCT and Wits University, where I was studying at the time. It then took on a more “bread and butter” focus with the #FeesMustFall protests driven by black students’ demand for a “free, quality decolonized” education. I related how the movement often used the bodies of white students as human shields when encountering police because we knew that they would not let a bullet pierce white skin. And more importantly, we knew and understood that Black bodies, or indeed life do not matter.

The sophisticatedness of white supremacy means that even with the visuality and presence of whiteness in one location and its invisibility and absence in another, both spaces continue to suffer similar kinds of psychic, material and discursive impact.

Together, Kinna and I argued that the indifference to the missing Chibok girls in Nigeria, the country with the largest black population on the planet, is as much linked to the unpunished police shootings of unarmed black people in America as it is linked to the murder of black mine workers demanding better wages in South Africa as it is to extra-judicial killings in Kenya. All of these different attacks on black bodies—whether on African soil or outside of it—is not unrelated to white racial capitalism and coloniality which is sophisticated enough not to need the presence of white bodies to function. This is after all why, for example, African countries remain one of the world’s largest markets for skin lightening creams. It is why Africans still prize white intellectual labor and cultural output as supreme (whether we admit it or not). It is why a fluency in the colonizing languages of English, French, German, Portuguese, instead of our own indigenous languages, remains the true marker of not only of educatedness but sophistication and worldliness across the continent. It is why in times of emergency our governments will often choose to address foreign press before they address us, their people. It is why a black person in position of authority or wealth might be called “oyinbo,” “muzungu,” “umlungu,” “murungu” or “ obroni” depending on where you are on the continent. All of us are suffering coloniality, it’s just that the significant presence of white bodies in South Africa and the United States make it easier to visualize. The sophisticatedness of white supremacy means that even with the visuality and presence of whiteness in one location and its invisibility and absence in another, both spaces continue to suffer similar kinds of psychic, material and discursive impact.

As we spoke, it wasn’t lost on me that this debate over the “irony” of having to state that “black lives matter” in Africa was taking place in Abẹ́òkuta, or Aké, the storied hometown of Wole Soyinka who had been so unimpressed and impatient with the Negritude movement spearheaded by the Francophone writers of African descent that he famously dismissed them at the 1962 African Writers Conference held at Makerere University, quipping: “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces.” At a conference in Berlin two years later, Soyinka elaborated this: “a tiger does not stand in the forest and say: ‘I am a tiger.’ When you pass where the tiger has walked before, you see the skeleton of the duiker, you know that some tigritude has been emanated there.”

It’s not that Soyinka was the only one to critique the Negritude movement. It was just that he was the loudest, and perhaps the most flippant, in his response. For years I puzzled over what it was that might have made Soyinka so dismissive of his Negritude counterparts. After all, the tiger can only be free to pounce on the poor duiker if his environment is free. Just what kind of environment might have induced Soyinka to pounce on his fellow Africans in the way that he did? The view of Aké from its highest point, Olúmọ Rock, provided me with part of the answer.

After a brisk hike up the Olúmọ Rock stairway, a careful negotiation around the Ifá divination shrines (and their devotees), I turned to an unwitting Nigerian writer: “My brother, this, you call a mountain? Come and visit Zimbabwe, the Great House of Stone. You will see boulders and granite mountains so large they make the villages below them look like toy houses. You will see Olúmọ Rocks in everybody’s backyard and then you will never waste visitors’ time again with this.” My Nigerian brother could only offer an apologetic laugh. This time the “giants of Africa” did carry last. Standing out of earshot, I allowed myself to admit that there was something that did impress me at Olúmọ Rock: the view of Abẹ́òkuta, the “refuge among rocks,” the nearly two centuries old African town unmarked by the generational trauma of apartheid era bulldozers and trucks that segregated people into “European” towns and farms and “non-European” “townships” and “homelands” and instead etched with a history that preceded colonialism and succeeded it through its very own idiom, that made the sprawling, undulating terrain of Soyinka’s childhood appear to me as luminous and magical as it appears in his 1981 memoir Aké: The Years of Childhood.

In his introduction to In My Father’s House, Ghanaian-American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah uses Soyinka’s Aké childhood to explain why it is that what race meant to the “New Africans”—the generation of African intellectuals of the 1960s educated in the West such as Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere—was different to what race meant to “educated blacks in the New World” such as African-American, Afro-Caribbean and Black British people. Appiah argues that, unlike their counterparts who grew up facing the crudest forms of racial and colonial discrimination in the West and the Francophone subcontinent, the likes of Soyinka were “children who were extracted from the traditional culture of their parents and grandparents and thrust into the colonial school [but] nevertheless fully enmeshed in a primary experience of their own traditions” in cultures where black people were both in the majority and their cultural lives continued to be largely controlled by indigenous moral conceptions.

Unlike Soyinka, whose homeland had known a total of 60 years of indirect rule beginning in 1900, his South African contemporary Es’kia Mphahlele, whose country had suffered settler rule since 1652, could relate to the “double consciousness” that black people in the West, Africa’s settler colonies and the Francophone subcontinent know only too well. And so, Mphahlele’s apartheid upbringing led him to criticize the Negritude movement for reasons both more sophisticated and different to Soyinka. Mphahlele’ criticized the “evolue” class of Francophone writers for their “black romanticism” and pointed to Senegalese poet-president Leopold Senghor as a “classic representation” of the movement’s “unholy alliance” with Africa’s emergent national bourgeoisie. In other words, Mphahlele, like many other black South Africans felt that negritude was not radical enough in its challenge to colonial logic.

South Africa’s late poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, who had been exiled to the United States in the early 60s and worked closely with members of the Black Arts movement, persistently argued against Negritude on the grounds that it was a purely cultural or aesthetic approach to black self-determination, that in itself was too dependent on white aesthetics, and so offered a vision of black liberation limited by its concern with justifying itself to a white audience. Disappointed by the First World Festival of Negro Arts hosted by Senghor in Dakar, Kgositsile wrote in his 1968 essay, “I Have Had Enough,” that Negritude is a type of “an academic masturbation or deviation, a kind of mannerism—fornicating with the white eye and then emerging on some stage with Western arguments for the validity and glory of a black Virginity.”

Kgositsile’s critique of negritude’s dependence on white aesthetics and approval was informed by his involvement in the Black Consciousness movement, South Africa’s answer to Black Power and Negritude formed by political leaders such as Bantu Steve Biko, cultural figures such as poets Mongane Wally Serote and Kgositsile and jazz saxophonist Winston Monwabisi “Mankunku” Ngozi. Through it, they defined Blackness beyond simply being oppressed as a “non-white” but as a positive state of mind. For the likes of Mphahlele who grew to adulthood in apartheid South Africa where their existence was officially defined in the negative as “non-European” and “non-white,” there was no irony in positively declaring their “capital-B” Blackness or to demand that the curriculum be decolonized. They were dehumanized as “non-whites” on African soil, and so it was necessary to proclaim their Blackness in order to reclaim their humanity, a feat that was both incontrovertible and incomprehensible to the likes of Soyinka. Mphahlele himself would eventually become the champion of what he called “African humanism,” a philosophy that attempts to undo the kind of psychic damage wrought by apartheid and so poignantly illustrated in his classic 1959 childhood autobiography Down Second Avenue.

Even with the creep of British indirect rule, Soyinka’s Aké was not Mphahlele’s Marabastad. If Soyinka’s Aké is enlivened by the strong wafts of the market women’s deep fried akara that “jostled for attention with the tang of roasting coconut slices within farina cakes which we called kasada; with the hard-fried lean meat of tinko; the ‘high,’ rotted-cheese smell of ogiri; roasting corn, fresh vegetables or gbegiri” and his mother’s akara, ogi, moin-moin and agidi, apartheid impoverishes little “Es’kia’s Second Avenue kitchen table so much that it rarely offered more than coffee and bread (with butter when there were visitors) for breakfast and porridge served with meat (or fried tomatoes when there was no money) and on, a Sunday, vegetables too, for supper. Where four year old Wo̩lé could lose himself in pursuit of a police band across the horizon of Aké’s parsonage only to be returned home on the crossbar of a Hausa policeman’s bicycle, Es’kia’s” movements are boxed in by the baton and the open palms of the white and African policemen who patrol their township.

A lack of a direct experience of another’s pain is not the basis for dismissal, it is an opportunity to demonstrate empathy and, more importantly, solidarity

As an adult, Mphahlele is compelled to leave South Africa for Nigeria in 1957, not only for himself, but for the sake of his two small children and soon to arrive third born. He despairs watching the way his four-year-old Motswiri clings to you tightly when he sees a constable walk up or down the road and says Ntate, is the policeman going to arrest me is he going to take you is he going to take Mamma? You hold the frightened kid close to you and think of Second Avenue the long long great divide. Another time Motswiri comes to you with imitation handcuffs crudely made of wire and shouts “Bring your hands here, where’s your pass? I’ll teach you not to be naughty again.”  Now he wants a torch and a baton and a big broad belt and a badge, how agonizing!”

Once in Nigeria, the “new air of freedom” is initially bewildering to Mpahlele, but in time he and his wife Rebecca are relieved that their children are visibly happier and “will be able to learn something worthwhile, something that is fit for all mankind, not for slaves.” Mphahlele eventually ends his autobiography during his time teaching at CMS Grammar School, Nigeria’s oldest secondary school, where he observes that his Nigerian schoolboys are “worlds apart” from his South African boys. For Mphahlele, there is a “complacency” within CMS’s “placid” atmosphere, whereas he and his South African schoolboys “were both hungering for many things and getting little, which in turn sharpened the edge of our longings. I responded to every throb of pain and restlessness in them, and I think they responded to my yearnings.”

Empathy outside your mother’s house

In Mpahlele’s sentiments about the differences between his South African and Nigerian schoolchildren lies the question at the crux of this essay: If it is true that we of African descent have grown up in different households, that shape our experiences of the world differently, how do we respond to the pain and yearnings of our sisters? What happens when that pain that is unfamiliar to us because it is pain particular to their households but foreign to ours? If our sisters say there is a fire in their house, do we deny it because there is no fire in ours? Do we shout over their shouts for help because our house is not burning? What if we have never encountered a fire before? Do we criticize the way our sisters try to fan out the flames before we have learnt the nature of fire?

How can we have any meaningful pan-African, and indeed any other kind of, solidarity if we lack empathy for those whose experiences we do not share? Where would the world be if sharing a common experience was the first requirement for supporting another’s struggle?

This is exactly what Soyinka did when he pounced on the Negritude writers and proclaimed his own Tigritude. Nigerians who dismiss our understandings of race often use their lack of experience of racial discrimination as the reason for their positions. This is unconvincing. What I find missing in my interactions with many Nigerians who dismiss our experiences of race is this: a profound lack of empathy that takes the form of unwillingness to understand and share the pain of another, as well as a willful refusal to self-examine the tacit, but powerful presence of the racialized politics that already operates in their own society.

A lack of a direct experience of another’s pain is not the basis for dismissal, it is an opportunity to demonstrate empathy and, more importantly, solidarity. How can we have any meaningful pan-African, and indeed any other kind of, solidarity if we lack empathy for those whose experiences we do not share? Where would the world be if sharing a common experience was the first requirement for supporting another’s struggle? The irony which seems to be lost on Nigerians who choose to dismiss the struggles of their black sisters is that their country has a long tradition of supporting the struggle for liberation in Southern Africa’s minority white settler regimes. Just as Nigeria was preparing itself for independence in October 1960, the 21 March Sharpeville Massacre of 59 black South Africans protesting pass laws led the Nigerian public to pressure what would become Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s government to condemn the apartheid regime. Two years later when Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela clandestinely traveled to Nigeria to get support for the armed struggle, he received it. The next year Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa declared, “We in Nigeria are prepared to do anything towards the liberation of all African countries.” Nigerians kept their word. By 1976, Nigerians paid from their pockets to support the liberation struggle through the monthly “Mandela Tax” on civil servant salaries paid into the Southern African Relief Fund (SARF). Young Nigerians, who had been moved by the plight of their South African age mates who had been killed in the 1976 Soweto Uprising formed anti-apartheid clubs such as the Youths United in Solidarity for Southern Africa (YUSSA) and the Nigerian African National Congress Friendship and Cultural Association (ANCFCA), voluntarily contributed to the SARF too. For twenty years Nigeria chaired the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid until South Africa finally achieved its democracy in 1994. By then, Nigeria had contributed an estimated US $61 billion towards the anti-apartheid effort.

*

When we talk of solidarity politics we must ask ourselves: What happens when we find ourselves as visitors to the houses of our brothers and sisters? What if we find ourselves permanent adoptees in their homes? How do we behave in our adoptive homes? How then do we respond to the fire in our sisters’ homes? When we do criticize our sisters do we do so out of love or out of contempt? A deep sense of empathy or superior dismissiveness?

The answer is critical.

Of late I think much about these questions, questions of racial and political solidarity, because I’ve recently moved to America and often have to remind myself that this is not my mother’s house. There are things I do not quite understand and must learn about this country. This is despite the fact that it’s a country I’ve always felt quite familiar and comfortable with as I shared in the long-held kinship and solidarity ties between black South Africans and African Americans. From Charlotte Maxeke and WEB Du Bois; Pixley ka Isaka Seme and Alain Locke; Es’kia Mphahlele and Langston Hughes; Miriam Makeba and Sarah Vaughan; Hugh Masekela and Miles Davis; Lewis Nkosi and James Baldwin to Keorapetse Kgositsile and Gwendolyn Brooks; Bessie Head and Toni Morrison; and Ellen Kuzwayo and Audre Lorde, black South Africans and African Americans have always had a way of understanding each other and helping each other through it despite coming up in different homes. When I was a teen developing my political consciousness, Biko’s I Write What I Like I read alongside The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Matlwa’s Coconut alongside Angelous’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions with Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

Unlike many Africans Coming to America, I have been black for as long as I can remember. I was black long before I came here. I did not need America to know that I am black. For this reason I often feel I relate far more easily to African-Americans than I do to my African sisters. Indeed, I’ve long stopped reading a certain type of African immigrant essay. It usually begins with, or includes the assertion that, “the first time I knew I was black was when I arrived in [insert Western country]”. It’s a favorite essay topic for liberal publications interviewing non-American black people. This essay “genre” would be useful if it were an entry point into a deconstruction of the fallacy of race as biological fact, but all too often all this simply ends in an exposition of what will become life-long indignation that the author could possibly be degraded to the status of black and rarely leads them to develop a broader politics of racial solidarity.

What is perhaps most frustrating about these Africans writing of their sudden awakening to the fact of their blackness is that they rarely fail to reflect on the crucial fact that their racialization as black people did not occur in the moment of (varying degrees of) voluntary migration to the West in the last few decades but centuries ago when the first Africans were forcibly taken to the New World as enslaved people. If we were, for example, to return to Soyinka’s Aké and look more closely at the landscape, we would be confronted with the fact that, while it may be unmarked by the tracks of segregating bulldozers, the terrain does bear scars of the many settlements and displacements wrought by the transatlantic slave trade’s destructive path. A closer examination of history would reveal that Ẹ̀gbá peoples founded Abẹ́òkuta amongst the protective rocky outcrops in the early 19th century as they sought a place of refuge from warring enemies, including the slave raiding kingdom of Dahomey who unsuccessfully invaded them in the mid 1800s.

It is also true that that very same landscape bears the marks of many other complex settlements and displacements, conquests and defeats which over time has defined how Nigerians might imagine themselves. Long before the British, Nigeria suffered its first wave of colonialism by Arabs who wiped out cultures and instituted the Arabic way of life chiefly in Northern Nigeria. Within the arbitrary border drawn up by the British, the Nigeria of today contains multitudes. Be it in total number – more than180 million people. Or sheer ethnic diversity – more than 250 ethnic groups. The largely middle class Nigerian writers, students and artists I have read and spoken with over the years about the race issue do not represent the full and highly complex picture of larger Nigerian identit(ies) and histories. Indeed, for many, Nigerian identity in and of itself is still up for debate. For many Nigerians, their first consciousness might be as Yorùbá, Igbo, Hausa or any of the other ethnic groups. Aspects such as religion, class and gender further shape the contours of this consciousness. In the end, the tensions between the many Nigerian national consciousnesses are the reason behind conflicts most tragically exemplified in the Biafran War. In a highly unequal society, class wars between the ruling, middle and working classes would also shape much of the Nigerian identity writers bring to bear when they Come to [insert Western country]. How an undocumented working class Nigerian will approach American race relations will likely be different to how a multiple passported middle class Nigerian will do. As a friend told me of his own experience as a working class Nigerian poet in America, those working class Nigerians, particularly with no papers, long accustomed to the experience of operating at the margins of society even in their home countries, would not only likely find it easier than their middle class counterparts to grapple with the kind of marginalization blackness confers in the West but, find it easier to empathize with and stand in solidarity with the racial struggles of their hosts. (We get something of the impact of class difference in recent African immigrant fiction, where for example, the Princeton-going Ifemelu of Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah and the Ivy League family of Taiye Selasie’s Ghana Must Go (who would very easily fit Selaisie’s Afropolitan tag) take on American racial politics in ways very different to the asylum seeking limousine driving Jende Jonga of Mbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers and Darling, the undocumented preteen of NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names.)

This complexity of identity is true of many other African countries also suffering the consequences of arbitrary colonial borders, nonetheless, it’s still troubling that the African writers making claims about blackness as only “discoverable” in the West are speaking as though the racialized understanding can only come as a result of experience. More than ever, before we can only no longer say we are unaffected by racial consideration no matter where we may be located because its shapes and contours are beamed to us daily through our screens (and, long before that, if we cared to really read each other, that is, with a deep sense of empathy, we would know the pain of our sisters’ homes intimately). It seems a disingenuous claim. It’s one thing to say they may not have experienced it directly but to say they are not aware of racial subjectivity and subjection is willful ignorance and a lack of emotional and political imagination. These are writers after all: does that mean that everything they write about they have experienced or have familiarity with it?  The question is what is the political purchase or utility of making such a declaration? Why are so many of these writers seemingly so apolitical around race politics and deliberately refuse to understand these basic ethics of solidarity and instead bask in the glory of individuated reward of model minority?

*

For all my familiarity and ease with American racial politics, I constantly have to remind myself that this is not my mother’s house. What I mean by that is that I am a newly arrived “cousin-sister” to the house built by my African American sisters and currently occupied by white Americans. For all the similarities black South Africans and African Americans share, there are important differences between a white-dominated white majority country and a white-dominated black majority country, and so, perhaps for some time, I should keep quiet and observe how and why things are done as they are in the house before I begin to pounce with my declarations on how best to do things.

Long before I moved to America, my years as a Zimbabwean born African living in South Africa since I was three years old taught me something of the political ethics involved in making a home of my sisters’ house.  (To be clear, I claim both South Africa and Zimbabwe as my homes). Among them is to understand that the cardinal rule for white nations is that everybody always loves somebody else’s n*gger. It is why the French will welcome African Americans in France, while shunning Francophone Africans and Arabs. It is why white Americans will welcome (documented) Africans while shunning African Americans. It is why white Australians will welcome Africans while shunning Aboriginal Australians. In response to this, the foundational rule is that wherever you find yourself in the world, in whosever house you find yourself, it is your duty to align yourself with the struggle of the oppressed in that country and actively resist being used to undermine that struggle. Abiding by this duty is made possible by having the humility to understand that if it weren’t for the very struggle you might feel inclined to dismiss (because you have yet to understand it), you would not be able to make a successful life in your adoptive country in the first place. Likewise, it is your duty to actively seek an understanding of the historical context of your sisters’ historical and current struggle, so that you aren’t liable to the popular ahistorical and decontextualized myths about their conditions you will encounter outside of your mother’s house.

