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.
I Was an Accidental Nigerian Film Star
My cousin Louis is one of those people who always ends up in preposterous situations. A couple of years ago he went backpacking in India, where he got kidnapped on arrival and held for ransom on a houseboat in Kashmir for a week. He spent his entire time there locked in awkward silence with an old man who smoked fist-sized rocks of hash out of a weird pipe contraption, and was finally set free after giving his captors his entire traveling budget. Why they didn’t just mug him, I don’t know. It seems like a lot more effort to keep someone hostage than to just leave them helpless in the street. But that’s Louis.
A little later in the year, he was staying in Ghana and ended up becoming the star of Festival of Love, a Nigerian film about witchcraft and Christianity. You can see Louis make his entrance at 1:50 here if you don’t believe me/want to be blown away by some of the highest production values around. I dug out his phone number and spoke to Louis about his experience.
VICE: Hey, Louis. First off, tell me how the hell all of this happened.
Louis Mole: Well, I was volunteering at a football organization in Ghana, and I’d go drinking at this bar every evening with Dundo Nsawam, a Nigerian politician I’d met out there. It turned out one of his best friends is a top Nigerian casting agent, and he desperately needed a white guy for his new film.
Just any white guy?
Yeah, basically. Any English-speaking white guy. He said he really liked the chemistry between me and Dundo, so he wanted me to be in the film, but I was like, “This is absurd. I’ve never acted before in my life.”
Did you have to audition?
Yeah, I got taken to some back alley in Accra, the capital city, and walked into a room where there were these five huge Nigerian guys in suits who were all smoking Cuban cigars. There was only one other guy there to audition—this overweight Ukrainian guy covered in gold chains—so he went first and had to say the line, “You are the most beautiful black creature I’ve ever seen in my life.” But he had a really thick accent. I got up, said the line, and they were all over me. They asked if I was Christian, and I lied and said yes because I figured I was there and might as well go for it. I saw Dundo later that day and he told me I got the part.
I bet you were psyched. How soon did you start shooting?
I think it was about two weeks between the audition and the first day, so that gave me a bit of time to look at the script, which was full of the most horrendously cringeworthy lines I’ve ever seen in my life. Anyway, two weeks later, they picked me up in this van with the other 30 members of cast and crew and drove us three hours to this hotel in the Ghanaian rainforest, which also acted as the palace in the movie.
Charlet hops off the plane and meets Lexy Mojo-Eyes, the head of Nigeria Fashion Week and premier model agency “Legendary Gold.” Then we’re treated to quirky runway walks, the Nigerian definition of “swag,” and a sweet serenade from the male models.
We then move onto fashion week, which was delayed over two hours. We meet Dabo, a particularly unique fashion designer who seemingly comes from Mars. In between the astonishingly late shows Charlet is given more insight of what it’s like for a gay man to live in a notoriously homophobic society.
“The one that excited me the most was the one of a little boy holding some card with the message: “Mr. President!! You didn’t tell us you would betray us!” written on it in pidgin English. If you ask me, Mr. President Goodluck is BAD luck, and I advise each and every one of the Nigerians reading this not to vote him in again. The first question that I asked myself was, ‘What does this little boy know?’, but I can perceive his pain ‘cause it was written all over his face.
After taking the shot I wanted, I took another expensive taxi back home. All I can say now is GOD BLESS AND HELP MY BELOVED COUNTRY, NIGERIA. AMEN.”
Photographs always go blurry when Satan’s getting fucked up in them.