Africa on my mind
I’ve got Africa on my mind. Not an old sweet song, more a beat: ta-ta ti-ti ta-ti-ta. I hear it everywhere and it takes me back to those times I spent in Atinga’s gin-bar, tapping out the rhythm on a bottle while the guy sang to a one-string guitar.
I want to tell you a story. It’s about Africa and me. About the world too, I suppose. There are many stories, but this is one you haven’t heard before. Most of them are variations on the Heart of Darkness. Mine is about the coming of The Light. Yes, it’s a Christian story in part and also about the freedom that comes with Enlightenment. It’s about Africa’s coming liberal revolution. Or it could be a neo-liberal story, about a revolution from above, a second imperialism.
You might be an African, in which case you are unlikely to see Africa through the cracked mirror of race, ‘through a glass, darkly’, as St. Paul put it. But there is no guarantee that you know any history, so there may be something in this for you. You might be Asian, looking across at the ruins of Atlantic society and wondering what could be in Africa for you. But more likely, you are American or European and the moral of this story is meant mainly for you.
Not that I want you to feel guilt for collective crimes against the African people. It’s too late for that. No, I want you to wake up from a bad dream, in which Africa distracts you from confronting your own failures. The West is losing its grip on the world it made and there will be a time soon when Africans will feel sorry for you. Actually, they already do, but this time it will be for your decadence and not just for your lack of cool.
At some level, we know the game is up, that the world will not grant westerners a living we don’t earn for much longer. So we pump up the volume of the distraction. We are so superior that we have to put up fences to keep them out. Things are so dire there, they would be lost without our pitiful charity. In any case, they are dying out — from AIDS, famine, war and poverty. Africa is the battle ground of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The news confirms it every day. Thank God we are not them.
A woman asked me to tell her about my book. I said I hoped to show the economic and moral dynamism of young Africans, the life of the new cities, the explosion of the modern arts. Her face turned hard and I knew I was losing her, so I added “Of course, the place is a mess in many ways” and she leapt in with “Yes, it’s a mess!” She hadn’t been to Africa, but she didn’t want to hear any other story than the one she knew.
I read a book called Négrologie (a pun on the French word for the obituaries section). Its subtitle was ‘why Africa is dying’. It was a best-seller and well-regarded in France – the author, Stephen Smith, writes for the best newspapers there. Then another book came out this year, Négrophobie, accusing him of reviving the worst kind of colonial propaganda, even of disguising French complicity in genocide.
My first thought was that Europe is dying, not Africa. We can barely reproduce ourselves and need to recruit millions of workers from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe just to pay for our pensions. But the media promote their looking-glass vision of the world.
Africa’s population, despite higher death rates recently, is still growing much faster than anywhere else at 2.5% a year, doubling every three decades. In 1950 Greater Europe had twice the population of Africa; now it’s close to the other way round. An area one-seventh of the earth’s land mass has just reached the same share of the world’s population — 0.9 billion people, creeping up on India and China. Not long ago population growth was a threat to the world’s resources; and now Africa is dying?
Sven Lindqvist has written an engaging book on an appalling theme, the history of western genocide. Its title, Exterminate All the Brutes, is taken from Kurtz’s message in Conrad’s novel. A mostly unconscious wish to rid the planet of all the others still runs very deep. It goes with a refusal to face up to past crimes. This year the French parliament passed a law celebrating the positive contribution of French colonialism to North Africa. The usual lobbies protested (including my own association), but the law went through.
My examples come from France because it’s my home these days. There will be plenty about perfide Albion in time. I hold no brief for my country’s imperial past. I almost choked when Gordon Brown said that the British empire brought truth, honesty and justice to the world.
The French have not been called to account for their part in the Holocaust under Vichy nor for their genocidal war in Algeria. And their post-colonial shenanigans in Africa beggar belief. Stories about President Mitterand’s slush fund, courtesy of Elf Aquitaine’s oilfields in Gabon, and the bribes paid for African commercial monopolies are just the tip of the iceberg. Giscard d’Estaing referred to the ‘Emperor’ Bokassa as his ‘good friend’: they went on hunting trips together. The Togolese army not long ago was shooting civilians in the streets to save another dictator propped up by the French.
