A fortnight ago I collated some thoughts into a Twitter thread. Readers agreed with most of what I was saying except for the statement that ‘Africa has no story to tell.’ I was not surprised that this was a point of disagreement and it is easy to understand why.
Not much time passes before you hear or read that “Africa has a story to tell.” It is everywhere. Even as I write there is a story on the BBC site that screams, “Africa has a story to tell and it’s about time it’s told by Africans.” Some questions are in order.
Who is telling Africa’s story and why aren’t Africans telling their own story? If someone else is telling Africa’s story, does it stay Africa’s story? And so, would it not be reasonable to ask whether or not Africa has a story at all and that the story is not being told precisely because it does not exist? At any rate, where do stories come from?
What I can sign up to is that Africa potentially has a story to tell. But this is much different from saying that Africa has a story to tell. The claims that Africa has a story to tell and another that Africa could have a story to tell must not be conflated.
For one thing, they negate each other. Secondly, and more importantly, treating these claims as though they express the same thing is living dangerously: it minimises a very real problem facing Africans and leads to casual solutions to the problem.
For instance, it is often said that what Africa needs to tell its story is to set aside money to set up “Africa’s CNN.”
It is worth considering why the telling of Africa’s story is always conceived in terms of potential and why this potential never materialises.
It’s a reflection that takes to Patrice Lumumba’s oft-quoted phrase that we parrot without an iota of shame that, “Africa will write its own history, and it will be, to the north and to the south of the Sahara, a history of glory and dignity.” That was more than 50 years ago.
Africa’s story is not being told because story telling is a complex matter. It is as complex as the quest for African unity. Consider these statements from President Paul Kagame’s talk at the Global Business Forum on Africa: “History divided the continent and this prevented Africa to be as prosperous as it should have been” and “Africa cannot just remain a story about huge potential that never materializes. Something has to give.”
Africa is not prosperous. For prosperity to take place, there is an essential prerequisite that must be realised. For Kagame, this prerequisite is integration. Without integration, Africa will not be prosperous.
It is not for lack of want that Africa is not prosperous. It is because the prerequisite of integration has not been given the attention it deserves. Until that happens, Africans will continue to talk about what the continent is capable of becoming. But they won’t be talking about what it is. Big difference.
Africa is not telling its story. For its story to be told, there is an essential prerequisite that must be realised. It is not for lack of want that Africans are not telling their story. It is because the prerequisite of storytelling has not been given the attention it deserves.
Until that happens, Africans will continue to talk about how they are capable of telling their story. But they won’t be talking about its existence.
In his New York Times Best Seller “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, a fellow HU alumnus, echoes this predicament to storytelling.
He recalls a childhood in the rough neighbourhoods of Baltimore where society had him trapped, “We could not get out. The ground we walked was trip-wired. The air we breathed was toxic. The water stunted our growth. We could not get out,” Coates writes, “the air we breathed was toxic.”
Everything had forced onto his people a “proscribed imagination” that circumscribed their ability to “interrogate society.” Life was a prison and the people were demobilised by the inability to reflect on this predicament. And the schools? These were not designed to unlock this imagination: “Why, precisely, was I sitting in this classroom? The question was never answered. I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity,” Coates narrates, “I sensed schools were hiding something.”
Against all odds, Coates escaped that prison. But this was due to the accident of birth. He credits his mother for raising a “curios boy.” She “taught me how to ruthlessly interrogate [society],” he recalls fondly. She taught him how to think and write “as a means of investigation” and he started to seek answers to “the questions that began burning in me.”
This, he writes, became “my earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness.”
What Coates is narrating is a prerequisite to storytelling. A story teller must draw herself into consciousness. This is the story’s midwife. Consciousness births the story. For Coates, a young man’s curiosity is nurtured into consciousness that is manifest in a story of individual triumph side by side with collective despondence where the vast majority of his people find themselves gagged and trapped; a toxic society and education renders them unable to escape their ‘wordlessness.’
Prerequisites matter if individual triumphs are to translate into fulfilling collective aspirations. This is the crux of Kagame’s argument: identify essential prerequisites and marshal the attention they deserve.
If there is no prosperity until the prerequisite of integration is met, there is no African story until its prerequisite is met. Africa cannot just remain a story about the story that never materialises. Something has to give.
It is how to un-trap the wordlessness within. Or, each child would have to be born to Coates’ mother.
The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.