West African Diary
Lagos, Nigeria: June 17.
First night in Lagos: an infernal hotel—it shall be nameless—with a room like a wind tunnel, thanks to “air-conditioning.” Turn it off—and you roll and toss in the sweltering night air of Lagos. Turn it on—and the rat-tat-tat shakes you to a neurotic jelly. There are, also, animals. . . .
I hear of a nice, new American-built establishment : the Bristol in the inner city. Iced water, DDT, and real air-conditioning. I transfer straightaway. It is, as advertised, cool and salubrious: a good, central base from which to explore the city.
Really, it is not much of a city, Lagos. It began as a slave market, one of the biggest on the Guinea Coast, a kind of West African counterpart to Zanzibar. The slave trade has long gone, but the town still cries out its origins. Lagos is a half-breed, an ugly amalgam of European slickness and African squalor. The redeeming features are lacking: Europe’s efficiency, Africa’s easy charm. Open drains run through the main streets; there are too many swaggering, loud-mouthed nouveaux riches in this town; and too many beggars. Lagos is half slum, half shiny new banks and embassies and commercial premises. Much is prestige building, mostly American-financed. But Lagos lacks, from the past, that faded imperial grandeur that constitutes the charm, say, of Calcutta or Bombay or Singapore. Lagos has simply no history to be proud of.
True, the city has one genuine architectural attraction: its “Brazilian” houses. Painted bright yellow, with elaborately plastered designs on wall and window, you find these houses scattered among the slums and skyscrapers of modern Lagos. How did they get there? At first, I had taken them for Portuguese (lagos is Portuguese for lake). Later, a friend sets me right. These charming “Brazilian” houses were built by ex-slaves, expelled by their Brazilian masters after a successful slave revolt in the early 19th century. Like the “Creoles” of Sierra Leone and Liberia, these returned slaves brought with them something of European art and Christianity.
To which we must add a sad historical footnote. Back in Nigeria, none were more active in trading their fellow Yoruba and Ibo to America than the freed slaves themselves. Richard Wright, I seem to remember, said that one thought had always held him back from visiting West Africa: the thought that he would be meeting the descendants of those who had sold his ancestors into slavery.
When he finally did come to West Africa, he found Africans hard to make contact with. I remember puzzling over this at the time. West Africans, surely, are famous for their ebullience, their vitality, their lack of inhibition: all that is implied in the West African phrase “doing the High Life.” (The High Life, strictly speaking, is West Africa’s home-grown jazz—though not uninfluenced by American jazz. But the phrase is easily extended to cover a whole way of life.) The visitor to Nigeria, however, soon finds out for himself what Wright meant: the African is circumspect and suspicious, for all his gaiety. Out here, meeting Africans, I notice that a longish thawing-out period must be allowed for, before tongues are loosened and talk can flow. Is it just suspicion of the foreigner, of the white man? Apparently not: I’m told that relations between Africans themselves—particularly if there is a tribal difference involved—are no less suspicious, no less awkward. Is the High Life perhaps also an escape from the inhibitions of tribe and family?
Still, after some probationary sniffing around, personal relations are quickly established. I ask Mr. Ademola, a youngish barrister and very well-connected, what he thinks of Richard Wright, and American Negroes in general. Has he read James Baldwin’s books? Do people feel solidarity with the Negro struggle in the States?
A discussion ensues. We are sitting, to escape from the sticky midday heat of Lagos, drinking beer in the billiard room of The Club, that one-time holy of holies of British imperialism. Here are to be found Lagos’s leading doctors, lawyers, civil servants: prosperous and self-confident, Nigeria’s new ruling class has adopted the manners of the old—they play billiards, they read the Financial Times, they even claim the same “home leave” that was the special privilege of British colonial civil servants. James Baldwin? “Yes, we’ve read about him in Time magazine.” Richard Wright? “Yes, some of us met him when he was out here. Not easy to make contact with, of course: but then, those American Negroes, they have no traditions, have they? They don’t feel they belong over there, do they? But they don’t belong here either, we feel. We get on with white Americans, but with Negroes we just feel awkward. . . .”