The Ivory Coast, once the jewel of West Africa, is falling apart. The Grand Old Man, Félix Houphouet-Boigny, archetype of the assimilated Francophone ruler, built a palace in the middle of nowhere and the largest cathedral after St. Peters. Naipaul wrote it all up in The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukrou.
When they left, the French repartitioned their West African provinces to include a chunk of Haute Volta (now Bourkina Faso) in the Ivory Coast, so that the forest plantations would have a national labour reserve in the North. Now the latter wants to secede and the civil war has drawn in the French army, acting in the name of ‘the international community’. The Abidjan government has played the race card against the French. After the horrors of Liberia and Sierra Leone, a domino theory of post-colonial West African states?
A recent editorial meeting of a Paris-based magazine about Africa was attended by a former French ambassador to the Ivory Coast. He began to talk about Africans in a derogatory way – they were lazy, incompetent and so on. One Ivorian journalist told him to shut up. “We didn’t gain our independence to have to listen to people like you.” The next day that journalist was sacked after twenty years in the job.
It’s becoming easier to be openly racist these days, certainly than when I grew up. This shift is not reported in the media. Instead we get straight accounts of posturing politicians and ageing rock stars ‘helping’ Africa, while economic power leaks inexorably eastwards. The Iraq war is a more concrete example of this revival of the imperial state and the general crackdown on security after 9-11 is another. This issue won’t go away.
Everyday racism is probably much as it always was. We have a child-minder from Togo, a middle-class woman who worked as a civil servant and her family owns pineapple plantations. She followed her French husband to Paris for the sake of her two daughters’ education. But she wanted something to do, now they are grown. She says she wouldn’t have come, if she had known what the racism is like here, being called a “dirty negress” by old ladies in supermarkets. The rest of us take it for granted that black people will be harassed, as we try to avoid being stuck behind one at passport control.
Africa on my mind. I don’t know when or how it first got there. My father was keen on romantic African fiction when he was young, but he didn’t pass on that enthusiasm to me. I had no exposure to race when I was growing up. The nearest we got to it was a low-key war between Protestants and Catholics that demonized Irish immigrants. Beyond that, the gender war of the fifties, fought out in our kitchen by the breadwinner and his captive housewife, was my most vivid experience of institutional inequality. And my teenage companions, while I slaved at my homework, were Little Richard, Fats Domino and Miles Davis.
I studied the classics, Latin and Greek. But at Cambridge I decided to become an anthropologist. It seemed at the time to be a more promising career. The travel to faraway places looked good too. My teachers worked in Ghana, so I followed them there. The break-up of colonial empire was an inspiration to my generation. That’s why we chanted the names of Third World leaders when protesting outside the American embassy. It is hard to recall now, but it seemed then that African independence could generate political models to inspire the whole world.
I went to Accra with my head full of notions about rural-urban migrants learning to be active citizens through their voluntary associations. One of my teachers wrote to my supervisor, “God knows what Keith is going to do, because he doesn’t.” When I got there, I found no political activity worth investigating. Ghana was a one-party state and that side of things was all locked up. Looking around, I saw people dealing in everything from marijuana to refrigerators, so I decided to study the street economy instead.
Nima in the 50s was a sort of badlands on the fringes of the city, a place for cattle camps and criminals and a no-go area for the police. Now it was filling up with cheap housing for the flood of migrants from the remote interior. I settled there because I was told that lots of Northerners lived in Nima and I was offered a place by someone I met in a bar.
Ananga was a small-time crook then recovering from a short spell in prison. I often wondered why he risked taking a white boy into his house. One possible reason was that, when he was a steward for a British official, he had formed a lucrative partnership with the man’s teenage son. In any case, it didn’t take us long to make a similar relationship.
