Mia Couto (Wednesday February 02 2005 The Guardian)

I went to a conference in Europe this summer where someone asked me: "What is it for you to be African?" I asked in turn: "What is it for you to be European?"

He did not know what to say. Similarly, no one knows exactly what is "Africanness". This is an area where there's a great deal of frippery and folklore. There are those who say that "typical African" refers to people or things that have a greater spiritual content. I heard someone say that we Africans are different because we appreciate our culture so much. An Africanist in a conference in Prague said that what measures Africanness is a concept known as ubuntu, meaning "I am the others". 

All these presuppositions seem vague and diffuse. These definitions of Africanness seem to rest on an exotic base, as if Africans were peculiarly different from everyone else, and as if that difference was an essential fact. 

Africa cannot be reduced to a simple, easily understood entity. Our continent consists of profound diversities and of complex mixtures of peoples. Long, irreversible processes of cultural mixing have resulted in a mosaic of differences, which is one of the most valuable aspects of our continent's heritage. I mention racial mixing with some hesitation because it suggests that a hybrid product might be seen as something less pure. But one cannot talk of purity when dealing with humankind. There are no human cultures that are not based on profound spiritual exchanges. 

In South Africa, in 1856, a famous diviner called Mhlakaza announced that the spirits of the ancestors had given him a prophecy. A great resurrection was coming, in which the British would be expelled. To achieve this, the Xhosa people had to destroy all their herds and gardens. This would be the sign of faith through which riches and abundance for all would spring from the depths of the earth. Mhlakaza convinced the chiefs of the truth of his vision. Chief Sarili, of the royal house of Tshawe, declared that the prophecy was true. 

As well as believing in the diviner's vision, Sarili also held a curious conviction: he believed that the Russians were ancestors of the Xhosa, and it would be they, the Russians, who would spring from the earth according to the vision of resurrection. This idea had appeared because the Xhosa monarchs had heard talk of the Crimean war and that the Russians were at war with the English. The idea spread rapidly that once they had beaten the British in Europe the Russians would come to South Africa to expel the British from there. Even more curiously, it was agreed that the Russians were black, since it was thought that everyone who opposed British rule were of the black races. 

Once the livestock and crops had been destroyed, more than two-thirds of the Xhosa people died of hunger. It was one of the greatest tragedies in African history. It was also used by colonial ideology as proof of the depths of superstition in which Africans were plunged. But the story is much more complex than a simple belief. Behind the events were hidden deep political disputes. There emerged among the Xhosa monarchy a faction that was strongly opposed to this collective suicide. They were rapidly labelled heretics, and a militia called "the believers" was formed to repress those who dissented. 

Obviously this event could not happen again today in the same form, but sorcerers' apprentices continue to make messianic prophecies, dragging entire peoples into suffering and despair. 

Our continent runs the risk of becoming a forgotten land, sidelined by the strategies of global integration. When I say "forgotten" I'm referring to our own elites who ignore their responsibilities towards their own people. Their predatory behaviour adds to the denigration of our image abroad and damages the dignity of all Africans. 

A superficial demagogy continues to take the place of a genuine search for solutions. The ease by which dictators take over the destinies of entire nations is something that must frighten us. The ease with which present wrongs are continually explained by blaming the past is something that must concern us. It is true that corruption and the abuse of power are not exclusive to Africa, as some maintain. But the scope for manoeuvre that we grant to tyrants is terrifying. We must make attempts to limit the extent of the vanity, arrogance and impunity of those who enrich themselves through theft. We must urgently reorganise our patterns of administration, which excludes those who live in oral cultures beyond the boundaries of European logic and rationality. 

In Mozambique, as in many parts of Africa, we are living through a particularly perplexing phase of our history. Up till now, Mozambique thought it could do without a radical reappraisal of its fundamental state of being. The nation had won what was seen as an epic struggle against monstrous outside forces. Hell was always outside. The enemy was on the other side of the frontier. It was Ian Smith, apartheid, imperialism. Our country did what we all do in our daily lives: we invented monsters which came to haunt us. But the monsters also calmed us down. It was reassuring to know that they lived far from us. Suddenly the world changed and we have been forced to look for the demons in our own homes. The enemy, the worst of enemies, has always been inside us. 

This may well be a time when we live in the depths of despair. But it can also be a moment when we discover new growth. When we confront our deepest vulnerabilities we have to create a new way of seeing things; we have to invent new forms of speech and try out new forms of writing. We will go on finding ourselves more and more on our own, where it will be our historical responsibility to create another history. We cannot go begging to the world for another image of ourselves. We cannot go on appealing to others. Our only way forward is to continue the long, difficult way towards a dignified state for ourselves and for our native land. 

· Mia Couto is Mozambique's leading novelist; he is also an environmental biologist and has been the editor of the Maputo newspaper Noticias and director of the Mozambique Information Agency