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Opinions of Sunday, 17 March 2002

Columnist: Amos-Abanyie, Emmanuel

Woes of Africa

“Maybe if I had never set foot here, I could celebrate my own blackness, my “African-ness.” Then I might feel a part of this place, and Africa’s pain might be my own. “
----Keith Richburg


Over the past years, many writers have made bold attempts to address issues confronting Africa. The views expressed by these writers in their books are influenced by the major happenings on the continent within the time period the book is to be written. But one thing that leaves much to be desired about the approaches taken by some of these authors is the generalizations they make about the whole African continent, using the woes of just a few countries as a marker for the others. This paper seeks to compare and contrast the approaches taken by Keith B. Richburg and Karl Maier in discussing Africa.

Richburg’s confrontation of Africa in his book, Out of America, discusses his traumatic experiences in Africa. His approach reveals to the reader that the present-day Africa is just a replica of the Dark Continent described by early explorers. Richburg describes Africa as a “senseless continent” (153), “violent” (227), and a “strange and forbidding place” (237) where fighting and other nefarious activities is the order of the day. He states that;

It’s one of those apocryphal stories you always hear coming out of Africa, meant to demonstrate the savagery of “the natives.” Babies being pulled off their mothers’ backs and tossed onto spears. Pregnant women being disemboweled. Bodies being tossed into the river and flowing downstream. You heard them all, but never really believed” (xiii).

Richburg thus imposes on the reader the “vicious” nature of Africans. He tries to justify this image he puts forth to his readers by his unrealistic and over-exaggerated descriptions of his encounters and experiences at the hands of civilians, the military, and guerilla fighters.

Richburg does not have any positive thoughts about Africa during his travels from the time he “smells” (1) the continent till his departure. In Richburg’s eyes, Africa is a place where the people take delight in displaying their savagery, have no compassion for others, have no morals, and do not want to accept responsibility for their problems but rather blame the west. Richburg’s visit to Africa has made him develop hostility towards the continent though he thought it would be a great experience to travel to the land of his roots. He argues;

Maybe if I had never set foot here, I could celebrate my own blackness, my “African-ness.” Then I might feel a part of this place, and Africa’s pain might be my own. But while I know “Afrocentrism” has become fashionable for many black Americans searching for identity, I know it will not work for me. I have been here, I have lived here and seen Africa in all its horror. I know now that I am a stranger here. I am an American, a black American, and I feel no connection to this strange and violent place (227).

Richburg’s assertion that his visit to Africa has led him not to celebrate his blackness is questionable as he mentioned that he decided to become a foreign based-journalist because he did not like the whole idea of being addressed as a man of color in America.

I find it very difficult to accept Richburg’s account of Africa especially his generalizations. He claims he does not like to take sides when he is confronted with issues, as he prefers to be neutral. But the lack of professionalism displayed in the writing of this book shows his blatant cowardice. Richburg undoubtedly has an iota of truth about the problems in Kenya, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, and Liberia. However, he makes no mention of the countries, which have made great strides towards development. Rather He prefers to generalize that the whole African continent is beset by such problems. He fails to mention the development going on in Ghana, disregards the strides of Botswana, and rules out the existence of stable and steady countries on the continent. He refers to the war in Bosnia as a “tragedy” but states that “when it came to human suffering, to violence, to the spectacle of refugees streaming out of a war zone of cover, quite frankly, Bosnia had nothing on the Africans” (51). His judgement of Africa on the basis of the wars is in contradiction with his principle of not taking sides. His integrity must therefore be questioned as he feels sorry that wars should happen in the West; he believes that sympathy is for the whites and has no sympathy for what goes on in Somalia.

In his account of the slaying of the Pakistani soldiers, Richburg readily accepts the explanations of the non-Africans and calls that of the Africans as “complete nonsense” (64). Richburg talks about people who were killed despite their humanitarian efforts to create the impression that it is an African norm to go around killing people. He fails to acknowledge the fact that, just as murders occur in Africa, they are also a common feature of the American society even in the absence of war. Also flawed is his silence on the issue of innocent people losing their lives during periods of war outside Africa.

In his description of the United Nation mission to help save Somalia, he blames the failed mission on the Somalis’ lack of cooperation. He loses sight of the fact that it was the U.S. declaration of war on Farah Aideed that led to the conflicts and shootouts, thereby leading to the mission’s failure. He points accusing fingers at Somalis and has no criticism against the troops who went to Somalia to intervene and to invade -something he refers to as “intervasion” (88). His report is full of flaws because it is incomplete. He fails to add that the soldiers, who were expected to bring peace to the war-torn country, rather waged war on the people thus leading to the mission’s failure.

Richburg’s critical view of Africa could also be attributed to the fact that much as he tried to fit in, he always felt like an outsider among the Africans. He realized that the gap between him and Africans “was too wide and no matter how hard [he] tried, [he] could never cross it” (73). It is ironic that the people he identified himself with never helped him when he needed them most. He says, “My own countrymen left me standing in the dust because all they saw was a black guy -to them a dark-skinned Somali, a potential assassin” (86). This has contributed to his hostility for Africans. His bitterness towards Africa intensified because he was offered no help because he was black.

Richburg reiterates his belief in the fact that nothing good comes out of Africa. In describing South Africa he points out that;

But if the Western, Americanized city, it’s one that’s been transpalnted to the middle of a black country on a black continent, and you can be reminded of that crucial fact pretty quickly. As much as white South Africa has tried to insulate itself; it doesn’t take long for Africa to intrude. This is one place on the globe where the developed world and the developing one exist, literally, on top of each other, and that volatile mixture is as comical as it often is bizarre” (196). He attributes anything good in Africa to the presence of the white man. He feels sorry for the white woman and her family because “no matter how Westernized their lives seem, they live in Africa, and [he knows] what darkness lurks out there” (210). To him, any country in Africa that has a sheer vestige of stabily and security, needs to attribute that to the presence of the white man.

Richburg’s unfair view of Africa has led to a biased recording of events in his book. He developed racist attitudes towards Africa and this can be attested by his use of “this is Africa” (117) to justify most of the negative things he said about the continent in his book. Other racist comments made by Richburg include;

In Africa things remain the same until they fall apart (244). Maybe I would care more if I had never come here and seen what Africa is today. But I have been here, and I have seen-and frankly, I want no part of it (247). But most of all, I think: Thank God my ancestor got out, because now I am not one of them. In short, thank God that I am an American (xviii). You see? I just wrote “black American.” I couldn’t even bring myself to write “African American.” It’s a phrase, that for me, doesn’t roll naturally off the tongue: “African American” (227).

Richburg’s sincerity must be questioned once again because he has taken a clear stance contrary to what he said at first. Surely he has the liberty to change his mind, but he shouldn’t have raised that issue if he knew he was going to take sides in his discussion.

In discussing the HIV/AIDS menace on the continent, Richburg asserts that; One of the obvious reasons the pandemic has spread so far and so fast in Africa is the rampant prostitution and the African’s free-and-easy attitude toward sex. Sex with prostitutes and sex with neighbors, co-workers, or almost anyone else is almost a way of life, especially in many of Africa’s sprawling urban centers (123).

This assertion has no basis, as African culture frowns on sex before and outside marriage and even on the open discussion of sex. Surely there are prostitutes in Africa, but saying that promiscuity is almost a way of life is ludicrous. He never makes mention of the efforts being made by both traditional healers and medical doctors to find an end to the disease, let alone mention the AIDS awareness campaigns being sponsored by African governments to prevent the spread of the disease. Though most African countries are poor, African governments are striving to provide a moderate amount of health care system if not the best. Richburg’s short sightedness does not allow him to see beyond his prejudice and he arrogantly says, “ It often occurred to [him] that [his] yearly bill for dog food and veterinary bills probably exceeded what most African governments spend on health care” (128). It seems to me that Richburg has a big problem that needs to be solved because his over-exaggeration of issues only provokes anger and attempts to degrade Africans.

In finding reasons for the spread of HIV/AIDS, Richburg’s assumptions are embellished through the use of exaggeration. Personally I feel this was an attempt to get a large market for the sale of his book since the American populace will like to read the book to confirm their long held beliefs of Africa as a dark continent. He also says, “Maybe one of the reasons for the relative nonchalance about AIDS across Africa is that so many other more immediate, fatal diseases are ravaging the continent as well” (127). Who tells Richburg that Africans are nonchalant about the menace? On what does he base this assertion? Even the fatal diseases like malaria he might be thinking of are given serious attention and much is being done to eradicate them completely. If all these claims are true, then why do tourists, especially Americans, travel to the so-called continent of woes? Who in his right mind will travel to such a place if he knows that there exists no life as Richburg attempts to portray.