During my brief stint in corporate South Africa, I once had a lunch with my (non-black) boss who praised me as a model black as he bemoaned the (black) South Africans workplace performance by throwing around statements that are not uncommonly used by the Zimbabwean community in South Africa: “[Black] South Africans are uneducated, they don’t like school.” Too often I’ve heard fellow Zimbabweans, who take pride in our supposed status as Africa’s most educated population, glibly agree with white South Africans that black South Africans “don’t like school” and are “uneducated.” When we do this, we dismiss history and we dismiss context. Despite my growing political consciousness, I hadn’t developed a politics of solidarity that could grapple with the anti-black roots of the South African xenophobia (as I’ve since done here and here) that myself and many foreign-born nationals experienced and so I didn’t use my knowledge of the country’s history to rebut my boss’s claims about black South Africans as I should have. I should’ve told him that while black Zimbabweans also suffered a colonial education system, it did not reach the degradations of the apartheid government’s Bantu Education system which not only tribalized education and destroyed the mission education system that had produced the earliest generation of nationalist leaders such as Mandela and Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, but was explicitly designed to teach black students to be, in the words of the grand architect of apartheid Hendrik Verwoerd, “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. I should have told him about black South Africans who demonstrated that they “don’t like school” by, for example, getting banned from teaching Es’kia Mphahlele as did a result of his activism and losing their lives, as hundreds of Black Consciousness Movement inspired high school students did during the 1976 Soweto Uprisings against the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. If I had a sufficiently developed politics of black solidarity at that time I would have told my boss not to use my example as a second–generation university graduate, (curtsey of post-independence state sponsored loans and bursaries that made it possible for mission educated black Zimbabweans like my parents to have a tertiary education) to perpetuate falsehoods about black South Africans’ educational achievement.

Had I been more knowledgeable, I might have taken something from the example of the late Nigerian-American anthropologist John Ogbu who actively sought to disprove racist myths about the academic achievement gap between racial minorities in the United States, where Nigerians are the most educated population group in the country, often held up as a “model minority”. Ogbu’s seminal research demonstrated that cultural differences alone cannot account for differences in achievement, arguing that in the American context, one of the key reasons “voluntary minorities” such as Nigerian-Americans tend to outperform “involuntary” or “caste-like” minorities such as African Americans is because they lack the “historical baggage” that leads them to develop to an oppositional position to the dominant white American culture. This lack of “historical baggage” puzzlingly leads to an ahistorical attitude among highly educated African immigrants who bemoan the “laziness” of their African-American counterparts and seem unable to acknowledge the important history of black struggles for the very education they enjoy. The ahistorical attitude sees them unable to acknowledge the contribution of historically black colleges and universities to African American advancement, the tireless campaigns that pushed through Brown vs Education Board, or the brave black children who faced jeers, spit and death threats from children and adults alike to desegregate the very institutions they now excel in.

Ogbu’s example is a useful counterpoint to the kind of anti-black falsehoods contained in the late African Sun Times publisher Chika Onyeani’s 2000 best-seller Capitalist Nigger: The Road to Success, a Spider-Web DoctrineOnyeani’s book did the rounds in the South Africa of my teenagehood, a time when much of white South Africa began to kick up a fuss about the emerging black middle class and then President Thabo Mbeki’s Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policies – not because they were truly invested in a leftist or black radical critique of BEE’s neoliberal “trickle down economics” that have not addressed the fundamental questions of post-apartheid economic justice and redistribution, but because it was money in undeserving black hands. In this contested climate, Capitalist Nigger spurred much debate for its central argument that black people are an unproductive consumer race who must mimic Asians and adopt what he calls a “spider-web doctrine. Long before the debates about colonialism set off by Things Fall Apart (shockingly, our first set work by a black African writer) in our final year of high school, the national debate set off by Onyeani’s book found its way into a discussion between my white schoolmates and I. Without the tools to meaningfully engage the subject many of us teens eagerly parroted the book’s many pseudo self-reliance arguments such as this: “Blacks are economic slaves. We are owned lock stock and barrel by people of European-origin … I am tired of hearing Blacks always blaming others for their lack of progress in this world; I am tired of the whining and victim-mentality. I am tired of listening to the same complaint, day in day out – racism this, racism that. It’s getting us nowhere.”

Aside from the many inaccuracies Onyeani relied on to make his arguments, he leaned heavily on tired racial myths and stereotypes. As the infamous keynote speaker at a Black Management Forum (BMF) conference held in Johannesburg in October 2005, Onyeani drew on stereotypes of “lazy blacks” and “successful and entrepreneurial Indians” to infamously “critique” the state of black economic transformation eleven years after the end of apartheid saying: “The black middle class in South Africa must study what has happened in the 52 African states and also in India. You are not only middle class but also black intellectual class. The African renaissance demands that we purge ourselves of this parasite. You don’t have to be parasitic on the rest of society because you feel you are entitled. I don’t want us to mortgage the future of our children for a quick-fix economic solution.”

Ironically, the conference session was chaired by Xolela Mangcu, a South African scholar and biographer of Steve Biko and his politics of black self-determination. Mangcu, a long-time critic of Onyeani’s economic gospel, reminded Onyeani that India’s success in the world economy, particularly in the United States, was the result of generations of the wealthy class preserving and passing their wealth on. Importantly, in the US where people of Indian descent have the highest per capita income, this had nothing to do with India achieving independence in 1947. Within India itself, he went on to point out, there is a huge wealth divide that leaves the majority dirt poor. After Mangcu cited several academic sources to support his claims, Onyeani retorted: “Our intellectual class likes putting forward ideas which other people have written.”

We could all too easily dismiss Onyeani’s “original ideas” if there weren’t the likes of US-based Nigerian Booker Prize shortlistee Chigozie Obioma to take on the mantle of bootstrap race “analysis” in a more sophisticated manner. A few months before the 2016 Aké Festival Black Lives Matter panel, Obioma saw it fit to make his intervention into the debate as the wave of protests over the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in July 2016 engulfed the United States. The thesis of Obioma’s Foreign Policy op-ed titled “There Are No Successful Black Nations” is that “the core reason why black people have remained synonymous with the denigrating experience of racism. It is, I dare say, because of the worldwide indignity of the black race.” This argument is tolerable enough until Obioma pulls an Onyeani by insisting that “Black elites and activists across the world have adopted a culture of verbal tyranny in which they shut down any effort to reason or criticize us or black-majority nations by labelling such attempts as ‘racism’ or ‘hate speech’.” To bolster his argument, Obioma makes a familiar appeal to “[g]reat men like Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Malcolm X” who understood that “the future of their race could not be advanced by endless protests or marches of “equality” or “justice.”

After dismissing the necessity of protest in struggle, Obioma goes on to hold up his country of birth Nigeria as an example of an African state on the brink of collapse because of a “culture of incompetence, endemic corruption, dignified ineptitude, and, chief among all, destructive selfishness and greed.” While these are undeniable contributing factors, Obioma’s argument remains shallow as he fails to nuance it by speaking, for example, to the continent’s historic underdevelopment (see, for example, Walter Rodney), nor the history of Western nations undermining democracy by intervening  and propping up the very dictators he bemoans (see, for example, the CIA’s declassified documents). The net effect is an argument with an unfortunate lack of analysis of power, political economy and history echoing Onyeani’s, that black people should shut up about their oppressions and simply pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

This Soyinka-esque impulse to wade in and pounce on debates on the racial struggles of their sisters is as baffling as it is laughable. If it is that the impulse comes from the sense of superiority derived from having “never experienced racism”, you would think that our Ethiopian sisters, the only ones amongst us all to have never been colonized, would be pouncing all over race debates too? Surely they would be the loudest and most biting in their dismissal of the protests of their colonized sistren? Much in the same way that I do not expect white people to have well developed racial politics, I do not expect Nigerians I come across to have well developed racial politics. It is, quite frankly, guilty until proven innocent.

I borrow this essay’s title from British-Nigerian journalist Renni Eddo-Lodge’s best-selling Why I’m No Longer Talkingto White People AboutRace because I do believe that my Nigerian sisters have the ability to engage racial politics meaningfully. It’s just that a significant number choose not to. And when they choose not to engage meaningfully they usually choose to do it loudly. In response, I choose to engage “Africa’s Giants” at their level by borrowing from the famously combative style of the (Black Arts Movement) inspired Bolekaja intellectual tradition championed by the notorious troika of Chinweizcu Ibekwe, Ihechukwu Madubuike and Onwuchekwa Jemie. Since you will not be quiet my Nigerian brothers and sisters, Giants of Africa, bolekaja! Come down from your glass house and let’s fight! Come down and let’s fight about this thing we call race.

Redeeming Nigerian Tigritude

Just before I traveled to the 2016 Aké Festival, my first experience of Nigerian “Tigritude” took place within the Johannesburg consulate in which the low-grade international diplomacy war between South Africa and Nigeria plays out. It was there that I first encountered the decidedly abrasive and confrontational manner that is an adjustment for many of us in Southern Africa who tend to be more indirect and polite (although we can never match the “Pole, Pole” of Zanzibaris).

As I sat waiting for my turn for my visa to be processed, a white man turned up. He demanded to speak to the manager. With the arrogance typical of white South Africans in their dealings with black South African civil servants, the white man rolled out his best “Where is your manager routine?”. The Nigerian civil servant he was shouting at to look up from his desk and reply calmly, “I am the man”. The white man continued to shout. The Nigerian manager rose to his full height. He reprimanded the white man like he was his schoolboy. As a headmaster does, he finished his dress down of the white man by instructing him to sit down. He would serve him when he was ready. The white man did as he was told and thanked the manager for his time.

Having suffered many South African queues in my lifetime, I can almost certainly guarantee that if a black South African manager had decided to defend their dignity, they would do so by first declaring that they are a proud black person and on that basis would not allow themselves to be treated by a white man in this way. The ordeal might have lasted longer, drawn in more people and unlikely have ended with the white man expressing his gratitude for the black man’s graciousness. While it is true that the manager’s booming voice and imposing physical stature already gave him an unfair advantage, I can say almost certainly that it was his Nigerian “Tigritude” that allowed him to summarily dismiss the white man’s temper tantrum, not necessarily because he was a racist oyinbo (which he almost certainly was), but simply because he was a client with bad home training behaving badly in his house. Negritude? Tigritude!

I will never repeat these words anywhere else, but let it be said here: sometimes it is only Nigerian arrogance that can successfully stare down white racial arrogance. With a little more sobriety, I use this example to argue that there is indeed much to be gained for black people all over the world in having the most populous black nation be one in which black people walk tall and do not cower in the face of white supremacy. The trouble is when that confidence veers into the kind of loud and dismissive arrogance that it so often does.

Aside from the late Ogbu, there are many other Nigerian academics, writers, artists, and intellectuals such as Bibi Bakare YusufOlu Oguibe, Ashley Akunna, Hakim Adi, Biodun Jeyifo and Moses Ochonu who have engaged with the subject of race with that rare combination of rigor and empathy, using their Nigerian experience as an opportunity to build and not to undermine broader black struggles. They act within Nigeria’s long tradition of supporting black struggle. Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, individuals (including Soyinka himself), movements, organizations and the state played an important role in Southern Africa’s liberation struggles against white settler rule. Along with the Frontline States, Nigeria was actively involved in the negotiations, embargoes, boycotts, and economic sanctions that eventually brought an end to official apartheid. Shortly after the recent passing of  Okwui Enwezor, a son of Anambra whose groundbreaking work in the art world demonstrated a fierce commitment to a radical ethics and politics of black and pan-Africanist solidarity, African American artist Hank Willis-Thomas hailed him as a “true titan”, saying, “I once asked how he was able to walk into so many spaces being the only one and accomplish so much radical change with such poise. He replied simply, ‘It’s because Nigerians are Fearless.’

*

If Nigerians want to be the true Giants of Africa and, indeed, the world, they must walk it with the empathy and humility befitting of a true politics of black and pan-Africanist solidarity. If instead, you walk as giants blind to the pain and the struggles of your sisters, your presence only serves to destroy the work done by others instead of elevating us all to new heights.

 

Editors note: This essay was originally published in Africa as a country with the title, Why I’m no longer talking to Nigerians about race.

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Panashe Chigumadzi is the author of Sweet Medicine (Blackbird Books, 2015; winner of the 2016 K. Sello Duiker Literary Award) and These Bones Will Rise Again (Indigo Press, 2018). She is a PhD candidate in African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

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Moving Beyond Africapitalists and Economic Messiahs: Redefining African Entrepreneurship

By seeking to transform postcolonial Africans into entrepreneurs, neoliberal economic interventions misread Africa’s past. One outcome of this has been a profound transformation in the very vocabulary we use to designate some Africans as entrepreneurs. In the end, the innovative ingenuity of Africans in many entrepreneurial fields is either denied or sensationalised by those who purport to speak for and about African entrepreneurs.

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Moving Beyond Africapitalists and Economic Messiahs: Redefining African Entrepreneurship
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In the last three decades, scholarly interest on entrepreneurship has exploded outside the traditional quantitative disciplines of economics and business studies. This is traceable to the global ascent of neoliberal capitalism, which has drawn remote corners of the world into global webs of capital and substituted self-help entrepreneurship with state-directed ameliorative economic projects. Humanists and qualitative social scientists have brought much-needed critical perspectives to bear on the study of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship.

One of the legacies of this humanisation of entrepreneurship studies is the extension of the observational and analytical lens to the Global South, a region of the world simultaneously regarded as a place dominated by a poverty-incubating pre-capitalist economic ethos and as a fertile ground for recruiting new entrepreneurs. The emphasis on producing indigenous entrepreneurs emanates from an assumption that Africa lacks capitalism and capitalist relations of production, an assumption that Horman Chitonge debunks. There is also a need to deconstruct paradigmatic understandings of not just capitalism but also of entrepreneurship, the supposed means to capitalism in Africa.

Africa has been at the centre of two cross-cutting processes: one focused on the alleged prevalence of pre-capitalist or socialistic poverty, the other on producing entrepreneurs to combat that poverty. The escalation of poverty in Africa from the 1980s, itself partly a product of neoliberal reforms, ironically opened the door to the neoliberal veneration of entrepreneurship as a remedy for mass poverty. Many anti-poverty interventions in Africa today seek to remake Africans into rural and urban entrepreneurs through instruments such as microfinance, revolving credit, and cooperative lending.

Economic messiahs

The proliferation of entrepreneurial projects in Africa in the neoliberal moment inspired unprecedented Africanist scholarly interest in entrepreneurship, enterprise, innovation, African capitalism (or Africapitalism) and the culture of self-help. As new groups of entrepreneurs emerged on the continent and engaged in a variety of capitalist, wealth-creating activities, Africanist scholars from a variety of fields began to develop new vocabularies and concepts to explain this entrepreneurial wave. This scholarly corpus has been illuminating, but it has also been plagued by conceptual imprecision and confusion.

Africa has been at the centre of two cross-cutting processes: one focused on the alleged prevalence of pre-capitalist or socialistic poverty, the other on producing entrepreneurs to combat that poverty.

The problem, as I want to show in this reflection, was that the Africanist entrepreneurial perspective that emerged had blind spots imposed by dominant formulations developed to understand entrepreneurial cultures in Euro-American contexts. There are two other inter-related problems. One is a failure to develop an analytical toolkit that accommodates the capacious and amorphous entrepreneurial lives of Africans who were pigeonholed into the new neoliberal category of the entrepreneur. The second is a failure to adequately critique the exuberant, self-assured discourse of entrepreneurs as economic messiahs and replacements for the economic responsibilities of the dysfunctional African state.

The first problem turns on the deployment of notions and definitions derived from the dominant Schumpeterian perspective on entrepreneurship. Joseph Schumpeter’s major contribution to the study of entrepreneurship lies in going beyond understanding the entrepreneur as one who had the skill to “combine the factors of production” and situating the entrepreneur in a more ambitious project of disrupting the process of value-creation. Schumpeter saw the entrepreneur not just in personal terms but also in terms of corporate agency, of the aggregate transformative impact of multiple, simultaneous, or successive entrepreneurial initiatives. Unlike other theorists, Schumpeter saw the entrepreneur not as a manager but as a catalyst, an innovator. Clearly, the empirical setting of Schumpeter’s theorisation is a European industrial one, giving his postulations a decidedly Eurocentric flavour.

The Schumpeterian paradigm applies to the innovatively disruptive capacities of some contemporary African industrial entrepreneurs. However, this explanatory model is problematic when called upon to illuminate the activities and priorities of other African entrepreneurs outside the capitalist industrial matrix. The Schumpeterian explanation does not know what to do with Africans whose enterprise consists not of the familiar portfolios of our modern capitalist imagination but rather of an eclectic corpus of holdings embracing the social, political, artisanal, and economic realms.

In trying to understand African entrepreneurs in all their diversity, we have hamstrung our own conceptual liberty and boxed ourselves into an analytical corner. The effort to comprehend African entrepreneurial modalities has suffered as a result. Our love of neat, hard categories and vocational identifiers have stifled our ability to appreciate the full range of African entrepreneurship. As a historian, my frame of reference is the African past and that is where I’d like to go to develop this contention.

Entrepreneurship in precolonial Africa

In precolonial Africa, entrepreneurship was not a narrow, bounded vocation. Instead, entrepreneurship manifested in particular ways of doing things, and in any organised activity that promised personal or communal rewards. In this capacious definitional universe, enterprising warriors were entrepreneurs. They transformed the art of warfare from a regimented, sporadic activity to one with its own routines and protocols. Historian Uyilawa Usualele’s chapter in my edited volume, Entrepreneurship in Africa, rightly argues for a recognition of the entrepreneurial ingenuity of Benin warlords, spiritual consultants, priests, and religious purveyors whose repertoire included the professionalisation and deft organisation of multiple social vocations. Their sophisticated endeavour, as Uyilawa demonstrates, entailed the adoption of business management principles that we today associate with entrepreneurs.

In trying to understand African entrepreneurs in all their diversity, we have hamstrung our own conceptual liberty and boxed ourselves into an analytical corner. The effort to comprehend African entrepreneurial modalities has suffered as a result.

Warrior guilds, whether in precolonial Ibadan, Asante, Dahomey, Buganda or Zulu, were sites of entrepreneurship. When systematised and conceptualised as a professional business venture, as it was in many precolonial African kingdoms, warring involved planning, management, delegation, tasks, goals, deliverables, compensation, the creation of value in the form of war spoils, the distribution of dividends, and reinvestment in processes that improved war making.

War making entailed post-operational accounting, the calculation of profits, and periodic stocktaking — in other words, elaborate formal and informal bookkeeping. It was a business, and the guilds, warrior cults, and military training programmes of precolonial African kingdoms were business schools of sorts. Many of today’s warlords are also conflict entrepreneurs, leveraging war as opportunities for profit.

I have chosen this unlikely example to illustrate my point that in Africa entrepreneurial pursuits were not and are still not wholly shaped by the narrow permutations of combining the forces of production — capital, labour, and knowledge — to produce a profit. The profit motive is not always central to entrepreneurial pursuits in the African context, although profit is an expected outcome of entrepreneurial acts. Furthermore, where present and clearly discernible as the primary catalyst in an enterprise, profit is articulated in less narrow terms than is posited in the economistic definitions of classical and neoliberal economic thought.

Historically, African entrepreneurs occupied multiple positions and professions in society; entrepreneurship was only one of several elements that defined them. Moreover, their entrepreneurial lives often existed in symbiosis with the demands, responsibilities, and ethics of the wider culture.

Given this reality of multiple entrepreneurial trajectories and entwinements, it is perhaps more productive to speak of “entrepreneurial Africans” than of “African entrepreneurs”, a formulation at odds with the restrictive definitional criteria in normative capitalist thought. The term African entrepreneurs assumes a consistent, permanent occupational identity of people whose lives were consumed and defined solely by their entrepreneurial engagements. Entrepreneurial Africans advances a premise of entrepreneurial possibilities in multiple endeavours and professions.

