Cutting out the ‘heart of darkness’

A couple of weeks ago I posted a video from the Rules about telling #ADifferentStory to capitalism (Oops… I forgot to post this and found it in my drafts…)

For me, this links really closely to research I have been doing recently about colonialism and the effects that it’s had, and very much continues to have on the African continent in particular (more on that and neo-colonialism later).

There is an inherent link between capitalism and colonialism; both are dominant Western, patriarchal discourses, and, in my opinion, both are just stories. Powerful ones that continue to pervade society, culture, economics, politics and our very sense of self, but still stories. Ones that can be retold.

One conversation I had in Ghana with a Ghanaian friend (there were many similar and equally painful conversations) went something like this: 

“White western people are like royalty. Before they came we were savages. We didn’t have cars. We didn’t have chairs to sit on…” 

This is why I think it’s SO important that the voices of people like Walter Rodney, who wrote How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and articles like this one: are so important. They tell A DIFFERENT STORY to the one that we’ve been told, and keep telling, all of us in fact – the colonisers and the colonised, the oppressors and the oppressed.

It’s why, when I read Rodney’s account of African development pre-colonialism, and of its originality, and different and wonderful ways of doing things, and its innovation, and advancing societies and cultural magnificence… I want to shout it from the rooftops.

Africa has long been the subject of others’ narratives: from the ‘dark and savage continent’ of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sand-banks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps.”

… to the Rough Guide’s ‘sensuous Africa’: 

“…the brilliance of red earth and emerald vegetation in the forest areas; the intricate smells of food cooking, charcoal smoke and damp soil; the towering clouds that fill the skies at the start of the rains; the villages of sun-baked mud houses, smoothed and moulded together like pottery; the singing rhythm of voices speaking tonal languages; and the cool half-hour before dawn on the banks of the Niger, when the soft clunk of cowbells rises in a haze of dust from the watering herds. These are the images that stay, long after the horrendous journeys and delays have become amusing anecdotes.”

Africa, often described as a victim, as backwards, as incapable and as a homogenous dark and dangerous country, is prescribed with projections and shrouded in mystery, stereotypes, lies and racism. Binyavanga Wainaina makes this point exquisitely in his GRANTA essay: How to write about Africa.

But, different stories (that have long been told) are starting to be heard. Websites like This is Africa, Ijinle, Africa is a Country and A View From The Cave, and strong voices like Binyavanga Wainaina, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda AdichieTMS Ruge, Ory Okolloh MwangiTeju Cole, tolu ogunlesi and Minna Salami are so important for all of us. They’re telling a different story about the African continent – and it sounds something like the truth.

What I say here isn’t important, and the fact that I’m pointing it out isn’t noteworthy at all (I don’t want to become another author of a story that isn’t mine to tell). But for people living in the West who might read my blog, I urge you to seek out and listen to and amplify the stories that don’t always get heard or told in, or by, the mainstream. 

It’s time the West stopped telling our story to the world and trying to make it THE story. It’s time we learned to listen.

Let me know of any other brilliant people and organisations telling new stories (or shouting louder about older, marginalised ones)…


3 thoughts on “Cutting out the ‘heart of darkness’

  1. Nice summary of the debate. I once wrote an article about the stereotyping of Africa by the media and aid agencies using shock images to push their own agendas. Although debate on this matter has advanced a bit, misrepresentation and inauthenticity still deluge the public domain. I’m heartened by this new generation of African activists challenging lazy writers, know-it-all wonks and naive do-gooders. Time for fresh voices from the continent and the diaspora to assert themselves.

    • Dear Robert, thanks so much for your comments! I’d really love to read your article – do you have a copy of it somewhere?

      Equally I’d really love to feature some of your experiences (or indeed the article) on the blog if you’re willing?

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