Black Africa

Ten years ago, I left New York on a dark, snow-lashed night and stepped down the next day into the morning glare of Dakar, in Senegal. It was an exciting, expectant time for the newly independent countries of Africa. Since that moment in Dakar, I have spent most of the last decade in Africa. Those ten years did not transform a gullible fool into a mean and narrow cynic, but I feel more critical, more doubtful, more skeptical, more pessimistic than I did in 1962. I still feel sympathetic and understanding. But I have learned that sympathy and understanding are not enough. Africa needs to be looked at with cold hardness as well.

There have been more disappointments than accomplishments in Africa in the ten years. Two events—the Nigerian civil war and the assassination of Tom Mboya—struck like body blows at the sympathies of an outsider. The war was probably the greatest scourge in black Africa since the slave trade, and it was largely self-made. Murder cut down the man who seemed most to represent all that was modern in new Africa, and it was probably done for the glory of tribal chauvinism.

On top of this, the decade has produced a host of other unpleasant events: the bloodshed in the Sudan, the barbaric chaos in the Congo and the rise to power of an Emperor Jones to give it stability, the mass slaughter of the graceful Tutsis in Rwanda and the mass slaughter by the graceful Tutsis in neighboring Burundi, the procession of comic coups, the foolish posturing of weak little countries and weak little men, the interminable rhetoric, the faltering economies, the faltering governments, the faltering leaders.

While there have been achievements—the relative economic health of Kenya is one—independent black Africa is still the poorest, least organized place in the world, with weak central governments and unsophisticated economies in its plethora of little states. In fairness, Africa is at a stage of development where the differences between stability and chaos and between economic health and disaster are narrower than in the more sophisticated countries with stronger institutions. Nevertheless, Africa has slipped below the lines of difference too often.

There are historical arguments that are sometimes made to rationalize what seems like a sorry record. It is sometimes said, for example, that the record of Africa is no different from that of the so-called civilized world, that it is unfair for outsiders to hold Africa to a standard that European civilization has failed to meet. No savagery in Africa in the last decade matches that of the civilized Germans thirty years ago. No political murders in Africa match the senselessness of those in the United States. The only thing that makes Africa seem worse is the white man’s deep, irrational repugnance for and dread of blackness.

A second argument begs for time. It describes Africa as passing through, though at an accelerated rate, the same phases as medieval Europe before the full creation of European nations and nationalism. African leaders have taken on the Herculean task of trying to weld nations out of hostile tribes forced into the same country by the artificial boundaries drawn by indifferent European imperialists. It took the Anglo-Saxons, Jutes, Danes, and Normans centuries to become the English, and the nationalism was forged from much bloodshed, instability, and cruelty. Why, or so the argument goes, expect the Africans to do the job immaculately?


There is a good deal of force in both arguments, but I am uneasy with them. They seem to suppose that Africa is developing in a vacuum, condemned to repeat the ills and evils of white development. Perhaps there will be a repetition. But there certainly is no vacuum. There would be no new Africa today without the outside forces that have swept this continent into turmoil in a hundred years or so.

Yet, if you do not accept these historical arguments, what are you left with? A smug conclusion that Africans are doomed to incompetence, failure, disaster? A cynical feeling that all the attention, aid, and advice now lavished on Africa are worthless, too feeble to halt its incessant rush back to darkness? I do not think so.

I have come to the conclusion that Africa has to be understood by looking at it in a different way. Instead of counting coups and shaking his head, an outsider ought to stand apart and try to sense the intensity of a great historical movement there, for the only constant in Africa is change.

Change is a legacy of the invasion of the whites. For more than a century, the white man has come to Africa, as slave trader, merchant, explorer, missionary, conqueror, administrator, settler, and adviser. Confrontation with the whites has scarred the psychology of Africans, implanting a feeling of inferiority in them. The relationship between white and black in Africa, then and now, has always seemed fixed for me by an engraving in Henry M. Stanley’s century-old book. How I Found Livingstone in Central Africa. It shows an African porter crossing a river with a box on his head. Stanley, in pith helmet, stands on the bank and points a revolver at the terrified black man. “Look out,” Stanley says. “You drop that box—I’ll shoot you.”

Kinder white men than Stanley only substituted paternalism for cruelty. A glance at the writings of Dr. Albert Schweitzer provides an insight into a prevailing white attitude. “The negro is a child,” Schweitzer wrote in 1921, after his first years of work in Africa, “and with children nothing can be done without the use of authority. . . . With regard to the negroes, then, I have coined the formula: ‘I am your brother, it is true, but your elder brother.’ ” It is pointless to latch on to these words as more evidence to debunk Schweitzer. He merely reflected a truth of his times. The white man, in fact, did act, at best, as the elder brother of the black man.

