20 June 2013

Africa: Fear and Freedom in Africa


The biggest problem facing African youth today is not a lack of opportunity, or poverty, or whatever. Our biggest problem from where I stand is our inability to see ourselves with unfiltered honesty and a raw love

When I was asked to reflect on the state of youth in Africa, I have to admit, I balked at the enormity of the task. Youth is a poorly defined category; Africa, more so. And as for the state of both - well, how would I know? How can I claim authority to speak on behalf of the millions of young people across what is perhaps the world's most diverse continent? I don't believe I can, so I won't. Instead allow me to reflect on a theme first exposed by one of my personal heroes, who to me represents African youth at its most powerful - Steve Biko:

"Freedom is the ability to define oneself with the possibilities held back not by the power over other people...at the heart of this kind of thinking is the realisation ... that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed."

In thinking about African youth, one theme that recurs is the notion of freedom, or more accurately, the sense that despite their best efforts, African youth wherever they find themselves may not have attained the freedom that the independence struggle set out to claim on their behalf. We are poor, sick, unemployed and at least according to my popular statistics, ignorant. Biko was concerned that the black man - and he is astute in noticing that "black" as social construction is not a function of the colour of our skin - had so internalised the negative baggage of his racialisation that he was incapable of appreciating the true freedom of being at home in one's own skin. For him, freedom didn't come from wealth or power. It came from accepting one's self on his or her own terms, from accepting or rejecting ideas based on reality, rather than an oppressive, hand-me-down ideology.

What would Biko say if he looked out on African youth today? Would he be proud of how far we've come? Would he be embarrassed of how far we have to go? I'm inclined to believe that rather than bemoaning the lack of employment opportunities, or demanding the participation of young people in ultimately meaningless and poisonous politics, Biko would be distressed at the state of the African mind. I think that Biko would be concerned that with so much attention being given to adopting deeply flawed theories of economic development, we've forgotten to stop, look and think for ourselves. In the process, we've lost our freedom, our ability to determine independently what "progress" means, and how best to achieve it.

"Man is free, but everywhere he is in chains". Jean Jacques Rousseau

I believe that at this stage in our collective development, youth in many African countries are still seized by flawed ideas of what progress looks like. We hold ourselves to impossibly high standards of "development" that have only been truly achieved in a handful of countries, none of which are particularly vocal about the need to achieve these goals. Instead, we remain enthralled by former colonies like France and the UK, which have mastered the art of manipulating national narratives so that the truth of inequality and exclusion in those societies is conveniently pixelated. More distressingly, we perceive each other with fear - internalising the idea of African nativism and brutality that is pervasive in international media.

Having visited nearly 29 African countries, I've had a recurring and troubling experience. With my large backpack and my sleeping bag, people assume that I am African-American, and when they find out that I am not, they repeat to me the narrative of violence in Kenya that they've seen played out international television. (Or say "Obama".) As a backpacker, I stay in small hotels where I am able to interact with local people, and although more often than not I am the first Kenyan that some of my hosts have met, they are fast and furious with stories of how violent and unstable Kenya has been over the last 10 years.

Nor have I been immune to such ill-directed fear. In August 2007, I arrived in Burkina Faso alone, with nothing more than my large travelling backpack and my sleeping bag. I had never been to Ouagadougou before. I was scared. My guidebook was decidedly lukewarm on the country - Burkina Faso was just not set up for tourism. All my friends said they thought I was "brave" - I felt foolish.

I won't bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that my trip to Burkina Faso was one of the most memorable experiences that I've ever had. Aside from the beauty of the country in all its complexities, the incredible warmth of the welcome I received took me by surprise. Strangers opened up their homes to me. I never paid for transport. I rarely paid for food. Like most, I grew up consuming information filtered through the US and the UK. I really believed CNN and BBC and all of those news outlets that told us that Africa was dark, dangerous and scary. Today, I am ashamed of the fear and trepidation with which I lived on those first few days in Burkina Faso.


Malcolm X has an amazing video on YouTube where he asks a group of Nation of Islam women: "Who taught you how to hate your hair?" His eloquent exposition was aimed at women who spent a fortune on hot combs and hair rollers and all sorts of chemicals to take the apparently bad "kinks" out of their hair, and replace it with "better" straighter hair, never mind the cost to the low-income families, or the time wasted. He points out the extent to which these seemingly harmless practices went right to the heart of the nature of the cultural and social oppression of black people during the heart of the Civil Rights struggle. For him, it's not just about how you like to wear your hair. Time spent in the salon chair is time that could be spent organising, supporting the struggle, learning and teaching.