Feeling guilty, Richburg remembers the words of Malcolm X’s speech in 1965 when he (Richburg) was six years old.

We didn’t want anybody telling us anything about Africa, much less calling us Africans. In hating Africa, and in hating the Africans, we ended up hating ourselves, without even realising it. Because you can’t hate the roots of a tree and not hate the tree. You can’t hate your origin and not end up hating yourself. You can’t hate Africa and not hate yourself. You know yourselves that […]. And we hated ourselves (232).

Why was Richburg wondering what Malcolm X would have thought of him if he were to be alive? Is that crucial in writing his book? The reference he made to Malcolm’s speech shows his difficulty in forgiving himself for lashing back at his roots in an unfair manner.

Sharing his thoughts about the Rwandan genocide, Richburg portrays all Hutus as evil because he doesn’t see why anybody in his right mind would pull a machete and kill his fellow human being for the fun of it. He does not make mention of all the Hutus who took the risk of sheltering the Tutsis who went to them for help. Richburg readily questions the rationale behind the genocide; And could these be fully evolved humans carrying clubs and machetes and panga knives and smashing in their neighbors’ skulls and chopping off their limbs,and piling up the legs in one pile …]. No I realised fully evolved human beings in the twentieth century don’t do things like that. Not for any reason, not tribe, not religion, not territory. These are cavemen (91).

Richburg’s narration of only atrocities committed in Rwanda without mentioning the risks others took to save the Tutsis makes his reporting one-sided as if things were exteremely hopeless. He never made mention of America’s neglect of Rwanda and its refusal to label the Rwanda ethnic war as a genocide.

Another person who has attempted to address Africa’s problems is Maier. In his book, Into the House of the Ancestors, Maier takes a different angle in discussing the same issues addressed by Richburg. He says, “My goal is to provide a balanced picture of how its people are summoning their tremendous inner vitality, their cultures, their religions, and their capacity to adapt to a rapidly changing world around them” (ix). Unlike Richburg, Maier acknowledges the problems confronting Africa and points out how people are striving hard to turn things around. He says his book, Into the House of the Ancestors, “attempts to celebrate the spirit of Africa by portraying the lives of people all over the continent who are making Herculean efforts, often exposing themselves to great personal danger, to forge a better future for their peoples” (ix). Maier therefore takes a pragmatic approach in discussing Africa and does not allow his reporting to be flawed by prejudice. He reports the bad things and also the good things that take place in the midst of adversity.

Though a lot of problems have plagued and continue to plague the continent, Maier sees beyond the problems and points out the good things that come out after a disaster takes place. In discussing the HIV/AIDS menace, Maier makes mention of the reasons why the disease is prevalent on the continent. He asserts that;

Before the spread of AIDS was properly understood, transfusions of blood tainted by the HIV virus were common and hospitals routinely recycled syringes or, in the case ot traditional healers, razor blades. Impoverished living conditions, poor hygiene, and massive population displacements caused by drought, war, and political unrest only made things worse (79).

Maier thus makes the reader aware of some of the problems that serve as obstacles in the control of HIV/AIDS. He further mentions the efforts being made by individuals, traditional healers, and medical doctors to find an end to the disease. He makes it clear that Africans are fully aware of HIV/AIDS through the accounts of people. He quotes Peter Sibenda, Publicity Secretary of the Zimbabwe National Healers Association (ZINATHA) as saying, “Many of our traditional societies thought that AIDS was a Western tactic [but] we realized that from whatever direction this came, it was a reality we had to deal with” (85). Maier also talks about the efforts being made to educate traditional healers since the majority of the African population still believe in them. ZINATHA “launched its own AIDS education programs in 1988 and also targeted customs that promote HIV infection” (85). Sibenda argues that “the only way to change peoples behavior and fight this disease is to involve the people’s culture, to involve their lifestyle” (85). This brings to mind the popular Akan proverb “Nkakrankakra na akoko nom nsuo” which is equivalent to the English proverb, little drops of water make a mighty ocean.

Maier’s assertion that “the demise of the moral codes, customary restrictions on incest, premarital sex, and adultery has been cast aside for the Western fascination” (85) is true. This is brought about as a result of education and entertainment posing a lot of problems to Africa. He also recounts how Nancy Masara, a social worker in Murambinda in central Zimbabwe’s contribution to AIDS eradication led the Catholic Church to offer ITS chapel as a meeting place for her “single sister associations” (92). Maier, thus, tries to portray the persistence of Africans in trying to turn “darkness” into “light.” This is because under normal circumstances, the Catholic Church will never succumb to anything (condom use) in contradiction to the laws of the church. He therefore portrays the strides Africans are making to bring HIV/AIDS and the other diseases under control. This is being achieved with a collaboration between traditional healers and medical doctors to find a lasting solution to the AIDS problem despite the scarcity of resources.

