I spent this Saturday at a meeting of Dekatur Club in Brooklyn. Founded on the African proverb that, “if lions do not have their own histories, then hunting stories will continue to glorify the hunter,” Dekatur Club was created by Virginie Sommet and co-founded by Yasmina Edwards as a platform for activists, journalists, artists, and others to share their ideas and research. In previous sessions, Dekatur has hosted people including the French journalist, director, and writer Rokhaya Diallo (@RokhayaDiallo) who has written extensively on race in France. This most recent session was dedicated to the theme “Africa Now,” and an exploration of the changes that the continent is undergoing.
Semhar Araia, the of CEO of Semai Consulting and coordinator with three different presidential administrations on African issues, opened the meeting with a focused discussion of the importance of the African diaspora in relations between Africa and other nations. As she puts it, to be a member of the diaspora is to be of African heritage; to be a person who actively cultivates and gains a sense of identity from their connection to Africa, even if they might be a second or third generation immigrant to nations outside of the continent. Rather than treat Africa as a homogenous whole, those interested in African issues (from within or outside of the diaspora) need to focus upon smaller nations or regions within Africa, and maintain a persistent connection in order to both improve the condition of and learn from the people living there.
Araia emphasized the dominant narrative about Africa in the US, as a continent lurching between being in crisis - from war to famine - and on the other side, as a continent in ascendence, as we see with the post-apartheid success story of South Africa and economic growth of Nigeria. Araia’s framing of the discussion sets up an interesting and necessary opportunity for reflection and reassessment of one’s own views on Africa, especially in light of the recent Ebola Crisis. Firstly, Araia’s remarks lead one to be skeptical of sensationalist headlines, such as Newsweek’s cover of a monkey as the potential source of Ebola in the US. Additionally, one need be careful not to conflate the experiences and condition of a handful of nations in Africa with those of all others. As Helen Epstein notes in the NY Review of Books, although Ebola was paraded as an ‘Africa Problem’ in the US, the virus was principally confined to Libera, and, more specifically to the capital Monrovia.
Perhaps more interesting than this was Araia’s caution to American audiences that the way of life in Africa is very different to the life we experience here: it’s slower, and “it’s beautiful,” she said. But, the fast pace of life, and the American desire to act decisively in the face of problems - such as Ebola - can frustrate rather than assist. Foreign charitable groups can crowd out local organizations with better local knowledge, and can shift resources away from those local groups that are best positioned to effect change. This led me to conclude that we should perhaps not conceive of crisis as a series of discrete emergencies that demand action when they emerge, but, instead as a fact of life likely to arise in the future. This will require long term assistance of local groups in order to equip them to both solve these problems as they emerge, and, to diminish the likelihood of them getting out of hand in the first place. So it is that we need long term connections to the continent, and those within the African diaspora are well positioned to initiate, cultivate, and extend exactly these connections.
In a presentation that overlapped with the work of Rokhaya Diallo from several months before, the French novelist and correspondent Jean-Eric Boulin emphasized the need for France to take responsibility for its role in shaping racist views about Africa. There is a certain level of self-satisfaction in French society that, ‘of course, we are not nearly so racist as the Americans,’ but, as Boulin made the case with several startling examples, the legacy of colonialism and ideas of citizenship have worked to create a culture of racism that the nation needs to reconcile itself to. Implicit norms of French superiority to Africans are all too common, as is seen in President Sarkosy’s remarks during his tenure that “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history ... They have never really launched themselves into the future”.
Similarly, there has been an unwillingness to fully assimilate non-white persons and ideas into French culture. On the one hand, Africans have been excluded from the media and culture, as in the remarkable case of the theatre adaptation of Bernard-Marie Koltès’s, Retour au désert. Although Koltès insisted that the Arabic character in the book be played by an authentic Arabic actor, the production studio nonetheless cast a white Frenchman upon Koltès’ death. However, even when - on the other hand - non-white persons are the subject of popular culture, their presentation is all-too-often washed out and two-dimensional. So, although the translation of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 book, Their Eyes Were Watching God was heralded as a landmark in French openness to black and African-American culture and experience, all the majesty and imagery of the title, along with its sense of possibility and wonder was replaced with the desiccated and impoverished title, Une Femme Noire - A Black Woman. In light of Araia’s presentation, one wonders how French citizens in the African diaspora have and will continue to shape French culture, and begin to ‘bend the curve’ in French-African relations.
Finally, the finance, strategy and business model expert Kwame Marfo dedicated his time to correcting false narratives about economic Africa’s situation. As he made abundantly clear, Africa isn’t a poor continent, as numerous nations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo sit on vast natural resource wealth, exceeding tens of trillions of dollars, thereby providing a strong foundation for investment and future economic growth. There is reason to be skeptical about Africa’s prospects if the continent relied upon natural resources alone; as Michael Specter made vividly clear in his recent New Yorker article on the oil-rich African nation of Angola, corruption and the legacy of war can enrich major international companies and a political elite, but leave the rest of the country where it was.
That being said, Marfo’s approach of investing in small and medium enterprises that are otherwise crowded out seems to be a welcome counter-balance to the threat of inequality. By putting money in the hands of mid-level entrepreneurs, Marfo’s funds have seen tremendous returns for projects in economic sectors from agriculture, healthcare, and real estate in numerous different African nations. The panelists shared a concern with corruption and the lack of infrastructure in many nations, and the limits this places upon broadly shared economic growth in society. As an activist for the role of civil society, Araia stressed the need for civic institutions from newpapers to local forums in order to place pressure on potentially corruptible governments so that transparency and accountability can diminish inequality. To be sure, this might have some lasting effect, but we can’t be too sanguine, after all, the US is notable for its robust civil society, transparency, and means of accountability (I have only to look at my local Senator, Bob Menendez, to see that), but inequality is nonetheless greater here than almost anywhere else in the world. This is, of course, no reason not to do what we can (as Voltaire said, “le mieux est l'ennemi du bien”), and Marfo’s investments - along with those from other sources, like sovereign wealth funds - seem to offer a real chance for a better life for many millions of people.
With a population exceeding 1 billion that is projected to double by 2050, there is deep complexity to, and no panacea for Africa’s problems. But true understanding of these problems - as well as the potentially limitless possibility of the continent - only becomes apparent when lions such as Araia, Boulin, and Marfo can contribute to history.