Okello Oculi, a regular contributor to the list, reflects on a culture of reading and leadership:
THE AFRICAN DIASPORA AS 'THE BLACK MAN'S BURDEN'
The BBC's "Pulse of Africa" survey reported that most Africans spend their leisure time listening to radio (84 percent of respondents) and listening to music (81 %) while a paltry percentage use that time "reading books" (39 percent). In Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Ghana ( in ascending order from 40 to 64 perecnt), more people also spend their time watching sports presumably on television and inside sports arenas. In the same
countries (except Cameroon), plus Malawi, Zambia, Rwanda and Mozambique religious worship takes far more time than time spent on reading books.
As a point of departure, this data draws attention to the high rate of illiterary all across the continent. Persons who cannot read can listen to radio and watch television; even if in a crowd or group listening and viewing centres. Likewise, they can worship without having to read their pleas to God or Allah or Jok, Ruhanga, Chukwu, Oluwa, etc. As far as the African military rulers (of the near past) and present day "democracy politicians", their orders or populist rhetoric were and are heard on radio, watched on television, or both heard and watched as spectacle at
mass rallies, without the aide of literacy. From this utilitarian point of interest, the inability of fellow citizens to read printed texts would be of little alarm to officialdom.
The record of the last three decades has shown little interest by the majority of Africa's ruling elites in promoting "development as freedom" for the masses of their peoples (to borrow from Professor Sen's meaning). As evidence, there has been little interest in borrowing from Japan's high emphasis on achieving universal literacy from the earliest period of its economic development. The examples of South Korea and Taiwan (both, coincidentally,former colonies of Japan and therefore beneficiaries from its intellectual and policy legacies), as rapid "Third World" modernizers, also failed to be a magnet for most of Africa's rulers in the last four decades. Tanzania's vigorous and most ambitious effort at achieveing universal mass literacy
under Mwalimu Nyerere's leadership, was a rare exception in this regard.
It is little wonder that most of Africa's leaders have shown little interest in nurturing a culture of reading books both among themselves and among the mass public. Most leaders have shown more flare for building ceremonial stadia, authority "castles", hotels of self-proclaimed "international standards", personal "villas", and grand authority on- wheels (as
expressed by Mercedez Benzes, Citreons, fleets of Roll Royces, and high Japanese jeeps), than in building libraries in state capitals, headquarters of local governments, and villages in order to enhance public access to books. Nigeria, for example, has since 1978 (when a non-Westminster constitution was first drafted) shown more interest in borrowing the presidential system of government from the United States of America, than in building their national version of the Library of Congress: an institution which founders of the American republic (notably
Thomas Jefferson and Quincy Adams) linked directly with the very survival of democracy as a preferred form of 'govermance'. When Nigeria's last military regime was leaving the political stage, it built a National Assembly with a dome similar to that of the American Congress, but loudly forgot to build a National Library next to it.
The matter of Africa being impoverished of a culture of "reading books" must be linked to the role of the African Diapora. And we can do this rather indirectly by drawing attention to the role which "geography", as a branch of knowledge, played in the development of Europe and later the Americas and Oceania. Geography latched itself onto political power whether in the desire of such power for spices and silk from India and the Far East; or gold, silver and copper or human
labour from Africa to be mixed with sugar, coffee and cotton from the Americas. From the 1820s to 1880s members of the European diaspora as employers of the Ottoman rulers in Egypt, or agents of the New York Herald newspaper, and Britain's Royal societies, etc "captured the imagination of a European public avid for knowledge" with despatches they sent back home
about their travels across Africa. Henry Morton Stanley's book "THROUGH THE DARK CONTINENT" (which described his travels across Africa in search of David Livingstone), was widely read by British and American educated classes. So were reports by Savorgnan de Brazza as he travelled from the estuary of the Ogowe river (a French "post" which grew to become today's Gabon), read with great hunger and interest particularly by commercial groups and traders interested in prospects for new sources of wealth.
