Tony SIMOES DA SILVA
University of Exeter
[I]n the very principle of its constitution, in its language, and in its
finalities, narrative about Africa is always pretext for a comment about
something else, some other place, some other people. More precisely, Africa
is the mediation that enables the West to accede to its own subconscious
and give a public account of its subjectivity. (Achille Mbembe, 2001: 3)
There is much I would like to dispute in Emmanuel Dongala's polemic, but given the rules of the genre to do so would be to miss the point of this exercise. Professor Dongala knows that to engage in a debate, often it is best to be provocative and controversial, wilfully 'blind' to subtle and qualified reasoning in order more precisely to elicit the kind of responses one can make sense of.
That said, however, there are a few minor quibbles I will allow myself to develop before I seek to address Professor Dongala's complex and multi-layered questions. Firstly, then, and speaking as someone for whom the claims of Deep Ecology regularly have all the credibility as those of flying pigs, I disagree with his point that anyone criticising s/Science's many flaws are little more than blind Cassandras. Indeed, to suggest that "Science has fulfilled its contract with humanity, and irrepressible, it continues to extend the boundaries of knowledge to improve the material conditions of our existence" seems somewhat of an overstatement. Speaking even as a fairly unreconstructed Althusserian, I baulk at this suggestion that Science is 'ideology free'. For if this contract to which Dongala refers is to have any real meaning beyond the linear promise of a changed or transformed tomorrow, it must do more than simply change, transform, bring into contact with progress. Rather, it must also ensure that all those experiences made available by and through s/Science are tempered with, and by an awareness of the broader implications of the genii it let loose unto the world. If it seems old-fashioned and rather predictable to bring attention to the Jewish Holocaust, it might be worth reminding ourselves of the residual gift of s/Science to the Vietnamese people, in the form of Agent Orange during a more recent catastrophe. What 'gifts' might genetic engineering bring us in the near future? But more on that below.
As a non-scientist I recognise that my claims might easily be dismissed by the scientist as betraying my ignorance about their fields, but I would want to see a claim such as that "no man or woman of science since the middle of the last century, and even at the start of this century, believes any longer in a humanitarian mission for science, or that the purpose of science is to provide an answer to humanity's social problems, except a few isolated cases such as C.P. Snow in his book The Two Cultures (1959)" framed more carefully. Is it not one of the claims of contemporary genetic engineering to offer potentially the solution to all famines in the world? Similarly, as the team of scientists from six countries now lays on the table the 30,000 cell template that constitutes the 'human genome', are we not witnessing the natural conclusion of the eugenics project of the 19th century towards an end to 'flawed Man'? To put it in these terms is not to argue that the Genome Project is intrinsically evil, but to point out that the quest for knowledge at its heart is in all senses the quest for Perfect Man that Eugenics saw as the legitimate inheritor of Economic Man. 'Genomic Man' is in this sense the logical continuation of that project, for the promises we hear already of a plethora of conditions to be eradicated on the basis of information contained therein are yet again made in the name of, and at the service of s/Science. Dongala may legitimately make the point that, in spite of all this all s/Sciences will still be likely to be found innocent on judgement day. As he notes, such claims for s/Science have been made by individuals such as Snow or Marx, for instance, but then s/Science, even in Einstein's most benevolent manifestation has always had to rely on men / Man to translate its successes. If we are going to argue for inter-disciplinarity - a plea that I understand Dongala's polemic to make with some vehemence and persuasion - it is time that we recognised that the applications of Anglo-American models to 'elsewhere' were initially, and remain, only possible within the specific constraints of local cultures / customs. If Frantz Fanon's critique to the 'transferability' of psychoanalysis to Africa remains today astonishingly prescient, it is in the way in which he foresaw the reiteration of colonial forms of control and power as those articulated in the IMF's models for economic development, or currently backed with the obscene military might of the USA in Iraq, possibly soon in Syria, Iran and anywhere else the American colonial dream so desires. Fanon, were he alive today, would no doubt have recognised that Freudian or Lacanian psychoanalytic models can conceivably be applied to a Kongo and Yacoma so long as they account for localised needs and cultural parameters; more to the point, and as social sciences have either shown or had to learn (consider the case of Anthropology in the post-colonial moment), it cannot be otherwise. Paradoxically, then, Dongala's argument that "scientific theories and practices are directly transferable, whereas those in the Human Sciences are not" overdoes the point a little. Scientific teaching might indeed be this 'directly transferable', but learning implies a local engagement that would make any such experience truly unique. As Dongala shows, when he highlights specific African applications of scientific knowledge, scientific theories and practices rarely, and I am tempted to say never, are transported elsewhere intact.