We got off to a bad start. I was to enter Ananga’s house on 22nd September 1965. The rent was 6 pounds a month. I offered to pay a portion of this for the part-month, say a quarter. I wasn’t consciously trying to cheat him, but I did know that he was illiterate and I erred on my side of the calculation. He shot back with: “30 days in the month; 6 pounds rent is 4 shillings a day; there are 9 days left; so that’s 36 shillings.”
Colonial society had been based on the principle that if one of us is harmed, we destroy three of your villages. It was still close enough in time to feed my sense of being immortal. Compared with most of Nima’s inhabitants, I was rich, white, educated and powerful. But I had never been further than the Mediterranean, I was young (22 years old), alone, culturally inept and desperately lacking human warmth, which my new neighbours had in abundance. Without quite realizing it, I began to exchange what I had for what they had. I wrote letters, intervened with bureaucracy, gave them rides to hospital and they took me in, gave me meals and conversation, let me play their games badly.
Above all, I entered new economic relationships that were puzzling to me. I became an employer, a tenant, a customer; people asked me for gifts and loans. As soon as I arrived in Ghana, an American professor asked if I had any hard currency, since he could get me 50% more than the official rate. I made enquiries and found that the black market rate was three times the official one. I was shocked that an academic would try to bilk a graduate student. In this and similar ways, Ghana began to assault my ivory tower sensibilities and to reinforce the Manchester liberalism that lay underneath.
Nima was a tough place. The first night I slept there, a corpse was found hanging from a tree outside my window. It was not suicide. And my presence interested the authorities. The Special Branch was on my case. Their leader once asked me, “Do you understand what is meant by code, Mr. Hart?” I nodded. “We have to know six languages to get into the Special Branch and none of us knows the one you are learning. So we think you want to send messages in code to the opposition in exile.”
People I interviewed were often harassed afterwards. At one stage, it got so bad that I feared being deported. I went to see the head of the sociology department at the University of Ghana and asked for a letter saying that I was not a CIA spy. “How do I know you are not?” was his reasonable reply. Later he told me he had seen my name on a deportation list and decided I was beyond redemption. I could see my research career going up in smoke, but I was saved by the February coup against Kwame Nkrumah’s government.
The president’s palace was nearby and we could hear the bullets pinging off the zinc roofs in the valley of slums below. Next day a small patrol came to fetch me. The corporal, sweating and high on something, pushed his Kalashnikov into my stomach and made me raise my hands.
“We understand that you are a Russian agent who escaped from Flagstaff House to plot subversion here.” “I don’t look Russian, do I?” “Yes, you do – you have a beard.” “I don’t talk like a Russian.” “You Russians are very good at learning languages.” “I have a British passport.” “You Russians are good at forging those things.” “The local police know I am a research student.” “Our police are very corrupt. You must have bribed them.”
By this point, a crowd had gathered, as they do. A friend was making signs at me past the corporal’s shoulder and I smiled weakly in defeat. “So you think we are funny, do you?” He jabbed the gun into me and my legs gave way. They took me off for the weekend. I was beaten up badly, but all I could think of was saving my graduate career. On Monday morning a British-trained army officer came and told me to get lost.
My fieldwork took off after that. Ananga and I got to know each other pretty well. He was always short of money and this was a handicap for a receiver of stolen goods. Sometimes, rather than send a thief away empty-handed, he would borrow cash from me. Pressure built up on me from occasional police raids, when someone would be taken away and the post-mortem often pointed the finger at me as the likely informer. I decided I would have to join criminal society fully to reduce suspicion of being a traitor.
So we became partners, not just in crime, but in a series of once-off enterprises, where I put up the money, Ananga supplied the expertise, I got the field-notes and we split the profits 50-50. I went out with the pickpockets, became a usurer, forged receipts for stolen goods, fenced drugs seized by the police and foreign currency from the soldiers. I was one of only a few people, apart from Lebanese shopkeepers, who knew the difference between hard and soft currencies.
