Of African Writers and their Uncles

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

First published in Next Newspapers, February 6, 2011. Reproduced for archival purposes only.

Every now and then, the white man, cursed with too much money in his pockets, rounds up all the African writers he can find and sends them off to a conference somewhere exotic and romantic (rarely ever in black Africa) and instructs them to engage in discourse on the African situation. These writers are usually resident abroad, away from Africa’s unnecessary roughness. I call these gatherings pity parties because after a few glasses of cheap red wine, the writers become weepy and whiny and start making pathetic statements about, the burden of being an African writer or a writer of color, the limitations such labels clamp on them and their long suffering muses, whine, whine, whine. I wish they would invite me to these affairs. I love cheap red wine.

It is true that the West for whatever reason is more comfortable seeing people of color, especially Africans, as the other. Nothing we do makes us escape the label of the other. Professor Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart, one of the world’s greatest books of all times. The other day, a major newspaper in the West described it as an African novel about a simple yam farmer. But then, many African writers or writers of African extraction living abroad are truly divorced from Africa and her myriad issues; forget the lush writing about Africa. Having being raised “white and civilized” through no fault of theirs they chafe violently when referred to as anything other than what identifies them as remotely removed from Africa. They wave their wine glasses at the world, shake their ice cream spoons indignantly and exclaim, how dare you call me African? It is not their fault. They were raised to eat their cake and have it. They are really no different from the rest of the African intellectual and political class misruling African nations today, raised to be smug, conceited and lacking in principles and compassion. These misrulers ignore the squalor around them that Africa has become, they loot funds, they build islands of heaven for themselves and they jet to the West to check that rash on their knee and proclaim their humanity to the West in their fake accents.

When you examine African writing or writing from the writers of African extraction, one thing is clear; it is blessed with an abundant narrowness of range and vision. There is the understandable obsession with everything African. In their writings, huts, moons, stars, fearsome masquerades, wars and malevolent spirits come tumbling out, chased by constipated army generals. The most unprincipled of them hawk these exotica to the delight of bored suburbanites in the West. Distance and time don’t seem to matter to these folks. If you have been in America for three decades, rarely going home to visit, what about contemporary Africa would inspire you to write an African story worth reading?

Do not get me wrong: I truly believe that many of our writers write with a genuine social conscience and indeed are too busy thinking about real social issues to worry about whatever name they are called. Indeed, the sad truth is that the story of modern Africa is a single story of deprivation, pillage, abuse and mayhem in the hands of her black misrulers. The white man did not invent today’s single story, we did. He may have come over to our ancestral land to upend the mango cart, but today we are the ones raping, and pillaging Africa and generally making life miserable for our people. That is the single story. It is virtually impossible to write about anything else. The political elite aided by our unprincipled intellectual elite have lain to ruins all institutions and structures that sustain robust states elsewhere. It is profitable to blame the white man for our ineptitude because suffused with guilt he rewards our irresponsibility with even more grants and awards. The white man loves to play uncle to us.

As African writers, we must get off our high horses and help the people who denied themselves everything to save us from that which we now abhor. Memo to the African writer who proclaims his or her whiteness er humanity at every turn: If you want to be known as just another writer, simply write whatever truly rocks your boat. If you feel no obligation to be an African writer, by all means, stop being one. Be a plain vanilla writer, living in the West. Why not write about America? Look out your window in America and write about deer gamboling on your manicured lawn.  Look out your windows and write about the majesty of the land that adopted you and freed you from the harshness of Africa. Sing the praises of those that clothe and nurture you daily. And when you are done, chronicle and clothe their neuroses and anxieties with the awesome power of your words. If you are a writer and all your five books have been about suffering in Soweto, the white man should be forgiven for calling you an African writer. Get over it.