In this post I’m critiquing a somewhat popular narrative that at least I feel I often hear – about Africa (yes, the whole continent) being labeled as ‘backwards’ in one way or another, and of ‘black people’ (yes, any person of black complexion anywhere anytime) being labeled as lazy and/or ignorant. I hear variations of this narrative propagated both in Denmark (where I’m from) as well as here in Nigeria (where I’m currently visiting). I argue that the narrative is based on ‘bad’ assumptions – bad in the sense that believing in these assumptions has negative implications to the lives of both people. I argue that the only thing you can ‘blame the black man/woman’ for, is for buying into it, believing it, when someone told him/her that he/she was ‘inferior’ and ‘lazy’ (and that is how most people will respond in such a setup) – I argue that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with Africa or with being black. I argue that we should stop propagating this stupid narrative, stop this sloppy discrimination, stop ‘is-ing’ and ‘are-ing’ others, and I then propose alternatives. That instead for instance, whenever we find ourselves in such situations, we can simply shut up and breathe, pay attention and experience what’s going on, feel what’s in your heart… And dont let any shit come out of your mouth…. If you should chose not to understand or read all of it, just understand this: “The words we use in our present, defines our past as well as our future.”… Enjoy the rest of the reading 🙂
A bad narrative (a bad rap)
I’m born and raised in Denmark. In this context I have been brought up to believe that the world is something which can be divided in at least two categories: 1) We use the labels ‘the western/civilised/modern/developed/industrialised world’ to designate a certain area of the world where we at least find the US and (most of?) Europe, and maybe some other countries too but already here my definition is getting blurry as I dont really know more than that.; And 2) ‘the developing/third (sometimes the un-civilised, or more recent ‘non-western’) world’, to designate another area where I guess we find Africa, most of South America, some of Asia, and some of those bombed-out places like Afghanistan, Ukraine, Palestine, Iraq, Libya and now Syria, etc… From the way these labels are being used in normal conversation both in Denmark and Nigeria, another way to describe the categorization is that there exists an ‘Us (developed nations)’ and ‘Someone who wants to be like us (developing nations)’. That’s what I can gather from the discourses I’ve been exposed to in my life so far… Lets repeat that assumption on its own line:
(Ass1): There exists an ‘Us’ and a ‘Someone who wants to be like us’
Now let me repeat, this is an assumption, it is my assumption of what I think is the basic assumption of other peoples talk and actions. That’s why I write ‘Ass1’ to be able to better refer to it in the following. It is an assumption I make based on the conversations/observations I have had myself, or been within hearing-range of, in my life. There is also another assumption that I have observed, and to begin with I thought that the two were causally connected, that the one originated from the other, but I dont think that is the case right now. They are different. The second assumption reads:
(Ass2): ‘We are better’ and ‘You/they are not so good’
The way that this shows itself in conversation is when you hear people saying things like “Look at ‘them‘, they are poor, they are illiterate, they have high mortality rates, they have multitude of diseases and have way too many babies, they dont have stable electricity, they drive like crazy, they are just wasting their resources and they dont work, they have corrupt governments and foster terrorist groups, etc… and ‘we’ dont do all that, we pay our taxes, we go to school, we have child care, we have healthcare, we have stable electricity, good infrastructure, employment and retirement homes, etc – we are ‘civilized’ and they are ‘not'”. Usually, all of these statements are given as self-evident without room for further elaboration – usually it isnt the intention of the speaker to elaborate, question or explain, usually they want to make some ‘point’ that is besides all of this. Something like “.. and that’s why we need to go there and ‘educate’ them… that’s why we need all of your ‘donations’ to do some ‘development’… or that’s why we cant have those kind of people here and we all need to fend for ourselves.”…
