Archive for the ‘Soul’ Category

Castles in the African Sky

July 10, 2009

Countries build skyscrapers to announce their ascendance. Industrialized America in the early twentieth century was the first to do so, building the first several of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. Now it is the new economies of Asia and the Middle East leapfrogging each other to the top – first Malaysia, now China, Taiwan, and Dubai.

The new countries of independent Africa announced themselves differently. Colonialism taught a form of government in which one central and powerful person ruled firmly and lived lavishly. Upon independence, new states acted quickly to emulate such audacious and autocratic government. After years of grand rhetoric about equality and prosperity for all Africans, new rulers rapidly and shamelessly seized all the same trappings of power and wealth as had been enjoyed by the departing Europeans. Many of the new heads of state moved immediately into the empty homes and offices of the former colonial governors. Euphoric populations allowed and even encouraged them to do so, pleased with the obvious symbolism.

Kwame Nkrumah, who in 1957 led Ghana to become the first independent country in black Africa, occupied Christiansborg Castle. Jomo Kenyatta claimed State House, in Kenya. Other rulers constructed new, more modern, palaces and gardens. Among the most flamboyant was the one built, with foreign aid money, by Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Côte D’Ivoire. Most international guests reported being appalled at the grandiose estate. Ivoirians, on the hand, were proud to display such an impressive mark of independence. One local journalist wrote of the home, “It makes me thrilled to be an Ivory Coast citizen.”

The birth of the Big Man was blessed, even midwifed, by the population he would plunder. Decades later, most Africans now resent the decadence of their rulers. The ubiquitous greed and corruption of Africa’s tyrants is truly and literally heartbreaking. What is remarkable and impressive is the resilience and humor of the many millions of other Africans.

What I choose to focus on any given day largely determines whether I love or hate the continent. When I read the newspaper, which every day is full of stories of scandal and graft, I feel sad, angry, and impotent. If it is depressing even for me, I always wonder, how must my African friends feel. I can only imagine the longterm psychological consequences of such persistent political frustration and powerlessness. Immense anger and resentment must be roiling and steaming inside everyone.

Yet everyone continues to joke and to laugh. Music plays on every street, and the continent continues to dance with a full, deep vitality. It is this robust spirit which makes it so inspiring to be in Africa. As the optimism of independence faded across the continent, a senior diplomat at the Organization of African Unity lamented, “Our ancient continent is on the brink of disaster, hurtling towards the abyss of confrontation, caught in the grip of violence, sinking into the dark night of bloodshed and death … Gone are the smiles, the joys of life.” But, miraculously in my opinion, the smiles and joys are not gone. When I remember to look through the muck of politics to see them, I am very happy to be in Africa.