More important, the African, with incredible enthusiasm, accepted the role of younger brother. Whatever the white man did or had—schools, speech, clothes, religion, cars—the black man mimicked or wanted. In Uganda, the “native dress” of the Baganda women today is the floorlength Victorian frock introduced by missionary wives in the nineteenth century. Even the mass anticolonial movements that brought on the rush to independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s came from the adoption of Western democratic ideas learned in the schools of Europe and America.

Of course, the degree of acceptance of white ways varied from tribe to tribe and area to area. The Ibos of Nigeria and the Kikuyus of Kenya, who had societies that awarded status to a man for what he achieved in life and not for what his ancestors did before him, were quick to see that missionary education and the white man’s commerce would give them achievement and status and power. The degree of mimicry also varied with the number of whites who settled near the Africans. The Senegalese of Dakar—a French administrative center and settlement—became far more Western than the Voltans of Ouagadougou—a remote hardship outpost in the French colonial empire. Muslim tribes, who already had succumbed to a foreign culture, felt strong enough to resist the white man and his Christianity. Nomads, who wandered away from the white administrators and settlers, did not feel the white impact as much as the farmers who stood still.

But, despite these variations, a generalization can be made. Africa, unlike Asia, put up little resistance to the onslaught of new ways during colonial days and has put up even less since independence. There probably has been nothing like it since the millions of immigrants rushed into the United States in the late nineteenth century and gave up their culture and language for something new. There are, in fact, striking parallels. Just as immigrants from Jewish or Italian villages once formed village associations for security against the pressures of terrifying change in New York, African immigrants from the rural tribal lands now form tribal associations for security against the terrifying pressures of change in the African towns. An outsider’s excitement about Africa these days probably comes from the wonder of seeing so much change so rapidly so near, and his despair comes from feeling all the failures and bitterness and conflict that have accompanied the change.

Back to which Africa?

Nairobi, the city in which I now live, shows in an exaggerated way what change means. When I first came to Nairobi ten years ago, before Kenya, the white man’s colony, became independent, it seemed like a lovely, cool English city, with Indian shopkeepers and clerks and barbers and cashiers living and working there under English sufferance. The only Africans a visitor really noticed in downtown Nairobi were sullen and cold men on street corners with nothing to do. The Africans, even though they supplied all the unskilled labor, seemed like tattered hangers-on. Nairobi was not their city.

Today, when I walk in downtown Nairobi in the late afternoon after the government offices close, the streets rush and bustle with young Africans in English suits and white shirts and thin conservative ties long out of style in America. Blacks drive their cars through town. Sometimes the cars are outrageously ostentatious for a poor African country. The chic African girls sport miniskirts and Afro wigs. The wigs attract them not because they are African but because they are Western.

All this depresses Africanists who like their Africa pure. The blacks of Nairobi, not long out of their tribal homelands, are imitating the white people around them. They have adopted white dress and manners and values. Just like middle-class Englishmen, they prize a car, a television set, a house, good clothes, and short lines at the post office. They show off their English rather than their Swahili. Nairobi is decried again by Africanists as the new town of black white men.

At times, African politicians and intellectuals try to stop the relentless adoption of white ways. The attempt, in fact, can be so extreme that it turns almost comic. In a search for what he calls “authentic nationalism,” President Joseph Désiré Mobutu of the Congo recently changed the name of his country to Zaire and his own name to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa-za-Banga and ordered all Zaireois to follow his example. More often, African leaders, such as President Idi Amin of Uganda, ban what they look on as undesirable imports from the white Western world —miniskirts, hot pants, and maxis with a V-shaped slit down the front.

The moves are popular, for Africans resent the superior white man whom they are trying to imitate. But they are also futile. They are a little like Mussolini’s attempt to bring back the glory and grandeur of Rome by hanging fasces on his buildings. In fact, the African attempt may be even more futile, for Africa has no ancient Rome to bring back.

Some Africans understand this. The Daily Nation in Nairobi recently carried a letter from Omondi wa Radoli, an African reader annoyed by all the campaigns against miniskirts and hot pants:

Is the mini-skirt African? No, neither are Mercedes cars, lifts, bellbottoms, films and what have you. There are so many things unafrican in our society that we are not justified in raising a hue about the mini only. Weren’t African women wearing a flap of skin at the front and the back long ago? Aren’t minis and hot pants much better, then?

. . . The African must wake up and discard his hypocrisy, and cease to bury his head in the sand and face facts as they stand—that is that African culture is gone. . . .

I suppose that this is depressing. While the developed world is growing disenchanted with modernity and searching for real and older values, Africans are dropping their traditional values in a frenzied scramble for all that seems modern to them. This is a force that no amount of hand-wringing by foreign romantics or culture-seeking by African intellectuals or name-swapping (as by the Congolese) can stop.

