One of the great tragedies afflicting our continent is that the story of Africa and Africans has, from the period of antiquity up till very recently, been told by the ancient Greeks, Arabs and Europeans of all manner and persuasions. This is one of the main reasons why Africa has a uniformly bad press throughout history. It has always been the case of giving a dog, in this case, a whole continent, a bad name with the expressed purpose of hanging it. Africa has been hanged over and over again and it does not appear that there is any redemption in sight. This is in spite of the fact that some parts of the African story is being told by Africans on both sides of the Atlantic. One of such voices and an authoritative one at that, is Wole Soyinka who in his recently published book, Harmattan Haze in an African Spring, addressed the subject of Africa from an entirely African perspective.
As at now, there are not many voices louder than Soynika’s and whatever he has to say about any subject is well worth listening to and when it is about Africa, there cannot be many better placed than him to speak. This collection of essays dealing with diverse aspects of life in Africa and her place in the world, is a very important contribution to the subject of Africa and it is unfortunate, if not tragic, that important as it is there are not many people especially in Africa who will have access to this book. This is because book readership across Africa is low, perhaps, abysmally so and those who will have the opportunity of reading this book, a significant percentage will struggle to come to terms with understanding the message contained within its pages, not because of any obscurity on the part of the author but because of the sophistication of the language deployed within its pages. Many who will read this book will do so with the expectation of getting answers to a host of questions about Africa and many of them will be very disappointed that in the end, they will come away with many more questions than answers. The author has raised many issues but because they are about Africa, the answers could not be provided by him or perhaps, by any one else, not because of a lack of powerful mental effort but because there are no answers, or at least any answers that have the capacity to give satisfaction.
There are now many people, perhaps too many, who are optimistic about the future of Africa and it may well be because her extensive and as at now unquantifiable natural resources and youthfulness of her burgeoning population, Africa will come good in the end. As things stand however, it is difficult to put forward any real grounds to the optimism that is being expressed about Africa’s future. For now, Africa is battling on many fronts: economic backwardness leading to widespread poverty (in the midst of plenty), corrupt leadership, rickety political structures, poor and steadily declining level of investment in education, technological backwardness and a lack of input into the sweeping phenomenon that is globalisation. Soyinka has shown an awareness of these and other problems but it is apparent that before we can take Africa into the future as we need to do, we have to confront her very uncomfortable past, a past which has been dominated by the enslavement of her peoples.
The passion with which Soyinka discusses the subject of slavery suggests that it is important for us as Africans to come to terms with this painful issue. How is it that Africa has survived the steady and massive haemorrhage of her people who for many centuries have been taken away, first across the Sahara to the East and then also to the West across the Atlantic in the greatest forced migration the world has ever seen? How has Africa been able to sustain the loss of so many of her people over such a long period time? Perhaps, the truth is that Africa has in fact not survived the slave trades and when colonisation was added to the mix, it is no wonder that Africa has been brought to her knees. People many think of the slave trade as being expensive in terms of labouring humanity but more important, there is the severe loss of thinking humanity which Africa had had to deal with over such a long period but this aspect of slavery has received very little attention and yet it exists!
Added to the loss inflicted on Africa by slavery and colonisation is the imposition of the monotheistic, Abrahamic religions by the slave traders from East and West, bringing with them strange Christian and Islamic sensibilities and sensitivities which continue to clash with each other and with the indigenous mores which had held sway in Africa since the dawn of time. As with the slave trades, Soyinka has been careful to point out that Africans have been both the victims of and collaborators with their tormentors to whom they have lost body and soul. The seeds which the slavers have planted on the soil of Africa have taken root and are yielding fruit of questionable value, largely because of their intolerance of each other and of course the religious values which satisfied the religious aspirations of African peoples long before the arrival of the slave traders. The result for contemporary Africa is a virulent form of self loathing that has led to the rejection of their African heritage by the adherents of the imported faiths. Whilst pointing out the strengths of African religious philosophies, especially of the Orisa tradition associated with the Yoruba people however, Soyinka ever the secularist is, in spite of his own adoption of Ogun the Yoruba god of metallurgy (and patron of creativity) as a patron saint, does not recommend a return to the worship or veneration of those neglected if not rankly abused ancient gods. He however argues, unconvincingly in my opinion, for the re-institution of traditional African medical practices. There was undoubtedly, a time when Africans responded to disease conditions using their own resources but there is no evidence to suggest that they were any more successful in this endeavour than their European, Arabic or indeed, any other traditional medical practitioners. Indeed, the history of the world is liberally littered with the debris of heroic but ineffectual healing practices and it was not until the recent adoption of a scientific approach to medicine that mankind has been able to come to grips with the problems created by diseases. It is no wonder that life expectancy, especially in the developed countries, has increased by close to 30 years within the last 100 years. This increase has owed less to new and efficacious drugs than to public health measures which have made prevention more prominent than cure. Further scientific investigations of the human body, mind and immediate environment are set to bring even more spectacular benefits to mankind. The future of medicine lies in laboratories all over the world where these investigations are being carried and one of the worries which Africa has to deal with is that precious little such research is being carried out in laboratories situated on the African continent by scientists of African descent.
Three years ago, starting from Tunisia in North Africa, young and disgruntled Arabs, in response to the self-immolation of a desperate fruit seller, took their future in their hands and revolted with patchy success against the dictatorial regimes which had been holding them down for years. The revolt, dubbed the Arab Spring, is an ongoing process and has thrown several Arab countries, notably Libya, Egypt and Syria into serious and bloody turmoil. It is yet too early to predict the eventual outcome of the Arab spring but the hopes that this phenomenon would spread south of the Sahara has remained unfulfilled. As the title of Soyinka’s book suggests, all that has filtered down south is a harmattan haze which is obscuring everything and blanketing the hopes of a much needed African Renaissance with a fine but tenacious blanket of sand. Even when a ray of sunlight somehow manages to penetrate the gloom and raises a glimmer of hope as in the case of the independence of South Sudan after many years of Sudanese state terrorism and ethnic cleansing if not genocide, trouble has not been far behind. Even as I write, South Sudan the world’s youngest state is in the throes of violent clashes which have the potential of escalating into full scale civil war as two sides fight over the crude oil found in Unity State, in the manner of dogs fighting over a bone. Just south of South Sudan the Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic are girding up for a senseless religious war, the kind of war which would have been unthinkable before the arrival of those faiths on the African continent. This and other conflicts now convulsing Africa prompt the question of when Africa will begin to provide sensible answers to the myriad questions plaguing the continent.
Soyinka’s book raises a lot of questions about Africa’s past but important as these questions are, the relentless march of science and ensuing technology is so strong and rapid that the answers to the questions raised by the past may no longer be relevant to the future. Given the example of the mobile phone which is used in so many ingenious ways, Africa has shown that she is ready to embrace and use technology in her own inimitable way. It has now become clear that the only way that the optimism now surrounding Africa can be realised any time in the future is to move away from the chimera of religion to the solidity of technology. Given the history of Africa however, how in the world, can this shift be engineered?