Yesterday, I read an article in The Economist about the dire situation of industrialization in Africa. The said article starts with the desolate landscape of what was once Africa’s most flourishing textile industry in the northern Nigerian city of Kano – now overtaken by rodents.
They are very lucky in Kano that the industrial spaces in the city have been overtaken by rodents and cobwebs. Rats and spiders are good neighbors and they never take more than they naturally need from you. Anywhere in southern Nigeria, such spaces would have been overtaken by 10,000-seater prosperity Pentecostal Christian auditoriums whose Pastors live exclusively and fly the latest private jets on the tithes of the impoverished people who lost their jobs when the manufacturing industries whose spaces they bought and replaced with churches died. Muslims in northern Nigeria seem not to have discovered the joys of building faith on the ashes of economics in Africa.
But I digress. In the said article, after lamenting de-industrialization in Africa and explaining that Asia has taken over the opportunities for industrialization, The Economist singles out Ethiopia as the great news of industrialization coming out of Africa. The magazine cannot find enough praise for Ethiopia. The excitement is palpable.
And that, precisely, is the problem.
I am not a student of industrialization, economics, and all the language and technical jargons that come with that terrain.
I am just a student of culture. Of narrative. Who is telling a story, where that story is coming from – these are crucial elements in how I generate and produce knowledge about Africa. Those who think that Africa will develop essentially because of the GDPs, growth indices, market indicators, and other technical and statistical jargons they carry around in briefcases in the capital cities of Africa often ignore students of narrative and story like me to their own peril. They are the sort of “Africa Development Experts” who will congratulate Ethiopia for what was written about her in The Economist.
Poor me. I begin to think about the narrative. About the story. I tell myself that Ethiopia and her rapid industrialization and development have been pretty much in the news lately. Her new urban rail transit has been widely celebrated. I tell myself that I read an article not too long ago in The Wall Street Journal in which the author had orgasms over the huge constructions going on in Ethiopia. I tell myself that I have read a few optimistic reports from folks at The Brookings Institution that are very positive about Ethiopia. I tell myself that I have encountered the occasional World Bank and IMF report saying very nice things about Ethiopia in recent times.
I am a student of the source of the story. I pay attention to where the story is coming from… It will often lead you to the why of the story…
I tell myself that when you are Africa and your Africa Rising story is coming from The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Brookings, World Bank, and IMF, you are on a sure path to damnation.
I tell myself that these same people gathered to tell this same story about Angola not too long ago. Angola believed the myth and the hype. She never paused to examine the motivation of the storytellers. It got into her head and she began to imagine her black African ass a wealthy donor. So she carried her black ass and began to bail out the destitute white ass of Portugal with loans and bailouts. Her Africa Rising narrative fizzled.
And the storytellers moved to Ghana. There is nothing they did not say about Ghana. They raised Ghana up in the classroom as an example for irresponsible and incorrigible Nigeria. Ogbuefi Barack Obama went to Accra to technically abuse the father and the mother of Nigeria. The story got into Ghana’s head and she began to kick Nigeria around, placing every manner of obstacle on the path of Nigerian businesses in Ghana and erecting an industry of demonization of Nigerians. Soon, her Africa Rising story turned to cold, impotent ash (apologies to Achebe).
And the storytellers moved to Kenya. Even while their ICC was after Kenyatta, they began to blow Kenya’s trumpet. Pretty much the same pattern. They said that all the stars and development indices were in Nairobi. They said that all the market indicators had taken up permanent residence in Mombasa. Today, Kenya’s Africa Rising narrative is in the garbage bin like the rest of them all. Her black African ass is broke and corrupt in and out, her corruption even offending the good sense of Robert Mugabe.
And the storytellers have now only just landed in Ethiopia. Even my favorite culture traveler, Anthony Bourdain of CNN, cannot resist the scramble for the narrative of Ethiopia. I guess Parts Unknown has listened too much to the stories of the storytellers and decided to go and check out Ethiopian cuisine.
What Ethiopia must learn is that the only thing that ever really rises in Africa and stands is whatever the storytellers ignore; and they will ignore it if it grows exclusively out of African agency and is narrated exclusively by Africans to a point where they can no longer ignore it.
Take Nollywood, built from the scratch exclusively and entirely by Nigerians. Nollywood was narrated for a very long time by Nigerians until Africa joined the chorus and the Caribbean echoed the chorus. They ignored Nollywood for as long as they possibly could until she even overtook Bollywood and became the second largest film industry in the world.
Now they are forced to narrate Nollywood because it could one day overtake Hollywood.
Lesson for Ethiopia: whatever they narrate about us collapses.
Lesson for Ethiopia: whatever we narrate about us stands.
As for our friends in South Africa, they have never really been part of Africa Rising. Africa Declining has been more like it – given where they started the journey from in 1994.
Take the impeccable First World infrastructure they inherited from Apartheid.
It was still there, still very First World, when I first visited that country in 1998.
I’ve been able to measure the decline and decay on the occasion of every subsequent visit.
Over the years, it’s like our brothers have taken axes and spears and gone after that infrastructure, determined to hack it to rubble. It is crumbling. It is collapsing. It will take time – because it is solid infrastructure – but they can achieve rubble eventually if they maintain their current pace and determination.
We keep telling them that South Africa’s infrastructure is a referendum on the black man; that they have a duty to break that chain of the African taking over things from the White man in the continent and running everything aground. The South Africans are not listening to anybody
For all the evils of colonialism, the Nigerian inherited solid infrastructure from the colonial master. The Nigerian is even lucky because the founding fathers of his country spent the next ten years improving upon what was inherited from colonialism. Then madness started and Nigeria began an uninterrupted race to the 17th century. Today, in the 21st century, her Governors and Ministers and Senators build and commission open drainage and sewage paths (gutter in Nigeria) and spend money congratulating themselves on the achievement of drainage systems last used in Europe in the 16th century and a people for whom mediocrity is second-nature celebrates them.
ECWA Hospital and my alma mater, Titcombe College, are both located in Egbe, Kogi State, Nigeria. They were both founded by Canadian SIM missionaries. The first three decades of their existence, they were run almost exclusively by White Canadian missionaries.
The last Canadians left in the 1980s and both institutions were taken over by Africans. By the black man.
Today, there is nothing but anguish and gnashing of teeth for those of us old enough to remember what these two institutions were like when they were run by Canadians.
That is where South Africa is inexorably headed with the infrastructure she took over from Apartheid.
These are stories that Ethiopia must pay attention to.
But what do I know?
I am not a development expert wielding market indicators in an Armani briefcase.
I am just a student of stories.
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