I have recently been to what used to be called Rhodesia, the present-day countries of Zambia (North Rhodesia) and Zimbabwe (South Rhodesia).
These two countries were named after Cecil John Rhodes, a British businessman and politician in Southern Africa. Later in his life, he served as prime minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896.
For the purpose of this blog post, I will restrict my comments mostly to what I saw in two small towns, Livingstone in Zambia and Victoria in Zimbabwe.
Tourist activities and the branding of these neat small towns are centred on the Victoria Falls and David Livingstone, who “discovered” the falls.
Rhodes is more immortalised in South Africa with Rhodes University, the recently removed statue at the University of Cape Town and the UK-based Rhodes Scholarships.
Although Zambians exalted Dr Livingstone by naming the town of Livingstone after him, Zimbabweans dignified him with a giant statue overlooking the Victoria Falls.
Tour guides have been coached to recite Dr Livingstone’s British government-funded expedition of the Zambezi River.
They say he was the first person to measure the depth of the gorge into which the mighty Zambezi pours its massive waters. He found the depth to be 95 metres on average, and 110 metres in the middle.
“Has anyone ever tried to validate Dr Livingstone’s findings?” I interjected. “Oh no. Why?” our guide exclaimed. “Just to know if the measurements he used then were precise. Dr Livingstone was known to have led a fairly contradictory life,” I added.
The guide was lost for words. Whilst Dr Livingstone was known to be an anti-slavery crusader, he was also known to be an ardent advocate of exploitative commercial and colonial expansion.
This Protestant missionary idealist was also an inspiration to many as a working class rags-to-riches Scotsman, who later became an imperial reformer. He named the falls for Queen Victoria.
Since the 19th century, this love story of British imperial expansionists has remained the same with Zambians and Zimbabweans. They retained Livingstone and Victoria, respectively.
While the town of Livingstone might rightfully claim the name because it was founded by events following the arrival of Dr Livingstone, the falls had an African name that was brutally elided by the new name. They were called Moshi o tunya, or “the smoke that thunders.”
WEAK AND SICKLY
Africa’s failure to develop a local narrative around this massive historical site means nothing will change for the next several centuries to come. We may never know any of the African stories that existed prior to 19th century imperial expeditions.
Therefore, the changing of North Rhodesia and South Rhodesia to Zambia and Zimbabwe may effectively be superficial if these two countries refuse to tell their stories.
Nevertheless, all is not lost. My proposal is that Africa use the bravery of young European explorers as an inspiration to Africans, and perhaps challenge the continent to allow the free, unconditional movement of people. I do not see Africans exploiting abundant glaring opportunities if they remain locked into imperial boundaries.
Take for example, Cecil Rhodes. In spite of his belief in British imperialism, his story is an inspiration. Weak and sickly in his British homeland, Rhodes’ parents sent him to South Africa at the age of 17 in the hope that the African climate would be favourable to his health.
Soon after, he joined the diamond trade and by age 35, he had formed his company, De Beers, a giant mining conglomerate that has dominated the diamond trade into the 21st century. He later became prime minister of the Cape Colony before his death at age 48.
A WASTED LOT
He had a vision of connecting Africa from the Cape Colony to Egypt. In less than 50 years he had made an impact that will live for centuries to come.
In contrast, several young Zimbabweans are trapped in their homeland, waiting to sing for visitors coming to Victoria Falls. Theirs is a game of chance. If there are no philanthropic tourists they go home hungry, for they have no control of their destiny.
They cannot plan or predict their income. They are virtually a wasted lot in their prime when they, like Cecil, should be exploring what Africa can offer.
They are not alone. Across Africa, we have wasted our creativity, expending it on the whims of unpredictable patrons. Many emerging dance groups have no clue about the relevance of costume in the African tradition.
Back to Victoria. Our hosts’ dancing routines make them handsome. The warrior-like regalia reveals much of their torsos, flat stomachs with the much coveted six-pack abs.
Their bare feet with scaly heels betray the fact that they have been doing the skit for some time and it may not be economically worthwhile.
They cannot cross over to neighbouring Zambia without travel documents, and if they did cross, they wouldn’t be able to perform there because they are “foreigners” in the land of their ancestors.
GLOBAL DANCE TROUPE
In the 19th century, Rhodes could move freely in Southern Africa but in the 21st century, governments curtail free movement of Africans. Yet they meet as the African Union (AU) to scare one another using the scarecrow of neo-colonialism.
Here again, we have failed to create value out of our own creative art. In my considered opinion, the governments here could spend a portion of the tourist revenue to build theatres, and some to further develop these jua kali dancers into a global dance troupe.
At the very least, these young men should be supported to travel across Africa and share their creative work. Perhaps they can start with organised local competitions culminating in street carnivals as a wider strategy to attract more tourists.
This can become an Africa-wide event, just like soccer or athletics, capable of raising significant funding to economically sustain the artistes. Carnivals are serious business, especially in Brazil.
Over a million people attended last year’s event despite the challenges posed by the Zika virus. The annual carnival injects up to $764 million (Sh78.6 billion) into the economy of Rio de Janeiro.
MISSING THE PLOT
Though Africa has many street artistes and many talented high school kids who perform at school festivals, no country has ever attempted to put together an organised event to help the plight of artistes, many of whom die poor.
There is value in recording what is happening with artistes in Africa today, either in their present crude dancing routines or in organised form.
In the 1980s, the Nigerian film industry was just beginning, with crude films. Scripts were poorly developed, often missing the plot. But Nigeria has gone through a learning curve and now dominates the film industry in Africa.
They have no problem of local content as many other countries that rely on foreign content do. Technology, too, is exerting pressure to watch foreign content. In the past six months alone, multiple television platforms have been introduced in Kenya.
Unless we begin to tell our local stories, some of our cultural heritage will be decimated by those cultures that dominate the screens. In Kenya, we urgently need to build theatres across the country and promote development of local content.
Technology has made it possible to record many of our creative works and post them on public platforms. At some point, such content can help piece together the necessary information to develop feature films.
We lost much of the African narrative in the past, but technology makes it possible to create, share and store our knowledge.
Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip and author, once said, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
Let’s record our view of the world without fear of making mistakes. Some of us are great artistes who will one day develop art sustainably for future generations.
The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito