Sunday, May 4, 2008

PEN World Voices: African Wars

The panel for African Wars brought together two writers whose work I had known and respected for years – Nuruddin Farah and Chenjerai Hove – with another, Abdourahman Waberi, whom I had met the day before and found sharp and engaging. I expected some harrowing stories, stinging denunciations, and tough proposed solutions. What I didn’t expect was the aimless, detached, abstract quality of the discussion and the troubling racial undercurrents that seemed to surface in the room. The discussion got off track almost at once, after moderator Violaine Huisman threw out for reaction a quotation from Ryszard Kapuscinski. “Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa,’” he had written in The Shadow of the Sun. “In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.” “Africa does not exist?” retorted Hove. “Where is the man coming from?” Farah and Waberi, quickly showing themselves to be more subtle than the plain-spoken Hove, said that of course Kapuscinski was referring to the immense diversity of the continent. “Africa is too complex for the likes of Kapuscinski,” said Farah, dismissing the work of a man who covered twenty-seven revolutions and coups between 1958 and 1980. “Because it exists, that’s why we have wars.” Hove tried to deal with the problem of war more substantively, but his comments covered familiar ground. The national borders established by the Berlin conference in the 19th century had no meaning for ordinary people, he said, and led to conflict. War is about the distribution of power and its benefits. Everything is political: even the chairs we sit on and the trees planted along the streets outside are there because of decisions made by human beings. Hove’s points were valid, if a bit obvious, and could have been the basis for a deeper discussion. But perhaps because he presented himself more as a man of the people than an academic, and because he illustrated his points with homely anecdotes (one of them about a war that allegedly broke out between Botswana and Zimbabwe when a hunter chased an elephant across the border), the mostly white audience laughed for what seemed the wrong reasons. Those crazy Africans, fighting over elephants! Farah’s contributions were more sophisticated but less helpful. Each reason for war that he offered seemed to carry the message that there was little we could do about it. War is a part of the national development of African countries, he said. The conflict in the Congo is the equivalent of the 30 Years’ War in Germany. Every form of industrial and mechanical development in Africa had been interrupted and frustrated by slavery and colonialism. However much you love your child, you must be willing to see it fall before it learns to walk. Wars, he said, do not happen overnight. They gestate in the hearts and minds of people. What about Zimbabwe? asked a black woman in the audience. The chimurenga war of the 1890s was against colonialism, but the struggle today is for democracy. Oh no, said Farah. Democracy is not something you fight for. It is something that happens at the end of a long process by which you grow and develop and eventually become a whole person. (Not a message likely to inspire those struggling to end the dictatorship of Mugabe.) Though I have lived and worked in Zimbabwe, I don’t always enjoy the way my fellow white people talk about Africa at events like this one: sometimes trying too hard to show their expertise in all things African, but more often self-righteous or apologetic, trying to make plain that they are not like those other white folks with their backward ideas. At this point a white woman spoke up to say that on a visit to Africa (I forget if she said exactly where) she had met many people whose voices were not being heard. What could be done to help them express themselves, to find their voices? I cringed a little at the tone – what can be done to help these poor people? – but waited with real interest for the answer. “What kind of question is that?” broke in a black woman from the back of the auditorium. Farah seemed to agree, brushing away the question as meaningless, but Hove objected, defending not so much the question itself, but the woman’s democratic right to ask it. However naïve the attitude of the questioner might have been, I didn’t see what was wrong with the question. And indeed, as I learned later, in another session going on simultaneously at the French Institute, the Nigerian novelist Uzodinma Iweala was describing how he had brought video cameras to an AIDS center in Africa, and the delight of the residents in using the technology to express themselves. Maybe the quashing of the woman’s question was driven by an irritation in the audience that I felt myself. More than five million people have died in the Congo since 1998, in a war that, if it were happening in Europe, would be referred to as World War III. But by the end of an hour and a half nobody had made any practical suggestions to help stop the wars of the future. More African Union troops or UN peacekeepers? A crackdown on international arms trading? More funding of microfinance initiatives to increase prosperity? And more to the point (since these were writers, after all, and not policy wonks), nobody had told a story that might inject the topic with the urgency it deserves – nothing that would render intimate and specific the familiar, easily ignored image of anonymous Africans dying in endless and meaningless wars.

No comments: