Greek mythology has it that Sisyphus, once the king of Ephyra (Corinth), was condemned by the gods to roll a big chunk of stone up a steep hill. Whenever he reached up the top, the stone tumbled back. And he began all over again, day in, day out. Albert Camus tells us to imagine Sisyphus happy. In certain contexts, I can do so. In most cases though, I find it difficult to believe that rolling a boulder up a steep hill with the knowledge that it will tumble back down would ever satisfy a rational mind.
I think that this is exactly what the African elite do in their God-given task of defending Africa against the Western media, who, is it said, are to the African social and moral malaise what vultures are to carcasses along the Serengeti. The average African intellectual is in a bind; they stand between the unacceptable social conditions in their homeland and the need to fight the West for its exclusive interest in those conditions.
It is with a measured anguish that I watched Chimamanda Adichie’s extraordinarily beautiful speech, The danger of a single story, in defence of the African image. I couldn’t help but think of Chinua Achebe’s dogged defence of the same, a project that has shaped the more than 50 years of his intellectual life. There is little doubt that Achebe and others such as Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have demonstrated that the African has his story. Thus, decades after their efforts to redress the battered image of the African, there are reasons to believe that we have moved beyond the world shaped by the 19th century ideas of the African. If the European thinkers of said time – or even Joseph Conrad in Achebe’s thinking – saw the African as bereft of rationality and therefore incapable of helping himself, the African elite of today have, without doubts, got all it takes to turn Africa’s fortunes around. Yet I cannot easily shake off the nagging suspicion that they might, indeed, be on the wrong trajectory toward that goal.
I was five years old when the Nigerian civil war broke out. By the time it ended, three and half years later, I had already seen more of the ugly side of humanity, experienced more pains than most people would ever imagine in their lifetime. My impulses to dream have been tempered by the shocking realisation, during the war, that I could die any minute without my people halting their breath even for a second. This pessimism has been hardened not only by the steady deterioration of life in Nigeria, but also by wars and instances of human rights abuses in many parts of Africa. I have seen death; I have not seen much of the brighter side of life in Nigeria to suggest that the civil war has indeed ended.
Not that I have no good personal story to tell. Quite the contrary, my life is one single example of humanity’s capacity to love and to withstand adversities. Having survived malnutrition and its attendant diseases during the civil war, thanks to the extraordinary intervention of world relief agencies such as Irish Concern, and helped by Catholic institutions that granted me a free scholarship in various stages of my academic career, I have attained the highest degree possible in my chosen academic discipline. To me, life is a miracle.
I survived, I thrive. But many, alas, too many Nigerian children of my age weren’t as lucky as I am. Millions and millions more, born years after the war, have become victims of the gross misrule that has characterised Nigerian governments since independence. Most were as talented as I am. Some even more. Some would never be able to feed their families.
Perhaps, I shouldn’t write about Africa in ways condemned by the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina in ‘How to write about Africa’. I shouldn’t write that Africa has been left to crumble by African leaders, or that far too many Africans lose their lives to senseless acts of brutality. I would indeed love to sing in praise of Mama Africa.
Perhaps it was the naïve part of me that forced me to tears when I visited Nigeria in July 2009 and learnt that Nigerian national universities have been on strike since April? The strike continued till early October. Being as realistic, or perhaps just dubious, as I have been conditioned to be, I did not travel to Nigeria with my laptop. I knew there wasn’t going to be constant electric supply. Sure enough, the four days I spent with my brother and his family in Lagos confirmed my realism. Like many sincere, hardworking Nigerians, not ready to succumb to Nigeria’s darkness, my brother had an electric generator. So did his neighbours in the other three flats of the house. For the greater part of the night, these four generators huffed and puffed in dutiful service to their owners. To hear one another, we had to almost shout because the generator was on the veranda. I had difficulty breathing because of the smoke that got into the flat. And when I woke up in the middle of the night to ease myself – the generator was turned off at 12 – I had to feel my way to the bathroom with the help of the faint light of my cheap Nokia cell phone.
