Out Of Africa

Barack Obama has been quite the globe-trotter in his first few short months in office. He has journeyed several times to Europe, once to the Caribbean, touched down in Asia, and recently tip-toed through the minefield of the Middle East.

In July, Obama will make his first visit as president to sub-Saharan Africa. Over two days in Ghana, says press secretary Robert Gibbs, Obama will “highlight[] the critical role that sound governance and civil society play in promoting lasting development.”


I’m not sure I’m comfortable with Gibbs’ choice of words. To these ears they echo eerily an address on Africa delivered by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, in February of 2008, wherein The Decider outlined his vision of an Africa captive to the interests of international capital. Which itself echoed words inscribed by the exiled Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o in his 2006 novel Wizard Of The Crow.

Thiong’o was born 70 years ago into the then-British colony of Kenya. As a young man, during the Mau Mau war for independence, he lived “a drama of contradictions,” as the same British RAF on whose side Kenyans fought in WWII “dropp[ed] bombs on my own brother in the forests of Mount Kenya.” That brother was killed by the RAF; another brother, deaf and mute, was killed “when the British soldiers told him to halt, [and] he didn’t hear.” Thiongo’s mother was imprisoned and tortured, on the grounds that her son had joined the resistance.

In Eurocentric history, the Mau Mau have been portrayed as bloodthirsty savages, tribalist-Communists, near-apes. Only in recent years, in such works as Caroline Elkins’ Imperial Reckoning, has another truth begun to emerge, one involving British “concentration camps, ruled by starvation and torture, and the enclosure of whole villages in barbed-wire prisons.”

“Kenyans know what happened—we’ve been saying it for years,” says Thiong’o. “People thought I was exaggerating, but my work was mild compared to what [Elkins] has unearthed. This was a genocidal war, and there were no overseeing eyes, except a few voices in Britain raising scepticism about what their government was telling them.”

“For a long time,” he says, “I was a lonely voice in literature talking about the torture.

“There was a myth perpetrated about how the British colonialists performed in Kenya, and it was believed. I am very happy that the truth is being discussed now, the truth that some of us have been saying for many years and has been backed by academic research.”

After attending university in Uganda, Thiong’o wrote his first novels, in English, at Leeds University. In the mid-1970s he began writing in his mother tongue, Gikuyu, to better speak to the people of his country. While organizing common folk in a production of a semi-improvised play in Gikuyu, later published in English as I Will Marry When I Want, Thiong’o was arrested by the Kenyan government and imprisoned for a year in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. There he wrote his first novel in Gikuyu (later published in English as Devil on the Cross), inscribing it on toilet paper.

Spotlighted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, Thiong’o was by the authorities grudgingly released, but was removed from his position as an instructor at Nairobi University, and subjected to regular harrassment. In 1982 he exiled himself and his family first to England, and eventually to the United States, where he today teaches at UC Irvine. In 2004 Thiong’o returned to Kenya for the first time in more than 20 years; in Nairobi his apartment was besieged by thieves who beat and tortured Thiong’o, and sexually brutalized his wife. Thiong’o believes the attack was political.

Those who retain the quaint notion that racism is dead in the US might be interested to learn that in 2006 Thiong’o was tossed from a posh San Francisco hotel by an employee convinced that such a man couldn’t possibly be a registered guest there.

chimage.phpThiongo’s most recent novel, Wizard Of The Crow, was published in English in 2006. For a man who has endured so much hardship and sorrow, Thiong’o has here rendered a work that is remarkably generous and even optimistic. Crow concerns the fictional African nation of Aburiria, its dictator, known only as The Ruler, his several fawningly competitive ministers, and their joint project—dubbed “Marching to Heaven”—to construct a new Tower of Babel, so that The Ruler may daily confer with his equal, God. It is meanwhile also a love story, in which the political activist Nyawire (“she of work” in Gikuyu) and the mystic Kamiti (“he of the trees”) are one night thrown together, and then find themselves first pretending to be, and then actually becoming, traditional “witch doctors.” The novel oscillates between an African variant on magical realism (The Ruler becomes pregnant), Heller-like passages of wild and painful absurdity, and gently didactic asides to Thiongo’s countrywo/men about, as examples, the perils of alcohol and unprotected sex. The narrative beat pulses through backward-glancing reminiscences recited by a (seemingly) minor character, as if speaking to people gathered round firelight.

Because Thiong’o, like many sensible Africans, is a Marxist, there are also passages that offer penetrating insights into the economic arrangements of this world—past, present, and future.

And that’s where we arrive, at last, at the rough beast that was George II.

