I am never really sure where I stand with Africa. A large part of me is in love with the sunsets, the noise and the typical aspects of African life like the food and the stories; I adore the African wisdom and the proverbs – I grew up with most of these things. I am attracted to the history (both good and bad); I like having a history with a texture, a feeling, a conscience. The history is one thing I have come to appreciate as I have grown older. I like the way we can still say things without worrying about a lawsuit and it tickles me to no end when I hear how Africans twist alien concepts to suit their world. The gender politics at play in a hair salon or the fiery celebration of life at a wedding feast – these are things that Africa does well; they make me happy. When I call myself an African, these are the things I bind to my identity; all of the small things that never make it into the Hollywood documentaries and films.
But then there is the dark side; the small voice inside me that urges me to flee this place as quickly as I can.
The small voice inside me cannot handle the lack of Wi-Fi, the dirty streets with feral dogs running around, the AIDS orphans and the political scandals. As much as I love the sunsets, I know that there will be mosquitoes once the sun goes down – lots of them. And when I say I love the proverbs and the stories, the sad fact is that the wisdom and knowledge contained in these old tales is largely ignored. It is true we are not easily offended by what our neighbours say – unlike the US, it is generally considered uncool to sue someone because they called you a wet pansy – but the downside is that political speech comes at a price few are willing to pay. Gender politics is almost non-existent. Sure there are a few feminist voices here and there, but let’s face it, Africa has a long schlong – the social, economic and political climate of the continent is largely XY, and it is not changing fast enough. Just ask the hair braiders and the wives at the aforementioned wedding feasts. Most are trapped in a patriarchal prison they don’t know exists.
So where is it that I stand with Africa? I don’t know. We have a love-hate thing going on. Like all relationships of this kind, I should have ended it years ago. But there is always something that keeps me hanging on, something that keeps me coming – sometimes foolishly – back to this place most people would feel in a heartbeat. In some relationships, it is the fear of being alone that keeps people trapped in a vicious circle of disappointment, for others, the sex is just too damn good. And if you’ve been to Africa, you know what I mean when I say that when Africa lays it down, it lays it down properly. There are days when I can’t walk.
But it’s not every day that Africa rocks my world. On some days I feel like I am trapped in an abusive relationship. I’m in the kitchen, cowering, waiting for Africa to come home hungry and angry. Am I getting punched in the kidneys or being slapped in the face? Perhaps I’ll get kicked in my intimate bits, right in my democracy – that’s where it hurts the most. Who knows?
A sane person would pack up and leave.
But this is one of those stories we read about in newspapers, the kind that makes us roll our eyes and ask judgmental questions like “why didn’t she leave him?” or say fake macho shit like “if that was me, I would have stuck a knife in him and got rid of the bugger.” You know, that misguided tough guy nonsense people who have never walked a mile in someone’s shoes always say.
Just as I am about to leave the damn thing, Africa begs me to stay. It promises to change and says that tomorrow, everything will be different – everything will be better. It buys me roses, it gets me some yam fufu and plays some Salif Keita for me. It dances with me, it twirls me. It whispers gently to me that when the sunrises tomorrow the past will be the past. There will be a new future for us, and if I stay, I will not regret it.
And I stay.
Sometimes Africa is true to its word. I wake up and lo and behold, there is a young entrepreneur in rural Zambia bringing technology to places Google Maps doesn’t know exists; there is a Namibian girl that winning science competitions overseas; Ghana is even reaching the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Some days there is nothing better than waking up in Africa.
At other times, Africa also lies. I rise to find a massacre in the Ivory Coast, rigged elections in Nigeria, tender fraud in South Africa, elephant poaching in Kenya and jail terms the likes of which rapists and murderers will never constitutionally face, being imposed against homosexuals. Yes you, Malawi. I’m talking about you.
It is a vicious cycle of denial with moments of happiness. Today might be better than tomorrow but the day after is not guaranteed. Sometimes staying in Africa is like going to a back-door abortion. You lie to yourself that everything will be okay, that it will be over in a little bit. That this moment, right here is necessary in order to continue with your life – if whatever ill-conceived life inside you is pulled out quickly, life will go on normally. Yet deep down, you know that you are fucked. It is going to leave you scarred and angry.