It is with this polemic preamble of my own that I want to proceed to answer Dongala's thoughtful questions; not in the definitive sense he himself already has defined as "'anti-scientific'", but in the spirit of a contribution to a wider debate about contemporary Africa and African studies. Besides, claims to final versions of truth are these days made only by religious leaders and a smattering of politicians, and perhaps not surprisingly often by politicians as religious leaders and vice-versa.
Let me begin at the end by suggesting that I believe that "Senghor's message of metissage" remains as important today as when it was spoken, for in its focus on a dialogue between peoples and cultures resides the kind of position capable of facing off the threat of a 'clash of civilisations'. Senghor's emphasis on transcultural subjectivities speaks here precisely of the ways in which it is possible to reclaim the projectof globalisation, not as the establishment of a new hegemonic world order as imagined and imposed by the USA and its surrogate agents in the form of countless multinationals and governments such as those of Britain, for instance. Indeed, Senghor's proposal stresses also that globalisation is hardly a new or recent phenomenon, but rather a long and complex process of interaction between nations and states. 'Globalisation', as with 'democracy', 'modernity' and 'modernisation', to highlight but a few of the terms used by Emmanuel Dongala in his essay, constitute thus the very core of any analysis of the political, cultural and social situations in contemporary Africa. Thatmust be the most important contribution on the part of the social sciences.
At the risk of prevaricating, one might suggest that at the heart of any such discussion must be the creation of a set of terms and analytical templates with which to 'frame' contemporary Africa. For to speak of democracy in the same breath as Zimbabwe, of 'modernization' in relation to Yemen or of stability and peace with reference to any of a dozen African states is to ignore the sheer inadequacy of the language to the conditions on the ground. Indeed, democracy as it is found - practiced? - in today's Nigeria, Kenya or South Africa already illustrates some of these issues. However regular the voting patterns might seem, the results often are unclear and unsettled. But even then one might rightly note that so is democracy in the USA, in itself a very different model from the one Winston Churchill saw as the 'natural' predisposition of Anglophone peoples and nations. However unclear George W. Bush's election may have been, he now enjoys the levels of support many a dictator would love to claim.
To speak of democracy in relation to Africa today must mean also to take into account the growing polarisation of religious differences in places such as Nigeria, for one. It seems almost inconceivable, I believe, to imagine Nigeria not breaking up at some stage in the foreseeable future - in the sense of a political, social, economic reorganisation, in the same way that it is wishful thinking to imagine that the removal of Robert Mugabe from power will resolve even a tiny percentage of the problems faced today by Zimbabweans. To presuppose that it will be able to continue speaking of contemporary Africa as it appears in the discursive structures identified by Achille Mbembe in The Invention of Africa (1988), or by Chinua Achebe in his controversial reading of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1903) in his 1975 essay is to perpetuate the illusion that Africa, as we know it today, bears any relevance to a real set of material and cultural conditions on the ground.
The Africa about which it is possible to paint one of the most dispiriting litanies of despair and horror anywhere in the contemporary world, the Africa that economists and cultural critics worry may be left out of globalisation, the Africa politicians argue must find a united voice in the United Nations (just as the latter begins to falter) and other world political fora, is one perhaps worth letting go of. To the "great ideas, great themes that could be debated, contested, improved, just as Negritude, Panafricanism and the 'Ujamaa' of Julius Nyerere" we might want to juxtapose the stark reality that great ideas and themes need a nurturing environment in which to thrive. Those conditions, however embryonic in shape and form, do not exist in that political unit known as contemporary 'Africa', though it is arguable that they exist in disparate locations throughout it. Nor are they likely to emerge as a colligatory discourse when the two powerhouses of 'Africa', Nigeria and South Africa seem intent on imploding, albeit in different ways and for contrasting reasons.