Historically, African entrepreneurs occupied multiple positions and professions in society; entrepreneurship was only one of several elements that defined them. Moreover, their entrepreneurial lives often existed in symbiosis with the demands, responsibilities, and ethics of the wider culture.

This complex picture is further compounded by the existence of several “non-capitalist” systems of production, as well as the prevalence of hybrid practices in which self-interested capitalist rationalities coexisted with an ethos of value and reward. If the Schumpeterian model and its derivatives are applied uncritically to African entrepreneurial formations, they raise the question of whether, for instance, entrepreneurs could emerge and thrive outside capitalist relations in a communal African economic setting and, if so, whether the relationship between capitalism and entrepreneurship, which we have long taken for granted, can be sustained in the African context. This question is important because it alerts Africanist scholars of personal and group economies to what they might lose, what analytical opportunities they might miss, and what complexities and realities they might occlude or misread when they accord overarching analytical finality to concepts developed in other places and circumstances and deployed to explain African conditions. Elisio Macamo insightfully makes a similar argument in regard to the concept of capitalism and its conceptual work in African social science scholarship.

The entrepreneurial independence that, even if only rhetorically, marked the evolution of capitalism in Europe, defined the Euro-American industrial experience, and catalysed the emergence of a distinct entrepreneurial class in that context contrasts with the African entrepreneurial historical landscape. In precolonial times, African entrepreneurs operated at the intersection of profit and power, commerce and culture. Profitmaking was coextensive with social obligations. Entrepreneurs were mindful of societal expectations on them. Society, in turn, recognised that entrepreneurs had special gifts that had to be nurtured and liberated from the sociopolitical routines of daily life. Entrepreneurial pursuits were for-profit endeavours for the most part but profits and service to society were coterminous, as chapters by Gloria ChukuMarta MussoMartin Shanguhyia, and Chambi Chachage in the aforementioned Entrepreneurship in Africa volume demonstrate.

Political power holders cultivated entrepreneurs and were entrepreneurs in their own right. Entrepreneurs, on their part, accessed the protective, logistical, and spiritual resources deposited in the political realm. Ultimately, the idea that individual profitmaking could and should coexist with the provision of societal benefit and that entrepreneurial projects should catalyse society’s economic potentials was an unwritten but well understood rule of commerce. Entrepreneurship, which was mobile and malleable, was the defining character of precolonial African political economy.

To speak of a political economy of entrepreneurship or an entrepreneurial political economy is to signal a uniquely African iteration of entrepreneurship in which the political and mercantile realms were and are in conversation and cooperation. The case of the precolonial Wangara mercantile network in West Africa is an example of the entwinement of value creation and political power. There is clearly a contemporary continuity to this reality. The most consequential and successful African entrepreneurs of today, such as Aliko Dangote, Strive Masiyiwa, Patrice Motsepe, Tony Elumelu, and others have direct or indirect tentacles in the realm of power and politics. Their business empires relate with host governments and political formations in ways that would offend contrived, self-righteous, and hypocritical business sensibilities in the West. Text-bookish neoliberal Western formulations proclaim the autonomies of the business and political spheres, but these autonomous zones do not exist in the West, as many corporate and political corruption scandals have revealed. Although open to perversion and corruption, in their most productive manifestations, African entrepreneurial cultures that recognise the field of play between economics and politics stand in distinction from the neoliberal obsession with the idea of separating business and politics or protecting entrepreneurs from the alleged meddling and market distortions of political actors.

African scholars, businesspeople, and policymakers in search of an African business ethos will do well to consider this African historical partnership between profit and people.

Globalised capital that empowers and privileges

My second point concerns the limit of entrepreneurship, which needs to be stressed to counterbalance the narrative of multipurpose amelioration that has developed around African entrepreneurship. We live in a neoliberal moment in which entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs are celebrated as potent economic agents and catalysts for poverty reduction and economic growth. Whether entrepreneurs deserve this outsized reputation in our interconnected and interdependent economic ecosystem is a legitimate question. When we talk glibly, and with scholarly certitude, about the capacity of entrepreneurship to lift Africans out of poverty, we are ignoring the structural elements of globalised capital that empower and privilege some while impoverishing and dispossessing others. We are ignoring the ways that global capitalist configurations undercut and complicate entrepreneurial possibilities and opportunities in Africa.

The conceptual impact of Africa’s long encounter with neoliberalism on discourses of African entrepreneurship is profound. The nexus of neoliberalism and entrepreneurship is not far-fetched. The neoliberal economic regime imposed on African economies by the Bretton Woods institutions in the 1980s and 1990s dictated an economic paradigm shift for African countries, one that redefined the relationships, obligations, and responsibilities between states and their citizens. One of the most remarkable outcomes of this shift has been the increasing dominance of the figure of the entrepreneur. A corollary development has been the substitution of entrepreneurial self-help for redistributive, reconstructive, and structural economic reforms.

When we talk glibly, and with scholarly certitude, about the capacity of entrepreneurship to lift Africans out of poverty, we are ignoring the structural elements of globalised capital that empower and privilege some while impoverishing and dispossessing others.

This lionisation of the entrepreneur is a symptom of a deeper rhetorical, philosophical, and policy gesture in the direction of producing citizen-entrepreneurs who pursue thrift and profits, creatively take charge of their own welfare, innovatively add value to the economy, and thus relieving the state of financial obligations. Neoliberal attempts to engineer into existence ideal entrepreneurial citizens that are self-reliant and removed from the nodes of state obligation were authorised by a new fetish of personal economic responsibility. These interventions absolved the African state of its developmental responsibilities, demanding that poor Africans pull themselves out of poverty by their own entrepreneurial bootstraps.

Neoliberal fetishisation of African entrepreneurship

By seeking to transform postcolonial Africans into entrepreneurs, neoliberal economic interventions misread Africa’s past as one in which Africans were pampered by states and as a result ceased to create value through entrepreneurial activity. In truth, there was never such a cessation of entrepreneurial ingenuity in African communities. Nor did states, despite their paternalistic rhetoric and claims, provide robust welfare protections to citizens. Neoliberal entrepreneurial initiatives were cast against a foundational ignorance of the fact that value creation in most African societies is an organic social endeavor and not the intensely individualised enterprise intelligible to neoclassical and neoliberal frames of analysis. Birthed in this original misunderstanding of Africa, the political economy of neoliberalism has entrenched the entrepreneurial figure venerated by International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank policy documents as the discursive referent in studies of African economic revival. One outcome has been a profound transformation in the very vocabulary we use to designate some Africans as entrepreneurs and to withhold that designation from others.

The damage done by the neoliberal fetishisation of African entrepreneurship is both discursive and practical. Important as entrepreneurs are to the present and future of Africa, all Africans cannot become entrepreneurs, at least not in the neoliberal sense of the word. This sober recognition, which is missing from most external economic reform prescriptions, ought to be a serious preoccupation of Africanist scholars of entrepreneurship. It is the task of Africanists who study capitalism, business, and entrepreneurship in Africa to modulate and critique the exaggerated instrumentalities of African entrepreneurship. This task is necessary to balance the analytical books because we have created a zero sum analytical calculus in which talking more about entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial catalysts results in less talk about structural inequalities inherent in the global capitalist system into which Africans, to varying degrees, have long been integrated.

I want to conclude this reflection with a proposal wrapped in a critique. There is a need to develop a new mode of African scholarship on business and enterprise. This proposed new field of qualitative African business and entrepreneurial studies must necessarily adopt a relaxed analytical framework capable of exploring complex economic lives in ways that traditional scholarship in African economic history – with its neat dichotomies between worker and merchant, king and commoner, bourgeoisie and peasant – is incapable of doing. This kind of study should be able to analyse African entrepreneurial lives that cross class divides and socioeconomic categories.

Traditional debates in the field of African economic history have rarely acknowledged, let alone theorised, the entrepreneurial ingenuity of Africans in a sustained way and in terms independent of other categories of analysis. This erasure is particularly common in the field of colonial economic history. Neoclassical and neoliberal scholars of modern African economic history overstate the instrumental agency of African entrepreneurs. On the opposite side, neo-Marxist and dependency theorists shun or dismiss entrepreneurs as a petit bourgeoisie class undermining the revolutionary struggles of workers and peasants. By lionising or diminishing the figure of the African entrepreneur, the dominant schools of African economic history orphaned the African entrepreneur into a strange category where s/he is either overburdened with the task of saving dysfunctional economies or tossed aside as an economic saboteur.

In the end, the innovative ingenuity of Africans in many entrepreneurial fields is either denied or sensationalised by those who purport to speak for and about African entrepreneurs. What is lacking are stories of African entrepreneurship told by entrepreneurs themselves. We need African entrepreneurial stories curated by the entrepreneurs themselves or at least informed by their perspectives, their self-representation, and their understanding of their own struggles, aspirations, and visions. These stories have to go beyond “How I Made It” memoirs and autobiographies of entrepreneurial success and hagiographic scholarly narratives of problem-solving, self-redeeming African entrepreneurs.

Finally, the question of how we are telling the African entrepreneurship story is as important as who is telling it. The current triumphalist and hyperbolic tone of the conversation has produced a restrictive exercise in navel-gazing. It has also led to an explosion of self-validating, self-fulfilling rhetoric, in which the concept of entrepreneurship is not only advanced as a fail-safe substitute for the idea of the African developmental state posited compellingly by the late Thandika Mkandawire and others but is also used as a stand-in for more substantive debates about external and internal structural constraints on African development.

This article was first published by Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE).

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The Shape of Our Post-COVID Future

The Kenyan government’s sledgehammer response to the coronavirus pandemic has exposed a kind of schizophrenia in the country’s governance that our precarious economy cannot sustain. We might not have to wait until the next election to discover the elastic limit of the people’s tolerance of impunity.

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When illustrating my graphic novel, Art of Unlearning, in 2017, I found two images especially useful in understanding and communicating how our responses to crises shape us, both personally and collectively. The two images that represented two distinct styles of social organisation cutting across diverse cultures and belief systems are fractal structures and pyramid structures. These structures are visible even in this most formidable of crises.

