A clear day in the early nineteen-eighties, for example. A man drives past the harbor of the city in which he lives. He sees docked boats, restaurants, children at play, the island sleeping in the distance. Without quite meaning to, he remembers that the island is a prison. And then, as he is a man of some imagination, he imagines something worse: that people are tortured there. It has been going on for a while.
Years pass. The rough sea of the crossing makes it feel far. The swells are huge. The ferry could sink like a stone. Our tour guide, used to it, sleeps on the journey. Soon, in less than half an hour, the ferry arrives. The prison is now a museum. There was and is a pitiful garden along a wall.
Obscene. That is the word, a word of contested etymology, that she must hold on to as a talisman. She chooses to believe that obscene means offstage. To save our humanity, certain things that we may want to see (may want to see because we are human!) must remain off-stage. (1)
A sunny afternoon, 1977. The torturers have arranged for some of the prisoners to be photographed. They lead them to an arid patch of land (away from their own tiny garden within the walls) and give them shovels. The press is told: this is a garden. A photographer takes a picture and captions it: ’n Gevangene werksaam in die tuin. “A prisoner working in the garden.” The prisoner is not working. He stands erect, faces forward. He wears a floppy hat and dark glasses (when they let him go thirteen years later, he will be unable to shed tears: the limestone quarry will have ruined his eyes). He is a contained fury.
On the island, the tour guide mentions names. Each falls like a stroke of the cane. Sobukwe, Sisulu, Mbeki, Kathrada. On the other side of the island—the island which is surprisingly big, surprisingly wild—the waves break their heads against the rocks repeatedly, trying to forget. From time to time we see ruined ships.
Twenty-seven years later, the prisoner looks at the photograph. “I remember that day. The authorities brought these people to prove that we were still alive.” Ambushed by memory, the prisoner becomes angry again. He begins to denounce one of the visitors from that day. A handler intervenes, “Khulu (Great One), you know you can’t talk like that.” He won’t be corrected. “No, we must be honest about these things.” The god of his youth is in his voice.
Blacks are allowed in the Company’s Gardens now. You can see them with their families on a warm day. Things have changed (but fewer are the blacks in the fine restaurants on Long Street, two blocks over; things are unchanged). Near the Gardens is the Slave Lodge. In the heart of the Gardens is the monumental statue of Rhodes, his arm raised towards the rest of the continent: CECIL JOHN RHODES, 1835-1902. YOUR HINTERLAND IS HERE. His gesture reads, through history’s lens, like a Nazi salute.
White supremacy has its uses. Because of its great care and its thoughtful strategy, because of the tireless way it hoards its hatred, it is good at making heroes. Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Desmond Tutu: what would our lives have meant without theirs? No wheel moves without friction. Without the obscenity of white supremacy to resist, they might have been mere happy family men. Nevertheless:Whoever was tortured, stays tortured. Torture is ineradicably burned into him, even when no clinically objective traces can be detected. (2)
The island migrates to other places and the torturers diversify. But the island is never far away. Occasionally, it leaps into the mind of a woman as she goes through her day during the twenty-first century. A man, somewhere, is jolted awake in the middle of the night by things he knows are true. If the island’s physical distance is a little greater now, its moral distance is not.
The prisoner finally dies. The torturers take a moment to praise him (to praise themselves). Then they return to work.
1. J. M. Coetzee, “Elizabeth Costello,” 2003.
2. Jean Améry, “At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities,” 1980.
Eyes closed please. While one man led prayers at Christ Happyhome Church in Sango Ota, three of his accomplices robbed the congregation.
Shamsudeni was sleeping in Nyanya when Abubakar sneaked into his house, crept into his bed, and woke up part of him.
Ude, of Ikata, recently lost his wife. Tired of arguing with her, he used a machete.
Some moms make empty threats. Not Anyah, of Lafia, who brought Joseph into this world and, over a land dispute, took him out of it.
“He doesn’t.” “She won’t let me.” Court testimony from Saratu and Isa, of Kaduna, who last did it ten years ago.
down. The Lagos office of Xerox burned down. The Lagos office of Xerox burned down. The Lagos office of Xerox burned down. The Lagos
A common fantasy: going back to destroy one’s primary school. Olumide, of Benin City, actually did it, and will spend 18 months in jail.
A dyslexic tailor in Bichi accidentally said, “the Prophet has come to market.” Blasphemy. The resulting interfaith dialogue left four dead.
MYXOMATOSIS. n. 1 Viral disease of rabbits. 2 Radiohead song. 3 Word spelled by Ibukun, 15, in Abuja to win the 2012 Spellbound Contest.
Arrested for theft in Mecca, the Nigerian immigrant Ibrahim is now learning to use his left hand.
Is This the Century of Africa’s Rise?
For decades, the dominant African narrative in the media was of famine, war, and disease. Recently, in light of a perceived economic upturn and a relative reduction in famine and disease across most of the continent, the narrative has changed to one of thrusting progress. The Economist and TIME magazine have both published big articles in the last two years called “Africa Rising,” complete with positive economic statistics and photos of children flying rainbow kites in the shape of the African continent.
We have moved from pictures of starving children with flies crawling across their faces to pictures of young men in big cities talking on mobile phones. Of course, neither narrative is correct. No narrative that attempts to take on something so large and diffuse can ever be correct. But there is something about these conveniently totalizing stories that fires the passions of believers and cynics alike. Believers point to fast-growing economies and fragile but intact democracies, non-believers refer to what the Kenyan writer and investigative journalist Parselelo Kantai told me was an “insidious little fiction manufactured by global corporate finance.”
The idea of Africa’s rise comes from a straightforward interpretation of high growth rates and increased foreign investment in parts of the continent. As The Economist’s piece pointed out, “over the past decade, six of the world’s ten fastest-growing countries were African.” According to McKinsey & Company, real GDP in Africa grew twice as fast in the 00s as it did in the 80s and 90s. Suddenly everyone has a mobile phone and that mobile phone has great reception.
Renaissance Capital’s Charles Robertson, author of The Fastest Billion, drew my attention to annual growth rates of “around six percent across sub-Sahara since 2000. Some say rapid growth is inevitable from a low base. This is nonsense. People got poorer in sub-Saharan Africa from 1980 to 2000.” Recent growth in Africa and rapid increases in Asia-Africa trade and investment have taken place against a backdrop of global austerity. As people struggle desperately in southern Europe, gas and oil resources are enriching a new generation in Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and even—if proposed exploration occurs this year—Somalia and Somaliland.
The problem, though, is that most of this wealth is extractive. There is, as Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential, told me, a “lack of value added on the African side.” “The energy companies are seeing massive domestic demand from Asia and they are capitalizing on that,” he said.
Parselelo Kantai put it more bluntly: “What is happening on the continent economically is a new era of massive resource extraction, catalyzed mostly by Chinese domestic demands. And because it is almost exclusively extraction without on-site value addition, it’s a process where the continent’s elites, the Chinese and Westerners, are the only people who benefit. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be called by its real name: the Second Scramble for Africa.”
What both Smith and Kantai are referring to is a system in which an elite minority, often not from Africa, benefit extraordinarily from the natural resources the continent has and the world needs. The outsiders may not wear pith helmets and long for a proper cup of tea any more, but it’s colonial business as usual.