The main question now is, how deep and lasting are the changes? It is difficult to answer. Old British settlers in Kenya like to mutter that it will take centuries before the Africans learn to farm in modern ways or fly a jet plane or run a postal service as efficiently as the British do. But this seems like raw prejudice. The American experience has shown that it can take no more than a generation or two to transform a family from one culture to another, provided that there is an intense desire for change.

“Observe and record”

Nevertheless, there is troubling evidence that change in Africa can be misdirected and pointless and sometimes superficial. It is easy, for example, to despair over African education, which is the major agent in modern Africa for implanting Western ways.

A Peace Corps volunteer once told me a story that symbolized for him all his woes in trying to teach African pupils at a secondary school in Cameroon. He introduced a chemistry experiment one day by writing across the blackboard: “Observe and record what happens.” Every pupil dutifully took out his notebook and wrote down: “Observe and record what happens.” African education is in the iron grip of rote.

It is not difficult to understand. African children, perhaps poorly nourished, weakened by worms, begin modern education by trekking from their huts to a strange and foreign school, their frightening gateway to the modern world. In a few years, their teachers, in a foreign language, usually English or French, have attacked them with a terrifying array of unfamiliar facts that have no relation to their world of rural villages. The teacher, for example, may print the word “boat” on the blackboard. But what is this word “boat”? They have never seen a boat or even a picture of one.

To cope with all this, the children scribble the facts into their notebooks and memorize them. There is very little else they can do. Once the facts are noted and memorized, the children have some power over them, though no understanding of them. This power gives the African child security. By the time he enters secondary school, he is a secure and successful rote learner, eager to write down and memorize everything that the teacher puts on the blackboard.

The process continues, even to the university. As a result, African education is producing a host of managers who sit in their government offices and meet every problem with their store of memories. If the problem is new, if memory fails to cope with it, the educated men shuffle it and then tuck it under the bottom of the mounting stack of papers on the desk.

African education does worse than create rote learners. It also produces an elite class alienated from the peasant life that traps most Africans. European education opens up a modern world to schoolboys, and they quickly turn their back on the old world. They are the elite of a backward society, and like most whites they meet in Africa, they intend to command servants, keep their hands free of toil, wear starched white shirts, and read European newspapers.

I once visited a Peace Corps volunteer at an agricultural secondary school in Tanzania and found that he was the only one who worked on the school farm. The students—presumably Tanzania’s future agricultural bureaucrats—had no intention of dirtying their hands with the soil. The economy of Senegal has steadily deteriorated since independence because the country is run by a class of elite bureaucrats who every day spend a few hours in their offices in pleasant, cosmopolitan Dakar, mulling over the fashions and politics of Paris. The uncomfortable, sandy, baking interior of Senegal does not interest them.

All this leads to a great danger. Change may come so swiftly that Africans will find themselves unable to cope with it. Nigeria, for example, is black Africa’s largest state and has its most sophisticated economy. The civil war, however, weakened its most adaptable and modernizing people, the Ibos of Biafra. At the same time, the war and the postwar boom in oil production have created new demands for services, and a more complex apparatus to supply them. Outsiders often feel that the Nigerians are now unable to manage the apparatus. Goods pile up in the port of Lagos and the warehouses of the airport. Visitors find little or no water in the main hotels. Flight reservations fail to find their way to the check-in counters. At times, only bribes can unclog the Nigerian machine. In short, the Nigerians have failed to change enough as managers to cope with the problems caused by the way in which they have changed as consumers.

At the moment, the only healthy control of the rate of change in black Africa probably comes from the continued presence of whites there. In some countries, such as the Ivory Coast, there are more whites now than before independence. It is a neocolonial and ironic situation, which is sure to offend blacks and white liberal ideologues. But it is probably necessary.

There is a good deal wrong with having crowds of white advisers and managers around in Africa. Many still display the attitudes of Stanley and Schweitzer. Many are poor teachers, preferring to manage a problem themselves rather than help a black man learn to do it. They depress the self-confidence of blacks and often make them too dependent on outsiders. Present a difficult problem to a black man in a government office, and he will often send you to the white adviser.

On balance, however, the whites probably help Africa—even if perversely. By standing in the way of African advancement, they force younger Africans to get more experience than younger Africans feel they need for management. By constantly expressing Western values and attitudes, they hold up a standard that guides the change that is going on.

All this is resented by Africans, a natural reaction. It is hard both to imitate and like the man who has the job you want. The situation sometimes arouses so much suspicion that a black man may refuse good advice just because it’s white advice.

It would be straining evidence to claim that the sorry record of independent black Africa—coups, corruption, stagnation, mismanagement, slaughter—was the inevitable result of change. Nothing can excuse the attempt of the Tutsi lords in Burundi this year to wipe out the educated class of Hutus there by killing more than fifty thousand of them. The evidence shows only that change so far has not been very orderly or efficient or peaceful.

But ten years in Africa have taught me that the process of change may be more important in the long run than the disorder and waste that accompany it now