Illustrations
Fractals are patterns that are characterised by self-similarity at every scale of observation. Every individual member of a fractal pattern is harmonious with the pattern as a whole. Fractals are the most common patterns in the natural world and can be found in the self-replicating growth patterns of romanesco broccoli, spider webs, schools of fish, swarms of birds, galaxies, lightning bolts, rivers, veins, trees, lungs and, of course, viruses. These patterns seek harmony. Leaders, such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, reflected such a pattern when she recognised the healthcare crisis and mobilised the trust and informed cooperation of citizens to prevent the spread of coronavirus without violating human rights.

Pyramids, on the other hand, are artificial shapes made of three straight lines and rarely occur in nature without human intervention. Favoured for their stability relative to gravity, they are some of the largest and oldest surviving human structures all around the globe, but are nevertheless young when compared to the estimated five billion years that life has existed on our planet. Pyramids are a fitting symbol of mankind’s recent destructive hegemony over planet Earth. In responding to the coronavirus pandemic, a pyramid formation concentrates decision making power in a few hands because it cannot rely on the voluntary participation of the affected population at the bottom of the pyramid. An example is the Kenyan government’s sledgehammer response to the coronavirus pandemic that has predictably resulted in gross human rights violations.

Exposing a pyramid scheme

A colourless summary of Kenya’s history is that it is the story of a people struggling to wake up from the brutal nightmare of pyramids imposed by foreign conquerors, but all too often succeeding only in repopulating the same stable structure with an even more mendacious elite until – finally – tiny rays of hope emerge, such as a new constitution and devolution of governance from an autocratic centre. These rays of hope have introduced marginalised parts of the country to a government they had only heard of, but rarely seen.

Over the last seven years, reactionary forces in favour of reconsolidating executive power have captured the state and even subsumed opposition leadership. But where both protests and elections have failed to loosen the chokehold of Jubilee’s centralised kleptocracy, a mindless pathogen has offered the most formidable challenge to its narrative. Compared with HIV/AIDS (which was a disease saddled with moralistic baggage and stigma) the relative “innocence” of coronavirus transmission through ephemeral contact between strangers has made it a much less corruptible stress test of Kenya’s public health systems.

Without a public healthcare system to support the estimated 83 per cent of Kenyans subsisting on daily earnings as informal traders or workers, and with no defence against a virus that is unforgiving of poor sanitation, the absence of a massive outbreak in Kenya to date is a miracle. Kenya has one of the steepest pyramids in the world, and this architecture is the root cause of the corruption and inequality that is only half-heartedly tinkered with.

A good faith redress of these deficiencies has been rendered impossible by a conspiracy between Kenya’s mainstream media and primitive elites (PEs) – as Darius Okolla aptly calls them – that suffocate public discourse with an eternal soap opera that is divorced from the lives of ordinary Kenyans. The coronavirus is a temporary short circuit to this deluge of distraction force fed to the public in the name of news. The stunning impact of this short circuit remains unmistakable, even as the media defaults to its diet of superficial tribalised trivia about Jubilee in-fighting.

Kenya has one of the steepest pyramids in the world, and this architecture is the root cause of the corruption and inequality that is only half-heartedly tinkered with.

What the virus has exposed is a kind of schizophrenia in Kenya’s governance that is not academic. On one end of the schizophrenic spectrum is a warm veneer of civility conveyed in the PR savvy personality of Health CS Mutahi Kagwe. On the other extreme, is the cold state machinery behind the PR that ended the life of 13-year-old Yassin Hussein Moyo in his own home with a stray bullet, and brutalised commuters in Likoni, risking further spread of coronavirus. One might be forgiven for asking whether we are trying to heal the patient or pull the plug. Inured to criticism, the Jubilee administration has proceeded to transform what began as a healthcare crisis into a militarised feeding frenzy. Ensconced in private luxury, which until recently included trips abroad for medical treatment, the PEs have been hitherto insulated from the pain of a disemboweled public health system. No more.

Now that commercial airlines are a deadly escape route, a sober movement that recognises the urgency of reform must force an uncompromising demand for accountability that is not distracted by the public relations of an illegitimate regime. If truth is the first casualty of war, as Aeschylus said, then the “war” against coronavirus is unlike any other traditional war we have fought. It is a war that requires less tear gas and more ventilators; less policemen and more nurses; less misinformation and censorship and more transparency and science. All of these are disciplines that are alien to any autocratic kleptocracy. Misinformation, such as Donald Trump’s disinfectant prescriptions, or the insistence of for-profit evangelical churches on large gatherings, or the Chinese government’s censorship in the weeks following the outbreak, have all proved lethal. There ought to be no need for Kenya to conduct any further experiments in misinformation without learning from these fatal errors.

The Kenyatta pyramid scheme, and the quasi-religious political tribalism that has fueled it, is obsolete for even this most rudimentary task of sustaining human life and dignity.

The virus is a fractal

The most striking feature of the global response to the coronavirus pandemic is how much it has depended on global solidarity across artificial national boundaries despite continual territorial confrontations. It is quite likely that if any one nation develops a vaccine against the coronavirus in the future, even its enemies’ desire to keep their own citizens alive will overshadow any prejudices. This open exchange of knowledge is most apparent in the medical and scientific communities, an example being Cuban and Chinese doctors coming to the aid of Italy long before many of Italy’s own neighbours moved into action. The insular reaction of the great pyramid of the United States now stands as a cautionary tale.

Like all natural forces, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, viruses are blind to our cherished social pyramids as they spread, yet our resilience to the economic shocks that result from this disruption are not. There has been a stark class divide in the degree of disruption to livelihoods, education, negotiating power and law enforcement. We are in the process of discovering the extreme asymmetry between the advancement of biomedical understanding of the coronavirus pandemic versus governments’ willingness to do what is necessary to match this challenge with the most fractal response available.

Closing the gaping chasm between hard-won scientific understanding on the one hand, and the intractability of our political institutions on the other, is the central challenge of the pandemic in Kenya. This means integrating deep cultural understanding of our diverse communities with lessons from the most proactive responses to the pandemic around the world. Our standard Anglo-Saxon benchmarks will not be available this time around.

We are in the process of discovering the extreme asymmetry between the advancement of biomedical understanding of the coronavirus pandemic versus governments’ willingness to do what is necessary to match this challenge with the most fractal response available.

Fortunately, for those who are willing to learn, this is the first time in human history that we know so much about a pandemic. During the Black Death of the fourteenth century, the biggest cause of death was a basic ignorance of its origin in rat fleas, which led to the burning of poor old women who were described as witches and the scapegoating of Jews. Similarly, when the Spanish flu emerged just a century ago, the influenza virus that felled tens of millions of people could not be identified in time to “flatten the curve”. In contrast, within just two weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, scientists were able to identify the correct virus genome and share it online, enabling the development of tests as well as the search for a vaccine. For laypeople like me, this boiled down to basic preventative information that features diagrams of a funny looking tentacled ball – hardly the face of an existential enemy of humanity.

Although the efficacy of tests is still being improved, and the development of a vaccine may be over a year away, these are still remarkable feats of human understanding only made possible by unprecedented knowledge sharing in a fractal pattern. Human beings are phenomenally creative when they share knowledge and engage distributed decision making. It is within our power to resolve this crisis if we channel resources to public health in particular, and public goods in general, using the kind of fractal distribution that has been made possible by the 2010 Constitution.

This will necessarily include a robust public education system that would cultivate the next generation of healthcare workers and creative thinkers who do not require coercion to respond collectively to any crisis. Education, you will notice, is absent from President Uhuru Kenyatta’s so-called Big 4 Agenda. With less than 10,000 doctors, Kenya is nowhere near the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation of one doctor for every 1,000 people. And of the few doctors that we do have, many are siloed in foreign research entities with narrow mandates, unable to share data that might be useful in the war against coronavirus.

The existence of information silos that are blind to one another is typical of pyramids and is a feature not only of the healthcare system, but of all knowledge creation in both the arts and sciences within Kenya’s neoliberal administration. Silos are perfect for running a police state where a paranoid dictator does not want his left hand knowing what the right hand is doing privately. But well into the 21st century, where both viruses and information spread at an exponential rate, it is hard to imagine a worse way of managing our shared knowledge.

The war of the future

If you had a hundred dollars for every person in the world infected with COVID-19, you would still not have the amount of money that Kenyan taxpayers have lost to corruption during the tenure of the Jubilee administration. Let that sink in. The billions blend into quantum gibberish in the brains of all but the most tenacious economists such as David Ndii.

If the war against coronavirus becomes yet another fundraiser, as early indications suggest, it will be especially demoralising to public health workers risking their lives to serve Kenyans in the midst of chronic underfunding. Kenya is less a poor country than it is a country with poorly allocated wealth. No one knows how much longer the long suffering Kenyan people will accept abuse, but as Chairman Mao once wrote, “A single spark can light a prairie fire”.

If you had a hundred dollars for every person in the world infected with COVID-19, you would still not have the amount of money that Kenyan taxpayers have lost to corruption during the tenure of the Jubilee administration. Let that sink in.

Our precarious economy cannot sustain lockdowns and curfews forever, and we might not have to wait until the next election to discover the elastic limit of the people’s tolerance of impunity. In the words of the Kisii based musician Smallz Lethal, aka Omoisiomobe, following his release from arrest as well as the release of a new song I’m Offended:

Sisi kama mayouth tunasimama as one voice. This time round, hatuendi kuyamaza. Mayouthman wamebonga na wamesema kila mse ako offended, and that is a fact. Si hata mayouth pekee yake. Ni watu in general… Lazima [hawa] wakuwe accountable. We sio superstar. We sio msanii. People are pocketing millions, why are you arresting me? Mimi mnanipatia 1600 shillings after six months kama county. Alafu unakuja kuniarrest unaexpect nitoe wapi pesa za kulipa bond? Ju ni mapesa tu makarao wanataka. Mayouthman wasimame. There’s no other time to do this apart from this time! Now that we are speaking, and now that people are hearing. The voice is louder!

