July 9, 2012

Focus on Africa: Should we be amused or should we take offence?

It seems to me that the African identity has been under siege from a barrage of demeaning attacks by some isolated but significant players abroad. These attacks have generated an angry discourse across many (social) media platforms especially since they have been excused as ‘honest mistakes’.

Now that the dust has settled, we must take the journey to examine our anger, look at these matters for what they are and unequivocally address the underlying issues so that we can break the cycle of cultural oppression. Without which we risk having the young internalizing this power inequality and therefore perpetuating it.

#Swedish racist cake

First there was the provocative Swedish art installation event in which a ‘naïve’ minister of culture symbolically mutilated the genitals of a black woman as part of the well-intentioned World Art Day celebrations.

Rather disturbingly for many Africans especially the African women, the minister was pictured laughing as she cut off the genital area from the cake. To make the metaphor more convincing, the artist screamed in ‘pain’ every time the minister cut a slice.

In the eyes of many Africans, this mock-mutilation circus not only failed to raise awareness on the very painful and complex issue of female genital mutilation but was seen as humiliating, and dehumanizing for the African woman and also heavy with racial overtones.

This spectacle achieved to recreate the 19th century tragedy of ‘Hottentot Venus, Sara Baartman’ as farce, yet again parading her “huge buttocks and peculiar genitalia” for public entertainment. The Swedish minister shocked the world by her apparent recklessness, naivety and for her role in validating the work of a navel gazing and unthinking artist.

#Spain is not Uganda

Soon after, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was said to have typed out this message to his Minister of Finance: “We’re the number four power in Europe. Spain is not Uganda” – in an effort to encourage him to stay strong, in securing a bailout package.

This gaffe exposed his offensive stereotype of African economies, and provoked outrage from Ugandans and other Africans.

# Indigenous people full of primitive energy

As if in a circus, Korean Airlines’ condescending advertisement soon took the stage highlighting what would be the key attractions for vacationers to Kenya. According to the people at the Airlines tourists would get to “…enjoy the grand African Savanna, the safari tour, and the indigenous people full of primitive energy.”

This advertisement prompted an outcry from Kenyans in media platforms, demanding an immediate apology. The airline company quickly pulled down the article and subsequently apologized for their miscommunication.

The tragic part of this story was the jubilation and traditional dance that met the airline’s arrival at the national airport, quickly confirming a bad stereotype.

# Sex with Africans

As if the sewer party wasn’t bad enough, the Irish politician Edwin Poots ascended to the throne of the sovereign kingdom of inappropriateness, after his most inappropriate proposal to ban en masse, blood donation from gay people, people who have had sex with Africans or prostitutes, and other groups who in his opinion, engage in high-risk sexual behavior.

With one stroke, he would have effectively institutionalized prejudice, bigotry, narrow-mindedness and reversed centuries of progress – going back to the abolition of slavery, the civil rights crusade, the stonewall protests, the advent of human rights right through to every international convention on human equality.

He managed to successfully imply that my mother, my hallowed grandmother, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the awesome Graca Machel, the humble catholic nun who was my school headmistress, myself and every ‘African’ engage in high-risk sexual behavior. Further, he managed to place Africans, gays and prostitutes, beneath his Irish society.

We would need to cut through the walls of protocol, pseudo-intellectual apologetic arguments, and we would have to cut right through the mountains of public relations, in order to understand these comments and actions.

For the purpose of this argument, let us suppose that the Swedish Minister of culture Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth, the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the Irish politician Edwin Poots and the people at Korean Airlines are good, Africa loving and progressive people.

Let us also suppose that we are overreacting since they mean no harm, that they were misquoted or maybe they were unaware of the sensitive nature of their comments and actions. Further, let us also suppose that they all are sincerely remorseful.

What is not accounted for; is the bad taste in the mouth, the sense of whose culture is superior and the growing sense of (African) nationalism.

First, it is bad manners to make demeaning, racist, sexist, homophobic, or misogynistic comments – in most cultures around the world. People are expected to be courteous and for this reason, any commentary that offends acceptable behavior is condemned besides the imposition of appropriate social sanctions.

Second, if at all there was genuine acknowledgement of indiscretions, why don’t we have social sanctions? Does this mean that they have gotten away? To whom are they accountable? Then, does this imply that it could be acceptable to be inconsiderate to groups considered lower? Or could it be that we are asking the wrong questions?

Let us suppose that they got away with it, because we are somewhat lesser in the degree of our civilization or power. Let us also suppose that there is something like ‘African culture’ that can be measured and that there is an objective matrix for measuring cultural maturity, – which can distinguish between a culture’s own level of development from its race.

Let us suppose that were evaluated and we conceded that we are indeed lesser and that were willing to attain a certain standard in order to earn a seat at the table of mature cultures. Once we are mature then offenses against us (Africans) can attract a penalty.

Let us concede we sometimes mistreat our women, children and young men. Further, that our systems of thought, language, medicine, rhythm, and food are all strange. Let us concede that our spirituality, is uncomplicated and not Abrahamic. We also concede that our commerce is artless in addition to the use of wood fuel, and consuming water directly from the river.

Let us suppose that one day we began the journey to maturity; we strived to treat everyone equally, we protected our women and children from harm and exploitation. We adopted one of the Abrahamic religions (preferably one related to Christ), we decided to learn and speak English. We wrote and read books. We adopted the use of fossil fuels for our energy needs.

We adopted new forms of governance (popular democracy). We built nice houses, in neat estates, in huge cities. We bought and drove cars. We all went to school and then to the university and then looked for a job. At that time we grew our commerce to make profit and trade with higher articles.

Let suppose that we became a free, prosperous, modern and peaceful civilization – to the degree of the least member of the ‘mature culture’ fraternity. Suppose all these were true would we earn any respect? Would offenses against our dignity attract a penalty? Shouldn’t we already have earned respect? If we are still ineligible for respect, has this got to do with an inherent flaw in our ‘African’ nature? Is the ineligibility something to be proud or ashamed?

Third, as a consequence of this inquiry, there is a renewal of a sense of (African) nationalism among Africans in the diaspora, the returnees as well as among the educated, urban populations living in cities across Africa.

This seems to be a growing need to reclaim a sense of dignity, one that has been elusive emasculated by bullying, intimidation and domination by an skewed and aggressive western view of Africa which is not only demeaning, but does not take into account our life patterns.

Many people both young and old are losing their western patterns for African ones; African print, local designs, nappy hair, local food and local music genres are most fashionable. This resistance is gradually changing from a discourse to an identity. Could this be the way out? Could this be the only way to ‘mature’? if indeed, would it not be amusing?


About the Author

George Gachara
George is a youth worker, speaker, an author and the co-founder of the United Nation supported Picha Mtaani National Reconciliation Initiative in Kenya. He is a British Council Global Change Maker and a Fellow of the International Youth Foundation.


  1. […] It seems to me that the African identity has been under siege from a barrage of demeaning attacks by some isolated but significant players abroad. (Focus on #Africa: Should we be amused or should we take offence?  […]

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