Religious fundamentalism is likely to determine the future of Nigeria in the next few years, in South Africa political expediency in the guise of scientific, or pseudo-scientific knowledge has placed the country on the verge of an unthinkable human tragedy. What is most unbearable is that the current AIDS crisis in South Africa comes at a time when it seemed impossible to supplant the macabre achievements of decades of White oppression. If successes there are in Africa, and I would hate to sound as if I wish to usurp V.S. Naipaul's unique Cassandra status, it might be worth reminding ourselves of Chinua Achebe's admission, not so long ago, that in its focus on the undoing of colonialism, Africa has forgotten to look into its own 'dark soul'. While the imagery is very much my own, Achebe's point was that while Afro-Americans had been able to address their own imbrication, indeed complicity in the slavery process, Africans seemed on the whole unwilling, or unable to do so. If we recall his often voiced views on the role of the novelist as a teacher, and in that sense an archaeologist, delving deep into the past as a way of creating the future, there seems little hope for a continent where so many of its 'great voices' - the men, largely, responsible for the great ideas, the great themes - have been forced or have elected to live away from their 'imaginative cradle'.
The inter-disciplinarity Dongala advocates, and in which, as he so aptly notes resides the secret of a new tomorrow in contemporary Africa has little chance of emerging, let alone surviving in a continent beset by a political class for whom to call Mugabe a megalomanic is anathema. Democracy is a complex concept in the 'West', as the American President George W. Bush, discussing the difficulties faced the British Prime Minister in securing support for the invasion of Iraq so deftly pointed out when he noted that 'they do things differently in Britain'. It is a concept that is much more challenging in a continent 'plagued' by dramatic and profoundly traumatic experiences over a period of centuries, as Frantz Fanon's famous words on the glories of a Songhai civilisation so well illustrated (1961).
So, to return to the beginning, what is meant by the notion of development in Africa, and modernization, modernity, etc.? As a cultural critic I am conscious of the level of detachment that obtains in my relationship with the real world, usually if not always mediated by textuality. But even then, might we begin by imagining a modicum of development, modernisation and modernity defined as full access to water, electricity, education and health-care for all people who live in the various political and spatial units we have come to know as Africa? We must most surely worry about a modernisation that aims to provide a 'stable Africa', one which, as in the current situation in Iraq, will mean little more than unchecked, 'on tap' access to the riches of so much of the continent. I am unsure that Africa needs to join in the MacDonaldization of the world, to rush headlong into the race Jameson (1986) unwittingly identified as the 'natural fate' of all non-Western peoples in which 'progress and development' are a matter of waiting one's turn, growing up into maturity and good behaviour. Speaking as political theorists - political scientists? - Fanon and Amílcar Cabral saw liberation as an act of culture. But culture meant in their formulations a set of political, social, psychological and artistic conditions capable of spearheading the 'Africanisation of Africa'. That none of them stayed round to witness the de-Africanisation of Africa suggests one of the ways in which the continent remains mired in its own image as a mirage. Africa, let me stress it once more, is not and cannot ever be a seamless amalgam of peoples and states, all aspiring to the same conditions and rewards. Europe itself is a varied and often unsteady political and economic construct, as the current discussions about the 'size' of the European Union demonstrate. The 'modernisation' of Africa must therefore begin by an acceptance that certain parts of the continent will necessarily succeed in achieving a 'modernity' that most of its peoples will never experience. It is not even a matter, as in good colonialist reasoning, of 'another fifty or one hundred years before they are ready' but a simpler recognition that modernity, even in the West, is dissonant.
It should be obvious by now that my reply to Dongala's point about what he terms "the hidden structural obstacles of African societies which continue to perpetuate the unegalitarian situation of women" is going to be along similarly prevaricating lines. For one, because the 'problems' that Western feminism often actually succeeds in identifying in the context of certain African societies, if with equal frequency in simplistic and culturally ignorant terms, are also those that many African women, local and exiled, insist do not exist. At the risk of yet again avoiding the issue, I would point out that the obstacles Dongala refers to are as prevalent in as many African societies as they are in European societies. Indeed, the concern with gender must, in this context, matter only if intrinsic to an examination of the economic conditions of contemporary Africa. Poverty does as much to perpetuate the oppression of women anywhere in the world as do gender, caste or class constraints.
