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Africa is Not a Country: Part Four

One of the many verbal delights in Dipo Faloyin’s book emerges in the wit and bite of his section headings. Part Two of the book, to which I now turn, is titled “By the Power Vested in Me, I Now Pronounce You a Country.”

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This section is on the European colonial carve-up of Africa and begins by noting that when the European “explorers” (so-called) first arrived, “some rulers realised that maybe, just maybe, these white Men in Khaki did not have their community’s best interests at heart.” The verbal delight here is in the ironic cutting edge of “just maybe.”

Faloyin provides some historical data here I was not aware of (as I noted last week, his book is massively researched). For example, the Sultan of Zanzibar applied to attend the 1884 Berlin Conference at which the pie of Africa was sliced and served up, but his request was refused and no other African attended.

And there is the dire history of the “Congo Free State” (now DRC), when it was run as the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium (the “Bored King” as Faloyin depicts him). I guess we all know about the atrocities that occurred in that country’s colonial rubber plantations, but I didn’t know that an estimated half the population, around ten million, died under Leopold’s “reign.”

There follows a substantial section on the White Saviour complex, focusing on how in Africa “there is a longstanding frustration with the West’s very specific need to portray the continent as functionally helpless in battling its own problems.”

Faloyin continues: “The white saviour complex reinforces the view that Africans can never be the solution, that they are without agency, and that sunshine and hope can only come when cradled in the warm, bright embrace of the Western world.”

This critique is extended into a searing account of the contradictions inherent in Bob Geldof’s charity fundraising song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” which “condensed all the worst stereotypes of the region as one large failed state into a pleasant four-minute jingle.”

As Faloyin’s critique unfolds some Western readers might feel “this is really brutal, surely it’s unjust?”, but I would argue it’s entirely fair. And, as throughout the book, Faloyin has done his research, witness his account of the dialectical backlash the song provoked.

Part Four is on African dictators. As Faloyin notes, so many African countries were left after colonisation “with forms of democracy that did not fit the demographies the colonisers had created.”

By demographies Faloyin is referring to peoples (ethnic groups, if you like) in relation to place. A personal aside here: I remember being baffled when I lived in northern Nigeria as to why the border lay where it did with the former French territory of Niger Republic to the north.

The answer is, the border represents the point at which colonising British and French armies bumped into each other. And of course in Lesotho you know a lot about lost lands and borders.

I sign off this week with a footnote. Last week I wrote about the colonialists’ disparaging habit of dismissing African languages as “dialects.” A friend has reminded me of an old witticism: “a dialect is a language without an army.”

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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