Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama eats chief: Why we didn’t see him cooking



Here is one of my favorite African Political analysts Charles Onyango Obbo writing about Obama's victory and the African attitude towards anything Western. Very thought provoking but as usual spot on. I cannot get enough of this guy.


Last night, Barack Obama was sworn in as the first African-American president. For many Africans, there was the additional significance that his father was Kenyan, and therefore he is one of our own. In fact, if you climbed the tallest tree in my village in Tororo, across in Kenya you can see Kogelo, where Obama’s father is buried (at least you can if you let your imagination fly).

There is probably no American president of whom so much has been written during the campaigns, and the nearly three months he waited to be sworn in.
The Obama story, though, will never be “finished”. To some of us, there is something small and important about seeing Obama sworn in.

Since before independence, most Africans have been prisoners of a protest, anti-colonial, anti-imperialistic, and ultimately anti-white culture.
A lot of “great literature” in Africa had common themes; a heroic Okonkwo-type character in Things Fall Apart fighting against evil colonialists, and either winning against all odds, or being ultimately defeated by the might of the “white man” but going down in a blaze of glory.

This existed along with caricatures of black people “trying to be white” and, sometimes, being more white than white. Good satire, but not deep exploration.
Studies of politics were also divided along these lines. There were various radical, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist schools. They were ranged against others that didn’t place emphasis on the role of colonialism and imperialism, speaking of universal values and so forth. The radicals denounced this school as “apologist” and “racist collaborators”.

Then, a third trend we saw in literature, art, political science, and religious studies was one that went to the other extreme, and extolled Africa and its old ways as the best. Ancient African society was portrayed as heaven on Earth.
All Greek and other European knowledge and art was, this school held, stolen from Africa ages ago by white people who claimed it to be theirs. One of my favourites was Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi who, some years ago, claimed that William Shakespeare was a north African Arab writer called Sheikh Sepia and the mzungus just stole his works.

The caricature of Africans who are more English than the English was not fanciful. Confronted by the many problems and failures of Africa, quite a few Africans escaped by refusing to be associated with all things black. A variant of this are the Africans who never see anything beautiful and hopeful about Africa. Their strategy is that by being so scathing of Africa, it lifts them into a special class of people who are very enlightened because they are not afraid to criticise their continent and its miseries, and therefore makes them blameless for its failures.

We need this honesty, but it can be shallow because it’s often just showmanship and barren because it doesn’t bring any new solutions to the table. And, yes, there is an honoured place for grievance and protest literature and scholarship, but when it becomes the only reality it impoverishes the intellect. African libraries and scholarly collections are full of this angry material, and the vicious exchanges between the pro-African, the extreme traditionalists, denunciations of the “white system”, and other railings against imperialist injustices.

The result is that we have very little quiet-toned reflective writing that examines the African story in any sophisticated way. This tradition of angry and fighting scholarship so deformed the African intellectual space that even when it moved away to other subjects, the mindset remained. So most African female writers will have a strong matriarch battling evil men, or a heroine overcoming rape by, including sometimes, her father and other relatives, to be a phenomenally successful woman.

An African woman who is raised by regular parents, sings in the Sunday choir, passes her exams with flying colours without sleeping with the teacher, and gets her job without being exploited for sex by the employer, and finds success is almost non-existent in African literature. If you didn’t know better, you would think that there are no African women who haven’t been raped (though rape is a scourge on our continent), or abused by cruel stepmothers and fathers.

We have paid a high price for this. Because everything was war and argumentative, and if you didn’t take a position on colonialism, imperialism, African tradition, or the “good” side of colonialism, you became an intellectual orphan (shunned by both the left and right), we have spent very little time thinking of alternative ways of dealing creatively with our various problems and relationship with the rest of the world.

Whatever explanation one might have for why Obama won, in the end it looked simple really. The mountain of evil white people whom we all believed would never let a person of colour become American president, turned out to be only an anthill.

Obama taught us that we can choose to spend the rest of our lives standing outside the stadium throwing stones in; or we can enter the game and win. It is an embarrassingly old-fashioned moral about life.

cobbo@nation.co.ke