And négritude? Mr. Lijadu, spruce young radio producer with the Lumumba beard, is most scornful. “We don’t go in for that here, you know.” (One can almost hear in what he says the echoes of extinct Colonel Blimps decrying “damned French nonsense. . . .”) Much indignation is expressed—rightly I think—with a magazine called Flamingo that has a big circulation out here. “We don’t want to see pictures of Negro sprinters, Negro painters, Negro dancers, Negro politicians, all the time. It’s bloody insulting.”
The same charge is pressed—though less strongly—against Drum, the famous Johannesburg magazine, formerly edited by Anthony Sampson and Tom Hopkinson. “You see, it implies a sort of apartheid. ‘Separate development’ means separate magazines—separate worlds for blacks and whites. But we want acceptance in the larger world, the white world—like the American Negro, in fact.” Flamingo, I point out, is published in London. “Yes, exactly, and edited by a West Indian,” is the reply. (In fact, négritude was invented by a West Indian—Aimé Césaire. And the first African nationalists to make an impression on the West Coast were West Indians or Americans—Du Bois, Marcus Garvey.) “But they need négritude as an ideology, you see, and we don’t. We’re a nation—or many nations—we have languages, traditions, territories of our own. I suppose that sounds a bit arrogant or superior. But they are always in search of their roots, and we’re doing our best to pull them up. Anyway, what makes a West Indian, or a Negro American, different from a Frenchman or an Englishman, or an American? Nothing but his black skin! Ergo: négritude.”
This seems to be the general view. As I record it, of course, it sounds arrogant and insensitive. The African cannot see the New World Negro as his brother; yet neither can he accept him as a full-blooded American. But then, one of the shocks, I suppose, of coming to Africa for the first time, is finding that “black,” or even “African” nationalism doesn’t really exist. Solidarity with South Africa’s non-whites, or with American Negroes, is perfunctory. The accounts we read in our newspapers, based on African politicians’ speeches, are extremely misleading. The talk in The Club in Lagos is not of Chief Lutuli and Martin Luther King. Negro solidarity has only, as it were, a diplomatic existence; it isn’t felt. (Which isn’t to deny that powerful trouble is brewing in the U.N. and elsewhere for South Africa, and for America and Britain, on racial issues.) The real nationalism is Nigerian or Ghanaian—nothing gives the Nigerian a stronger sense of nationhood than the resentment he feels over Nkrumah’s lunatic behavior—and, no doubt, vice versa. The irony, of course, is that Nigeria and Ghana are little more than lines drawn on maps, the product of some rough horse-dealing in the European chancelleries seventy years ago. Still, that is the mold in which nationalism has grown; and it has infinitely greater reality than pan-Africanism. As in all the new nations, the intellectuals and politicians in Nigeria often seem arrogant and over-confident. But given the circumstances, I don’t see how their view of the American Negro could be different. For the new nationalist, the American Negro is that infinitely pathetic figure: a man without a country.
Conclusions? Lagos, for all its superficial unattractiveness, is perhaps no bad introduction to the new Africa. Certainly, the foreign visitor runs no risk of being seduced by the exotic. Lagos gives, too, something of a glimpse into the African future. The nouveau-riche atmosphere, the all-pervading corruption, the squalor and the arrogance, are not pleasant: but who are we to carp? The other side of the coin is the vitality, the enthusiasm, the sense of possibility that are also there. We too often speak as if these qualities were mutually exclusive, which is why writers on Africa can so easily be categorized into pessimists and optimists. But why should they be mutually exclusive—vitality and corruption, appalling squalor and unlimited possibilities? Isn’t that just the picture European travelers had of the United States, say, in the late 19th century? Pessimists, of course, like to make the comparison with Latin America after the Liberation. In political terms, they are probably going to be right. Nigeria was launched in 1960 with high hopes, yet already the Action Group, the progressive West Nigerian party of Chief Awolowo, has been suppressed and its leaders jailed. Here in Lagos, the press is timid; there is no real public opinion; politics is run on traditional Tammany Hall lines.
All this looks pretty black. But there is one flaw in the comparison between Africa and Latin America. Africa won’t stagnate, I think, chiefly because it won’t be allowed to. It’s not only the money—American, British, West German—flowing into the country, though that’s important. It’s the attention Africa is receiving, together with the shortening of communications, the new sense of involvement—in the U.N., in the Commonwealth, in pan-African conferences. You can fly from London to Lagos in one afternoon; you can buy the London daily papers the same day; you see the same television serials and documentaries in Nigeria as you would see in London or New York. It’s a “backward” country, certainly; but you don’t get the sense of being in a cultural backwater—a sense which the foreign visitor gets so strongly in India. Whether Africa will go on receiving all this attention depends, more than the Nigerians realize, on the international situation. Really, if they knew their own interests, African politicians would be down on their knees, thanking God for the uncovenanted blessings of the white man’s cold war. . . .
Ibadan, June 22.
Ibadan is the capital of the Western Region, once the stronghold of the Action Group, and the main center of Yoruba culture. The Yoruba, you are told, are one of the few town-dwelling peoples of Africa—and have been so at least since the Portuguese first explored the Guinea Coast in the 16th century. After Johannesburg and Cairo, you are also told, Ibadan is the largest city in Africa. It has probably the best university in black Africa; is one of the great markets of West Africa; and enjoys, in the Mbari Club, one of the few vital cultural institutions south of the Sahara.
Thus prepared, you are in for a disappointment. Except for its size, Ibadan seems to have none of the attributes of a city. It spreads, incoherently and un-Romanly, over seven hills. The University has a fine modernistic campus; but that lies some way outside the city. Still, Ibadan is much more authentically African than Lagos. Its principle of organization is, at first, baffling: where is the main street, the city hall, the shopping center? Gradually, you realize that European analogies are not much help. Ibadan is like one of those less differentiated biological organisms that evolve by addition, not by specialization. Basically, Ibadan is just the African cell unit—the complex extended family—multiplied some ten thousand times. By European standards, the result is not impressive. But compared with the even less differentiated societies of Central and Eastern Africa—which have nothing to compare with the Ife or Benin bronzes of Yorubaland—this town-based culture is a remarkable achievement. According to Herskovits—basic scripture for eggheads abroad in Africa—only in the West did climatic and soil conditions permit that surplus-over-subsistence which makes possible sculpture, metal work, a money economy, a sophisticated religious ritual. It’s only when the European visitor has seen the African locations of Johannesburg or Salisbury, or the impoverished African cultures of the East Coast, that the richness and vitality of a Yoruba city like Ibadan strike him.
The Ife and Benin bronzes, and the Yoruba sculptures, can be seen in the excellent little museum in Lagos. They are more impressive than one had realized, without doubt the best art to have come out of Africa. But the art of the carver and sculptor is dying: what is offered the tourist in Lagos shops is mostly kitsch. Artistic vitality, in Nigeria anyway, has now gone into literature. And Nigeria has produced—it’s one reason I wanted to come here—a group of first-rate talents within the past five years. The forerunner was Amos Tutuola, whose genuine artistic “primitivism” (the word gives offense to Africans, but it is strictly accurate) is now rather at a discount. One can see why. This is how Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard opens:
I was a palm wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age. I had no other work than to drink palm wine in my life. In those days, we did not know other money, except cowries, so that everything was very cheap, and my father was the richest man in our town. . . .
One has to remember that when Tutuola’s book first appeared, it was in a literary landscape dominated (in England, at least) by Dylan Thomas and his disciples. The poetry of Tutuola’s chapter-headings was irresistible:
A Full-bodied Gendeman Reduced to dead
The Lady was not to be Blamed for following the Skull as a Complete Gentleman
On our way to the Unreturnable—Heaven’s Town
We and The Wise King in the Wrong Town with the Prince Killer
An Egg fed the whole world
But who would carry the sacrifice to the Heaven for Heaven?