Over the next weeks I spent with my mother in the village I was literally cut off from the world. I had to manage the time I spent on my cell phone not out of fear of running out of my prepaid credit, but of my battering running down. In that case I had to go to Enugu (30 kilometres away) to recharge it – if indeed Enugu had an electric supply at the time. Is it this bad in Nigeria, the one-time self-proclaimed giant of Africa? I don’t even want to talk about the Nigerian roads, or water supply, or public health. They are all in appalling condition, yet the Nigerian minister of information thought it necessary to re-brand the country.
I am afraid I am making the mistake of telling a single story – of the failure of my beloved country. Given that I came from a very poor background, and given that my family hasn’t yet escaped poverty, there is the likelihood that I see African reality from a largely negative perspective. In respect to this fact, I need to state right away that my story is not representative of the experiences of all Nigerians. Thank God, it is not. There are well-situated Nigerians out there, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently stated in her speech. But while it is true that not all Africans live in abject poverty and ignorance and disease, the more troubling issue, however, is that many do, far too many. And there is no excuse for that.
My thinking is that if at least 50 per cent of Africans could boast of average education and basic infrastructure like a constant electric and water supply, good roads and security, our intellectuals wouldn’t occupy themselves with the European gaze. But since many Africans are still wallowing in poverty, their rights denied them, one is left to wonder whether it is more important to explain and re-brand Africa than to change it? Could it be possible to examine why African leaders have no respect for their own people?
It is perhaps one of the ironies of Africa that hardly a year after Binyavanga Wainaina published his well-regarded essay, Kenya was roiled by political violence in the wake of the 2007 elections. What the world saw in the wake of that crisis hinted that perhaps the intellectual leaders of that country might have failed to write about their country in ways that would have exposed the evil that had been festering all the while. Many concerned Africans are still trying to figure out how it could be possible that a 46-year-old soldier, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, would hold Guinea – a country of more than 10 million people – hostage. To be sure, on 28 September 2009, security forces turned on demonstrators who had gathered in the national stadium in the capital, Conakry, to demonstrate against the government. More than 200 people were shot dead instantly. Many women were raped in the open by soldiers. Perhaps the silver lining in that outbreak of violence is that most of the reporting was done by the locals who captured scenes of violence on their cell-phones. Thus in capturing scenes of violence and in wanting these scenes exposed to the world, they took a stance against the forces of darkness. They didn’t think of what it would mean to the image of Africa; they were prompted by a feeling of decency and the need to save what is human in them.
In J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Age of Iron’, Mrs Curren, a white South African professor of classics, had lived a sheltered existence much of her life. Her life begins to unravel however when she is diagnosed with cancer. Coming home from her doctor, she finds that a homeless man has chosen her compound for camping. By the grace of a string of incidents, her black house help, Florence, takes her to Guguletu, a black township, where she experiences first-hand the horrors of apartheid and police brutality. Her life, or what remains of it, would change. In one of her many epiphanies, she asks herself a morally relevant question: ‘And I? Where is my heart in all of this?’
I see no reason why the tide of bad news in Nigeria can not be stopped. Perhaps all it takes is a change of heart that begins with a radical rejection of the thought that the West is only interested in grubbing in the African compost. If Chinua Achebe’s attack of Joseph Conrad and co. was timely 50 years ago, doing the same in this new century, I think, is a bit counterproductive to the African mind.
Yet I share Camus’s idea that we should imagine Sisyphus happy with his task. Sisyphus could be happy if he knew he was pushing the right stone; if he knew that reality was absurd and the only thing in the face of absurdity was to confront it. Yes, confront it with the grits of the Yoruba god, Ogun, whose uncompromising moral stance and promethean instinct of rebellion, according to Wole Soyinka’s Ogun released man from a destructive despair.