In his description of the Rwandan genocide, Maier talks about the causes of the genocide; he also makes mention of the countless people who resisted the genocide. He argues that “ethnic prejudice takes a variety of forms, sometimes centering on differences of culture and language; but when that is not possible, as in Rwanda, the focus is on appearance, class differences, and collective myths” (158). Maier talks about how the Hutu majority had been discriminated against by the Tutsi minority for a long time in all aspects of life. According to Maier, despite this discrimination, there existed cooperation between Tutsis and Hutus. This began to deteriorate when Tutsi Mwami Rwabuguri “cultivated ethnic discrimination by stressing physical characteristics, favoring those who were tall with thin noses over those who were shorter with flat nostrils” (161). He also talks about how the myth of the Tutsi supremacy viewpoint came to stick in the minds of Rwandans as a result of utterances made by Europeans; “Tutsis [are] Europeans in black skins” (162). The Tutsis therefore felt superior, thus making the Hutus feel inferior.

The genocide started when president Habyarimana and Cyrien Ntayamira of Burundi were killed. The Hutus blamed the RPF guerillas for the murder and that planted the seed of the genocide.

Yet ethnicity alone cannot explain Rwanda’s genocide. Any understanding must take into account a combination of ethnic rivalry, particularly the intense form which Belgian colonialism did much to foster; rapid economic decline matched by a population explosion; and the breakdown of traditional religion (158).

He also mentions the international community’s role in the genocide; The UN peace keeping force operated under a limited mandate which restrained them from intervening; the withdrawal of the UN troops two weeks after the genocide. The outside world suppported the genocide. France distributed arms, it trained the interahamwe (166).

Maier also makes mention of how Hutus and Tutsis alike made efforts to put an end to the genocide. President Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu, who welcomed Tutsis at the border said, “the Rwandan people were able to live together peacefully for six hundred years, and there is no reason they cannot live again in peace” (188). Some Rwandans believe that until those found guilty are tried and sentenced, there will be no peace in Rwanda. Father Oscar is quoted as saying, “this is not the beginning, and it’s not the end” (189). There is hope that peace will fully be restored in Rwanda someday.

Other issues Maier raised in his book include the strides being made in education, human rights, rise against dictatorship, the opposition to military rule, rehabilitation of child soldiers, care of the elderly, and individuals who shed their lives for the sake of correcting wrongs such as Ken Saro-Wiwa of Nigeria. To Maier, Africa is on the road to achieving great success to make the continent a better place. He says,

Africa is constantly on the move, always prepared to astonish, to amaze, and to leave anyone who cares to look close enough gasping in wonder at the sheer energy of life on display. Its people show a remarkable ability to transform themselves, to adapt as situations demand, and to embark in search of new solutions. That resilience explains in part their success at surviving, in many cases thriving, despite harsh economic and political climate that envelopes most of the continent (11).

Maier’s book portrays the true picture of Africa discussing both the difficulties and the strides Africans are making to transform the continent. He says he admires the “courage with which so many Africans seek to overcome their difficulties” (viii). Maier contradicts Richburg’s assertion that he never felt welcomed in Africa by saying that never has he felt welcomed into people’s homes or treated with more respect.

Richburg and Maier’s attempts at confronting Africa deserve credit but the approach taken by Richburg must be criticized as he allowed his prejudice to flaw his accounts. Richburg, I believe has an identity crisis and in trying to find a place to fit himself, his dreams of feeling much more comfortable in the land of his ancestors rather instilled hostility and fear towards his own people. Richburg says, “I’ve looked in my crystal ball and tried to see silvers of light. I’ve really tried. But all I can see is more darkness” (238). Maier, on the other hand says he is beginning to see a “new generation of Africans armed with the values and drive of their forefathers, who are ready to tackle the challenges” (258) of the future.

Works cited

  • Maier, Karl. Into the House of the Ancestors-Inside the New Africa. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York.
  • Richburg, Keith B. Out of America-A Black Man Confronts Africa. Harcourt Brace & Company. San Diego, New York, London.