In February 2008, George II—gaze blank and pitiless as the sun—slouched towards the continent of Africa, having decreed that the peoples of Africa must, for the greater good of global capital, be pitchforked into The New World Order. In Africa, so sayeth the beast, “joint venturing with good, capable people is what the future is all about.”

The people who put the words into George II’s mouth admitted, with the text of his African address, that the interests of the people of Africa must be subsumed in those of global capital. Thereby echoing, in Bushspeak, what Thiong’o had so artfully expressed two years earlier in Wizard of the Crow.

Side-by-side comparisons of the words of the wizard, and of the beast, below.

In Thiongo’s novel, there is this public musing of Kamiti’s:

“Why did Africa let Europe cart away millions of Africa’s souls from the continent to the four corners of the wind? How could Europe lord it over a continent ten times its size? Why does needy Africa continue to let its wealth meet the needs of those outside its borders and then follow behind with hands outstretched for a loan of the very wealth it let go? How did we arrive at this, that the best leader is the one who knows how to beg for a share of what he has already given away at the price of a broken tool? Where is the future of Africa?

“I saw this: Around the seventeenth century, Europe impregnated some in Africa with its evil. These pregnancies gave birth to the slave driver of the slave plantation, who mutated into the colonial driver of the colonial plantation, who years later mutated into the neocolonial pilots of the postcolonial plantation. Is he now mutating into a modern driver and pilot of a global plantation?”

Well, yes, says the rough beast George II:

“Th[is] museum is a testament to America’s long connection to Africa. At least that’s how I view it. Africa is the birthplace of humanity, the home of great civilizations, and the source of enduring achievements in culture and art. Africa has also witnessed some of mankind’s most shameful chapters—from the evils of the slave trade to the condescension of colonialism. Even the joy of independence—which arrived with such promise—was undermined by corruption, conflict, and disease. Just a decade ago, much of Africa seemed to be on the brink of collapse, and much of the world seemed content to let it collapse.

“Today, that’s changing. A new generation of African leaders is stepping forward, and turning their continent around. International organizations, and faith-based groups, and the private sector are more engaged than ever . . . . Bush-and-Ghana-President“[W]e are treating African leaders as equal partners, asking them to set clear goals, and expecting them to produce measurable results. For their part, more African leaders are willing to be held to high standards. And together, we’re pioneering a new era in development . . . .

“On my visit to Ghana, I will meet entrepreneurs who are benefiting from new access to U.S. markets. My message to them will be clear, just like it is to the Congress: For the benefit of Africans and for the benefit of Americans alike, we must maintain our commitment to free and fair trade . . . . I appreciate the efforts of Rob Mosbacher and OPIC, recognizing that when you invest in capital—invest capital, you create jobs. Paternalism has got to be a thing of the past. Joint venturing with good, capable people is what the future is all about.”

From Thiongo’s work, here is a portion of a lecture delivered by an American envoy, dispatched to Aburiria to inform The Ruler that it just won’t do, any longer, to harass the foreign press and massacre his own people in the streets:

“We are now embarking on a new mission of forging a global order. That is why I am now visiting all our friends to tell them to move in step with the world. To everything its season, says the preacher. There was a time when slavery was good. It did its work, and when it finished creating capital, it withered and died a natural death. Colonialism was good. It spread industrial culture of shared resources and markets. But to revive colonialism would now be an error. There was a time when the cold war dictated our every calculation in domestic and international relations. It is over. We are in the post-cold war era, and our calculations are affected by the laws and needs of globalization. The history of capital can be summed up in one phrase: in search of freedom. Freedom to expand, and now it has a chance at the entire globe for its theater. It needs a democratic space to move as its own logic demands. So I have been sent to urge you to start thinking about turning your country into a democracy. Who knows? Maybe with your blessings, some of your ministers might even want to form opposition parties.

“Let me make our position clear. We cannot build a global economy under the old politics of the cold war. What we are saying is this: many parties, one aim—a free and stable world where our money can move across borders without barriers erected by the misguided nationalism of the outmoded nation-state. The goal is to free up the resources and energies of the globe.”

From George II:

“Africa is also increasingly vital to our strategic interests. We have seen that conditions on the other side of the world can have a direct impact on our own security. We know that if Africa were to continue on the old path of decline, it would be more likely to produce failed states, foster ideologies of radicalism and spread violence across borders. We also know that if Africa grows in freedom, and prosperity and justice, its people will choose a better course. People who live in societies based on freedom and justice are more likely to reject the false promise of the extremist ideology. Citizens who see a future of opportunity are more likely to build hopeful economies that benefit all the people. Nations that replace disease and despair with healing and hope will help Africa do more than just survive—it will help Africa succeed . . . .

“We[‘ve] created what’s called the Millennium Challenge Account, which offers financial support to the world’s most promising developing nations—nations that fight corruption, nations that govern justly, nations that open up their economies and nations that invest in the health and education of their people.