Sometimes it is painful being African. More times than I care to admit, it was made me want to leave.
Leaving the continent is something that has crossed the mind of many an African on more than one occasion. Admit it. It has. There is no point in lying. Just like I know you cannot stay still if I put on Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata”, I know that you have contemplated departing this place and settling in a country where it snows; where the population pyramid looks less like a pyramid and more like the outline of a middle aged woman squeezing into a dress five sizes too small: small at the bottom, wardrobe-flat in the middle, heavy at the top. Sweden perhaps. Or Norway. Come on, I know you’ve thought about this.
Perhaps the thought was planted when you were younger while watching a travel commercial on CNN – that “Malaysia, truly Asia” commercial should be taught in Travel Envy 101 – or when you realised that there are no superheroes from Africa. Tarzan does not and will never count. Yes, I see you slowly admitting it.
The idea might have crept into your mind, slowly at first when you were churned around different bureaucratic channels just to get a stupid form stamped at Home Affairs, and then exploded like a virus once it was made clear to you that the line you had been standing in for the past eighteen hours was in fact not the correct one. The correct line for Your Particular Form is actually in A Building, located Somewhere Across Town In a Suburb You Didn’t Even Know Existed, and thank you very much, goodbye sir.
(Oh, did I mention that this Building has the working hours of the Loch Ness Monster? A lot of people claim to have seen people working there. Some even tell of their papers being processed. But the verdict is still out whether the place itself actually exists.)
Ha! See, you have thought about leaving!
Sooner or later, cutting the umbilical with the continent that “gave you life” will torment you, it will gnaw at your mind, making every second spent here feel like an agony. I know the feeling quite well. When I graduated in 2010, I was ready to throw in the towel. Anything but Africa would have done at the time.
Yes, I admit it. I wanted to take my degree and run.
And who would complain if they were in my position? I was 22, a young BA Law graduate from UCT, the holder of a foreign passport which meant that whatever job I applied for, I would always be second best regardless of my qualifications. I would never be allowed to climb as high as I could go in the corporate world because somewhere, there would always be some kid who had Daddy pulling all of the strings for him. And it is almost always a him. Remember that thing I said about Africa having a schlong? Yep, it’s always a guy.
Now some may say that things back home would be more promising but the reality is that they are not. Home in the official sense of the word is Rwanda. I hear they have good hotels there.
Whatever they have, I am not going back. I have lived too long in Namibia to actually call myself Rwandan. I have become accustomed to the heat, the sand and the mosquitoes which have now become so advanced they have trade unions. In another few years they will have a fully functioning democracy. The employment landscape in Namibia is as harsh and as nepotistic as any in Africa; it is less about what you know and more about who you know. Like the rest of the continent, employment opportunities seem to be genetic, transmitted between incestuous family groups that make sure that Junior and Junior Jr as well as all his incompetent relatives and more dim-witted friends will always get hired before you.
So let’s say we have scratched out Namibia and Rwanda. Where does that leave me?
Hmm. What about South Africa? Population of about 48 million people, most of them owning less than 70 percent of the land and resources. It’s nothing new; too few people in the BMW and Bentley group owning everything. And like the rest of Africa, they are keeping all the keys to themselves. Also, there are thorny issues about land rights, race relations and whether Benni McCarthy can still fit into a soccer jersey. Although I can live with the first two, it’s the Benni thing that drains points from South Africa.
That’s three countries down. Where does that leave me?
The rest of Africa.
And what about the rest of Africa? The question seems to answer itself – what about the rest of Africa? It is a hard question to answer. It’s almost rhetorical; if you started answering it your run into landmines as soon as you say Angola. I apologise for that statement. Bad taste. I just wanted to make an explosive point. Okay! I’m sorry.
But the question still demands an answer. And not just that press statement nonsense of “there are many opportunities in Africa and it high time that the youth – wank, wank, wank, wank – vote for me – wank, wank, wank, wank – the future is in our – wank, wank, wank!” I am talking about a real answer: when we Africans say that there are opportunities in Africa, what are we talking about? Let’s make it even more basic: what is Africa?