Clearly it is undeniable that, as Emmanuel Dongala rightly insists, s/Science and the social sciences must come together in finding a solution to the challenges currently facing Africa. I have some difficulty, though, with the rather neat symmetry between what Africa has or lacks, and between what the social sciences have and the sciences possess, or vice-versa. Thus I am not persuaded that one must be 'an engine', the other 'a driver', for such an articulation presupposes that responsibility for actions and reactions reside with the driver only. I refuse to accept that s/Science either is or should be allowed to be 'amoral', a proposition Emmanuel Dongala seems to make at least twice, and one he clearly believes in. The other side of the coin, that the social sciences must keep s/Science in check seems to me a tired and unrealistic dogma. Scientists must engage ethics in the same way that the rest of society does. To suggest that a scientists must be allowed to go on happily 'discovering discoveries' ever more fraught with ethical risks while the rest of society - social scientists, economists, artists, politicians - must ensure that those risks are contained is at best disingenuous, if not deeply unethical. Science and its practitioners must be brought to account for the real or potential risks of their craft in the same way that politicians have to. Indeed, as the example of the German scientists in the 1930s and '40s illustrate, and that of Wouter Basson cited by Dongala with reference to Apartheid South Africa underline, scientists often are only too happy to be place themselves in the handsofdangerous political leaders. They will do so for the sake of the ultimate thrill of them all, the promise of even the briefest moment of fame, possibly entry into the annals of celebrity for centuries to come.
Let me conclude by addressing the issue of 'universalism'. I will do so by citing an advert for one of the most astonishing applications of scientific knowledge in the West. It sells the wonders of one of the many 'must haves' that Western consumer society craves insatiably, and it appeared, in this particular form, in one of Britain's most overtly left-wing media outlets, the Sunday broadsheet, The Observer:
Of all the jackets in all the shops in the world, the Arc'Teryx Sirrus is the
most technical. Technical? Technical is outdoorsy jargon. Initially, it
referred to smart, new hi-tech materials. Next it became an adjective of
intensity - fell-running is technical, fell-walking isn't. Then, with the usual
associative semantic drift (cool science: cool activities: cool stuff), it
evolved into an all-purpose adjective of approval.
The Sirrus scores on all counts. It's made by Arc'Tyrex which, even if now owned by Adidas, it is ahead of the game that it's only just turned its first profit since it was founded 14 years ago. It features Moulded Zipper GaragesTM, PacLite®, and 530N three-layer Gore-Tex® XCRTM. It really is what you want in your pack when rain comes slicing through the mountain. It's perfectly waterproof and weighs no more that a handkerchief. 'It's a pinnacle piece', says Simon Marsh, senior buyer at Snow and Rock. 'I can't afford to buy one but, if I could, it would be perfect'. It's elegantly cut and a bright, engaging red. No other colour allowed. Cooool! Sorry, technical! (OM, The Observer, 30 March 2003, p. 12).
I think that I understand most of the unique strengths of this unique item, though the subtleties of cultural - technical - terminology might well have escaped me. Transposing it onto the page by typing the words on my keyboard I used a wider range of typing options than I would regularly need to for such a short passage. The point here is that this both looked to me 'wow!' material - sorry, "Cooool! Sorry, technical" - and felt that way. But it struck me as I read it that this is what is wrong with s/Science and Africa, though much of the Caribbean might do as well, or Vietnam or Laos... Here we have a wealth of scientific achievement and know-how put to use in the service of a sport practiced by one of the smallest groups of people anywhere in the world. The price alone is obscene as is the fact that The Observer should find space to advertise it.
But what really got me going, so to speak, was the thought that scientists no doubt would argue that what capitalist entrepreneurs wish to do with their discoveries is none of their business, and that a jacket such as this one might in fact save the odd life of a wealthy American or German national climbing some obscure mountain in some 'heart of Africa'. For a brief moment I even entertained the thought that the thingmight perhaps even save the life of some 'native' porter, once his wealthy patron had fallen off a ravine. Try as I might, thought, I kept thinking about this use of scientific knowledge and the little effort and time that it would take to come up with the necessary medications for a myriad of conditions prevalent in today's Africa. And it was in this context that an answer to Dongala's point about universalism emerged, for rather than worrying about what version of the term might still have any valency in discussions about Africa, it occurred to me that yet again the dichotomous nature of this equation is inherently flawed. Rather than quibbling over the definition of 'universalism' and its provenance, might we consider 're-signifying' the term in the same way that Pal Ahluwalia (2001) argues for the use of post-structuralist theoretical frameworks to examine the condition of political Africa? Further, that rather than doing so through a discussion between select self-appointed voices, it might be best to look for inspiration on concrete examples of cultural, political, religious and economic syncretism (see, for instance, Kwame Anthony Appiah's discussion of modernity, art and agency in Africa, 1992).
