( A Keynote lecture delivered at the Black History Month celebration of the African and Caribbean Students Union of St. Paul’s University, Ottawa. February 26, 2016)
This is my third Black History Month event this year. More precisely: the third in which I am having to speak. I’ve attended nearly a dozen others as a cheering member of the audience. One theme seems to stand out this year: an overwhelming awareness of the urgency of owning and telling our stories: our stories as Black people; our stories as Africa people. That was the mandate given to me, for instance, by the African and Caribbean Students Union at McGill University, when I addressed their own Black History Month event a few weeks ago in Montreal.
The sentiment that Black humanity has stories to tell which are either silenced or improperly narrated, or narrated by others more powerful than us and for ends that have little to do with us, has been around since the beginning of modern black imagination and intellectual thought. Many of the African and black radical ideologies of the 20th century were, in a very basic sense, efforts by Black people and Africans to attain what Chinua Achebe calls a “balance of stories”.
No African or Black person needs to be introduced to the concrete consequences of our inability to own and tell our own stories. But not all of us understand that our realities, what shapes and informs our struggles here in the Western world, in the Caribbean, and on the mother continent, Africa, is a function of stories and our ability to open up spaces of agency with stories. I will give you two examples to illustrate what I mean.
I arrived in Canada in the summer of 1998 to start my doctoral program at the University of British Columbia. A handful of us, Africans, had been admitted into various PhD programs across campus that year and we met and bonded as might be expected. My own immediate circle of African friends comprised two other Nigerian men and a Cameroonian lady, who happened to be the only one among us who lived in campus residence. The rest of us rented apartments in town.
I must mention that the Cameroonian lady in question is an Anglophone. Anglophone Cameroonians had been part of Nigeria before colonial mapping and remapping eventually dumped them in Cameroon as one Anglophone minority fish in a massive Francophone sea. In essence, Anglophone Cameroonians still share considerable cultural commonalities with the peoples of Nigeria’s deep south, especially cuisine.
Our Cameroonian colleague was a great cook. Her residential apartment on campus became a regular stop for those of us who were lazy bachelors in the community of African doctoral students. She was constantly treating us to jollof rice, fufu, egusi, ogbono, efo riro, groundnut soup – spiced with all the ingredients of Africa.
Our culinary treats in her apartment lasted only a few weeks before trouble started. Her graduate student residential apartment was a three-bedroom affair with common areas: three students shared a living room, a kitchen, and two bathrooms. She was the only African in that set up. She had two Canadian roommates. One evening, I stopped by her apartment hoping to be treated to fufu and ogbono soup as usual but she offered to microwave a slice of pizza for me instead. You can imagine the disaster!
Then came her shocking story. She had been summoned by University Residence administration because they received complaints from her roommates about the odour and the smell of her constant African cooking. She was advised to somehow tone down the smell of her food or cook in such a way as not to inconvenience her roommates.
“And what did you do”, I asked her.
“What can I do?” She asked in return, demonstrating her African cred, for only Africans answer questions with questions.
I assured her that there was plenty we could do. I assured her that there was plenty we needed to do. I wanted to know, for starters, if her roommates, those whose civilized nostrils had been offended by the foul odour and smell of African food, did any cooking of their own in the shared kitchen. Yes, they did. They cooked pasta. They baked quiche, tartes, and pizza. They made the obligatory poutine. And there was cheese in the fridge.
Armed with this information, we booked an appointment with University Residence. When we got there, I had a few questions for them. I wanted them to explain to me how they arrived at the determination that Canadian cuisine had an aroma while African cuisine had an odour. I wanted them to explain to me how they arrived at a ranking of the smell of food which had Western food smelling really nice and African food oozing stench. I also wanted them to explain to me why they assumed that the African occupant of that apartment was not just as inadapted to the smell of the cooking of her Canadian roommates as they were to hers.
To cut a long story short, my Cameroonian friend earned the right to cook African delicacies again in her apartment because we insisted on telling stories. We recognized the fact that even in the business of gourmandizing, there are power relations and the difference between your food having an aroma or an odour could come down to your ability to tell your story efficiently.