Tell you what; open a fresh tab in Google (Yes! We have Google in Africa: points! Google stealing entrepreneurial ideas in Kenya: not winning points) and type in “map of Africa”, now filter the search so that you have images only. Now take your finger and start tracing all of the countries from the Southern tip of Africa, naming all of them as you go. South Africa, of course, you get points for knowing the last outpost of the British Empire (past and present). Don’t forget those two small splotches called Lesotho and Swaziland. Namibia? Yes, good. Did you know it’s actually not South West Africa anymore? You know that, do you? Good. Maybe you can tell the Afrikaners in Bloemfontein. Botswana, Zimbabwe, Angola, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania. Yoh! You are on a roll.
And then things start getting tricky. Kenya, Hotel Rwanda (formerly Rwanda) and right next to it there is a smidgeon of land called Burundi. You didn’t even know that was there, did you? Unfortunately there was no Hotel Burundi to bring it to the world’s attention. Then there is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) and wait? – another Congo? Yep. This one is the Republic of Congo. I know you will get Cameroon (No, the capital city is not Eto’o) but then the well will start to run dry.
“Err…what’s this thing called the CAR?”
Look at the map again. You see that big country above the DRC? That the Central African Republic. You probably haven’t even heard of it have you? Oh you have, have you? So what is its capital city? What language do they speak there? What’s their main export? Who is their president? Do they even have a president? Thought so.
Wait, you do at least know that there is a new country in Africa called Southern Sudan, right? Good boy. Don’t ask how I know you are a boy. Africa. Schlong. Flawless formula.
The point I am trying to make is that when people say there are opportunities in Africa, I am not sure what version of Africa they are talking about. It is sad to admit, but I know for a fact when Africans themselves talk about “Africa”, they naively talk about the continent in that cut out and colour it in kind of way, you know, as a whole – the tattoo kind. Even those who have the Dark Continent etched in their skin forever forget to have Madagascar added to the design. A lot of my friends laugh at American exchange students because they think Africa is a country. In all fairness, at least they know all of the 48 states and territories that make up their country. If you ask the average UCT student to list 30 African countries, you will have crickets for company. So sure, a lot of Africans “know” Africa.
But if you go one step further and make a 52 piece jigsaw of the continent, things start to get a bit tricky. So when people say that Africa needs me, or that it needs you or that person over there, it’s tricky for me because I am not sure which place they are talking about. Togo, Benin or Guinea-Bissau? Who needs The Quill?
The chances that numerous opportunities – whatever this word may mean – exist in Africa for Africans are high – but the disparity between demand and supply is shocking. If you didn’t know the CAR existed, you probably don’t know there is a huge demand for doctors, engineers and lawyers there. They need telephone lines, information systems, basic goods and services. Lord knows they could use a constitution or two. But you won’t know this because there is little or no information about the place, the country doesn’t market itself – stop and ask yourself whether you have ever met a person from CAR. I have lived in four African countries and I have never met anyone hailing from the place. The lack of information about places in Africa where skills are needed is one of the reasons graduates continue leave the continent in droves – that and dissatisfaction with governments and leadership. It’s basic economics: supply and demand. Africa has the demand and the supply, but the supply doesn’t know where the demand is. It is easy to understand why many graduates take their skills to places that don’t necessarily need them.
The African education system is not as bad as it seems. True it could be better, everything can always be improved, but it does churn out graduates with skills that are needed locally. It is the local market that is unable to keep up with it. There is no need for BA students from Africa to spend a year travelling barefoot through Asia teaching English. Ghana, Coté d’Ivoire, Mali and Burkina Faso need them just as much. There’s no need for law students to do law in the US – trust me on this, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Liberia and Nigeria need all the lawyers they can get. Engineers? Show me a road in Senegal without a pothole and I’ll show you a country that doesn’t need an engineer. And doctors? Let’s not go there.