We tried ‘legitimate’ speculation, such as hoarding bags of maize against seasonal price fluctuations. Ananga hadn’t done this before, but it seemed that every year the price doubled between harvest-time and the following spring. We found hidden expenses and worse.
First, a porters’ ring took a cut just for lifting each bag from the truck onto the ground. The bags needed to be turned out periodically to avoid rot and we bought insecticide against the weevils. Then, just when the price had doubled, American PL480 aid flooded the country with maize and it went back to what we paid originally. To recover our costs, we had to sell the bags on credit with all the hassle that involved. I learned the hard way that there is more to trade than the headline rate of profit.
The money I made became an embarrassment. I tried to give it away. At one point I employed seven research assistants; hosted sheep, rice and beer parties; made gifts of blankets and sandals to old people. But this redistribution only increased my renown as a big man. There were two social positions in the migrant community – a floating sea of single young men and married elders whose houses were islands of stability in the flow. Without being aware of it, in the two years I spent there, I moved from one class into the other. I did manage to get rid of the money before I left. It just took extra effort.
I was arrested four times, twice by the army for espionage and twice by the police for receiving. The last of these was the most serious. I consoled myself with the thought that there hadn’t yet been a participant observation study of an African jail. I had been away for the weekend and I came back to what sounded like a football match. The centre of the crowd was our house and police dogs were keeping onlookers at bay. Ananga told me quietly, “They have got the radio, but it’s alright, they only want chop (to eat)”.
The radio was a Grundig that I had fenced and then sold to a neighbour, a Muslim priest called Mallam Hamidu. He pawned it back to me as security for a loan. I had given him a false receipt, just like for all of Ananga’s stolen goods. (I signed them with the names of expatriate academics who had just left the country). I also took the precaution of filing off the number from the identification plate. Now I had been caught without any documents and they had the radio on a list.
There is a position in the British police force specifically designed to handle bribes. It is called Assistant Superintendent of Police or ASP. If you need to bribe your way out of a situation, it is no good throwing money at all and sundry. You need to pay off someone senior enough to control all the small fry, but not too expensive. That’s the ASP. Also, you don’t say, “OK, I did it. Who do I need to pay?” We sat around his swimming pool, sipping gin and tonic and loudly proclaiming my innocence.
A Ghanaian lawyer once told me, “I don’t mind our police being corrupt. What offends me is that they are so cheap!” “I know that you are a man of integrity”, the ASP said. “But unfortunately the police force is full of mean-spirited men who will make trouble for you unless I persuade them with money.” We agreed on a sum of 135 pounds (or almost two years rent, to put it in perspective).
The desk sergeant at the police station must not have received his cut, since he made life difficult for me. There has to be a legitimate story to protect the corrupt policemen. Ours was that I now had a receipt from Mallam Hamidu who in turn had one forged by me. The sergeant claimed that an Arabic signature was not valid without the presence of the signatory. I had to bring in the mallam.
But he had gone missing. He went on a money-doubling expedition around Nsawam. This means turning up in a village, impressive in white robes, and offering to double any money placed overnight in a suitcase. The villagers are suspicious at first, but someone tries depositing five pounds. Next morning it has miraculously become ten and everyone else piles in. The mallam does a midnight flit with the suitcase. This time Hamidu had been caught and was now being held in custody.
So I needed someone else to be him. I had a friend in the drugs trade, only in his twenties, but a pious Muslim with good Arabic. When I asked him to put on some robes and come to the police station to validate my receipt, he flatly refused. But a few subtle threats changed his mind. The sergeant reluctantly gave me back the radio. Before I left Ghana, I sold it to the military governor of the Upper Region. After all, what could be cleaner than a white man’s goods off-loaded at the end of his tour of duty?