What I want you to take away from this anecdote is the fact that a certain effort is put into telling your story in a certain kind of way. The conclusion that African food has odour and not aroma and the consequent “advice” to tone it down or do something about that odour is a function of a long chain of bureaucratic efforts.
The challenge, therefore, is not in always screaming that we are victims of misrepresentation, of stereotypes, of single stories. The point is: do you understand the fact that misrepresentations and stereotypes are products of effort and energy? Does your effort to tell your own story match the effort that is put into misrepresenting and stereotyping you?
Let us attempt a genealogy of the path to reductionist stereotypes and the considerable efforts involved. I have written elsewhere about a category of Western narrators of Africa I refer to as “the Hilton Hotel Africanist.” This is the journalist or writer or scholar or documentary maker or adventurist or charity worker or development worker or expert or expatriate who arrives in any of the capital cities of the African continent, checks into the Hilton in town, and gets to work.
Getting to work means getting organized so that, eventually, our Africanist will be able to start sending dispatches back to the New York Times or The Globe and Mail or CNN or Washington Post and all that jazz. However, if you have been to the Hilton in any African capital, these hotels are always located in very posh and swanky areas of town. When our Africanist wakes up in the morning and opens his Hilton hotel window, the view of Africa which greets him is malls and skyscrapers and fast-moving luxury cars on glossy roads, telling stories of hypermodernity. The “Africans” he has met thus far in this setting are way beyond his pay grade. They can employ him very easily.
Yet, when he sends his dispatches about Africa back to Europe or America, nothing of this Africa he sees from his Hilton hotel window is present in the report. All that is left is Ebola, AIDS, Boko Haram, Wars and conflict, hunger and malnutrition. All that is left are malnourished and naked children with eczema-ridden skin, mucus-filled noses studying under a tree using wooden slates donated by UNICEF.
How does this happen? It means that from his base in the Hilton hotel, this Africanist organizes expeditions into the Africa he has come to look for, hiring local agents to take him to locations of poverty and despair, completely ignoring the modernity to which he returns in the capital every evening.
In essence, it takes a lot of effort to produce a documentary reducing you to Ebola; it takes a lot of organization to send a dispatch back to New York or London, reducing more than a billion people in fifty-four countries to hunger and malnutrition. It takes exceptional willpower and effort to close your mind and consciousness to all the postmodern gloss you see around you in the neighborhood of your Hilton hotel in Abuja or Nairobi or Johannesburg just because you are fixated on making poverty porn for consumption by Western audiences.
It takes effort and considerable organization and diligence to tell lies about you or distort your story. Once your story is distorted, your world is equally distorted. Does Africa understand that it also takes effort and organization and dedication to tell your own truths? I think somebody in Africa understands this better than we do: China. Many of you here are perhaps already aware of the fact that there is a story called China in Africa. This has been the dominant story out of Africa in nearly a decade. Everybody is talking about China in Africa.
The West has also been doing a lot of talking about China in Africa. And the West has been saying that the sky is falling. All the usual spokespersons of the West have been demonizing China. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton once toured Africa to warn us about the dangers of China.
Of course we know that the West is not sensitizing us to the dangers of dalliance with China because she loves Africa so much. It is the fear of competition and displeasure at being overtaken by China in the scramble for the resources of Africa that is determining the way in which the West is shaping the story of China in Africa.
What did China do? Well somebody in Beijing apparently decided that they were not going to let the West tell their story in Africa. They decided that they would not let the idea of China in Africa be shaped exclusively by CNN, BBC, France 24, The New York Times and Washington Post. They invested heavily in CCTV Africa, China’s answer to the West’s global cable television machine. CCTV Africa is heavily subsidized by China. It is as popular as Al Jazeera in the continent. Yet, the sole ideological function of that television is to enable China tell her own story in Africa.
Moral of this story: the future belongs to those who understand the fact that efforts to reduce you to a story must be matched or overwhelmed by your own efforts to shine as a diversity of stories.
That is the challenge before Black people.
That is the challenge before Africa.
I thank you for your time!