In May 2000, The Economist carried a cover story, "The Hopeless Continent". It said: “No one can blame Africans for the weather, but most of the continent’s shortcomings owe less to acts of God than to acts of man. These acts are not exclusively African—brutality, despotism and corruption exist everywhere—but African societies, for reasons buried in their cultures, seem especially susceptible to them.”
To blame Africa’s political woes on unfathomable cultural attributes is to me infinitely more offensive than Donald Trump’s rear-end epithet.
The Economist states its mission as that of taking part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” Racist bigotry is to be found even among the pillars of the western liberal establishment.
A decade later, in December 2011, the same journal carried another leader "Africa Rising" with the subtitle, "The Hopeful Continent". What had changed? The clever people at The Economist had noticed that Africa’s economies were growing fast, leading them to project, like many other pundits, that Africa was on the cusp of an East Asia-type economic transformation.
The growth trajectory they were trumpeting had been underway since the mid-90s, that is at least five years before the Hopeless Continent cover story.
The Economist’s faux pas is an outstanding example of the perils of a single narrative that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns about: “I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So the year I turned eight, we got a new houseboy.
"His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn’t finish my dinner, my mother would say, 'Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing'. So I felt enormous pity for Fide’s family. Then one Saturday we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.”
In 1994, Thabo Mbeki captured the spirit of South Africa’s liberation in a famous speech “I am an African”, which launched him as Africa’s post-cold war political visionary. In the following years the spirit evolved into the idea of an African Renaissance. To be sure, the idea of an African Renaissance was first espoused by Cheikh Anta Diop in the 1940s and 50s and is published in a collection of essays Towards the African Renaissance: Essays in Culture and Development, 1946-1960.
The Renaissance was an epoch of European cultural revival dating from the 14th to the 17th century. It is known mostly for artistic and architectural achievements. The iconic figures of the Renaissance include Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and William Shakespeare. The monumental dome of the Florence Cathedral is considered the first renaissance building, and St Peters Basilica its grandest. Virtually all of the Renaissance’s architectural masterpieces are cathedrals and palaces.
The Renaissance was followed by The Enlightenment, also referred to as the Age of Reason. It is dated from around mid-17th century and ending with the French Revolution (1789). Its iconic figures are philosophers and scientists who changed what Europeans thought about man, society and nature. Its emblematic project was a book, The Encyclopedia, subtitled “A reasoned dictionary of the sciences, arts, and crafts” credited to its founding editor French philosopher Denis Diderot. Its mission as stated by Diderot was to change the way people think, to inform themselves and to know things. The Enlightenment did exactly that.
Rene Descartes set the ball rolling by questioning all received knowledge with his Meditations on First Philosophy:
“Meditation I. Of the things which may be brought within the sphere of the doubtful. It is now some years since I detected how many were the false beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had since constructed on this basis; and from that time I was convinced that I must once for all seriously undertake to rid myself of all the opinions which I had formerly accepted, and commence to build anew from the foundation, if I wanted to establish any firm and permanent structure in the sciences.”
In his wake came Voltaire, Hobbes, Locke, Rosseau and Montesquieu with revolutionary political ideas such as secular government, social contract, sovereignty of the people and separation of powers and three revolutions in their wake. Adam Smith bequeathed us the invisible hand and principle of value addition.
Francis Bacon, philosopher, scientist, while not being Attorney General or Lord Chancellor of England postulated that scientific knowledge could be gained by inductive reason and observing nature. In his wake, Robert Hooke, experimenter extraordinaire, invented microscopic research, observed lightwaves, and noted the difference between blood flowing through veins and arteries.
Johannes Kepler extricated the science of astronomy from the alchemy of astrology. Isaac Newton and Wilfred Liebniz independently invented calculus without which we could not do the math to land on the moon. When you flaunt your erudition by referring to human beings as homo sapiens and pot as cannabis you are, wittingly or otherwise, paying homage to Linneaus, the Swedish botanist who devised biological taxonomy.
I find it instructive that Africa’s leadership sought to inspire the continent with the renaissance metaphor rather than enlightenment. It should not surprise then, that much of the continent has squandered the post-cold war window of opportunity on vainglorious projects.
The renaissance metaphor would have been meaningful if it were focused on cultural revival, for surely, cultural subjugation is at the core of Africa’s post colonial underachievement. We see nothing of the sort.
The fastest growing cultural phenomenon is commercial religion. The procurement led Chinese build vainglorious public works stand out for their lack of architectural merit and cultural significance. I would be surprised to hear that some of our crippling debt have strayed into a grand museum to rival Bilbao’s Guggenheim or performance centre to rival the Sydney Opera House. Our edifice obsessed political leaders are philistines.
If we are to be inspired by European history, then surely it is to The Enlightenment that we should look.
For it seems to me that more than motorways and bullet trains, we need to think for ourselves and think deeply. We will need to introspect on the existential questions of being and belonging, beauty and truth and that perennial political question: What is justice?
We will also have to quit begging. If we want to ride bullet trains we ought to know how to build them, or be able to pay for them. In both instances, knowledge of calculus would be helpful.
As long as we live by the begging bowl, we shall be disrespected and insulted.
In the alternative, we just have to grin and bear it. In Gikuyu we say uthuri wa ndonga ndunungaga (the wind of rich benefactors does not foul the air).
David Ndii, an economist, is currently serving on the NASA Technical and Strategy Committee, where he leads the NASA policy team. [email protected] @DavidNdii