Borrowing from X, I would ask African youth: who taught us to fear each other?

I'm inclined to believe that we are in fear of an Africa that does not exist save in the mind of an overzealous elitist journalist in search of a sexy by-line or adventure. I challenge you: gather all of your friends who have a passport and have ever used it and ask them where they've used it. Then, ask them why? Walk through the diplomatic quarter in your city (if there is one) and count how many people are lining up against the US and UK embassies, itching for a visa. Now do the same outside an African Embassy. Except South Africa, for which African countries do you find lines of people braving cold, rain and all sorts of inclement weather just to get that stamp in the passport that says: "you can come in"?


After 29 African countries of travel, I've heard it all. Tribes are useless. Kenyans are violent. Tanzanians are lazy. Nigerians are criminals. South Africans are racist. The DRC is too dangerous. Where is Namibia? All from the mouth of other Africans who have never been or even dreamed of going to the countries in question. We make all these definitive statements based on information filtered through an elitist and biased lens, that is comparing the worst of Africa with the best of the US or the UK. Africans are otherised, and we play along, forgetting that we are Africans too. Then we learn to hate ourselves and fear each other simply because the narrative tells us to.

There can be no fear in freedom. True freedom makes judgments based on assessments and experience, and where experience cannot be first hand, true freedom demands that we draw our knowledge from reliable sources. Ask yourself, if you were a lion hunting a kill, would you take knowledge of where to hunt from a wildebeest? Wouldn't you treat any such information with scepticism? Wouldn't you rather get your information from, say, another carnivore?

So why, when we don't know something about Africa, do we run towards people who have a vested interest in telling a negative story about us? Why do we give more credence to reports and studies that come from outside - funded by organisations that want a certain story to tell and the money to pay someone to tell it? I'm not saying that all news or academia coming from Europe or North America is bad, but a lot of it is. Trust me - I've been inside the belly of the beast, and I can say without fear of contradiction that the tangled mess of vested interests, intellectual masturbation, and sheer laziness is frightening. Universities and media houses are fighting for their existence, and will tell any story that can be neatly packaged and sold to feed the fear of a paying audience. And don't even get me started on "development".

"The most potent tool in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." The potency of this tool comes from its ability to skew our thinking and shape our actions. Like a child who, seeing shadows at night and believing that they are ghosts, cannot leave his bed to relieve himself, our irrational fear of each other is forcing us to sleep in the urine of lowered expectations and mutual suspicion. We take our hard-earned money and pour it into European hotels as if holidays cannot be had in Africa. We pay a fortune for imported clothes but haggle over 20 cents with the tailor down the street. We celebrate when our children marry foreigners but threaten to disown them if they marry the young person from the country next door. Based on what?


Youth represents an extraordinary time of the human life cycle, and the evolution of society has opened up more opportunities to do something with that youth than ever. We are having children later than our parents did. We are not taking on financial obligations as early as they did either. Youth today have more money (even if less property) than their predecessors. More importantly, we have more opportunities to talk directly to each other, without the filtered lens of government propaganda machines, or Eurocentric intellectual dishonesty.

So as I reflect on the state of African youth, it occurs to me that the biggest problem facing African youth today is not a lack of opportunity, or poverty, or whatever. Our biggest problem from where I stand is our inability to see ourselves with unfiltered honesty and a raw love. Albert Einstein once said: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." Our biggest problem is that we are fish, comparing ourselves to monkeys, lamenting our inability to climb trees, and failing to see the pure genius that lies in the way we swim. More than that, we look over at each others' struggles with contempt and with fear, believing that our complexities are to be feared rather than to be understood and resolved.

The challenge as I see it is for African youth to learn to love Africa again, which begins with two steps. Firstly, read. Read all those powerful, eloquent African thinkers who set out a vision for an independent Africa, whose voices were too quickly silenced by the fears of the day. Read Biko, Toure, Cabral, Lumumba - read them all and remember a time when we believed that Africa had everything it needed to be great. Second, go and see for yourself. I cannot begrudge the young man who is squeezed out of his home country, across the Sahara, in search of a living wage denied him by his own people. But for the young people who are within reading distance of this missive, go and see your African neighbour for yourself. Take the bus from Nairobi to Kampala. Take the ferry from Brazzaville to Kinshasa. Don't buy everything you read about other African countries, but more importantly, don't be afraid of them.

Use the incredible freedom offered by modern youth to go and see for yourself, then come back and tell that story and drive out someone else's fears.

H. Nanjala Nyabola is a Kenyan writer and political analyst, currently based at Harvard Law School.

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