It isn’t just the Big Three (lawyers, doctors and engineers) that are needed, it’s everyone. Someone has to make movies about Chad, someone has to sing songs about Djibouti, someone has to tell the US that it is not cool to refer to Somalians as “Skinnies” in Black Hawk Down. Microbiologists could find the cure for AIDS in Ethiopia, African fashion designers could put Europe out of business if they took a trip to Eritrea. Virologists, biologists and every other kind of –ist you can think of, Sudan needs you. I suggest we start with the anthropologists though. Some of the books on African culture are more ignorant than Kim Kardashian at a circumcision rite. (Although in hindsight, Kim would know a lot about penises…)
Although there is a demand for African graduates, the tension between tertiary education and the shrinking employment pool seems to make graduating from university with an internationally recognised degree the equivalent of winning the lottery. And the immediate instinct that comes with hitting the jackpot is simple and commonplace – cash it in, and run. Fast.
So to answer the “what about the rest of Africa?” question, I guess all that can be said is this: the rest of the continent is giving me the impression that I am in the friend zone and like all right thinking friend-zonees (this is a legitimate term), it is time to try my luck elsewhere.
Leaving Africa though, seems a bit like betrayal. That’s one thing that keeps the 40% of graduates from the continent from leaving. They feel as though they owe it to Africa, they have the constant passion and drive to live and work in Africa – for them it is World Cup every day. They never despair, they never complain. They could easily buy a ticket to Australia, but they know the biltong down there would be plain dodge. They get up every day and do it for Africa. Such people are to be admired – they are rare. There are only a handful of them on the continent. They stay when they could have it just a little easier elsewhere. They fill in administration forms diligently even when they know a bribe would be much easier. They stand in queues for three days and still leave without the inclination to kill someone. Quite simply, they’re not me. After twenty minutes, I start picturing the one hundred criminal things I could do with a blunt spoon to the receptionist Facebooking while I am sweating in an air conditioned room trying to get some stupid account paid.
I’d like to think I am one of these saintly graduates, but I cannot lie: I get frustrated. A lot. I know I am not the only one. That’s the only comfort.
But what of the other 60 percent that fly off as soon as university kicks them out? Do they all pass the proverbial Uncle Sam posters saying “Africa Needs YOU!” without feeling guilty? If so, what is their secret? I don’t think I could live abroad indefinitely.
The thought that life would be easier elsewhere in the world has never crossed my mind; life will always be hard. It is a fact. But from an African perspective, it seems as though it is harder here. Like some eighteenth century pauper, you seem to have inherited bad credit that you must spend the rest of your life paying back. To compound this, it seems as though all of this catching up must be done in an environment where the rest of the world is leaving you behind. There seems to be no break-even point; in Africa you are forever recovering your costs, always gaining diminishing returns, each election brings less pleasure and less change than the last. Small wonder Egypt, Tunisia and Libya had revolutions.
It all seems to be harder in Africa. Travelling in Africa, even from one neighbouring state to the next, requires months of planning and paperwork. And even once all of these have been completed it is not guaranteed that the journey will be smooth. Try to find the Niger embassy. Good luck.
This is in comparison to an EU passport which gets you through every country in the European Union without a hassle. Travelling is always high on a graduate’s mind, and with an opportunity to live and work overseas, enjoying benefits that come with the territory such as easy travel and sometimes easier access to education can one really be faulted for “selling out?” It’s time there was a student travel visa that allows me to see places like Mauritania, Morocco, the Western Sahara or Algeria at a lower cost that the people across the ocean. Just dreaming of going to Mauritius or the Comoros is expensive.
There are too many political, social and economic factors that seem to constantly connive to pull you into the black hole you are trying to escape – a civil war here, strange banking laws there and the odd racist and xenophobic atmosphere in between. Africa seems to be loaded with more incentives to leave, than to stay. They are not necessarily constant, they are cumulative; one issue adds on to another, one newspaper article in Sunday Times compliments the other article in the M&G and before you know it, you are asking travel agents about connecting flights to Norway.
Bombarded with all of these factors, moving off the continent does not seem like a bad thing to do. Nationality is a geographic and temporal concept, something that can be adjusted accordingly to each domicile. If we’re going to be really blunt about it, being African is an accident of geography; you could have been born in Panama or Bhutan. It was chance that you, the entity that is you, wound up here. You can relocate and get a new identity; there is nothing wrong with it. Regardless of what everyone says, you are allowed to take any nationality you want. It is only when you start getting romantic that all of the “I am an African” speeches become important. If that kind of thing is not for you, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to leave. I know I wanted to leave for a long while.
But then it all changed.
