I have just returned from a short trip to back to the motherland and couldn’t help noticing the change in the demographics of the plane I flew out on. Around half of the passengers on this direct flight from London to Accra were now white! Of course it was mainly the half sat in First and Business Class, but it still signals a significant sea change from the plane rides of my childhood when the flight to Accra had all the racial diversity of an early Wu-Tang Clang concert. Back then the idea of travelling around Africa was equated with a death-wish and nobody, I mean nobody had any idea where Ghana was. I’m not even sure I knew where it was and I was born there, all of my family were from there and I had lived there for the first couple years of my life! Ghana’s invisibility was best exemplified by one of my primary school teachers in the U.K, who I remember asking me where my family was from and then responding when I told her with “Erm, I think it’s pronounced Guyana!”
Perhaps many people still don’t know where Ghana is (I’m looking at you Sarah Palin) but it seems a growing number of people do know and whats more, are interested in its culture. Common-placed questions about Ghanaian life in the 1990′s would include: do you have toilets? (yes), do you speak in clicks? (no), do you eat lions/white people? (only on birthdays and Christmas). Now the vibrancy of Ghanaian culture is being matched by its growing ubiquity here in the west: Hiplife music and its accompanying Azonto dance moves are burning up the clubs here in London, the national football (soccer) team won the hearts of neutrals by battling to the quarter-finals of the 2010 World Cup and young novelist Taiye Selasi is making currently waves as her debut novel Ghana Must Go is becoming a literary sensation. Suddenly Ghana is everywhere.
Forgive any murmurings of nationalistic triumphalism in this article; friends please rest assured that I still regard nationalism as a fallacy primarily employed to limit the ambit of our empathy, an illusion wonderfully articulated by comedian Doug Stanhope as ‘hating people you have never met and taking pride in accomplishments you had fuck all to do with.’ However, any joy (not pride) I feel at Ghana’s and in fact Africa’s rise in prominence is based not on any allusions of superiority towards other cultures but just relief at this eventual acknowledgement of the region’s existence beyond the narratives of perpetual war, famine and disease that used to dominate perceptions of Africa.
Unlike the countries in the West where patriotism is used to reinforce a superiority complex which justifies dominant positions within international relations, Africa requires self-promotion just to try and deconstruct the centuries of reductive, repulsive negative characterisation of her and her people in order to justify colonial and neo-colonial exploitation. Some of the worlds greatest minds colluded in this discriminatory portrayal: Hegel, despite being clearly unfamiliar with African geography and history choose to describe what we would now call Sub-Saharan African as the land of child-like infancy where men had not yet attained any realization of God, or Law; Joseph Conrad thought he was critiquing colonialism in the Heart of Darkness but was simultaneously re-inscribing the stereotype of the dark and dangerous jungle dwellers who defied the rational understanding of the Europeans.
The insidious nature of this of depiction can not be underestimated, the consequences of it were still apparent as I was forming my own understanding of the world in the late 20th Century. I laughed as Tintin berated the slow-witted natives, cheered as Hulk Hogan beat some sense into the wrestler Kamala. I didn’t realize that as a young African boy, Kamala was supposed to represent myself. This now amazing clip shows why I may have had some trouble associating with my fellow ‘African’:
Yet nowadays, even The Economist is recognising the rising tide of optimising spreading over the continent . It has changed its tone from its 2000 declaration of Africa as ‘The Hopeless Continent.‘ to in March of this year stating on its front cover that ‘Africa is rising.’ In Ghana that optimism in tangible, reflected by the increase and the variety of visitors. With these visitors comes the evaporation of psychological distance on which economic exploitation was built. Ghana was a land which helped illuminate economic injustice even to a seven year old. “Mum, why was Ghana called the Gold Coast?” the conversation went. “Because there is lots of Gold there.” came the reply. “So Ghana must be really Rich, right?” “No, it is poor. All the gold is owned by multi-national companies based in the West.” That was lesson one in the imbalance of capitalist globalization. But as we move more and more towards a Mcluhan conception of a ‘global village’ the ignorance of Africa that underlies that imbalance will hopefully disappear.
Of course this is a qualified optimism. The continent of course still has a myriad of problems too extensive and complex to be adequately examined here. The region is too varied to really be spoken of as one entity. But if I can be indulged this once, the image of Africa is undeniable changing. The video of Kamala is hilarious now but it was only 1994 when this was normal. So while it may not seem like much to read some Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, cook up some Jollof rice for your friends, or even take the Madonna-sponsored tour of a Malawian orphanage, its all little baby steps to the time when the humanity of the inhabitants of Earth’s most resource rich but materially poor region is no longer minimized.