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23 Sep 2008 00:00
I was travelling in Uganda a few months ago and walked into a bookstore in a small town near the Rwanda border and bought a school history text. As we drove towards Rwanda, I browsed it.
It was a familiar text—we had studied it in school.
The book suggested that the Tutsi were a mysterious and special people. Very tall and elegant, they had been thought to be ancient Phoenicians—the book mentions casually—then says this idea was debunked. They glided effortlessly and superiorly down from the North, with long horned cattle. They carried with them a sort of vague cultural Kingdom-forming software, which they applied wherever they went.
When I was in school, we learned that before colonialism we lived inside our cultures. Like tortoises. Those cultures had characteristics, things you could list like bullet points: nomads, banana-growers. Before tribes came, there were hunter-gatherers, who disappeared into holes in the ground.
The tribes landed from the Nile Valley and from the Congo basin. These tribes spoke languages that were related to one another. After some migrations and wars, the tribes settled comfortably in the school maps and waited for colonialism, independence and the visionary ideas of new leaders to come.
At some point, somewhere—page 13 maybe, the world changed—and ideas and brains mysteriously appeared in our universe. Mercantilism, communism, Islam. Some of these ideas were bad. Colonialism, imperialism. Some were good. Education. Erm — hygiene. Nationalism.
The history book changes and becomes a work of biography of individuals who built the continent. Kenya becomes Kenyatta.
So, inside my head are these images of people wandering down the Nile valley like the wildebeest from the Serengeti. Each tribal citizen is surrounded by a large bubble called language culture. Inside language culture elders run around a 400m track called ritual—and when they are tired they pass the baton down to the New Age set. This baton contains a software program called WISDOM—which is passed down from generation to generation. Nobody knows who invented it. Wisdom is not a creation of a thinking man—it is a silent and sullen gizmo. It just works. When a new generation wears it, presto, their limbs and manner change and they become traditional leaders.
Human will and intelligence do not play much of a role in any of these transactions.
So we become cultural botanists: looking for characteristics—and registering them and remaking them for the purposes of wearing traditional clothes at the Beijing Olympics, the Reed Dance or encouraging cultural tourism, or strategising for post electoral violence. Cultural tourism is sort of like eco-tourism: people, plants and animals are arranged into a dutiful ecology. A performance.
After we have learned about ourselves like this, it becomes easy to say things like: “This is not true Africa.” “This is not African.” “According to African culture.”
We can move from one conversation where ideas are shared, into one where ideas are bounced against culture, which we have come to see as a thing without a brain. It is never a world view, or an engagement with time and space by thinking, breathing, interacting human beings.
We start to become museums of ourselves. We rush about making exhibitions of our culture. In the absence of self-understanding that can stand the test of our times, we speak of our neighbours as cultural artefacts, whose fate is decided by their immovable and unthinking stereotypes.
“That Raila is very ambitious.’
“Kibaki is too clever.”
“Zuma-ness is coming to rape us all!”
“Kwerekweres come from the dark continent and are stealing our light.”
Then, some sort of violence breaks out, causing us to rush in and sensitise people to one another. This involves a workshop, a Powerpoint presentation, a lot of emoting. Sometimes a perpetrator of xenophobia will get to meet the victim and tears will be shed and forgiveness found.
In Rwanda schools do not teach history.
We have ceded this civil space to the loudest educators on the continent. The local and national political leaders who will suggest—from helicopters and loudspeakers, on radio and television—who those people across the river are and the vile ideas and thoughts they deliver. After the election, they import new cars from Dubai, truth and reconciliation conferences from South Africa and post-electoral-violence power-sharing media handshakes from Kenya.
We trust them, because in our schoolbooks, in our newspapers, in all media, more space is dedicated to their ideas and lives than to anything else. So Mugabe becomes as big as Zimbabwe in the imagination of all who love and hate him. In our imaginations Museveni is a big as the Nile Valley. Kagame can drown the genocide. Odinga and Kibaki have rebuilt the goodwill of Kenya. Jacob Zuma is a sort of Shaka Zulu who will poke his assegai and burst the whole justice system of Africa’s largest economy.
We make these kings.
Read more from Binyavanga Wainaina
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