Let me just go back to Ass1 and Ass2 before I lose my own track entirely. Regarding Ass1, ‘Someone wants to be like us’…. I dont see a problem with this… Someone wants to be some-thing? That’s fine! By all means go ahead and try your best, and enjoy the freedom of expression and movement which is the birthright of all humans. But lets try to question this assumption specifically anyway: 1) Why do we think they want to be like us? and 2) Why do they think they want to be like us? 3) And who in particular are we even talking about when we say ‘us’ and ‘them’? what are the actual references? do you want to be like PJ Harvey, Beyonce or Weird Al Yankowitch?… I think the very short answer to both 1) and 2) is, because of the information we receive about the world and the various institutions that surround our everyday lives and reinforce our beliefs… In ‘the west’ (1) our media portray ‘them’ as being inferior in one sense or another, and in need of ‘our help’ for their own betterment, and we have various organisations, companies and government entities (all are institutions) by which ‘we help them’. Simultaneously, in the ‘non-west’ (2) their media (and sometimes even manifested in their government policies and in multi-national industries) is drenched in short-term, pro-western/capitalistic propaganda culminating in the ‘same message’ received by their citizens, namely that ‘the west’ is superior and that they need to ‘cater for the west’ first, for if not they will forever despair in their ‘inferiority’ and ‘backwardness’… Now this is some pretty radical statements I’m giving you. You likely want some evidence. I will give you some examples and some various links. As I said, I’m from Denmark and I’ve only been in Nigeria for two months now. When I talk with some of my friends, even if they dont explicitly say that ‘we are superior’, they do keep entertaining the notion that ‘they are inferior’ and that I “shouldnt pick up too much” from this trip of mine. I cant say I blame them, they just want to wish me well using the vocabulary and context they are situated in. Aside from that, when in Denmark and I’m picking up some random newspaper or magazine and if it has any story about Africa at all, there is 85% certainty that that story will be one of the following types: A) ‘look how poor they are’ with images of clay huts, big savannas and rural people walking with sticks, carrying water for miles; B) ‘look how they are starving and struggling’ with images of malnourished children (sometimes with a vulture in the background to really emphasize the feeling of death encroaching), or victims of AIDS or violence or other diseases; C) ‘look how we are helping them’ with some white guy in the middle of a group of overly-happy black rural people and a text about some ‘development’ or ‘aid’ programme and maybe a request for the reader to donate to the project (the ‘white savior‘ syndrome)… I have some personal experiences too that can serve to exemplify point 2), on why ‘they think they want to be like us’. Now, I came to Nigeria to learn about organic agriculture – I generally prefer to be in nature, on a farm, and not interact with too many people on a daily basis. But with my hosts here I’m also at times being taken to different cities or events where my ‘fair-skinned person’ causes a lot of attention and excitement from locals. One of the things I hear a lot, before anyone even asks for my name or where exactly I come from, is “Take me/my child/my daughter/my son to your country” or “I will follow [meaning: ‘come with’] you”. If I’m right in interpreting their words for what they mean, and it isnt just a strange cultural way of showing appreciation, then that shows the belief of 2) pretty well I think. Somehow they are carrying around the notion that ‘here is not good, and there is better’… I’ve actually had people ask me, me, who is a radical environmentalist (/very deep ecologist) and a permacultural designer, to help them get ‘modern mechanised farming’ to Nigeria…? That would be the last thing I would want to do ever… I’m still struggling to convince them that modern mechanised farming is 90% crap and doesnt solve anything but will just make things even worse… Modern mechanised farming is the boys toys of a romanticized era, and you can only play with them as long as you have rich parents, plenty of water and petrol, and neighbors you can steal from… It’s as if that even though it’s a long time since those propaganda car advertisements of the 50’s and 60’s have gone out of print, the romanticized imagery and promises of a bright future it carried is still very much alive in the back of everyones mind, and it still influences their thoughts, words, decisions and actions.
Now, this was some of my personal experiences that I used to exemplify aspects of this situation with, and all this thinking fuels my thirst for giving you a long and boring dissertation of the numerous other ways that I see that power and information is perpetuating this assumption and this narrative in both the west and non-west part of the world. But instead I will leave you with a collection of semi-random links and this quote from Slavoj Zizek highlighting the role of huge social disruptions as a driving force for the susceptibility of people to be influenced by various forms of misinformation/propaganda. Cause please remember, this IS the age of the anthropocene and urbanism away from ruralism and the ‘natural’ normal world that existed just 50 years back. BIG societal changes (as well as changes to biodiversity in general) are happening everyday in a way that affects all of us.
Slavoj Zizek, in his examination of Nazi propaganda, explains that in times of huge disruptions to the social order (from agrarian to urban, religious to secular, manual to mechanized), the populace is highly susceptible to the appeal of both nostalgia and utopia. At first glance those two concepts seem antithetical, but both rely on the myth of the supremacy of the nation. [source]
Lets go a bit more into Ass2. The ‘We are better and you are not so good‘ speaking as a ‘Westerner’, or the ‘You are better and I’m not so good‘ speaking as a ‘non-Westerner’. I think this assumption is highly problematic and anyone who base their actions on this assumption is likely to be creating a bigger mess of things than we already have… Better…? Better at what? The assumption doesnt specify ‘what’, and I think that also adds to the ensuing confusion->misunderstanding->stereotyping->blaming/justifying. If it was specific, like ‘Who is the fastest swimmer?’, we could easily test and measure who is ‘the best’ (of course there could still be the issue of doping or other forms of ‘cheating’, and already that will blur the result… and do you see how we now equated ‘best’ with ‘fastest’?)… But the assumption (Ass2) remains vague – better at life?. To some, that would be a sound way to specify the assumption, and they would go on to say something like ‘We are good at life, see? We are alive and well and have stable electricity, you are not so good at life see? you dont have stable electricity or water, and you die a lot’. But I dont think that is specifying anything at all. In the example of the swimmer we were somewhat able to distinguish who was ‘best’ because we had defined a clear purpose – You two guys start swimming from this end and finish at that end, and whoever is first is best… But what is the purpose of life?… Indeed, answer that question and you will be a millionaire and make a lot of people very happy. But when you dont know the ‘purpose of life’ you wont be able to ‘test’ who is doing ‘better’, and then your assumption is useless and you should throw it out. The concept of a ‘third world’ is a myth and it does not help anyone to keep on propagating that belief (1, 2, 3. Hans Rosling RIP).
But back to the top again. The saying that ‘Africa is backwards‘ illustrates the narrative that propagates throughout both the ‘western and non-western world’, and which I think partly results from these incorrect assumption. Based on these assumptions it is natural that people then will start jumping to randomly derived conclusions and be asking questions like ‘why are they so backwards’. Search google and you will find numerous pages of people asking ‘Why is Africa so backwards?‘ and spending a lot of time trying to identify the ‘reasons’.
Examples of backwardness, laziness, ignorance, etc
I have been in Nigeria for just two months now, but I will list some examples of the ‘backwardness’ I see here.
- Nigeria is soo backwards that they dont even care to use chemical pesticides or fertilizers on their crops. 90% of the food grown here is naturally organic and they dont even care to certify it either. (This is similar to Denmark 100 years back[#getlink]). Conversely, we in the ‘western world’ spend abnorm amounts of money and petrol on expensive mechanization, chemicals, ingenious ways of administration, certification schemes and control of farm land so that we can create an abundance of food via monocropping that we export (or just dump, depending on the economical forecasts, speculations and fluctuations) to other countries while simultaneously importing (sometimes the same) food from other countries to eat for our own consumption… I do also see a discouraging trend in Nigeria too though, at least in this part of Nigeria people are very eager to consume ‘all-things-western’, and even though little chemicals are used on the fields, many of the food products (like yoghurt, jam, bread, milkpowder, etc) which arent simple crop have a lot of added chemicals, additives/supplements for reasons I dont understand.
- Nigeria is soo backwards that they dont even keep eggs refrigerated. And if you dont buy a whole crate you are handed the eggs in a small plastic bag and then it’s your own responsibility to make sure they dont break on the transport home. Conversely, in Denmark it’s a matter of food safety that eggs should be stored at maximum 4 degrees Celcius (in Germany and most other places in Europe I believe they set 11 as the maximum). This makes it difficult for small-scale farmers to sell eggs but it keeps everyone ‘safe’ from warm eggs…. Nigeria is a tropical country so rarely does the temperature drop below 20 degrees Celcius… I will try to find out how many people have contracted any illnesses from eggs.
- Nigeria is soo backwards that just a few decades ago it was the norm for a family to sit on the floor and eat from the same plates and bowls with their right hand after washing it. Such kind of behavior would actively microdose all the members with saliva from the others, inducing hormesis in all. Conversely, in Denmark we have proper etiquette and sit on properly designated chairs with at least a fork and knife, and a plate of our own which is strictly off limits to the others. This sitting on chairs can give us many different backproblems as the spine is not being exercised as much, but we believe chairs is the proper way to sit. And I guess the isolation on the chairs and of our plates, is a way to prepare us for the isolation in our adult lives the way civilized people live… Truth be told, the Nigerians are beginning to adopt the culture of Denmark and the west too, you find Nigerians now, who frown at sitting on the floor eating of the same bowl as others.