In a world where 'great ideas, great themes' regularly and rewardingly flow between cultures, places, historical periods, the quest for 'authentic' theoretical or critical tools risks becoming yet another distraction. It is perhaps unfair to put it in these terms, but let us remind ourselves of the heartfelt claims made by Ngugi wa Thiong'o over twenty years ago, about the use of English as a legitimate means of expression for African writers and artists. Today the Kenyan writer lives in the USA, while the vast majority of his fellow nationals get by surviving as best they can between 'generational dictatorships' elected 'democratically'. One word by Ngugi drives the world media into a feeding frenzy while in Kenya, and in most of Africa, AIDS victims die silently, anonymously. Should it matter that African science should be little more than a 'sub-sphere of European science', as Dongala puts it? I do not think so.
I suspect that the best and most useful source of instruction to all Africans, and Africanist scholars resides in the example of Asia. Once largely a domain of Western potentates, it embodies today the kind of leading function Dongala envisions for (science in) Africa, if I may be allowed to paraphrase him slightly out of context. Let me conclude by noting the way in which the present crisis surrounding the SARS Virus, which at present affects Asia to a greater extent than any other region, is being reported. In contrast to the dull listing of deaths resulting from ethnic conflicts in Rwanda, Zaire or Liberia, the world media calculates the damage done to the world economy in billions of dollars.
The point is not that we should celebrate the privileging of monetary losses above human ones, but that the day must come when loss of human lives in Africa too will be seen to have a monetary equivalent. As it stands, to the West, Africans are expendable in a way that Asians no longer allow themselves to be. As the 'generational dictatorship' of Lee Kwan Yew so well demonstrated, borrowing the technical language does not mean that one has to be like the original owners of those tools. Writing at the middle of the 20th century, that too was how Chinua Achebe saw it in Arrow of God. A dialogue between Science and the social sciences in Africa must work to re-centre quotidian African concerns rather than aim to offer cutting edge improvements that will show African peoples to be 'just like' Europeans. They are, and they must be allowed to live just like them if they so wish. Great ideas, great themes are much more likely to germinate in the minds of healthy, well-fed peoples who feel that their wishes are central to the political, social, economic and cultural models within which they live.
Achebe, Chinua. Arrow of God(London: Heinemann Educational, 1965).
Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'."In Heart of Darkness, Edited by Robert Kimbrough (N.Y. London, Norton, 1988).
Ahluwalia, Pal. Politics and Post-Colonial theory (London: Routledge, 2001).
Appiah, Kwame Anthony. In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (Oxford: OUP, 1992).
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978 ).
Jameson, Fredric. "Alegories of the Nation", Social Text 15 (Fall 1986), 65-88.
Mbembe, Achille. On the Postcolony (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 2001).
"Observer Magazine", The Observer, 30 March 2003, p. 12.
Tony SIMOES DA SILVA teaches in the School of English, University of Exeter.
Recent or forthcoming publications include The Luxury of Nationalist Despair:
George Lamming's Fiction as Decolonising Project (2000), and various essays
and encyclopedia entries: "De/Colonising Tales", in Jouvert: A Journal of
Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 6: 1&2, 2001, on autobiography; "Raced Encounters,
Sexed Transactions: 'Luso-tropicalism' and the Portuguese Colonial Empire", in
Pretexts: Literary and Cultural Studies, Vol. 11:1, 2002, pp.27-40; entries
on Amilcar Cabral, pp.72-76; George Lamming, pp.269-271 and Lusophone literatures,
pp.280-282 in Encyclopedia of Postcolonial Studies (2001); and a piece on the
work of George Lamming in Wadabagei (2003).
He is the editor of a site on Anglophone and Lusophone African Women's Writing.