Olumide, I have an MA student at NUI Maynooth, Lucy Ellis, who is doing a project investigating the images of Africans used on the little coin collection boxes distributed by Trocaire during its annual Lenten campaign. I will try to get her to join OAC and contribute to this discussion.
Just one little note... Ireland is no more part of the U.K. than Nigeria is, although both were at one time colonies.
I relate to this thread at so many levels, but first through a filmed speech from TED by Chimamanda Adichie, The danger of a single story. She is a young Nigerian writer of fiction and the talk lasts about 20 minutes. It's brilliant. Maybe someone ought to add it to the common stock of videos on the OAC. She explains how shocked she was as a student in the US to be typecast as the poor needy African. Then how she visited Mexico and found she had herself internalized the same reductionist stories about illegal immigrants. Her message is that people everywhere deserve to be treated in all their complexity and difference, as if they were characters in a novel you would want to read, multiple stories. But the single story is what most people want. It's easier that way.
In my memoir, Africa on my mind, I recall how I was explaining once to a French woman why I thought Africa's future is rather hopeful (I am writing a book about it, call it an exercise in Afro-optimism). Her face hardened as I went on and, in knee-jerk fashion, I said "Of course, much of Africa is a mess". " Yes", she said, "it's a mess!" Sher had never been there, but it was important for her to know absolutely that Africa is a mess. I have come to believe that this is a general attitude in Europe. I am less sure about North America, for reasons that will become clearer.
When I was Director of Cambridge University's African Studies Centre, I was sent on a one day communications training course. This included being schooled in how to give a TV interview. The guy was a Guardian journalist. He said I could pick my topic, he would interview me for 10 minutes and we would review the footage afterwards. I told him my topic was the racist treatment of Africa in the British media. He flared up immediately, "But we are NOT racist! We are all very sympathetic to Africa." I had a hostile interview, but I stuck to my script.
This is, to be brief that, Europe is on the way down, especially the former imperial powers like Britain and France. Asia is taking over, we are old and can't reproduce ourselves, we hate the immigrants who come to work for our pensions. The best we can hope for is to become a museum for tourists. Failed politicians and ageing rock stars like Blair and Bono claim they will redeem Africa, single-handedly tackle its poverty, corruption, AIDS, you name it. The media talk as if Africa were the playground of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, war, famine, plague and death. You never hear about the vitality of the modern arts there, that Nigeria (Nollywood) has just passed Bollywood as the second largest exporter of movies in the world. Or that Angola last year had the highest growth rate in the world (23%).
South Africa is a wonderful, young, dynamic place and I have bought a beach flat there, but, when I tell my European friends, all they claim to know about is crime and violence there. I read a piece in the Guardian recently (the same), by a woman, saying she wouldn't go there for the World Cup because she would probably be raped. About where else could you get away with writing that kind of senseless bullshit in a so-called liberal newspaper?
I have a problem. I want to write about why Europeans are fixated on this single negative story about Africa. I think I know why. Deep down, we all know that the game is up. Having made world society in a form that guaranteed us unearned income, we are now losing our grip on it. I would be willing to make a bet that there will be one major and permanent loser from the current economic crisis, Europe. We know it, but we can't admit it. So we cling to the notion that Africa, at least Africa, is and will always be worse off than us. For 500 years we made world society as a racial hierarchy with whites at the top, browns and yellows in the middle and blacks on the bottom. It matters that blacks keep their place. And to be fair, Africans have not yet done much to make this story untenable. Modern civilization is driven by democracy and science. Until Africans make a serious contribution to both, they will continue to be disparaged by racists.
In the meantime, Africa's arts explosion is impressive, women and young people are straining against the power of old men, the religious revival contains forces for social renewal that Weber would recognize, the post-1945 diaspora is connected to Africa and contributing, East Africa leads the world in commercial, financial and administrative applications of mobile phone technology. My bet is that an African team will win the World Cup, but don't ask me which. 80 years ago, the poorest, most violent place in the world was China and people in the West talked about it as they do about Africa now, while China is today taken to be challenging the US for world leadership. Things change rapidly. But Europeans and some portion of their American brethren cling to a vision of Africa's stagnation that Hegel or Conrad would have been proud of. They are wrong. There is everything still to play for, but it will take some effort from many Africans and their friends.
There is much truth on what you say about Africa that you know from inside except one thing. I don't think Joseph Conrad as a Polish emigre was a racist .I