- Nigeria is soo backwards that also just a few decades ago, it was the norm that when you are married, the inlaws will sponsor your first year together so that the only activity of the new couple is to honeymoon through that whole year. The belief was that a couple who spend 1 whole year together, will be able to spend the rest of the life together. I remember someone telling me that in Yoruba there isnt even a word yet for ‘divorce’. Separation does happen though, but not much. Conversely, in Denmark we marry out of love, and often we throw big celebrations too, but we also get divorced a lot, but that’s ok because then we just try again and again until we are 100% sure that we have found ‘the right one’… Truth be told, love and marriage is not easy anywhere. Nigeria is a strongly hierarchical and patriarchal country with partially legalised polygamy and illegal homosexuality. But one thing is what the government dictates, another thing is what happens on the sheets and in the corridors. Nigerian women certainly dont ‘seem’ subjugate to men in marriage nor in the workforce in general. I’ve heard more than one story where women take matters into their own hands if they are dissatisfied with something, and that is respected by the majority of people as a basic human right for all.
- Nigeria (or at least Yoruba land) is soo backwards that they still, since the 4th century, use the concept of chiefs and kings for the governance of the society… For each village there is a chief, a ‘head’ of the village – a somewhat independent guy, elected by the community and other chiefs and which the villagers can go to to resolve their disputes, promote initiatives and which can partake in traditions of the village. For each bigger city there is a king, a ‘head’ of the city – a somewhat independent guy, elected by the community and other kings and which can settle certain disputes, promote initiatives and partake in traditions of the city. For the region in total, there are two great kings, one is the ‘political head’ (the Alaafin of Oyo) and the other is the ‘spiritual head’ (the Ooni of Ife). Both are kings of all the subordinate kings. They are somewhat independent guys elected by heredity to Oduduwa and by the existing kings, their function is to settle certain disputes between sub-ordinate kings, promote initiatives and partake in the traditions of the region… This is 80% similar to the societal structure they had in 18th century UK (and to some extent still have today with the House of Commons and House of Lords (Lords Spiritual, Lords Temporal)). On top of this monarchical structure they have a republic to govern the nation as a whole, and state governors to govern each state similar to the structure of US… Now, to be fair I dont have any direct insights into these political/religious powerstructures myself, I’m skimming different information I find, and I have been told that the actual power of all these chiefs and heads is dwindling to mere symbolic performances as the nation is evolving towards more of a Montesquieu’ian ‘Separation of Power’… But lets look at the converse again, Denmark – ‘the developed nation’. We have the ‘Separation of Power’ written into our constitution but more and more we are witnessing the effects of a fourth power – the mass media and the social media. We are nowhere near the Berlusconi’an conditions of ‘democracy-gone-astray’, but the principle is the same – if the politicians and their spin doctors and PR secretaries can control, prime or frame the information (the content of the media) that the public has access to, then they (the media) have actualised power by being able to set their own discourse. That’s a big problem for our democracy. And even if we didnt have that, we still have other problems. Over the last 10-20 years we have seen a huge cutting back of the socialist-oriented public sector that was the backbone of this western welfare society. Municipalities have been de-established from the city-level and centralised into regional-level with the effect of increasing the transportation cost when citizens need to settle disputes, and increasing stress on public workers who need to deal with more, and more varied problems at the same time with less coworkers and less resources…. I’ve been rambling for too long on this topic now. Bottom line is that ‘societal power and structure’ is not all peachy in Denmark or ‘the western world’ either. Stupidity and ignorance is not confined to the border between one country and another, it is pervasive. Likewise with wisdom and dedication. Just because a form of social structure is being propagated by the west does not mean that it by default is wise and without flaws. In my cursory understanding of the function of chiefs in Nigeria and the function of municipalities in Denmark (), I would say that they are quite similar – their function is to handle disputes and promote good initiatives in the community. And with the demise of political (will-)power and dedication in Denmark, we might find ourselves in the ‘same situation as Africa’ in a decade or two.
- In Nigeria, waste is for the most part, just thrown out on the streets or into the bush and burned. In Denmark, we have at least built big factories and employed people to take the waste for us, put it in a truck, drive it around town for a while and out to the far-off factory… and then burn it, using some of the fire for heating or electricity… In the US, instead of burning it they like to burry it, trying to isolate big areas to prevent un-preventable leaching of the landfills. I’m generalizing. Different cities/states in both Nigeria, Denmark and US have their own local policies on waste management that are more safe and healthy for the residents than the examples I just gave you. San Francisco for instance is very progressive when it comes to creating a ‘zero waste’ policy for it’s residents. And on a visit to Ado in Ekiti state, Nigeria, I saw what looked a lot like the 3-bin waste management system that they have in San Fransisco.