Tutuola now lives in Ibadan, where he works as stores clerk for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. To meet, he is more than a little disconcerting. Frances, the program director, sends a boy down to collect Tutuola from the nether regions of the establishment. He emerges, a blinking, stooped, extraordinarily gentle man, in his middle forties. After a few mumbled words of introduction, conversation lapses. How had he started writing? What English writers had he read? Tutuola continues to smile, in his vague, gracious way. Am I asking the wrong questions? Have I offended him? Is he bored?
Wole Soyinka, the most remarkable of the younger poets Nigeria has produced, is with us in the room, and saves the situation. Wole’s flamboyant manner couldn’t contrast more starkly with Tutuola’s quiet, sphinx-like, deferential air. Yet they get on famously: chatting in Yoruba, the otherwise bumptious and irrepressible Wole suddenly defers to the older man. Wole’s plays, like Tutuola’s works, are based on traditional Yoruba folklore. You sense, once again, the richness and vitality of this oral tradition (the Yoruba, like the other Bantu and Negro peoples of Africa, never invented an alphabet).
In this newly liberated continent, where all words like “native,” “indigène” and “primitive” are taboo, Amos Tutuola must represent an embarrassment. Wole himself is certainly no primitive. Witness his best-known poem, “Telephone Conversation,” which deals with the difficulties of an African room-hunting in London:
The price seemed reasonable, location
Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
Off premises. Nothing remained
But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned,
“I hate a wasted journey—I am African .”
Silence. Silenced transmission of
Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
Lipstick-coated, long gold-rolled
Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was, foully.
“How dark?” . . . I had not misheard . . . “Are you
Or very dark?” . . . .
Wole’s conclusion, in art as in life, is characteristically naughty-clever:
“—Facially, I am brunette, but madam, you should
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blonde. Friction, caused—
Foolishly, madam—by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black—One moment madam!”
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears—“Madam” I pleaded, “wouldn’t
See for yourself?”
In pointing to the “sophistication” of this, one is not necessarily proclaiming a new birth for English poetry in the tropics—though one is exposed, as a visiting European, to a good deal of talk about the cultural exhaustion of England (and presumably America), and the “vital future” awaiting the English language in underdeveloped countries. . . . To be fair, you wouldn’t hear this from Wole or his friends. (Wole on négritude: “Tigers don’t go on about their tigritude, why should we go on about négritude?”) But it’s something you are all too likely to hear from their less intelligent hangers-on, for whom négritude is something of a psychological necessity (you’ll also hear it from their English admirers out here). Still, this sudden uprush of talent is astonishing. There are half a dozen writers who approach Wole’s sophistication—Christopher Okigbo, John Pepper Clark, Gabriel Okara, Chinua Achebe. Why should a school of writers like this have emerged here, and not elsewhere in Africa—or, for that matter, India? I put this question to Ulli Beier, the man who behind the scenes has encouraged and promoted this group. Beier, I suppose, is one of Africa’s leading “characters” at the moment: German-Jewish by birth, Yoruba by faith and adoption, he strikes one as a worthy successor to the many “mad” Germans (and Englishmen and Americans) who have made Africa their hobby-horse—Mungo Park, Amin Pasha, Stanley, Heinrich Barth, Livingstone, Albert Schweitzer. At forty-two, Beier is powerfully built, very farouche in appearance with his tousled, graying hair, his enormous sandaled feet, his rather eccentric amalgam of Yoruba and European clothing. He has lived here since 1950, working as extramural lecturer at Ibadan University and writing books on Yoruba poetry and Nigerian art. Accepted in Yoruba society as no European has been accepted before, he has been granted the title of Chief, and his wife is a priestess in a traditional Yoruba shrine.
I had read Beier’s books before meeting him, and had not expected to like him. In his book on Nigerian art, done for Independence celebrations, there was for my taste too much boosting of the virtues of Yoruba traditionalism, and too much running down of European sanitation, technology, and “materialism.” In short, I’d taken him for the Afrika-Schwärmer par excellence, and I was sure he’d tell me that the hope of civilization lay in Africa alone; that Yoruba paganism was in all respects superior to imported Methodism, Catholicism, and Anglicanism; and that no non-initiate should even attempt to understand the African soul.
I was completely wrong. About Nigeria’s political future, Beier is remarkably pessimistic: the drift toward one-party control will continue, he thinks, and the independence of universities, radio stations, newspapers—seemingly so well secured in 1960, when Independence came—will probably be jeopardized still further. Had he expected it to go so fast? Well, no, he hadn’t. In 1960, everybody was very optimistic, not least the British Conservatives, who saw Nigeria as a “reliable,” democratic, anti-Communist counterweight to Ghana on the West Coast of Africa. I object that the visitor is struck, nevertheless, by the vitality and optimism of the young writers and intellectuals. But even there, Beier has grown more skeptical. The government likes the prestige they bring; but it doesn’t like their angry young man’s irreverence toward authority. The good jobs in the universities and the radio stations, the foreign travel and the conference-trotting—all really depend on the good will of the government. Beier confirms my impression that Wole and his friends are riding high at the moment. But it’s clear he thinks they’re riding for a fall. . . .
What is his explanation, then, for Nigeria’s minor literary renaissance? He points out that West Africa, in general, is more “advanced” than East or South Africa. There’s been much longer contact between Africans and Europeans here, and the Mission schools—for all Beier’s dislike of the “anti-Africanism” of the missionaries—did provide good education in English. Again, there’s never been a color bar in West Africa, because there’s never been any question of European settlement. Then, Lord Lugard’s theory of “indirect rule”—whatever one thinks of its political implications—certainly did help to conserve native traditions and authorities. Even the slave trade was less disruptive than is sometimes thought. Inhuman though it was, by bringing wealth into the country and eliminating surplus population, it may actually have been a conservative factor in West African life. The confrontation with the white world could be traumatic—as in Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart—but it was even more so elsewhere in Africa; and when it gave rise to nationalistic protest, it was at least a nationalism free of racialism. All in all, compared with Kenya or Rhodesia, or South Africa, West African colonialism was a pretty mild yoke to bear.
The other factor, Beier agrees, is the strength of the underlying tradition. It’s this that inspires and sustains Tutuola and Wole and the rest; and it gives them a practical self-confidence in regard to the English-speaking world that’s sadly lacking in India or in other parts of Africa. The overpowering sense of isolation, of being provincial, that afflicts most writers in India, is lacking in Wole and his friends. Also, English in Nigeria is vital in a way that would be impossible to imagine in India. In Tutuola’s case, I should guess, the vitality has something to do with that peculiarly West African phenomenon: pidgin English. Pidgin English is wildly incorrect, but it has a distinct character and charm of its own. The waiter in the Lagos restaurant, when he wants to ask you if you’ve had enough, asks: “You done eat?” The little night-bars of Lagos that beckon with gaily decorated signs, express the spirit of a whole subculture: “If music be food,” they say, “play on.” Beier tells me of the little “books of wisdom” on sale at Onitsha market, and quotes, from one book of advice to a young couple, the magnificent aphorism: “Marriage is a novel in which the hero dies in the first chapter.” There must be a connection between the vitality of demotic English here, and the kind of literature that Tutuola, Soyinka, and Achebe have been able to produce.
Kano, June 26.
“Northern intellectuals? You must be joking! There just aren’t any: no writers; no night-bars; no High Life; no politics either, for that matter. The Emirs have got the people under their thumb. You’ll be taking a Time Machine back into the Middle Ages, you know, when you fly to Kano. . . .”
Southerners—Yoruba and Ibo alike—don’t care much for the Northerners, as you gather. And the feeling is reciprocated up here, if anything more strongly. Kano is the Timbuktu of Nigeria—and very like its more famous cousin a few hundred miles across the savanna. It’s a trading city, the biggest market in Africa; mud-walled, very ancient, it is today still the main city of Northern Nigeria. Outside the walled city, there’s a modern town, with bright new commercial buildings and a satellite tracking station of which Kano is inordinately proud. Kano is also a main stopping point for international jets to Johannesburg and the South. “A city,” as the guidebook has it, “of contrasts.”
Politically and socially, Northern Nigeria is “backward.” But the Northern region, with its twenty-odd million (out of thirty-five million) is also politically dominant. In effect, this perpetuates the formula the British found so convenient in governing Nigeria in the past. When Frederick Lugard, with a handful of soldiers, subdued the Northern Emirates in the years after 1900, his chief motive had been to get there before the French. Otherwise, there was precious little strategic or economic value in his conquests. Once the country was occupied, there arose the question of administration: the basic problem, as in all parts of Africa where mineral resources were lacking, was to make colonies financially self-supporting. Lugard found the solution in his famous theory of “indirect rule.” Actually, the British had long practiced something like “indirect rule” in India: well over half the subcontinent was ruled by “native princes,” with a British Resident in attendance. The system was transplanted to Nigeria, where the Obas of the South, and the Moslem Emirs of the North, were treated as the “natural rulers” of the peoples.
The result, now the British are gone, is oddly paradoxical. Talking to Africans, you meet two contradictory lines of attack on British imperialism. Thus, the British are accused of not having developed their colonies; of having retarded their economic development in the interest of the metropolis; of having frozen political advance by giving new powers and prestige to obsolete social and political systems. But the British are equally accused of having brought about the destruction of native social customs and hierarchies, of having destroyed old values without creating new ones. Some Africans, it’s true, will admit that “indirect rule” had its points. But they are always open to attacks from pan-Africanists, who argue that Dr. Verwoerd’s Bantustan policy is nothing but another version of “indirect rule”—an attempt to reinstate tribal authority over the heads of educated African nationalists. Seen in this light, “indirect rule” is retrospectively interpreted as a policy designed by Lugard and his friends to keep Africa backward. The tendency of the local British (of whom there are a good many still in local administration, and more in business than there ever were) is to claim all the credit for British colonial policy in equally undiscriminating fashion. Thus, the survival of local customs and religion is put down to the wisdom of the Colonial Office in not interfering. In fact, of course, the motive was often contempt. Yet the Britisher quite sincerely sees his policy of laissez-faire as having been inspired by enlightened concern for traditional values. So, too, every mark of progress—a new railway here, a new hospital there—is chalked up as a British contribution to the modernization of Nigeria, though such railway-building and road-making activity as there was represented the minimum necessary for efficient administration (and, sometimes, economic exploitation), not the maximum needed for development of the country’s resources.
The truth, I think, is much less “ideological” than either side makes it seem in retrospect. The real reason for “indirect rule” was the discovery after 1900—after the “scramble for Africa” of the 80′s and 90′s—that most colonies did not pay (it was thirty years before even Rhodes’s famous Chartered Company returned a dividend). This had, of course, been foreseen by Bismarck and by many British statesmen of the 60′s and 70′s. Once saddled with colonies, the problem for the imperial powers was to devise a way of making them, at the least, self-supporting. For most of the period 1890—1940, colonies were “neglected” simply because the metropolitan countries, themselves economically stagnant, could think of no good use for them—just assumed, until it was too late, that Africans could be made into, and wanted to become, good Frenchmen. Both “indirect rule” and “Independence” were adopted, not on any ideological basis, but because they were the cheapest, quickest, and most practical expedient.
The British like to think in retrospect that they “prepared” their subject peoples for independence. In fact, the British gave this problem extremely little thought until the past ten or fifteen years—until, in effect, their hand had already been forced by the nationalist intellectuals. Personally, I believe that colonialism was historically beneficial (Abyssinia and Liberia are eloquent witnesses of what happened to countries that sidestepped the process). But both the claims made for, and the charges made against, colonialism seem unrealistic. As far as British colonialism went, it was neither especially glorious, nor especially squalid: it was a characteristically British middle.
It isn’t until one has seen Kano that one sees how wrong is the plain man’s idea of African history. Recent historians, of course, have demolished the notion that Africa had no history before the arrival of the Europeans. Indeed, the pendulum seems to have swung to the other extreme. Both Africans themselves and well-meaning European “friends of Africa” have put into currency rather large claims about the quality of the civilization of pre-colonial Africa (Aesop and St. Augustine are claimed as expressions of the “African personality”: “the first spoon,” I read in one Nigerian paper, “was stirred in Khartoum”).
I suspect these claims, personally, as I suspect Afrika-Schwärmerei in general. The British-educated intellectuals of Lagos and Ibadan admit frankly that Yoruba and kindred languages lack the potentiality to oust English as means of scientific or literary communication. Ulli Brier’s “mud sculpture” is, to me, a fascinating folk art. But when he expatiates on the superiority of this art on the grounds that, being ephemeral, it points to the higher value the Yoruba places on the act of creation (as against the dead museum art of Europe), I don’t follow him. The sculpture of West Africa is splendid, I agree. But it’s not “unfriendly to Africa,” surely, to point out that Africa didn’t discover the wheel, didn’t invent a script, didn’t evolve a higher religion.
Still, in one respect the new historians are clearly right, and the plain man wrong. I admit, for instance, that I used to think of Africa as a kind of large biscuit nibbled at the edges (until, during the scramble for Africa, the nibbling process at last reached the center of the biscuit). I now see that this was a hopelessly European view of the matter. The real axes of Africa ran East-West, across the savannas of what is now Mali and Northern Nigeria to the Southern Sudan; and North-South, from the highlands of Ethiopia, across Kenya and Tanganyika, to the veld of South Africa. This double spine of Africa, unlike the rain forests of the Coast, is dry, relatively cool, easily traversable. Whatever it was that held Africa back, it clearly wasn’t the impenetrability that so impressed the European mind. Kano was one of the great trading centers of Africa long before the Portuguese reached the coast in the 15th century. It had links, laterally, with the ancient empires of Ghana and Mali in the West, and with the Nubian-Egyptian world of the Sudan in the East. And it had intimate links, from the beginning, with the Negro forest peoples of the Guinea Coast. It traded across the Sahara with Morocco and Libya—and, through them, with Europe. It exported gold and slaves and ivory and imported metal and spices—and the culture of Islam. The image of Africa as a nibbled biscuit couldn’t be more mistaken.
Though by now he ought to know better, the European visitor still shares the surprise of Captain Hugh Clapperton (who was probably the first European to see Kano) at the extent of these links with the larger world. In 1824 Clapperton wrote:
I bought, for three Spanish dollars, an English green cotton umbrella, an article I little expected to meet with, yet by no means uncommon. My Moorish servants, in their figurative language, were wont to give it the name of “the cloud.” I found, on enquiry, that these umbrellas are brought from the shores of the Mediterranean. . . .
What strikes the visitor in Kano’s market is this paradox of African history: the centuries of contact with Islamic and Mediterranean culture—but also the relative lack of impact, the inertia of the continent. A brief inspection of the market Clapperton described one hundred fifty years ago confirms that little has changed. There are no slaves, of course, and there are more Manchester- (or more likely, Essen- or Calcutta- or Osaka-) made goods than ever. Indeed, it’s disillusioning to thread one’s way among the stalls and, turning over brightly colored pots and pans, to find “made in Hong Kong” and “made in Japan” on so many. These hideous red-and-yellow objects—obviously produced especially for the African market—are rapidly displacing the beautiful carved calabashes of tradition. Again, a small industry has grown up in one corner of the market, devoted to the beating of torn automobile bodies into round bowls. The products of a higher technology, not understood, are absorbed in patient, laborious African fashion into the traditional culture. And this has been happening, evidently, for generations. There’s a stall at Kano Market where you can buy reproductions of Austrian silver dollars first minted by Maria Theresa in the 1750′s.
To one’s Yoruba and Ibo friends, it is all very primitive and regrettable: “The North,” they say, “has a long way to catch up.” But to me, and I think to most Europeans who’ve seen it, Kano is Africa. I don’t (I hope) mean this in a romantic sense: there are enough Afrika-Schwärmer as it is. It’s simply that here, far more than in Lagos or Accra or Brazzaville, you can feel this paradox of African history. To be sure, the historians who denied Africa a past of its own were wrong. But they were never as wrong as all that. After all, Kano and Timbuktu, the cities of the savanna, have been in contact with Mediterranean and Egyptian and Middle Eastern culture for two or three thousand years. True, they were always on the fringe of the civilized world—but so, for that matter, were England or Russia or Scandinavia. Africa took what the larger world had to offer—the cowries or shells she used for currency, for example, came from the Indian Ocean. She was never the “dark continent,” in the sense of being wholly isolated, as Europeans once assumed. But she did remain on the fringe, giving rise to a medley of provincial cultures, imitating always, originating seldom.
How should one sum Africa up? Is she too diverse, too complex, too rapidly changing for any summary? No doubt she is. And Nigeria, you may say, is not Africa—though, diverse and divided as she is, Nigeria is no bad image of Africa today. On the evidence of what I’ve seen, I’d go for two rather general and possibly sobering conclusions. One is that the fact that West Africa is relatively unencumbered with an ancient culture may enable her to make her adjustment to the modern world more easily than many Asian countries. But there is also a debit side. Africa has politics and cultures and religions of her own, but there is no African politics or culture or religion as such. At times, her arts achieve a striking originality, and obviously there is much that will be, and ought to be, preserved in her various cultures. But a coherent “African personality” does not exist and never has, except in the minds of Kwame Nkrumah and his European admirers. Africa has always been provincial in relation to the larger cultures of Christianity, Islam, and Hindustan. This was true in the age of the great Egyptian dynasties (from which African notions of Divine Kingship may derive), and it is true today in relation to the “higher” technological and political cultures of America, Europe, India, and Japan—and the Communist bloc.
To say this, of course, is “offensive to African sentiment.” But then, whatever one says is likely to offend: Africans demand the right to be candid to us, but they don’t care for candor at their own expense. Yet candor is important just now, not so much because of what the Africans say, as because of what their European admirers say. Africa isn’t the new center of world politics. Forty-million-strong Nigeria is the only black African state, apart from South Africa and the Congo, which has a chance of emerging as the equal of, say, Egypt, Argentina, or Indonesia. (I assume, surely rightly, that no major interstate fusion will take place.) Economically, almost all African states—though this might not apply to a black South Africa—are crippled by dependence on certain agricultural exports, whose value is constantly changing, and where the developed countries will for long hold the whip hand. Politically, the effects of corruption, of faltering morale, of frustrated idealism, will lead to widespread disillusion, both at home and abroad, with the “African experiment.” At that point, I believe, Ghana and the other new states of Africa will be spoken of in the cynical terms once reserved for Latin American banana republics.
From being the most underrated continent, in other words, Africa has perhaps become the most overrated. It would be a pity, however, if the reaction came too soon or too violently. Africa may not always deserve it, but she does need our good will, our Peace Corps, our technical aid. Above all, I feel, she needs our attention. What we in the West say matters far more than we think; and to make allowances, to find excuses for every petty despotism committed by a black man, does no one except the despots any good. (Several African friends were extremely violent about this in private.)
Colonialism is now a dead issue, except in Southern Africa. The problem for the newly independent states is to accept the fact—and it can be a painful awakening—that decolonialization in itself means rather little. They have to realize that they are still backward, still provincial, still on the fringe of a larger and more powerful cultures—and that there isn’t much they can do about it. Will the awakening to these facts lead to disillusionment and extremist politics, as it has done in Ghana? Naturally, one hopes not, but no one really knows.