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Some things to know about Africa (#1 & 2)

December 26, 2010
The story of Africa is told outside Africa in many ways, but usually with a focus on Africa’s problems: poverty, death and disease, starving children, corruption, or war. Or it may be the backdrop for a documentary on Africa’s wildlife, or in a travel agent’s safari-and-beach holiday brochure. In the worst case, Africa appears merely as the backdrop for the adventures of Leonardo di Caprio, Bruce Willis or some other Hollywood hero or anti-hero, with Africans as ciphers providing the context for the unfolding story of tragedy and redemption. A quick visit to Google will unearth unending lists of facts about Africa: it’s the second most populous continent, with the worst data for maternal and child mortality, the most coups and civil wars….
…but those are not the only ways to think about the continent. I’m British but I’ve worked in Africa since 1985, am married to an African, and have two children who belong on both continents or neither. I’m no expert but I’ve a personal and professional connection with parts of Africa and a collection of impressions and opinions about the place. Now that the African World Cup year is about over, I thought I’d kick off my new blog with a personal take on a few things that outsiders might like to take into account when they think about Africa as a place to visit, to write about, or to work in. I stress that this is a very personal list, full of massive generalisations, and one which makes no claim to either scholarship or comprehensiveness. I’ll be adding a new item from time to time over the next few weeks – with the ambition of  reaching the total of ten – and may then edit and re-publish all ten as a single post (taking account of any comments received), but here are items one and two, to begin with.

1 Africa is not one place

First off, let’s get the frame right. Can one really identify “African” characteristics, i.e. features recognisable from Dakar to Djibouti to Durban? To listen to or read Western media often gives the impression that Africa is just one place: for example you might be amazed at how many people think there is language called “African”. And how many times have we seen advertisements for an exhibition of “African” carvings, or heard newsreaders talk about “a conference to be attended by representatives from UK, France, Italy, the USA and Africa” – as though Africa were just another country?

When thinking about “Europe” one can at least identify a common cultural base in the classical civilisations and Christianity which historically shaped the way Europeans thought and lived, and which remains recognisable despite the great diversity within the continent. I’d suggest that there’s no obvious equivalent in Africa – unless one were to take the relatively recent common experience of being colonised by Europeans. And yet based on my own experiences in over a dozen countries as diverse and far apart as Mali, Sudan and Lesotho, I think one can generalise to a certain degree – provided one makes it clear that the assessment is general, and that one is describing nowhere in particular, but also everywhere. I would also add that by “Africa” I really mean Sub-saharan Africa – i.e. excluding the countries along the southern Mediterranean shoreline.

 2 The importance of community

 To an outsider, one of the most striking characteristics of African societies is the importance of community. I am sure that a comparative study of African and European speech patterns would find that words meaning “we” are used far more often in the former than the latter, and “I” used more often in the latter than the former. In my experience in Africa people seem habitually to think far more in terms of their group – be it an extended family, a peer group, a village, a clan or a tribe – rather than just of themselves.
This has great benefits, as most everyone exists – and sees himself or herself – within a number of networks. It is great for communication – messages can pass very quickly – and for welfare, as these networks are based on the idea of mutuality and support. They are based on often unspoken obligations and entitlements which can be traced back to deeply internalised sentiments like I help you because your grandfather once helped my father; or you should help me because my aunt once helped your mother – often bound up within economic and cultural systems such as land tenure, inheritance, clan membership and marriage. This is no small thing, and is an essential part of people’s identity.
I have lost count of the number of times I have been humbled and amazed by examples from all across Africa of people reaching out to and helping those to whom they are linked, whether materially or simply by standing together in solidarity. It’s certainly an easy continent for non-governmental organisations to practice “community-based” development in, and many are the schools and water systems which have been built with community labour, freely given in pursuit of the common good.

But community is not always positive: such systems not only provide for the welfare of those within them, they can also discriminate against those who are deemed to merit less consideration: women, young people, members of “other” clans and ethnic groups – and especially against those insiders who push against the boundaries. Women in particular can have a tough time in many parts of Africa: in rural Liberia deep in the forest a couple of years ago I was told in very clear terms by men – while women nodded their agreement – that “women are chattels, and that’s that”.

A person wishing to build a business in many parts of Africa faces a dilemma: to do so he must accumulate capital, and yet less enterprising or able members of his extended family have legitimate claims on his capital to pay for their recurrent needs such as school fees, medical costs, etc. And so to succeed in his business he may have to ignore such claims – to step outside the web of mutual obligations – and thus suffer the opprobrium of those around him, as well as the risk that should he later fall on hard times, his claims for assistance may in turn be ignored by them. I remember well the sense of schadenfreude among people I know in Lesotho when their rich entrepreneur relative fell on hard times: it served him right, they seemed to say; he should have taken more care of his extended family. At an even deeper level it may be that to succeed as entrepreneurs without a massive dose of luck or fraudulent access to cheap capital, Africans have to put aside their very sense of identity: for to take a risk is to put the community at risk.

The culture of community obligations is also linked to systems of patronage and clientilism which have long been identified as obstacles to democracy, e.g. in Africa Works: Disorder as a Political Instrument by Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz. I shall return this theme in a later blog in this series.

