I THINK Binyavanga Wainaina settled one of the vexing questions about Africa: how to write about the continent (or not to write about it, for it is the same thing really) with his wonderful essay “How To Write About Africa”.
It still left some room to play with a few other issues, especially the basic one; what is Africa, is it a continent of 54 countries, is it one huge geographical mass, is it a history, is it a consciousness, is it two sub-continents – one Arab the other, well, Black Proper – or is it a cultural expression? The politically correct position is that Africa is complex, and each of the countries is different, and it is wrong and simple-minded to overgeneralise. Yes, and No.
Nearly a year ago I went chasing answers in a blog [READ Africa Used To Be A Continent Of 50 Plus Nations, Now It’s Becoming One Big Messy But Delightful Country].
Like then, the answer as to whether Africa is one big country (a messy one at that), or several countries in a continent, some terrific, others hopeless, has changed little.
And so back to an old story. One of our daughters used to attend a study group on the weekends along Ngong Road in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. I would drop her off, and park across the street nearby under some acacia trees. I would sit there reading a book, news magazines, or working on my laptop – sometimes for four hours – as I waited. There is a small green park there, and on a couple of occasions I noticed that a young group of what looked like Ethiopians would arrive carrying plastic bags and sit around.
They would open the bags and take out food and share it. By the time they were done, there would be over 20 of them. Then they would start playing a football game.
I got interested in their story, but didn’t want to spook them by inquiring directly. So I asked workers at a nearby workshop. They told that they were Ethiopian refugees and exiles. Sometimes, I was told, Eritreans exiles also gathered at the spot.
On a separate but, ultimately, related event, one Saturday I got the time for an appointment I had in central Nairobi terribly wrong, and had to wait for three hours.
As a good residual Catholic, I decided to go and “pass time” at Nairobi’s St. Paul Church. Friends who used to go there on Saturdays, had told it was a “very modern” and short service. I got the time for that wrong too, but there was a service going on nonetheless. However, it was in French. Turns out it was the service for French-speaking Congolese, Burundians, and Rwandese who live in Nairobi as political exiles, economic refugees, or regular refugees.
And from that I got immersed trying to make sense of the phenomenon of “micro-Africas” in Kenya, and found that they were many; Somalis from Somalia, Nigerians, Senegalese, Sudanese, Zimbabweans, name it.
I got the impression that one of the least understood and under-reported shifts on the continent is this migration by Africans within Africa and how much they are changing the continent. They are breaking down the walls that used to make it possible to say that one African country was different from the next.
So near yet so far
African countries were indeed very different in the colonial period, and the 30 or so years after the 1960s independence period. Those were the days when, if you were calling Ghana from Kenya, the international telephone was routed through London. It was quicker to fly to Bujumbura from Entebbe, in Uganda, by taking a Sabena flight to Brussels, and then from there hop on another Sabena plane from Brussels to Burundi.
Some of this still happens. To this today, to fly to the African island nation of Cape Verde from most capitals on mainland Africa you have to go through Portugal or France.
When I was in Dakar, Senegal, in 2012, a Mozambican editor friend arrived there one day late for a media conference. Why? Because the quickest flight he could find to Dakar from Maputo was via Portugal, where also he got his Senegalese visa!
Still, things were not always what they looked like. Slavery and colonialism, divided Africa, yes. However, in a perverse sort of way, they were also the first globalising forces on the continent. They brought Africa in contact with the rest of the world in a very painful way, but also became the first mass collective experiences for Africans.
Refugees and revolutionaries
However, the real pan-African revolutionaries have been the refugees. Yes, they were running away from murderous armies and warlords at home, but the Barundi refugees, for example, didn’t need to go through Brussels to come to Uganda. They took matters in their own hands, or rather legs, and hoofed it through forests, crossed rivers, ignored borders, until they found a safe valley in another country.
Refugees have a very different view of the countries they are passing through from those who arrive in these same countries by air.
They also tend to have greater impact, because they do so at the retail level – imagine, for example, how much Somali refugees have changed the areas around the Dadaab camps in northern Kenya. Refugees drink - and often brew - the local beer, date and marry the local villagers, and many times destroy the local environment. The latter is harmful, but it is still a serious footprint left behind.
I have met many Kenyans whose parents are Ugandans who lived in Kenya both as refugees and exiles in their tens of thousands in the 1970s and early 1980s. Nearly three out of five times, I have been able to figure out that they were Kenyan-Ugandans (or is it Ugandan-Kenyans?) despite their Kenyan names, and before they told me that they were partly of Ugandan parentage. There is an untouchable African “thing” that increasingly many people on the continent share.
But more direct forces are contributing to turning Africa into one big country, gradually removing the old distinctions and making us one big tribe.
One of them is football. When the African Cup of Nations was first played in 1957, there were only three participating countries. Today, it is huge and we Africans get emotionally entangled in it.
Today, there are many things you find in all corners of Africa – Nigerian films, matatu/dalala mini van buses, boda boda/okada motorcycle taxis, the used cars from Japan and the Middle East, and the English Premier League (EPL).
The value of enemies and rivals
Football-loving Africans are united as fans or enemies of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, or Manchester City. While the EPL has a considerable homogenising effect, it wouldn’t have happened without DSTv pay television and the widespread phenomenon of the sports pub.
It is old in England, but the sports pub has not celebrated its 20th birthday yet in Africa. England’s influence in Africa, and one of its more enduring effects, has happened long after the end of the British Empire – and didn’t require a single soldier or bullet.
All this is before we take into account the role our corrupt and murderous generals plays in homogenising Africa. Nearly 30 years of military dictatorship in Africa – except in a few countries like Kenya, Botswana and Mauritius – again joined the African people in the shared experience of the soldiers’ boot.
Famines too did the same.
A mad general in khakis in Nigeria, or an Idi Amin in Uganda, became instantly recognisable in Egypt or Guinea. A starving child in Niger, brought sad personal memories to a grandmother in Ethiopia.
These were not Africa’s proudest and best moments, but they were our moments, among the many chisels that make up our collective history. Just like the joy of the Cup of Nations is a collective celebration, the tragedy of famine became in many ways a continent-wide bond of agony.
Enter Dubai and Shanghai
Lately, it has been the turn of Dubai and cities like Shanghai to touch Africa. If you walk around Lagos or Accra, you will see many “kiosk” shops. They all look like the ones in downtown Dubai. And most of the goods are from downtown Dubai – or somewhere in China.
The shops off Cairo’s revolutionary Tahrir Square, were among the first to get this Dubai look in the early 1990s. I saw the same thing in Dakar, Accra, Addis Ababa, and Maseru, the capital of Lesotho.
Journalists from other African countries I haven’t been to tell me this “Dubaisation” and “Shanghaisation” is happening in their cities too.
Soon, most shops in African cities will look like the ones in Dubai and Shanghai.
I can go on and on. The short of it that if you live in an African city, there is little to nothing that will be unfamiliar to you anymore no matter which other African city you go to. Africa is becoming one big – and largely unwieldy – country. It is not the united Africa Kwame Nkrumah dreamt of, or Muammar Gaddafi talked up. It is the one the African people have made for themselves.