Smallz has thrown down the gauntlet. In the meantime, as a thinking human being and as a creator, I have the same job that I have always had: to create learning tools and experiences for a new generation of fractal thinkers so that they might see beyond the mediocrity that leeches on our potential as a nation. In them, I see a fractal community that fuses critical thinking with the ethical use of technology to build alternative realities.

Our health and our imagination is our greatest resource, not buildings. Even in our darkest hour, we are not without the power to imagine together, and it is the existence of this shared imagination that repudiates the world that they try shamelessly to pull over our open eyes. We, the inheritors of history, are seeing for the first time the clear peak of Mount Kilimanjaro from the windows of a city in lockdown, and beginning to wonder what it would be like to rise to those heights.

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Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition

PAUL GOLDSMITH reviews a selection of vantage points from pandemic literature and attempts to make sense of the partially understood coronavirus and its world-warping spread.

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Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition
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I did a deep read in search of the virus and found out it is us.

Plagues and epidemics of yore were simple affairs, manifestations of evil caused by angry gods, hidden forces, or bad air. Death and survival were karmic outcomes. The pandemics of the information age are considerably more complicated. They kill relatively few but infect millions with angst and paranoia. They spawn feedback across a spectrum bookended by scientific rigour on one side and inventive conspiracy on the other. We are updated in real time with wave after wave of imperfect statistics, breaking science, experiential perspectives, and ideology-driven commentaries.

For much of the world, quarantine time is being spent on social media, watching journalists morph into screeching owls on CNN, and catching up on films and TV series – a format that now appears custom-made for lockdowns. But some of us have also used the time to study the phenomena that are sweeping away the cadences of life as we knew it, and to process its stories and tropes.

Situational analyses and political narratives

Thomas Puelo is a one-man “coronology” resource. He posted an analysis on Medium that almost overnight was translated into 37 languages. His March 19th follow-up, “The Hammer and the Dance”, made the case to immediately enforce total lockdowns (the hammer). This comprehensive call to arms beat all the university departments, institutes, and the World Health Organization (WHO) to the punch: “The world has never had to learn about anything so fast. The hammer is the best response for buying time for the fightback (the dance).”

The curves of the nations most affected created a baseline for three options: 1) do nothing; 2) mitigation; and 3) suppression. His analysis covered detailed projections of infections and fatalities, the prospects for virus mutation, political barriers to hammer implementation, and many related sectoral ramifications. Up to now the hammer and dance in the countries most affected has encompassed variations on these three strategies, influenced to different degrees by the Chinese lockdown of Hubei Province.

Puelo’s projected numbers for infections in the United States under option 1 (do nothing) are 25 million. Implementing option 3 (suppression), after the initial wave, reduces this estimate to tens of thousands. The role of the states complicates the US numbers, but taken as a whole, the million-plus currently recorded infections approximate the rate expected under the option 2 mitigation strategy. Most of the world is on the same pathway with areas of high infection rates under lockdown, with a number of countries edging into dance mode.

In addition to hosting Puelo’s updates and other in-depth posts, Medium is one of the more useful sources of information on the pandemic. Their business model generates an algorithm-driven selection of punchy short reads. Articles like the gazillion-hit “The Hammer and the Dance” are outliers in an eclectic sample dominated by personal development and the gig economy. The elite publications of the English-speaking world are still the primary source of high clout policy pieces and opinion shaping analyses.

The New Yorker’sIts Not Too Late To Go on the Offense Against the Corona Virus” is one example. After reviewing his international civil servant CV, the author, the former World Bank boss, Jim Yong Kim, tells us, in the Bank’s typical take-your-medicine tradition, “I’ve been fighting pandemics for most of my adult life.” I almost stopped reading what turned out to be a compact overview of the five weapons that need to be deployed to defeat the enemy: social distancing; contact tracing; testing; isolation; and treatment. It is a parsimonious argument based on the collective experience of front line coronavirus warriors – all of which are wealthy industrialised nations.

But the experience of recent pandemic responses does not augur well for such glib technocratic solutions in many regions. In “The Politics of Disease Epidemics: a Comparative Analysis of the Sars, Zika, and Ebola Outbreaks”, Lydia Kapiripiri and Alison Ross show why. The authors use four categories to unpack the literature published in peer-reviewed journals: attribution of infectious disease sources; responsibility for their socioeconomic distribution; credibility of evidence informing response pathways; and the decision-making informing research and development. Their findings converge on the observation that “the narratives accompanying these events contrasted power and privilege with the disproportionate impact of the epidemics on the economically disadvantaged”.

Attribution often reduced multiple causal factors to the role of ethnic minority groups, even though socioeconomic distributions for the diseases implicate poor nutrition, cramped unhygienic living conditions, and inadequate health services. During the Ebola crisis, the evidence informing interventions tended to support short-term response horizons, tracing responsibility for the outbreak to bush meat and traditional funereal customs. Here, and in other cases, this diverted attention from long-term issues, such as poor public health infrastructure.

Although poverty is the greatest risk factor in epidemics, decision-making processes instead highlight institutional policy biases prevailing in global centres of power. Kapiripiri and Ross concede that the neoliberal roots of policy biases appear to be too deep to uproot. They state that to re-balance the equation, “It is critical that narratives of those most vulnerable are represented in mainstream narratives.”

During the Ebola crisis, the evidence informing interventions tended to support short-term response horizons, tracing responsibility for the outbreak to bush meat and traditional funereal customs. Here, and in other cases, this diverted attention from long-term issues, such as poor public health infrastructure.

Global coronavirus narratives are flipping these categories. Attribution is now a focal point in the larger info war being waged by China and the United States. The response hammer has benefited from a socioeconomic distribution highlighting the array of high profile and celebrity first wave infections. Evidence and developmental decision-making processes have focused on the shared methods contributing to individual nations’ dance strategies.

This choreography is generating the diverse natural experiments underway across the world. Besides showing different pathways to recovery, before it is over, the dance is going to reveal how variations on political leadership impact on the contrasting national curves. We can also expect it to cut a path through the jungle of viral conspiracies and sweep away some of the ideological myths being propagated in its wake. For now, however, the fightback is proceeding in a world of noise and fuzzy information.

A sense of shared peril checked the forces opposed to the multilateral world order, for a while. The controversy over WHO provided an entry point for the populist insurgency to fight back. By contesting the scientific guidance behind the lockdowns, the antics of American alt-right experts have distinguished themselves from the consensus guiding the vast majority of the world’s population. But this is a sideshow.

In the N+1 journal article, “Chinese Virus, World Market”, Andrew Liu explains how China’s new elites’ pursuit of exotic food displays as a marker of wealth and status created the conditions for the emergence of the corona viruses. Wuhan, a city far from the areas of traditional wildlife consumption, became the epicentre. COVID-19 is the first capitalist-created virus to directly attack capitalism.

The Pandemic is Just Getting Started”, but we are not on new ground. The system-changing function of infectious disease is a well-documented phenomenon, and the latest chapter is being written before our eyes.

Big picture social science

The 1975 publication, Plagues and People, by William H. McNeill marked a major pivot away from the great civilizations and influential actors focus of historical scholarship. McNeill concluded that epidemics will continue to be one of the fundamental determinants of human history. Forget Bill Gates, over five decades ago, McNeill predicted that the next system shock will come from a rapidly mutating form of the influenza virus.

Jared Diamond’s first book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, originated with a simple question in 1972 proffered by a local friend in New Guinea: “Why do you people have most of the cargo and the rest of us do not?” Diamond’s answer came after two decades of research, and was published in 1994. Subtitled A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years, the book underscored how Europeans’ conquest of the world originated with their long history of settled farming. High population densities catalysed a process of agriculture intensification and technological innovation. Generations of close contact with domestic livestock conferred the disease immunity that proved to be a decisive factor when they came into contact with new populations.

Diamond is master storyteller. The popularity of this book made him a popular purveyor of big picture social science. His books are displayed in all the world’s airports; his arguments have burrowed their way into introductory anthropology courses. He brings massive detail to bear on his subject. The “germs” chapter serves up an excellent overview on how the evolutionary dynamics of contagion favoured Eurasia over most of the planet’s other regions.

But there are problems beyond the undiluted environmental determinism highlighted by his critics. Guns, Germs, and Steel conveys a linear, mechanistic version of history. And, as one anthropologist remarked: “So when Europeans ‘succeed’ at colonialism, that was not their doing, nor their fault. When other societies falter, that was their choice to fail.” He who gets the head start wins the power to distribute smallpox-infected blankets.

McNeill disagreed. In a 1997 exchange in the New York Review of Books, he accused Diamond of overlooking the importance of human “cultural autonomy” in determining human development. Diamond replied that the large time-scale of his analysis necessarily smoothed out such factors.

Although this reductionism worked well when demolishing racial and cultural assumptions about the world’s vast developmental differentials, Diamond’s method shares the problems of other single matrix analyses. Small variations in initial conditions that drop out of view in Diamond’s big picture approach underpin the cultural and socioeconomic complexity of contrasting regional trajectories. Despite the weight of factual information, in the chapter on Africa, the book’s focus on linguistics, plants, and agriculture shortchanges distinctive features of the continent’s historical processes.

In “Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History”, Helge Kjekshus works within the same environmental history paradigm Diamond champions, but the research reinforces McNeill’s emphasis on cultural syntheses as one of the primary forces driving historical adaptation. Kjekshus documents in great detail the efficacy of the region’s indigenous knowledge traditions and how inter-ethnic social networks worked well to contain the scourges of Brazilian sand fleas, yaws, tsetse flies, malaria, and dengue fever, and to limit the damage from smallpox and other disease vectors.

Rinderpest, however, proved to be the exception, conforming to Diamond’s “Lethal Gift of Livestock” thesis. The rinderpest epidemic devastating the herds of the Maasai and other warrior pastoralists opened the door for colonial occupation. Monkeys, bats and pangolins are still small-time players compared to the disease-incubating contribution of cows and pigs to human history. But Homo sapiens trump the mammal crowd on the global level of analysis.