Why am I telling you all this now? It can’t be to ingratiate myself with these confessions. I never told these stories in print before. Imagine what it was like in those pre-post-modern times, trying to conjure a PhD thesis out of this material. I once gave a talk in Chicago, where I revealed some of it, and I was told several times to shut the hell up or I would compromise Anthropology Inc. as well as myself.
For the best part of a decade, I tried to write a monograph based on the Accra fieldwork before giving up. The only book that came out of it was a literature review on West African agriculture, about which I knew nothing first-hand. I was reluctant to become a Ghana specialist and I didn’t like the general attitude of anthropologists at the time, so I joined the development industry and saw the world another way.
I felt that I understood Accra’s street economy as well as the people who participated in it, if not better. But, like them, I had no explanation for the great events that had shaken Ghana a decade after independence: the collapse of the cocoa price, the ensuing scarcity of goods, the army coup. I had discovered an elective affinity with the lawless trade of Accra’s slums. My method was less to record existing economic practices than to participate in them and challenge them, as an entrepreneur in my own right.
Thus a woman might come to me for money to help her sell sugar lumps outside her door. I would ask her about the selling price – four lumps for a penny. A quick calculation showed that a profit could still be made if she sold them for five a penny and she would undercut the competition. Yes, she said, but the other women would beat me up. That’s how I learned. But I was ignorant of the history that might help me to account for my commercial superiority. Ghanaians wore cloth from my home town, Manchester, but I had little idea what it meant.
I set out to learn more about the history of colonialism and of its successor, ‘development’. More than anything, I wanted to enter the world of states and international agencies as a participant observer. So I joined a consultancy organization in a university. By writing reports on West Africa for The Economist, I picked up ‘economese’ (how to sound like an economist without any formal training). Before long I was able to transform my Accra ethnography into a means of entering debates with economists about urban unemployment in the Third World. These exchanges spawned the concept of an ‘informal sector or economy’ whose lasting success in development studies is still a source of wonder to me.
In the 70s, I undertook consultancy missions to the Caribbean, Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong and West Africa, while lecturing in anthropology, a good part of it in the United States. Then I returned to Cambridge. My swansong to the world of development, The Political Economy of West African Agriculture (1982), was an angry book. By then it was obvious that post-colonial development had failed. I felt betrayed by having fallen for the political rhetoric of the 60s.
I argued that the new African states had been built on small agriculture and, unless some sectors became more efficient by joining the machine revolution, these states would inevitably collapse to a level compatible with their economic base. I found Haiti’s post-independence combination of petty violence and economic stagnation to be a likely model for the region and I ended the book with a reference to C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins.
Some years later, I was reading a collection of James’s occasional cricket writings on a Jamaican beach. The place had once belonged to Errol Flynn. My daughter was playing on the edge of the sea. James had been a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in the 1930s. I found myself reading about my father’s heroes of that period as if it was today’s sports news.
While helping to set up a social science research school in Jamaica, I had devoured everything I could by James. It occurred to me that we had lived in the same places — the Caribbean, Britain, America, Africa — with very different trajectories. Now, watching my daughter play on that exotic beach, with my father’s stories coming alive again, the gap between me and this old black man was collapsed into a single moment by the immediacy of James’s prose. I felt compelled to meet him and so I wrote the first and only fan letter of my life.
As a result, I shared the last two years of his life, with Anna Grimshaw who did much more for him. We watched Tiananmen Square together on TV, the beginning of the end of Stalinism that he had long predicted, and then he died. I honour my Cambridge teachers, Jack Goody and Meyer Fortes, but James was my mentor. Everything he wrote spoke directly to me.
Jamaica was a turning-point. West Africa had seemed to be an old society, like Britain. The gap between America and Europe was huge. I still had not yet digested the significance of how ‘new’ it was. The Caribbean was all the other three combined. Like the United States, it had been created from scratch by adventurers, the aboriginal population destroyed. But Africa and Europe remained a conservative force in the Caribbean that the Americans had broken with decisively.