- Nigeria (Yoruba) is soo backwards that while they do have names for ‘man’ and ‘woman’, I dont think they have any way of specifying he, she or it in ordinary conversation, they use the same word. On top of that, all the names of people are gender neutral, they are more functionally-oriented and designate a ‘joybringer’, ‘wealthbringer’, ‘divine carer’, etc. Conversely in Denmark we know very well whether something was made by a ‘he’ or a ‘she’, we know the difference of gender and we can perfectly well tell a male driver from a female driver for instance… We also have very clear personal names that we go by, names do not ‘mean’ anything here.
- ‘Black people’ are soo lazy and ignorant that they created language, traffic lights, CGI tech used for Jurassic Park and Nintendo 64, potato chips, cooled vehicles, CCTV, white, yellow and red people, etc
What to do when you cant reduce someone/something to fit a simplified image?
I have spent a long time now on presenting my thoughts on why you cant just make the statement that ‘Nigeria/Africa is backwards?’ and ‘the western world is good’, but anyone who says to you ‘No, you cant do that’, without providing some suggestions or an alternative thing that you can do instead, is not really helping you either. So allow me to also try and formulate some other things you can do.
- Breathe… I mean it, this is not a mockery. If you find yourself in some conversation that suddenly revolves around an ‘us and them’ scenario, just breathe – dont jump to any conclusions, dont get into any kind of “is’ing”-argumentation (for instance ‘they are so and so, and we are so and so’). There are many different ways of breathing, so you can just pick your fancy, but I would recommend to first exhale completely and then let a deep, calm inhale find its way to your stomach, repeatedly.
- Ask questions… If someone says ‘They are X’, then ask them what X means to them, if they can show an example, if they can come with an example of the reverse either in the same situation or in another situation. Does it mean the same to you and the other listeners?. Ask ‘why’ – why does the commentator think that ‘They are X’, what assumptions do they base it on. Ask what they would propose to ‘do about it’ and brainstorm how their proposals could cause harm and benefit? Ask ‘who’ – who in particular are they talking about, what are the specific situations of whom they are taking about, to what extent can they justify generalising that instance to the many. Then lastly ask if they really think what they say, that ‘They are X’ or if ‘They are doing X sometimes and sometimes does Y’.
- Read… The word ‘read’ has roots in the latin word for ‘to guess‘. As humans we cannot escape our fundamental nature of ‘guess-working’ our way around life, but we can train it. We can train it by reading a lot. We can educate ourselves and we can become more consciously aware about our being and our connectedness. Here are some semirandom suggestions for reading:
- Gregory Bateson: Steps to an ecology of Mind
- Huizinga: Homo Ludens – a study of the play element in humans
- Dan Dennett: Intuition Pumps
- Ong: Orality and Literacy
- Campbell: The hero with a thousand faces
- Diane Eisler: The Chalice and the Blade
- Masanobu Fukuoka: The Natural Way of Farming
- Nicolas Talleb: Antifragile
- Noam Chomsky: Manufacturing Consent
- Marshal McLuhan: Understanding Media + The Global Village + The Media is the Message
- Hubert L. Dreyfus: Being-in-the-world: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time
- Routledge 1981: Bertrand Russell’s Best
- John Pilger johnpilger.com
- George Monbiot monbiot.com
- Jon Kolko: Wicked Problems
- Adam Curtis: The century of the self + Oh dearism, etc
- positivemoney.org + thersa.org + icij.org + whatgreatbossesknow.com
- Bill Mollison: Permaculture Designers Manual + The Permaculture book of Ferment and Human Nutrition
- Rob Hopkins: Transition culture
- David Deida: Superior man + Dear lover
- Kodish: Drive Yourself Sane
- Somé: The Healing Wisdom of Africa
- D Steele: The open-source everything manifesto
- Cernovich: Gorilla Mindset
In summary, I dont think this is a very complicated issue, but it is an issue that is grown totally out of proportion and is detrimental to the lives of billions of people on an everyday basis. Whenever we create a situation, a certain structural relationship, as exemplified by Jane Elliott’s Brown Eye/Blue Eye experiment, or Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment, etc., then people start to define people in terms of ‘traits’ instead of actions, and from there they start justifying their own sloppy discrimination and mistreatment of them, and a lot of other random shit happens which isnt good for anyone…
Let me just take this all the way to the extreme by saying this: Like Freud argued that for a girl to mature into her full female identity she first has to pass through a stage of ‘penis envy‘, I wish and hope that the ‘white man’ (the ‘western world’) will grow out of his ‘black envy’ (‘non-western’ envy) and reach a sane and mature identity too. Sooner rather than later.