This enterprise of building the imagination of a nation or peoples by feeding it with "geographical" knowledge (an abbreviation for topographical maps drawn by hand before cameras arrived, anthropological observations, economic and political intelligence reports, descriptions of physical features of local inhabitants and their religious ideas and practices, etc), has been lacking as a preoccupation by the African in diaspora. There has been an inverse relationship between the numbers of Africans who have lived and studied outside the continent and their
production of "geographical" knowledge about their host countries for the benefit of firing up the imagination of their peoples back home. The vigorous literature produced by the "Negritude" diaspora in the 1950s was never matched by their writings about the
"geographies" of France. More cerebral and emotional energy appears to have been invested in nostalgia and crying for mothers' cooking and songs at tropical moonlight than in researching and documenting Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Oceania for audiences back in
Africa..A biographer of Leopold Sedar Senghor has suggested that his negritude was influenced by a Frenchman's book on a new way of teaching rural French culture in French schools, than by his own attempts to explore and describe the anthropology of
The large number of West Africans who studied in Britain and were at the famous 1945 Pan African Conference at Manchester, never took to describing British life, governance at village or national levels, of conditions in coalmines and inside factories, as part of the political education of their peoples back home. The gaping chance of writing for their peoples in their local languages was not grabbed, and African nationalism remained starved. Even George Padmore who wrote a survey of British bad governance in her colonies in Africa, and must have sought to match Lord Hailey's massive work on African conditions, failed to do a survey of Britain even if
only to tell Africa about the poverty of those who threw racism at them.
This matter of failure of scholarship by the African diaspora adversely affected academic work done higher degrees. African students in American and European universities tended to write their desertations about their villages back home (for the strategic virtue that their thesis supervisors were not likely to match their own native knowledge of it), than about even the
environment where they studied. As an illustration,
the Soviet Union lived and collapsed from the fist
decade of the twentieth century to the last decade,
respectively. African historians, economists,
industrial sociologists, biologists, chemists,
strategists, and political scientists, etc. in the
diaspora are yet to tell their peoples back home this
grand narrative. For purposes of its rulers'ideology
and perception of national interest, the USSR
supported African struggles for freedom; as well as
Nigeria's struggle to remain united. Mandela's freedom
and the worldwide celebration of his statesmanship
today wear colours of Bolshevik foreign policy. Our
scholars in the diaspora have failed to write about
the USSR despite either studying there and/or having
access to the rich archives of its opponents in the
capitals of the NATO alliance countries which contain
the whsipers of that history. The bell tolls for the
imagination of their peoples "poorly left behind" (as
Shakespeare might have put it).
The secrets of rural and urban American life; the dense history of ghetoes including that of Harlem in New York; the rich legacy of anti-colonial and post-colonial participatory politics; of their industrialization; the secret of successive American
elites quilting minds and hearts in floods of
immigrants and tending their loyalties against a
pernicious Europe ever hungry for influence in that
vast land; all these and more (including the road to
Mars and the moons of Saturn), need to be opened up to
feed the imagination of those in Africa who are
struggling to build post-military governance in
Africa. However, when in 2000 I stated to a radio
audience in the Washington DC/ Maryland area that I
was doing research ( for what I might learn for the
benefit of Africa) on the way American elected
officials relate to their constituencies, I was
virtually lynched by irrate African-American callers.
So be warned about annoying other imaginations.
It would be a mistake to put all the blame on African scholars in the diaspora. In the last four decades, thousands of African diplomats working in Africa's
numerous embassies abroad and within Africa, have
failed to produce books on "geographies" they have
encountered. Some would accuse them of spending too
much time and energy on getting white women to"pay
back the colonial debt" which white men incurred as
they raped African women under slavery and colonial
dictatorships, to write much. Some would put the blame
on the wilting powers of alcohol thrown down throats
at diplomatic parties. Yet even Algerian, Tanzanian,
Ethiopian and liberation movement "diplomats" who were
widely respected for their diligence on the corridors
of the United Nations headquarters in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, also failed to contribute to building Africa's appetite for "reading books". They have not written books about the politics, economies, diplomatic histories, the insanities and genius of the countries where they have served. Those working in other African countries have failed to capture for us the architecture of governance and collective African diplomacy at conferences of the Organisation of African Unity. Boutrous Boutrous Ghali has told us that Egyptian diplomats see their postings to African countries as punishment. They prefer serving in European capitals ( at least before September 11, 2001 and Bin Laden). They have not even been angry enough
to write with rage.
The poignancy of this ailment was brought home to me when I shared post-dinner ruminations by an Ethiopian/Eritrean civil servant who had served on the OAU secretariat and IGAD. His reminiscenses about the antics and talents of various African presidents and
military rulers as they attending summits of both bodies, were both enchanting and most educative. If he should die, as Diallo Telli and Mwalimu Nyerere did before writing about their moments in governance and diplomacy, all that knowledge will go with him, and
African peoples will continue to find radio listening ( even as opposed to hearing exciting and educative books read to them by their children), more rewarding. Surely, Aluta must start against the condition of the "Africans in diaspora" continuing to be the black
man's burden when it comes to the matter of Africa's
peoples "reading books" for their leisure.