“[T]he direction of history is clear, so long as the United States does not lose its nerve, and retreat into isolationism and protectionism. The day will come when a region once dismissed as the ‘Dark Continent’ enjoys the light of liberty.”

Finally, in Thiong’o’s work, The Ruler’s chief minister, shortly before he dispatches The Ruler and himself assumes the role of Emperor, unfurls his vision of Aburiria as the first “voluntary corporate colony” of The New World Order:

“The Global Bank and the Global Ministry of Finance are clearly looking to privatize countries, nations, and states. They argue that the modern world was created by private capital. The subcontinent of India, for instance, was owned by the British East India Company, Indonesia by the Dutch East India Company, our neighbors by the British East Africa Company, and the Congo Free State by a one-man corporation. Corporate capital was aided by missionary societies. What private capital did then it can do again: own and reshape the Third World in the image of the West without the slightest blot, blemish, or blotch. NGOs will do what the missionary charities did in the past. The world will no longer be composed of the outmoded twentieth-century divisions of East, West, and a directionless Third. The world will become one corporate globe divided into the incorporating and the incorporated. We should volunteer Aburiria to be the first to be wholly managed by private capital, to become the first voluntary corporate colony, a corpolony, the first in the new global order. With the privatization of Aburiria, and with the NGOs relieving us of social services, the country becomes your real estate. You will be collecting land rent in addition to the commission fee for managing the corpolonial army and police force. The corpolonial powers will reward you as a modern visionary.”

Sez George II:

“But in the long run, the best way to lift lives in Africa is to tear down barriers to investment and trade around the world . . .

“The best way to generate economic growth in Africa is to expand trade and investment. When businesses in Africa can sell their products and services around the globe, they create a culture of self-reliance and opportunity . . . .

“Attracting foreign capital is another key to growth. In recent years, African nations have taken impressive steps to improve their investment climates. According to a World Bank report, 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa recently adopted reforms to make it easier to start a business and to register property. That may sound simple to Americans, but these are important steps to be able to attract capital for investment purposes. When investors look for a promising market, they are increasingly turning to Africa. And in a hopeful sign, private capital flows to sub-Saharan Africa now exceed development assistance.”

That region of sub-Saharan Africa now known as the nation of Ghana was the first place where 15th-Century Europeans arrived to steal first gold, and then people. Centuries later, it obtained independence from its colonial overlords—in this case, the British. The country remains rich in mineral resources, including gold and diamonds, and major oil reserves were discovered offshore in 2007. After Ghana’s non-aligned Marxist and pan-African founder and president, Kwame Nkrumah, was ousted by the military in 1966, the nation was for years wracked by a succession of uniformed coups, but it is now seen, at least in the West, as a “model” for political and economic reform. By this it is meant that it is friendly to the interests of international capital.

The Ghanaian government certainly has its priorities in order, Western-style. There to the left 579735-Typical-village-scene-northern-Ghana-3one may see the sort of homes typically present in villages situated in the north of the country. Down below and to the right one may view the $50-million-plus presidential palace. During a November 2008 ceremony before hundreds of assorted  guests, dignitaries, and potentates, Ghanaian President John Kufor—aka, The Ruler—defended the opulent edifice on the grounds that people look to the seat of government for “national cohesion, aspirations, and inspiration”.

“Even in a hamlet everybody knows the chief’s house, accra-thumb-510x385 which is the first port of call for all visitors,” he said.

His information minister told Ghanaians that they should should not worry about the cost, but rather think of the value the new palace brings.

What this means, I am not sure. But I guess it sounds good.

Thiong’o is right: today, as always, or at least since that day when profit-seeking white folk first stumbled upon the continent, more is expropriated from Africa, than is in any way fairly returned. As Martin Luther King expressed it, not all the money yet printed in the West is sufficient to reparate the injuries the West has visited upon Africa. What is needed now is not some new way—this time under the guise of “globalization”—of raiding Africa anew. The people of Africa should be treated as the poet Kenneth Patchen knew all people should be treated:

A man has two legs. He’ll build a house—from cellar to rooftop, with his own hands. He’ll put seeds in the ground. He’ll watch the sun and the rain at work. He’ll take a woman to bed. He’ll find enough tenderness and love to get him through the day. You’d think that man deserved a little something. You’d think that man was worthy of a jot or two of sympathy and consideration. You’d think that maybe someone would say, Let’s just let him alone for a while, and see what he can do.


This house. Do you see this house? 
It is a house where human beings live. 
They deserve more than bloody kicks in the ass. 
There is a strange dignity about them. 
They are looking at you as I talk. 
I want you to leave them alone.


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When I Worked

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