You see, there was this little thing you might or might not have heard off called the Recession that made me question whether the grass is actually greener on the other side. What really interested me is that it started in the US, that hallowed place of industry and commerce, a place crawling with economists and drowning in lawyers. Somehow, despite all of the accumulated degrees, years of experience and expertise, all of the king’s men couldn’t see that Humpty Dumpty was going to fall.
They fucked up.
Britain did too. Spain faked a hamstring and the Greek economy was found to have at least one similarity to its legends: both did not exist. France rallied; Germany’s holding the EU together. Everybody in Europe fucked up too.
Despite all of the articles I have read, I am still at a loss to understand how such advanced economies (apparently with the best bankers, lawyers, CEOs and the other mumbo jumbo Ivy League schools harp on about) did not realise that shit generally tends to happen when you put balloons filled with shit on a trajectory with a fan. Nonetheless, it did. The EU is ready to whore out its economy to anyone with a stable currency and when last I checked the little ticker tape at the bottom of the CNN screen, things weren’t looking good for the US either. Greener on the other side, my ass. All of the people that spent their time looking down at Africa are in the same hole.
So why leave Africa? It’s plain stupid now. Where the heck would I go anyway? Russia and Nato take turns to bomb Eastern Europe. Slumdog Millionaire didn’t give me a good impression of India. All of those rats and gods in one place. Eeuw! North Korea has an endless supply of Kims which South Korea lives in fear of and the rest of Asia has the geographic stability of a teenager’s face; mountains erupt where there were no mountains before. Northern Europe is melting – I can swim, but not that well – and South America is not that much better off than Africa really. Northern America elects its presidents in the same way I eat Smarties, by saving the brown ones for last. And they have a strange habit of calling their basketball and American football teams world champions when they don’t play anyone else. So why leave Africa? Everything seems to be going to the dogs everywhere, might as well stay at home.
The reason why I’m choosing to stay in Africa – I can safely say that this is the dominant feeling inside me at this point – is not because there is nowhere else to go, I can always leave. I’m choosing to stay because things here are not that bad and if I stay, I am hoping I can make it better. I don’t want to be one of those people preaching from across the water. I’d sound like Zakes Mda. *Cough cough*
And when I say things aren’t that bad, I am not giving Africa the loser’s pat on the back letting it know that it lost but it isn’t that bad even though it is; I’m actually serious. I don’t think we are dumber than Asians, half the English Premier League is from the Ivory Coast and it’s a matter of time before we start getting people to buy our own music. Most of the world’s minerals come from here and after we replace our stupid leaders with some serious people, we can actually charge a damn competitive price for them. We’re becoming quite cosmopolitan; we even have our own dumbass celebrities. *Cough cough* Nonhle Thema.
We have our music. We need to work on our films though. We have our books; we just need to get more people to read them.
I spend quite a bit of time – Okay! A lot of time – on Twitter, seeing what people are tweeting about and I can tell you we are just as socially adept as everyone else out there. We’re even funnier. I only follow African tweeps (I am ashamed I used this word) – except Piers Morgan who is the coolest white guy in 140 characters – and I still get a kick out of Twitter. My people (and by this I mean Africans) are all I need to make me laugh.
I am not a prophet or anything, but I do believe that when people around you are fucking up, it’s time for you to shine. The US screwed up, the EU failed. Asia is filling the vacuum. Surely we aren’t going to sit aside and let all of these clowns who can’t wiggle a hip without rearranging the compass directions have all the say in the world that will emerge after the recession are we?
I for one, refuse to let it be so. So you can be sure that after the next graduation, I am staying right here.
Author’s note: The core of this article is taken from an article I wrote in 2010, at the height of the World Cup. When I took down my Blogger address, I thought it would need some work later on. I am glad I kept it. Yesterday afternoon a link was sent to me on Twitter that encouraged me to rework the piece.
The article is inspiring. It’s the best horror film ever put on paper. If you do nothing else, read it by clicking here.
This is the only article I will ever write that has more than 30 states in it. Even though I sound like a smarmy bastard, I did not know all of the countries of by heart. Thank God for this list here.
Africa by Numbers was designed two years ago and featured in an edition of Q. I think it was fitting for this post. Download it, print it, share it. Have fun with it.