Kuala Lumpur, 5th November 2011
I’m waiting at the airport for my Dubai-bound flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when I remember the remark by a senior WASP at a training course I had been attending for the previous six weeks. He was one of the senior investment bankers come to give us a talk about how to succeed in today’s global workplace. So naturally, he’d ask about the backgrounds of the eager beavers in front him: Americans, Asians, Europeans, and yes, Africans! Upon introducing yourself, he made some quip about his experience in the part of the world you are from. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been to much of Africa. “I go to Africa when I want to see some lions!” Smile now, African boy; c’mon smile! That bit about smiling is a dialogue I’m having with myself. Surely, I wasn’t about to let the immaculately-dressed gentleman see my chagrin. To him, that was what quickly came to mind about Africa. Lions! Not people, not opportunities, not even poverty; Lions! A glass half empty interpretation; Africa is all bush where animals live. So, I’ll go there when I want to relax and see animals. I’ll leave the productive stuff for when I get back to Hong Kong or Singapore. This piece on my ruminations on that fateful day in Kuala Lumpur is not going to be a diatribe about that gentleman and his jaundiced view of Africa. Afterall, global media is quick to look for poverty-stricken parts of our major cities. It is unbelievably difficult to find a report on an African city that is complimentary. They have to show a slum, the poverty, as if that were exclusive to Africa. As if when they visit, those are the areas they stay in. You only need to stay a while in the lobbies of the 5-star hotels in African capital cities. You’d see them: the numerous NGO and media types basking in the African sunshine and enjoying choice wines, going about in chauffeur-driven SUVs and you’d wonder why won’t they highlight these part of their trips that they look forward to. No, instead they make the unlikely trip to the slum areas (which actually requires some effort) and present that to the world.
I don’t know that I’ve even happened on a lion before and I lived most of my adult life in West Africa (the lions are in the south I think). So, I’m on the streets of London three years later trying to determine the thought process of that individual some hundred or so years ago, another WASP. This WASP is thinking about his upcoming journey to Africa, a savage land by his reckoning. They go about bare naked in some places, he thinks aloud to himself. Lord Lugard and those of his ilk must have pondered at their misfortune; Africa of all places. What about China, India, Burma? Why should they send me to Africa of all places? I’ve closed for the day and walking to the Moorgate tube station. And as I look at all those white faces, I think to myself: these are not bad people, they are just human beings. I tell myself; do you think the black man would have been able to secure his emancipation without the sweat and blood of white people? The smile of the WASP (also immaculately groomed) who gave up his seat on the tube for the pregnant black lady on the tube comes to mind. Then I remember the unpleasant remarks of that belligerent head-shaved white youth who thought my disapproval of his dog groveling on everyone in the tube was inappropriate. The fact is there will always be tensions between human beings. If it is not race, it would be tribe, class, lineage, education, networks; the list is endless. After all, white people are not responsible for the Rwandan genocide and the numerous inter-tribal conflicts in Africa
So, what now for this young African? Well, I have my sunglasses on this morning. I tell myself the sun would come up today. The sun will shine bright today. So, I’m going to need my sunglasses to protect me from the glare of the sun even though I still think its winter (I’ve been seeing some people leaving a few buttons open and I’m thinking; very brave, very brave indeed). I tell myself I’ll remain optimistic about the innate kindness of the human spirit. I tell myself I’m the master of my fate. I tell myself I shall prevail. Look at President Obama. I still remember to this day when back in my Politics class at Lagos Business School during my MBA studies, the teacher (very prominent Nigerian political commentator these days) thought the increasingly strong showing of the then presidential candidate was just one of those fools’ parade. It wasn’t an inconsiderate remark. There had been such dreamers in the past. Candidate Obama had a daunting task. He knew like every educated black person does that there would be resistance from all quarters; black, white, conservatives, you name it! He had to; because his heroes certainly didn’t have it easy. I’m reminded about Hilary Clinton’s remarks about the Candidate when she was still vying for the democratic nomination. President Obama prevailed because he didn’t get angry I tell myself. Or maybe he did. Maybe he hid his anger. Maybe he converted his anger like Mandela did. A law professor, he certainly didn’t achieve that height by not keeping his emotions in check. But this is a digression. The venerable investment banker said he goes to Africa when he wants to see some lions. Some lions! Well, at least he got that right. He should go to Africa and lions he shall see! Countries and peoples rising up each day, some as early as 3am in the hope that this day they shall not lack. Today, my children shall feed. My children! They shall wear well-pressed clothes. They shall go to school and become doctors, engineers, teachers, lawyers, bankers! My children! They shall make me proud. They are lions!
So, I’m on the streets of London again. This time, I’ve alighted the train (the DLR! Talk about that daily commute another day). What is it about Africa? What is holding us back? I’m now at the front door of my flat; quickly change my clothes eager for the view of the River Thames. Seated, coffee mug in hand, I look over the horizon and my mind goes back to Admiralty Way in the highbrow Lekki area of Lagos. Just before I left for London in July 2013, the government of that dynamic city had just finished commissioning a suspension bridge linking two of the most affluent areas of the city: Lekki and Ikoyi. I’m taking a walk up the bridge (the bridge is like a parabola) for the first time, a broad smile on my face. I just couldn’t hide my excitement and great pleasure as I set foot on that bridge. I looked across and saw another compatriot touching the railings of the bridge smiling. He looked over and saw me, another stranger similarly pleased. We didn’t exchange pleasantries. We understood each other quite well. I imagine he thought like I did; this type of infrastructure is not exclusive to Europe or America. This is Nigeria and I’m walking on a “tear rubber” (local parlance for brand new) suspension bridge. This is my country and this was done. Maybe there is hope then. Maybe my leaders shall someday put the people first. Maybe my children shall live in a country the envy of others; including those WASPs who come to Africa smiling but thinking in their heads (bloody stupid Africans!). Just maybe, The Economist would have cause to eat its words about the dark continent. A dark continent! Some nerve. What dream did that writer have to take such a swipe at a people? What hubris made him think to call a billion people hopeless? Who gave him the right to be judge and jury to a people’s future? The supposed balance in the body is no matter. History largely remembers the front cover! But then reality sets in, our fate (largely sorry thus far) has been shaped not by our colonisers but by ourselves. Slavery had willing collaborators among the black rulership in Africa. Brothers snaring each other to enslavement camps to be put aboard America & Europe-bound slave ships. And you see some blacks go about as if our fate is to be forever shaped by that dark part of our history. The black man forgets that Europeans were once savages too. The black man forgets that sometimes you need hubris. The black man forgets that the height of his ambitions is first determined by how much worth he places on himself. What, you see black women burning their hair and skin to look white; wearing hair removed from the heads of Asians, South Americans; and you think to yourself: why wouldn’t they denigrate you? Why wouldn’t they say to your face (these days they whistle): bloody African! I’m writing this as I wait for the clock to hit 12 noon for a scheduled conference call on my beloved country. And I sigh to myself: Oh Africa!