The epidemiology in Plagues and People highlighted the constantly evolving relationship between micro-parasites (e.g. bacteria, viruses) and macro-parasites like rats, livestock, and humans. This led McNeill to theorise that humankind itself is a type of disease, a parasite on its host, Earth – and warned that it could self-destruct if humans continue to over-stress their host.

Long the province of science fiction, the cultural industry now generates a constant feed of dystopian futures and zombie apocalypses. The rise of artificial intelligence is the latest source of plots based on McNeill’s hypothesis. In The Matrix, Agent Smith tells Keanu Reeves, “Humans are a virus.” In the current season of Westworld, the “Man” played by Ed Harris declares humanity to be a bacteria consuming the planet.

The epidemiology in Plagues and People highlighted the constantly evolving relationship between micro-parasites (e.g. bacteria, viruses) and macro-parasites like rats, livestock, and humans. This led McNeill to theorise that humankind itself is a type of disease, a parasite on its host, Earth…

The coronavirus pandemic, the latest example of fiction predicting reality, is also reinvigorating real world science linking the environmental costs of unbridled capitalism to the prospects of societal collapse.

Narratives of collapse and anti-climax

Jem Bendell is a professor of sustainable business practices who argues that the time for incremental responses to climate change has passed. He sums this up in a 2018 paper that proved too disturbing for publication in a peer-reviewed journal he once edited. Pandemics are a second order effect of climate change that, among other things, is bringing us into direct contact with the new ecologies we have created for bats and other wildlife species. Such narratives have become both truth and truism.

Disaster is now a common theme in Western culture. The real-life world of new viruses Richard Preston described in Crisis in the Hot Zone is actually more frightening than most of Hollywood’s monetised virus-infected zombies, including the movie version of his book. Fictionalisation is arguably one of the reasons not much has changed despite the very real prospects of ecological cataclysm. COVID-19 is the latest omen.

These second-order emergencies have sustained a curious dualism. Our universities and institutes figure out the problem, develop palliatives, and advocate sensible policies. Our governments lag behind, and citizens resist preventative measures until they are in the crosshairs of the next scourge. Epidemics trigger multinational responses only to revert, as Kapiripiri and Ross concluded, to the standard narrative.

The history of cholera is the classical example of partial response in the presence of full knowledge. Coronavirus is more contagious than cholera. The author of this Guardian long read regretted the fact that the corona story will play out the same way if we allow global health to be funded and governed by the same unredeemed colonial logic.

This is why, as Bendell stated in a recent interview, “Returning to business as usual is a “fantasy. Policy makers and business leaders must recognize that climate change will be even more disruptive than the coronavirus.” But restating these warnings at a time when a more proximate enemy threatens us can have the opposite result in a world inured to disaster inflation.

The negative implications for the long game cues up the third book in Diamond’s trilogy, Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change. Diamond builds his discussion around examples of wars, coups, and military dictatorships; natural disasters, pandemics, and famines do not feature. Plagues, as the historical record shows, disrupt and redirect more than they destroy the societies they attack.

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is both enlightened historiography and great literature. The author provides the earliest written account of a plague and its impact on political events. The war was a response to decades of Athenian dominance, and for the first time Sparta had Athens on the defensive. The Athenians retreat behind the city walls, creating the crowded and unhygienic conditions contributing to the outbreak of a highly contagious disease in 229 BC.

The first wave of the epidemic killed 100,000 Athenians, but it also saved the city. When the Spartans saw the smoke of thousands of funeral pyres, they abandoned their siege and fled. The anomie that followed was yet more unexpected. Thucydides remarked, “The catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.”

Both the wealthy and the nouveau riche elevated by inheriting dead relatives’ property spent recklessly, assuming that death may strike any time. The social value of virtue and reputation plummeted. Non-Athenians were scapegoated and their rights abrogated. The gods did not fare much better; they were demoted. Refugees and the dying camped out at their temples. Athenians accused Apollo, the god of disease and medicine, of siding with the enemy.

The disease returned twice over the next fifteen years. Athens did not collapse, nor did it recover its former influence and glory. But different pandemics create different trajectories.

Both the wealthy and the nouveau riche elevated by inheriting dead relatives’ property spent recklessly, assuming that death may strike any time. The social value of virtue and reputation plummeted.

The Black Death wiped out almost half of Europe at the end of the fourteenth century and continued to wreak havoc across the continent over the next 400 years. The dirge composed by English satirist Thomas Nashe, A Litany in the Time of Plague, conveys the sense of resignation when the plague reappeared in Shakespeare’s London.

“Sing me some doleful ditty to the lute,” he requests the poet, “That may complaine my neere approaching death.” The bard responds:

Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.  

Rich men, trust not wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.

By breaking up the feudal order, the bubonic plague both slowed down and set the stage for European expansion. Around the same time that Nashe was composing his ditty, the diseases Hernando Cortez imported into central Mexico were killing 80 per cent of the population. The Aztec empire disintegrated.

But collapse, as defined by the case studies in Joseph A. Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, is not to be confused with invasions like the one that caused the slow-moving genocide reducing 24 million indigenous Mexicans to 1 million survivors a century after the conquistadores’ arrival. The book traces collapse to the point when solutions for the problems facing a society become too complicated and costly to implement.

Other archeologists studying ancient societies attribute collapse to an abrupt political change, reduction in social complexity, and their knock-on effects throughout society. Biomedical progress minimises the probability of fast-moving epidemics turning into a mass Athenian death sentence or the poet’s toxic darts. Their impact can, however, signal the directionality of processes that either result in transition to a new order or to system-deadening entropy.

Modern plagues have exacerbated global inequality, and so far this one is doing the same. It is collapsing some economic sectors and accelerating change in others. The economic damage is enormous, and based on past experience, the recovery period will be long, with serious ramifications for labour and capital. Surveillance of bodies is on the rise. The Davos elite and Xi Jinping’s cohorts will still hoard most of the cargo.

At the same time, the pandemic’s shock factor should not be underestimated. Historically, jolts like the one we are experiencing open new windows for human agency. There are promising background developments. The Lancet has called for a reformed social contract, and methodologies promoting collective intelligence are gaining ground. The carbon energy endgame is underway; the passing of the post-9/11 forever war is in sight. Women in leadership are showing the way.

Watching how the new corona-capitalism will play out is the most fascinating aspect of the pandemic. Is the coronavirus a tipping point? Will we dance our way to collective adaptation? Can a million burning pyres save the planet?

The novel and the dance

The species is at war with an invisible enemy, and the War on the Rocks experts tell us the best way to prepare for it is to read fiction:

Novels hone powers of observation and insight. They increase mental flexibility and help policymakers anticipate situations. They illuminate other mindsets, cultures, places, and times. The best ones induce a sense of empathy in their readers, and they help render policy approaches more effective and more humane.

This advice marks a radical departure from the gospel of the war on terrorism. Although 9/11 did initiate a new learning cycle, for the most part it centred on a narrow “with us or against us’” assessment of the others’ mindsets, cultures, and places. Policy approaches to the problem ended up midwifing a new generation of Islamist extremists. They created new breeding grounds for the virus. Maybe reading fiction can help us figure out some new moves.

The Plague by Albert Camus does not feature at the top of the 80 titles listed in the Goodreads selection of popular pandemic books. But its understated portrayal of a society suddenly trapped in an atmosphere permeated by dread and the absence of normality has made it the most cited work of fiction in the stream of coronavirus commentaries.

The story, published in 1947 and immediately translated into nine languages, revolves around a cast of everyday characters. The story centres on Doctor Rieux, who copes with the city’s inert bureaucracy while retaining his minimalist but positive view of humanity, the priest who blames the sins of his congregation for the calamity, the smuggler who wants the quarantine to continue, the self-pitying journalist obsessed with escape, the indifferent public officials who go through the motions and the lowly municipal clerk who tries to do what they will not, the Spanish invalid who spends his days counting peas from one bowl into another.

Literature and the domain of myth are the repositories where society’s collective knowledge and experience is stored. Camus scores high in both. He redefined heroism as ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of simple decency. For most of humanity, the moral responsibility of choosing to not be part of the problem is heroic enough. All but one of the city’s misanthropic characters eventually come around to empathising with the public’s suffering.

Watching how the new corona-capitalism will play out is the most fascinating aspect of the pandemic. Is the coronavirus a tipping point? Will we dance our way to collective adaptation? Can a million burning pyres save the planet?

If the “best novels” induce a sense of empathy in their readers, “leading to more humane and effective policies”, it is clear that Kenya’s decision-makers are reading from their own script. The government’s violent implementation and cynical exploitation of low friction policies that are working elsewhere has resulted in empty hospitals and the public’s refusal to be tested. Dauti Kahura’s reportage of a Kenyan doctor thrown out on the street in Wuhan reveals the brutal callousness of both the Chinese and Kenyan governments.

Midway through Camus’s account, the narrator takes stock: “The plague had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny made by the plague and the emotions shared by all.”

This is where we all stand right now. Athenian democrats are waging a defensive battle against Steve Bannon’s Spartans. All the numbers and models and deep insights notwithstanding, we still do not know where the coronavirus will lead us.

When I first read The Plague as a high school student, I understood it as an existential parable set in a small North African city. I was drawn to the story as metaphor of resistance to the Nazi occupation when I picked it up again at a university. By coincidence, I read Le Peste again six weeks before the Wuhan coronavirus story broke, and realised that is a universal allegory that could be set in any city anywhere at any point in time.

I believe if enough ordinary people listen to the right music, the dance will take us to a better place. But the narrator of The Plague, now revealed to be Dr. Riuex, ends on a cautionary note. The quarantine is over, the doctor and Grand, the redeemed municipal clerk, view the people celebrating in the streets. As they watch the townspeople’s dance of deliverance and newborn freedom, Grand remarks: “But they’re just the same as ever, really.”

As crises pass and give way to a new normalcy, amnesia soon sets in. The Nazis are restless, the virus will never go away. Great literature helps us remember, and stay awake.

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