The strong sense of community may have an impact on other, more social issues. When I lived in Uganda I became involved in helping families of people with alcohol and drug addiction. I was struck by how unhelpful people found the famous Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to be. Fundamental to the AA approach is that addicts must take personal responsibility for their behaviour, and that those around them must demand that they do so, even be willing to cut them loose if necessary – to stop “enabling their addictive behaviour”, in the parlance. But in African culture the very idea that I can shape my own destiny, or that we can cut him or her loose seemed somehow alien; and even if close family were willing to practise tough love, there was usually another perhaps distant relative ready to step in and by “helping”, make the problem worse. So attempts to reduce alcohol and drug dependency need to be tailored to the cultural context, and recognise that to help those in need, their friends and relatives may have to step outside the community norms and stop “helping” them to stay addicted.

“Community” is a critical factor across much of Africa, especially in rural areas. It’s often held up as one of Africa’s great strengths, and quite rightly so. But it can also be a strong force for the status quo, i.e. an obstacle to change. And people everywhere need to change if they are to make progress.

(On my next post in this series I will discuss Africa’s relationships with the rest of the world).

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul O'Brien permalink
    December 27, 2010 4:08 pm

    Great to see the blog. Looking forward to the next one.

  2. Edward Clay permalink
    December 29, 2010 1:22 pm

    I, too, look forward to the other eight points about Africa – and other blogs to follow.

    On the first one, I don’t see how you can exclude the north Africans from inclusion in the term ‘African’. Surely their distinctive characteristics help emphasise your point about not generalising too glibly. Yet they share the one common characteristic you cite of Africans – of a colonial experience at the hands of Europeans.

    On the second point – community – do Africans implicitly agree with Margaret Thatcher’s view that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and family? Or is the ‘tribe’ another layer within African society, called ‘community’? Certainly, our British use of the term community has little in common with the kind of community you describe, being usually a collection of people in a more or less defined place or having something in common, but much less powerful than the African concept. Communities in both senses are not necessarily helpful to building society (or even a ‘Great Society’). Both comprise people who may combine for limited local purposes but who may be heedless of larger social or national obligations.

    A wayward thought. Where religions which stress personal redemption have made an impact in Africa, how is that idea accommodated within African ideas of communitarianism?

    • January 15, 2011 7:37 pm

      Yes, your point about why exclude the north African countries seems right. I think I do so simply because I have no experience there, and just assume it’s somehow different.

      On community, my instinct is that people in Africa do think there’s such a thing as society. (I think Thatcher probably thought so, too!) When I lived in Mali I felt that civil society – in the sense of the linkages between people, which both bound and enabled them – was so strong, you could feel it in the air, cut it with a knife. There was a great phrase poeple used to use: “la vie associative”. It made complete sense there.

      On religions: I don’t know. My experience is that – as Francis Kuria implies in his comment – the cultural and societal does usually trump other factors. African positions on the schisms within Anglicanism over women priests and homosexuality seem to point to that conclusion.

  3. Francis Kuria permalink
    January 2, 2011 9:11 am

    Thanks Phil for this discussion space. It will be quite interesting and hopefully fulfilling to you. I already find your two items intriguing.

    On what is African, I remember disagreeing with some colleagues on something called the “African Council of Religious Leaders” preferring it to be “Africa Council …”. I argued it was inherently discriminatory as a Caucasian serving within a religious entity in Africa, say as a Bishop, could feel they cannot belong to an African council which has the connotation of what we in Kenya call ‘son of the soil’ which they are not. And that applies and does not apply to north Africa. Are they Africans or Arabs. Do they consider themselves more as Arabs or as Africans. I have not traveled in those lands but from the political posturing of their leadership, they view themselves more as Arabs than Africans.

    On the comment above on the issue of tribe and community, definitely, most people in Africa consider their tribes as a single community with expectations and obligations of the individuals within the tribe community. Indeed the tribal affiliations and obligations is what makes dealing with impunity in African politics so difficult.

    Am not sure that religion has managed to tramp community in much in Africa. A small illustration. In the immediate post-election violence period, we visited a town in Rift Valley Kenya with a team from IA and we met this Vicar, among other religious leaders, of a large Anglican Church in the town. And on discussing the issues and spark for the violence and they can be prevented, he said for him he is first his tribe, then a Christian and lastly a Kenyan.

    The same can be said of Somalia. Despite a single religion of Islam, the clans or as they call them ‘tribes’, fight ferociously. Religious obligations are subordinate to tribes.

    In many communities where religious and tribal rituals are needed, the tribal rituals take precedence, even among ardent Evangelical Christians. For example, during weddings, the priests routinely require the parents of both bride and groom to give “consent” meaning that the customary requirements of dowry have been complied with before solemnizing the union in church. The same with funerals.

    The challenge of building modern nation states in Africa is the challenge of bridging the tribal divides without conquests and domination. That is a very tough challenge.

  4. Adam permalink
    January 15, 2011 7:32 pm

    Thanks for the blog, Phil. Reminds me of Andrew Mwenda’s TED talk:



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