Coming to Jamaica as the last leg of a North Atlantic quadrilateral, I could now integrate experiences that had been disparate before. I had absorbed something of the African diaspora’s cubist perspective on history as dispersion and movement. Agrarian civilization and the modern nation-state each taught people to see the world as if rooted to one spot. In contrast, the Middle Passage spawned the first truly modern people, a people formed by dislocation and dreams of emancipation who could see the picture from several points at once. I imagined myself in the different places I had been and, sure enough, the world changed as I did so.
I ran African Studies at Cambridge for most of the 90s. I told them I wasn’t an Africanist, but they let me take the programme away from making an object of Africa towards examining our common history in the world. There were in any case many urgent issues to engage with – genocide in Rwanda, elections in South Africa, the war in Angola, oil and murder in Nigeria’s Delta region.
We were offered one and a half million pounds to establish a fellowship for research on African women named for the Nigerian dictator’s wife, Mrs. Miriam Babangida. I refused. The management committee was unanimous: “Take the money”. The Nigerian students said “The whole of Cambridge was built on stolen money. Why is black loot too dirty for you?” The feminists said I would be a marked man if I turned this unique opportunity down. A visiting Nigerian professor solved the diplomatic problem for me. He said, “Ask them why they are giving the money to Cambridge. Say you will accept only if it is linked to a Nigerian university.” The offer dried up after that.
The Angola war, a million dead in thirty years, got to me. One day an Italian engineer came into my office and said, “They are killing my friends in Angola. What are you going to do about it?” Usually people asked me to sign a form for a library ticket. The result was a petition signed by over a hundred Africanists and a conference where the MPLA and Unita met for the first time in public since the war restarted. We captured the drama of that extraordinary event in Why Angola Matters (1995).
Towards the end, before moving to Paris, I began to visit South Africa regularly, especially Durban, where Vishnu Padayachee and I studied Indian businessmen in the post-apartheid era. This glimpse of the new national bourgeoisie in the making captured my imagination and underpins a good part of this book. But I also made contact with Gandhi’s legacy there and with the Indian Ocean history that points this part of Africa away from the Atlantic towards the East.
So what is Africa? Isn’t it lots of different places that can’t easily be lumped together as one thing? Yes and no. There are two definitions of its singularity: race and geography. Africa is where black people come from. (Actually, it’s where we all come from.) As such, Africa stands for the darkest and ‘lowest’ level of the world conceived of as a racial hierarchy with whites at the top. Africans have in turn combined defensively in the face of this stereotype, so that the ideology of the unity of black people everywhere is called ‘Panafricanism’.
The continent of Africa seems to be divided from Europe and the Middle East by the Mediterranean and Red Seas, allowing for thin land bridges and sea narrows. But this geographical entity does not circumscribe ‘the land of the blacks’. So North Africa is sometimes joined with the circum-Mediterranean region of which it has long been an integral part and a sub-continental entity is hived off, called ‘Sub-saharan Africa” or ‘Tropical Africa’ or more simply “Black Africa”. White settler-dominated Southern Africa was considered to be apart until Mandela’s election as president rejoined it to ‘Africa’.
There is no consistent geographical definition of black Africa. The continent’s largest country, Sudan, is joined by the Nile to Egypt in the North and to the Great Lakes in the South, while a continuous belt of savanna leads to the Atlantic seaboard in the West. Any non-racial definition could plausibly join North, West, Central, East and South Africa into one continental region. Some people and organizations do this. It is no more irrational than trying to identify the borders of ‘Europe’ and is more precise than a term like the ‘South’.
But the blackness of Africa will not go away as a historical idea and we must confront it. The colour symbolism is inextricably linked to a presumed failure of Africa to develop politically, economically and culturally in modern times. This negative stereotype affects black people everywhere, even those former slaves who have been cut off from the land of their origin for centuries. If this relationship of Africa to the rest of the world were to be demonstrably reversed, a lot would come unhinged. Not least the racist underpinnings of contemporary world society.
Chapter 2 The African Revolution
First draft, 15.8.2005