Africa has made progress in more ways than social and economic indicators show. A lot of this has to do with how we think of and look at ourselves. We have, for instance, abandoned certain habits and attitudes that seemed to hold us back. But others linger and we seem unable to shake them off.
Take for example the tendency to lament things and blame others for our inabilities. There was time when these were as African as our dark skin. It hasn’t changed much.
We lamented so many things: the low level of development and poverty, famine and wars, and foreigners’ attitudes to us, and so on.
We blamed all our ills on others, on colonialism, foreign religions and other cultural influences, the weather, and so on.
There is a lot of truth in all this, of course. But lament and blame without end reflects a negative mindset. It is, firstly, a refusal to accept responsibility for one’s life and instead deflecting it on others. Secondly, it is an excuse for inaction and failure. Thirdly, continued whining and crying foul produces a numbing effect. People become immobilised and cannot act even on things that they can actually influence. Finally, blame means that we look elsewhere for answers to our problems, instead of looking within ourselves.
We heard some of this these past few weeks as fellow Africans trying to escape to Europe, continued to die in the desert and high seas, or being sold as slaves in the marketplace.
The plight of these young Africans was blamed on the European and American destruction of Libya. It is, of course, true that the West destroyed the Libyan state and nation, and turned it into a lawless expanse of marauding brigands, terrorists of all stripes and armed militias with constantly shifting loyalties.
But we forget that all those dying young people and those being sold do not originate in Libya. They come from other countries with supposedly functioning states. They brave the harsh conditions because they are escaping from poverty, unemployment or simply because of the lure of a better life in Europe.
Or the blame for such desperate measures is on Europeans who make it difficult for entry into their countries. Again, we forget that they have no obligation to take in everyone who comes to their borders.
But as the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. The sight of young Africans, caged like animals and being traded like them, finally caused sufficient outrage to spur some into action. In some cases, though, it might be more accurate to say it was shame that did it. In others, it is because they were found out for not doing what they are supposed to do for their citizens.
And so Rwanda did what no one else wants to do – offer the migrants a home or means to return home. Other countries decided to provide transport for their citizens to return home.
While we may laud this action, it is still only reacting to a situation that has already developed, rather than a well thought out programme to check the exodus in the first place.
In any event, this is not the first time we have seen horrific images of Africans drowning in the sea and dying in their hundreds trying to get to Europe. It happens many times every year. Yet this did not galvanise African governments into action.
It seems the thing that created sufficient outrage or shame was the notion of slavery, the fact of its existence as both practice and business.
Slavery and trade in slaves is an emotive issue and conjures up images from history of the worst form of human indignity – long lines of terrified people shackled together by heavy chains, being marched to the market or waiting ships. Then being heaped together on ships on the long voyage across the Atlantic, some dying and being thrown overboard for sea creatures to devour. For those lucky to survive the voyage, hard labour and lash awaited.
The slave trade is particularly a horrible period in the history of Africans. It brings out collective shame, hurt, anger, and guilt, and is a scar on our collective conscience and pride.
And so because of this, we have seen some action regarding migrants. Whether it will be sustained and the causes of exodus of Africans from the continent addressed, is another thing.
But if it takes shame and guilt to get African governments out of their collective stupor and afford their citizens some dignity, so be it. Something good might come out of it.
If it is the dignity of their people driving them to act, that’s great. Our leaders are not past redemption and our humanity matters still.
Whatever the motive, it is time to take responsibility to protect our own.